Backpack deep into the heart of the Weminuche Wilderness to bag four of Colorado’s famed 14ers.
The Weminuche Wilderness covers a staggering 499,771 acres of the San Juan mountains. This impressive spread of protected land forms the largest Wilderness area in the state of Colorado. Within the western portion of the Wilderness is a formation known as the Needle Mountains. "Known for their rugged terrain,” four of Colorado’s 58 14ers are found in this sub-range. Some of these 14ers are renowned as the most technical and difficult to climb in Colorado. (Source)
Since the Needle Mountains are located deep in the Weminuche Wilderness, most climbers choose to backpack into the Wilderness, set up a basecamp, and bag these mountains on successive days. According to Wikipedia, "Chicago Basin, an alpine valley situated on Needle Creek below the mountains at around 11,200', is a popular camping destination for backpackers looking to access the fourteeners." This guidebook outlines one recommended 4-day itinerary for bagging all four 14ers: Mount Eolus, North Eolus, Sunlight Peak, and Windom Peak.
Day 1: Train ride, and hike up the Needle Creek Trail—7 miles, 3,500 feet of elevation.
Day 2: Climb Mount Eolus and North Eolus—4.5 miles and 2,900 feet of elevation.
Day 3: Climb Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak—4.6 miles and 3,400 feet of elevation.
Day 4: Hike down the Needle Creek Trail and catch the train to Durango—7 miles of hiking, almost all downhill.
The first hurdle of the expedition requires simply finding a way to reach the approach trail. The most common method of reaching the beginning of the Needle Creek Trail shown here is to catch a ride on the Durango to Silverton narrow gauge railroad, and to be dropped off at the trailhead in Needlton. Many backpackers use the train for the drop off and pick up, so it's not an uncommon request... you just have to plan ahead. If, for some reason, you can't catch a ride on the train or the train isn't running, you can still reach Needleton via the Purgatory Creek and Animas River trails. However, this adds a total of 18 miles and over 2,500 feet of elevation onto your round-trip total, turning this 4-day itinerary into a roughly 6-day itinerary—hence why most climbers opt for the train ride.
Once at the Needleton trailhead, the hike up the approach trail covers 7 miles and gains 3,350 feet of elevation, making it a full-day endeavor in its own right. After covering the approach, you’ll choose a spot to set up your basecamp for the next three nights and two days of peak climbing.
The approach mapped here ends at treeline in the Chicago Basin. There is no camping allowed in the higher Twin Lakes Basin, so you must choose a campsite somewhere here in Chicago Basin. You might want to opt for a campsite even lower than the basecamp noted here, which might provide more trees and more protection from the elements.
The Chicago Basin is a high-use area, so be sure to follow the wilderness regulations, which have been shared by HikeArizona.com and SJMA.org:
-No Campfires… ever.
-No camping within 100 feet of any water source.
-Use an existing campsite.
-Don’t camp in open meadows.
-Pack out toilet paper. No burying of toilet paper is allowed.
-Bury waste and spread washwater at least 100 feet from all water sources.
-Group size is limited to 15 people.
-Urinate on rock surfaces to avoid impact on the mountain goat population
-No camping allowed in the Twin Lakes Basin.
The four peaks break down into two logical days of climbing: Mount Eolus and North Eolus in one day, and Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak in the other. How you choose to order these two days of climbing is up to you, but Mount Eolus and North Eolus are considered to be easier than Sunlight and Windom. If you prefer to warm up a bit, tackle Mount Eolus and North Eolus on day one and Sunlight and Windom Peak on day two. For a deep dive on each day’s itinerary, dig into the individual route descriptions.
On your third night of camping, bask in the accomplishment of bagging four of Colorado’s famed 14ers in two days of climbing! Be sure to save a little food or drink to celebrate on the final night. All you have left to do is tear down camp the next morning, hike seven miles downhill to the train, and catch a ride back to Durango. Congratulations on your achievement!