OverviewSunlight Spire is the distintive tower just to the East of the main summit of Sunlight Peak. For years it was marked on the map as 13,995 feet, just shy of the magical 14,000 foot line. However, with recent revisions in the altitude of Colorado Mountains, the Spire in now recorded as an even 14,000 feet. As such, it is the most difficult of the 14000 foot summits to reach in Colorado. In addition, since the vertical prominence is nearly identical to that of Thunderbolt Peak in California, an argument could be made that it is the most difficult 14,000 foot summit in the contiguous USA (although the climbing is very well protected). At approximately 220 feet, though, the vertical rise is insufficient for it to be considered a true 14er. There is a great photo of the spire by jhansen007:
Getting ThereNeedleton Approach: Sunlight Spire is in Chicago Basin, one of the most popular sites for hiking and mountaineering in the San Juan Mountains. However, because the distance from the nearest road is so far, most people opt to take the Durango Silverton Railway. Click here for a link to the train web site or call 970-247-2733. Daily train service runs from May through October, with less frequent service in the winter. The 2007 adult fare was $65.00. Due to the distance that one must hike to get to the base of the peak, it is best to catch the morning train from Durango. Get off in the town of Needleton (8,200 feet), and hike south about three quarters of a mile to the bridge across the Animas River. Cross the bridge onto the east side of the river. In 2006 there were some trains that did not stop in Needleton. After the bridge, the trail angles slightly to the right and begins heading uphill towards Chicago Basin. After a few tenths of a mile, there is a junction with an excellent path following the East bank of the Animas River. Continue straight, keeping on the North side of Needle Creek, for several miles of steady climbing through the forest. Aftr about 6 miles from Needleton, There is a junction with the Columbine Pass Trail at 11,000 feet, then Lower Chicago Basin (11,200 feet)is reached in 6.6 miles from Needleton, where it is possible to find excellent camp sites.
Purgatory Trailhead: If you are too poor to take the train, or just like long backpacks, you can reach Chicago Basin from the Durango Ski Area on highway 550 between Durango and Silverton. The trailhead is located at 8,800 feet, twenty six miles north of Durango, and twenty four miles south of Silverton. There is a large parking area on the East side of the road. From the parking lot, descend down past the register,then proceed along a winding trail that descends the Purgatory Creek drainage for about 1.5 miles to Purgatory Flats. From here, the trail turns right through sometimes thick grasses, and follows Cascade Creek for about three senic miles to the Animas River (7,700 feet). Cross the river on a nice bridge, make your way over the traintracks, then head north on the enjoyable Animas River Trail for nearly five miles to the junction with the trail heading up to Chicago Basin. The total distance from the road to the basin by this approach is about 15 - 16 miles one way. Since much of it is on level ground, though, it is frequently covered in one day.
Vallecito Trailhead: This approach allows you to reach Chicago Basin from the East. To reach the trailhead, Start at Vallecito Reservoir, 20 mile east of Durango on Florida Road, or 13 miles west of Bayfield on US 160. Travel for five miles around the West side of the reservoir, keep left at a junction, then proceed another 3 miles to the trailhead (7,700 feet). Take the Vallecito Creek trail 8.3 mile to the Johnson Creek Trail. Six miles on this takes you to Columbine pass at 12,700 feet. Descend 2 miles to Lower Chicago Basin.
The spire cannot be seen from the lower basin. Follow the description in the route section to get to Twin Lakes and then up to the spire. The best views of Sunlight Spire are probably found from the summit area of Sunlight Peak, or the West Ridge of Windom Peak, although there is a nice perspective from Mt. Eolus as well. Sunlight Basin, as well as the summits of Jagged Mountain and Knife Point also provide nice views, but these require considerably more involved approaches.
Red TapeChicago Basin is in the Weminuche Wilderness Area, so you cannot use motorized vehicles or mountain bikes. In addition, the Needle Creek Basin has restrictions against wood stove and open fires.
As of 1999, Camping in the Upper Chicago Basin has not been permitted because of adverse affects on local wildlife, and the fragile nature of the tundra around the lakes.
CampingThere are numerous campsites in the lower basin. However, in the summer, this is a very popular destination, so the best sites will fill, and you will likely be sharing the woods with a number of other parties.
Take all the precautions camping in bear country.
Marmots, bears and picas also make the area their home. Consequently, it is wise to take precautions such as hanging food at night and when not in use.
When to Climb
Ascents within the Needle Mountains are occasionally made in the winter, although the approach and climb cross many avalanche paths, so such an undertaking is not for the faint of heart.
Local Weather Forecast
There is a trip report with great photos and gear information here.
George Bell wrote a route description for sunlight spire on Mountain Project.
A good website for information on the 14ers with some nice photos of the spire under the Sunlight Peak section can be found at 14ers.com.
Gerry Roache's book, Colorado Fourteeners, Fulcrum Publishing, 1992 is a valuable resource for trips to this and all areas that there are 14ers in Colorado, and was used for information in writing this website. (There are newer editions).
Rosebrough, R., Climbing Colorado's San Juan Mountains, Falcon Publishing, 1999, has a section on Sunlight Spire and two excellent pictures of the summit block on pages 137 and 241.
Trail and Timberline, February 1962 has and account of the first ascent of the spire.
National Forest Service Information for the area can be obtained at this web site.
There is an interesting forum here in response to this page, including a picture of what hopefully never occurs! As a note, I misstated in saying that Sunlight Spire had a greater prominence than Thunderbolt Peak, in reality the map shows it a few feet less but within the margin of error for interpolating the maps.
HistoryPeople have been climbing peaks in the San Juans for over a hundred years, and William Bueler notes in Roof of the Rockies, that the famous Albert Ellingwood and Barton Hoag attempted to reach the summit of Sunlight Spire during the 1920 CMC Summer Outing. However, the first ascent of the Spire was not made until 1961 by George Bell, David Michael and John Marshall using direct aid up the crack on the West side of the summit block.
According the the 14erfun.com website, the first free ascent of the Spire wasn't made until 1988 by Jeff Achey. He rated the climb about 5.10c and placed "only placed 2 or 3 pieces" along the way.
A final date of significance for the spire was 2002, when people realized that the elevation of the Colorado Rockies had been underestimated by about 5 - 8 feet in elevation. As a result, Sunlight Spire jointed the ranks of the unofficial 14ers.