Why were we there?
In the summer of 2000 we took a three week family driving trip across the southwest United States to show our then 14 year old son some history and geography. Being geography majors in college we were particularly upset that the school system we were employed by had decided to drop American geography from almost all its curriculum, particularly in the grade our son had just completed so OFF WE WENT ON A MISSION!
One of the stops on that trip was a day spent on the Durango-Silverton Railroad and viewing the beautiful Animas River which is still beautiful today despite all the mining and power plants nearby. It was our son's first ride on a steam locomotive train and the entire trip felt like a ride in a different time. I would definitely take a ride again just to capture this river with a digital camera!
This railroad also makes a special stop to drop off and pick up backpackers and climbers (see below).
Backpacking and Hiking Access
You can use the Durango & Silverton Railroad to access the San Juan National Forest and Weminuche Wilderness
"The two main access locations are at Needleton, the entrance to Chicago Basin; and Elk Park, access point to the Colorado Trail.
All summits in the Needle Mountains require varying amounts of mountaineering skills; those attempting any of them should be mindful of the hazards of afternoon thunderstorms, sudden drops in temperature, and precipitous terrain.
Needle Creek Trail: Originating at the former mining camp of Needleton, Needle Creek Trail climbs along an old stage road that follows its namesake seven miles into Chicago Basin. The trail is easy to follow but quite steep, ascending 3,000 feet before reaching the basin.
Johnson Creek Trail: Beyond the basin, the main trail climbs another 1,400 feet over two miles to Columbine Pass where it meets up with the Johnson Creek Trail, which drops into the Vallecito Creek drainage. A secondary route climbs steeply to Twin Lakes. From either vantage point, a commanding panorama of the Needle Creek drainage is possible.
Chicago Basin: Aside from its splendid hiking terrain, Chicago Basin also serves as a base camp for mountain climber’s intent on scaling summits. The three tallest - 14,059 foot Sunlight Peak, 14,084 foot Mount Eolus and 14,087 foot Windom Peak are the most popular climbs, but there are many other peaks offering mountaineering challenges and scenic wonder.
Elk Park Stop
Elk Creek Trail: This trail travels east from the railroad, climbing into the upper reaches of the Needle Mountains. Nine miles long, the route climbs 3,760 feet to the Continental Divide.
Continental Divide Trail: At the Divide, the trail connects with the Continental Divide Trail. Backpackers with plenty of time on their hands might hike the Divide Trail north to either Stony Pass or the Highland Mary Lakes area.
Vallecito Creek Trail: Heading south, the route leads to Hunchback Pass and from here to the upper end of the Vallecito Creek Trail. By following this drainage downstream for 8.5 miles, it is possible to hike up Johnson Creek for a little over five miles to Columbine Pass. From Columbine Pass it is nine miles down to the Needleton trailhead and civilization. This hike covers 34 miles and involves more than 8,000 feet of climbing. Be prepared to spend on average 5 days to complete the loop, and make the proper arrangements."