Sunlight Peak, the 39th highest, is one of three 14ers located deep in the rugged Needle Mountains of Southwestern Colorado. These peaks are remote and are distinguishable by their mass of spiny ridges, broken slopes, and craggy summits. Sunlight hides in the northeast corner of Chicago Basin and is visible only to those who dare approach her. Sunlight is famous for it's exposed summit block. Some consider the move onto this block as the single hardest move on a 14er by it's easiest route. From the summit of Sunlight, there is a great view of Arrow and Vestal peaks of the Grenadiers to the north. These peaks are two of the most challenging and picturesque in Colorado. Sunlight, together with Eolus and Windom guard Chicago Basin well and make any trip worthwhile.
Sunlight Peak is located in southwestern Colorado approximately 28 miles northeast of Durango and 13 miles southeast of Silverton. There are few options to get to the trailhead and approaches are long.
Drive south on the 550 from Silverton about 20 miles to the Purgatory Campground on the east side of the road, or from Durango take Highway 550 north 28 miles to the trailhead. This approach to Chicago Basin is 15-16 miles one way. Few opt for this approach.
Take the Train:
The Durango Silverton Narrow Guage Train runs from May 1 to October 30, and drops off at Needleton. Many climbers use the train to avoid a long backpacking trip from the trailhead. The trainride from Durango to Needleton is approximately 2.5 hours. From the Needleton drop cross the Animas River on a good footbridge. Follow the fork east along Needle Creek for approximately 0.75 miles. This will lead to the trail to Chicago Basin and the beginning of the climb. It is 6.6 miles from Needleton to Chicago Basin. Please see the route description for more information.
Sunlight Peak is located in the San Juan National Forest in the Weminuche Wilderness. No fees or permits are required to hike, climb, or camp. No campfires or wood stoves are allowed in Chicago Basin. No motorized vehicles are allowed in the wilderness area including mountain bikes.
Chicago Basin (11,200) is the usual base camp area for Needle's peaks including Sunlight. This is an extremely popular area and overuse is a problem. There are quite a few camping spots in Chicago Basin, but due to its popularity spots go quickly, especially in the summer. Camping here is generally not in solitude, and people should take care to minimize impact. Hikers are encouraged to stay on designated trails, and be aware that no fires or wood stoves are permitted anywhere in Needle Creek drainage including Chicago Basin. Marmots and mountain goats are a problem in Chicago Basin. Use anti-marmot tactics such as hanging food, etc.
Aaron Johnson notes: The local goat population has become desensitized as well and will help themselves to your belongings. Looking for salt sources, they'll do whatever it takes to gain easy access to it. If you pee, they'll be along to lick up your mess, so try to find an isolated spot. I heard a story where a guy was taking a leak and a goat was trying to lick right from the spigot!
Sunlight Peak, like many Colorado Fourteeners, can be climbed any season with varying degrees of difficulty in access and danger.
Fair weather season is late June to the end of July, and again from September to late October. Late in July and August, "monsoon" storms from Mexico bring wicked lightning to these mountains, and the San Juans get it the worst. Ridges and summits are bad places to be, and some, like Sunlight, Eolus' catwalk, Diente-Wilson ridge, Little Bear- Blanca ridge are particularly bad.
During monsoon season it is prudent to be off the high ridges and peaks by 10 or 11am. I have been caught on Windom's ridge as early as 9:30am during monsoon season. Start early!
Most camps and campsites in Chicago Basin are at 11,200 feet elevation. From the upper end of Chicago Basin, find the trail leading north to Twin Lakes. Climb steeply for 1.0 miles to reach Twin Lakes at 12,500 feet. Angle east/northeast aiming for a highpoint in the basin between Sunlight and Windom at 13,300 feet. Sunlight Spire (13,995) is directly on the left (north) on the ridge between Sunlight and Windom. Turn left (north) toward Sunlight and aim for the reddish-colored rock. The south slopes soon begin to narrow and climbing difficulty increases toward the summit. Take aim for the saddle between Sunlight and Sunlight Spire on the ridge. Stop 20 feet short of the ridge and find any of several Class 3 routes to reach a small, enclosed area 30 feet south of the summit block. Roach refers to this area as an "alcove." This area is also referred to as "the Keyhole." Scramble up through the keyhole toward the east end of the final summit block. Take heart! On flat ground the final summit move would be nothing more than jumping over a 2 1/2 foot puddle. However, this Class 4 move is across a 2 1/2 foot gap with extreme exposure onto a rounded block. Measure, take aim, and stick the landing. Once across the gap, it is possible to pull yourself up onto the block. Some have stood atop the block.