Sunlight 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:
Sunlight Spire from the South.
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.
Pigeon Peak, taken during the approach to Sunlight Spire The bridge over the Animas on the approach from Purgatory trailhead. Photo by Steve Conrad.
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.
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.
Chicago 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.
There 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.
A goat overlooks Chicago Basin. Photo by Gareth. Climbing the Summit Tower. Photo by Aubrey Laurence.
Chicago Basin is well known not only for its magnificent mountains but also for the abundant wildlife. Both times that I have visited, there were herds of mountain goats roaming across the steep mountainsides. Frequently in the summertime, there will be young calves scampering along under the watchful gaze of their parents. In the 1990's, the goats got in the habit of milling about near campsites to get their needed salt intake. This was one of the factors contributing to the closure of the upper basin to camping in 1999. When in the area, I always try to keep in mind that it is their home while I'm just a passing visitor. The Forest Service has recommended that if you have to pee, do so on the slabs of rocks so that goats and animals don't dig up the tundra getting at the salt.
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
Sunlight Spire and Windom Peak. Photo by Scott Rogers.
Most people climb Sunlight Spire during the summer season. The weather in June and early July is usually quite nice with thunderstorms being much more isolated than later in the summer. Particularly early in June, expect the possibility for deep snow in places, as well as the occasional snowstorm. The Needle Mountains seem to be a focal point for thunderstorms, so late July and August can get scary once the "monsoon" gets ramped up, especially when doing a technical climb on a peak that resembles a giant lightning rod. At this time of year, expect the lighning to begin as early as 10:00 AM. September and October can bring wonderful clear weather, but realize that you are way, way back from roads or help if a sudden blizzard buries the range with a few feet of snow.
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
Chicago Basin showing Sunlight Peak, Sunlight Spire (center) and Windom Peak. Photo by Scott Rogers.Jeff Lord has a wonderful site on all 14ers including an article on Sunlight Spire here
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
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.
People 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.
[img:310829:alignright:medium: Chicago Basin showing Sunlight Peak, Sunlight Spire (center) and Windom Peak. Photo by Scott Rogers.]I would like to thank jhansen, Steve Conrad, Scott Rogers, Gareth, cacheshier, and xskier77
for allowing me to use their pictures for the pages of Sunlight Spire. Thank you also to Britt Bassett and Ilana Stern for use of the fabulous picture of Sunlight Spire rising out of the fog.