Backpacking Colorado’s Chicago Basin, Day 3: Damp but Not Done Yet!

Backpacking Colorado's Chicago Basin_Day 3

It rains all night long, and it is still sprinkling at 6 am when we finally begin to stir. We pack up all that we can inside the tent and then head back to our dryish spot under the trees for breakfast. The tent is soaked! Once we are all packed up, we head down to the river to take a few shots of our lovely watering hole before hitting the trail to catch the train back to Durango. The train stops at Needleton on the way back to Durango at 3:55, so we take our time heading back down the trail trying to notice things that we might have missed when we were coming in the opposite direction.

First, it’s the river, and then we snap some more photos of the green hellebore leaves. They are even more photogenic with all of the water droplets from the rain on them, and they make good frame-filling subjects.

Next up is the wildflowers. There are so many different species growing right along the river, it’s hard to know when to stop.

It finally dawns on us that, at this rate, we are never going to make it back to Needleton in time to catch the train! So, reluctantly, we put the cameras away, pack up our bags and start heading down the trail.



Before too long, we run into the herd of goats again. They have invaded a large campsite and are wandering among the tents. They seem a bit more skittish today and keep their distance from us. They are kind to accept us humans in their home for these summer months.

The trail down is beautiful, and we notice more of it now that we are traveling with gravity on our side instead of fighting against it. We run into two forest rangers headed out on a 7-day backpack over Columbine Pass and eventually out Elk Creek—a trip that would be great to come back and do ourselves someday with a little more time to spare. The rangers are carrying a hand hoe and are repairing drainage ditches (rain bars) as they go. We tell them how much we appreciate their hard work to keep the trail well maintained for people like us and wish them a good journey before continuing on.

We keep stopping on the way down to admire the enormous purple and white columbines in bloom. Having met as Northwestern Wildcats, I guess we are predisposed to love the color purple!

We arrive at the Needleton Whistle Stop at 2:30 with plenty of time before the train arrives, so we take out all our wet gear and take advantage of the Colorado sun to dry it out. The tent is so wet that we set it up again so it will dry out quicker.

Of course, we don’t even think to stake it down, and, when a big breeze blows up and sends it rolling along the grass like a tumbleweed (no, we didn’t learn our lesson in Zion!), we panic. I go running after it, but it’s fast and rolling in random directions with the wind. Luckily, I catch it before it goes flying into the Animas River!

The incident reminds us of an interesting story that the volunteer forest ranger on the train told us on the way up to Needleton. The Animas River was named by two Franciscan explorers who were looking for a route to California. They lost several horses and men when crossing the river. Those lost souls were never given last rites, and the Rio de los Animos Perditos (River of Lost Souls) was named after them. We are thankful that we saved our tent from joining them!

The train arrives a little behind schedule, and we find our seats in a car closer to the engine than on the way up. Matt immediately makes his way to the Concession Car and buys two celebratory beers for the journey back to Durango. The train ambles it’s way back through the San Juan Forest traveling at its usual snail’s pace. It’s kind of surreal to move so slowly that you can notice things like butterflies flitting about and prairie dogs watching the train go by.

Since we are seated closer to the engine, we can really see the action of the engine “blow out” when the conductor lets off all of the accumulated steam in a massive exhale. All the trees and bushes within 50 feet on each side of the engine car twist and turn violently under the power of the hot air. They don’t seem any worse for the wear, but they must be awful tough to withstand that kind of treatment!


We enjoy our celebratory beer as we take in the Colorado landscape and savor the satisfaction of completing another backpack journey that has been on our list for some time. The train pulls back into the station in Durango in the late afternoon summer heat, and somehow everything seems different as we grab our bags off the boxcar and head back into town. Our trip into the Chicago Basin was short but sweet and definitely worth every minute.

We grab a quick bite to eat before jumping in the car to continue the drive to California. Next stop: Moab, Utah, and a quick visit to Arches National Park on our way to Yosemite to begin the John Muir Trail!

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6 thoughts on “Backpacking Colorado’s Chicago Basin, Day 3: Damp but Not Done Yet!

  1. So so cool! What a beautiful place! I thoroughly enjoy reading the recaps of your summer. Can’t wait to read about the JMT!

    1. Thanks, Jared! Colorado is just a treasure trove of great hiking, and we have barely scratched the surface. We definitely need to spend some more quality time in that state! JMT posts should be coming out soon. Stay tuned!

  2. What a beautiful and dramatic location! I love the photographs of the wildflowers and the leaves and of course, the goats. Lucky you!! I might have missed it in another post, but why the reference to Chicago?

    Those kinds of trains are oh so fun!


    1. Thanks so much, Peta! The Chicago Basin is so beautiful. We were there at this exact same time last year, and we wish we could go back again for even longer. We are not sure how the Chicago Basin got its name, but there is a New York Basin, too. Someone must have had an affinity for the big cities. Thanks for stopping by!

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