Durango Train- Chicago Basin Backpacking: North Eolus

One of the first things Jeb and I did when we moved to Colorado was ride the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Train. It is an old fashioned train from the 1800’s that goes through the wilderness from Durango to Silverton.

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When we rode it for the first time we saw people getting off partially along the way at the Needleton stop. We learned that these people were going backpacking into the wilderness area called the Chicago Basin.

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There are four different 14ers in the backcountry of this area that are really only accessible from riding this train. This is what makes it such a popular backpacking destination.

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We decided to take the less crowded and quicker train ride by getting on in Silverton and only having to ride for 1 hour. First though, we made sure to get one last big yummy meal before boarding, so we had Mexican food in Silverton that was very delicious.

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We arrived at the train super early and fortunately they let us take the one that was leaving 45 minutes earlier. This turned out to be really lucky, because we were battling getting setup before running out of daylight even as it was.

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We sat in the outside car of the train just like last time so that we could get better pictures. Lucky enough it was a beautiful day and we got probably even better pictures from riding the train than the ones we got two years ago.

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The only bad part of being outside is you get covered in soot and end up super dirty from the train’s coal. Thank goodness I didn’t get any in my eyes this time like I did last time!

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This is the area where last year there was the huge accident from the Gold King Mine that spilled tons of toxic mining chemicals into the water and turned the entire river yellow for several days. It is a big problem in that area because there are so many old and abandoned mines that are constantly leaking out chemicals.

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After an hour we had arrived at Needleton and it was time to get off the train. It was a weird feeling watching it leave with us left behind out there in the wilderness.

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The hike starts by crossing the Animas River on this bridge. At this point we had to face the reality that it was just us and our packs (and I guess a lot of other backpackers that we didn’t know) for the next few days.

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Our packs were way too big and heavy. We didn’t know what the weather would be like up there. We camped at 10,900 feet so we needed heavy duty sleeping bags to stay warm at night. And with 14er plans we needed lots of gear and layers.

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After the trip we ended up weighing our packs. Jeb’s was 55 pounds and mine was 35 pounds. They were miserably heavy. You have to hike 6 miles and 3,000 feet of gain to get to the camping area, and this proved to be way more challenging than we had expected with so much weight on our backs.

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This was by far the heaviest pack I had ever carried. By the time we arrived at camp my shoulders were bruised and my collar bones were killing me. Unfortunately I do not have a very good backpacking pack yet (unlike Jeb) so the pack I used doesn’t fit me right at all, and also all of the weight sits on your shoulders, instead of a lot being on your hips.

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We saw a lot of people with much smaller packs that flew on by past us. I think I carried more weight than most men did even. But I really don’t understand what they did without to have packs that were so much smaller and lighter. We really didn’t feel like we brought frivolous stuff or tons of things we didn’t use. It really is a mystery to me…

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Since we underestimated how difficult the hike in would be we got there way later than we had hoped. We had trouble finding a good site and we were running out of daylight. Lots of good sites were taken already and everything else seemed either really close to the river or on super slanted ground. Jeb found a spot that he thought was okay but was sort of close to another group so he thought it would be polite to ask them if it was alright to set up there. We never expected that the girl would be a jerk and basically say no we couldn’t camp there… Oh well guess we didn’t want to be near them anyways. Finally we found a spot and set up and thought we were settled.

Then a guy came by us and said we were too close to the river and that there was a ranger around giving out fines to people too close to the river and so we might want to move. So despite the fact that it was late, dark, and we were exhausted we took all of the heavy stuff out of our tent and then attempted to transport it while setup and with stuff in it. Somehow we managed to move it like that and kept everything inside it in the process. Jeb then re staked it down and we thought we were good. You are supposed to be at least 100 feet from the river which they said was about 35 steps. We tested it out and at our new site we were right at 35 steps away. We would have gone farther but there was nowhere even remotely flat or possible to set up on nearby that was farther from the river. So we went to bed and thought we had done the right thing by moving.

Then we came back to our site the next day after hiking and someone had left a note in our tent saying they thought we were too close and might want to move before a ranger ticketed us. This was really frustrating to us because SO MANY people were set up right on the river way closer than we were. We felt like we were one of the few people actually following the 100 foot rule (or very close to it) so we felt like we were being picked on or something. We decided not to move a 2nd time and just stick it out. We never saw a ranger or anything so who knows what that was all about, but it was definitely annoying and stressful. Plus I thought it was super invasive and creepy that someone went into our tent while we were gone to leave that note…

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We got up our 2nd day to hike a 14er. We were very exhausted before we even started but we powered through it anyways. We hiked up to the twin lakes in this picture here. I always think alpine lakes are so pretty. At 12,500 this one was pretty high up.

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At this point you have to make a decision and either go left or right. Left leads to two class 3 14ers and right leads to a class 2 and a class 4. We decided to go left and go for the two class 3 ones.

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We headed up towards Eolus and North Eolus. After the lakes the trail became much more rocky and difficult. A lot of it was like doing stairs (or the manitou incline) but at 13,000 feet. After this portion it became even more of rock scrambling and climbing type maneuvers.

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At one point we heard someone yell “rock, rock, lookout!” Someone from higher up had knocked off a boulder about as big as a person that set off a rock slide down the side of the mountain. This was pretty terrifying to see both how loose the rocks above us were and how vulnerable you are when you are down below this.

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When we made it up to the catwalk to Eolus we decided this wasn’t something we were willing to do. It is a small narrow ridge with loose rocks and on both sides are cliff faces with huge drop offs. Some people aren’t bothered by this sort of thing at all, but to us it is never worth to risk. One wrong step or one wrong rock that gives out and you would be dead.

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So instead we decided to just do North Eolus. You have to do a bunch of class 3 climbing to get up to the top of it but nothing as exposed or dangerous. We would have liked to get both of these 14ers, but we definitely didn’t need to.

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The view from North Eolus was just as spectacular and amazing. Despite feeling a little bummed maybe about Eolus, we were still proud of ourselves for doing our first class 3 14er. These 14ers out by the Chicago Basin are no joke.

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Probably the biggest bummer of our trip wasn’t actually not getting this summit, but instead was that we did not see a single mountain goat. We had always heard that there were just goats everywhere out there. That they come right up to your campsite and try to lick the salt out of your pee and stuff like that. But nope, we didn’t see a single one on this trip!

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You can see the little dots that are people walking on the catwalk. It made me queasy just watching them cross. Especially after we had seen someone knock off that huge boulder. It blows my mind how some people don’t blink an eye at crossing something like that. If only we could have been roped in somehow, then I would have loved the catwalk!

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You can see the bad weather moving in. We were lucky to have pretty good weather for hiking the 14er, because it rained on us for most of the rest of the trip. It is one thing when it rains when you are normal camping, but it is much more difficult when you are backpacking and have no way of getting out of the elements.

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Jeb at the top of North Eolus.

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We kept our helmets on all the way back to Twin Lakes after seeing those huge rocks slide down the mountain.

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We thought about staying another day and going for Sunlight (the class 4) and Windom (the class 2) the remaining 14ers. But we decided we would only be doing them just to rack up our number count of 14ers and not because we would have actually enjoyed it. We were pretty warn out after two tough days and knew we still had to do the hike out with our huge packs.

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Maybe someday we will come back for Sunlight and Windom, but for now we were content with our adventure. We had wanted to take the train into the backcountry and backpack while going for some 14ers and we had accomplished that!

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You know we were tired because we only remembered to take one selfie picture together on the whole trip!

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The next day we got up super early to hike back to the train. We wanted to make sure there was no way we missed our ride out so we ended up getting there actually way too early. We arrived 2 hours before it was time for the train to come.

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Back to the bridge where we had first been dropped off.

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This trip brought a lot of first for us:

-first time backpacking more than one night

-first class 3 14er

-first time filtering our own water right out of a stream

-first time having to use a bear barrel to hang all of our food from a tree.

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Sweaty, dirty, gross, and ready to be taken back to civilization!

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After a while of sitting and relaxing we got really cold waiting for the train so we went for a walk. For some reason there were so many of these huge weird mushrooms everywhere. They reminded me of the ones from mario!

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Jeb and I had walked a ways away from the train stop because we had tons of time left. But all of a sudden we heard a train whistle and it sounded really close. It was 30 minutes before our scheduled pickup time but we heard a train coming and it was coming quick. We did not want to miss it, plus we were right on the edge of the tracks and there wasn’t much space between the tracks and the river. So we took of running! We hustled to get back only to realize that was the earlier train that comes through and doesn’t stop at Needleton. It wasn’t our train. We must have looked like idiots, but there was no way we were missing our ride back! At least we weren’t cold anymore!

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For some reason that makes no sense to me, our actual train was 35 minutes late picking us up. I thought the whole point of trains and what they were known for was being on time…

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Finally we saw our train!

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Despite the fact that the train worker guy was a complete jerk and really didn’t want to let backpackers on for some reason (he was very insistent that we show our tickets before we got on) despite the fact that we were in the middle of the wilderness and would have had no way to get there without tickets in the first place… AND that they don’t even make the regular passengers in Silverton show tickets to get on…at least we were headed back from our adventure.

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We were excited to eat some real food and went to Chili’s for a huge lunch once we got back to Montrose.

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This really was a unique experience! Someday we will probably be back for some more time in the Chicago Basin. But in the meantime we are happy to be home pooping in toilets and drinking water from the faucet 🙂

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