Elk Park / Chicago Basin Shuttle Hike

Durango, Colorado 81301

Elk Park / Chicago Basin Shuttle Hike

Elk Park / Chicago Basin Shuttle Hike Professional Guide

Detailed Trail Description from our Guidebook

"Hike this route, and your reward will be stunning vistas, abundant animal life, colorful wildflowers, and waterfalls. This five- to six-day backpack is accessible by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, or you can reach both the Elk Park and Needleton trailheads via trails.

The trail climbs at a moderate grade and passes a lovely waterfall in less than a mile. You can see and hear Elk Creek at various points along the way. Look for Colorado columbines, bluebells, and other wildflowers en route. The trail steepens as you continue; expect some good views and plan on crossing some small creeks, too."

Elk Park / Chicago Basin Shuttle Hike Trip Reports

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I just did this trail a few weeks ago. It was fabulous! I recommend taking the train in from Silverton rather than Durango -- very few people do it this way -- and the staggered start means you have it all to yourself. We got dropped off at Elk park around 2:30 pm and found a great campsite 2 miles in. The trail description gets confusing at the top of the continental divide; the map doesn't show a trail that cuts off to the south. Instead, you counterintuitively head north and drop 1000 feet quickly, just to have to go up it again. The trail description indicates that the other trail heads to Humpback Pass, but then doesn't explain why not to take that trail, which is seemingly more direct and doesn't require you to lose and regain all that terrain. On the 2nd night, our target was Rock Creek, which turned out to be not a fabulous place to camp. Also, the creek was bright orange which was a little disconcerting. The rest of the trip went according to plan, and we caught the train back to Silverton at 11:30 after four nights out on the loop (2 full days and 3 half days worth of hiking). Given the huge number of backpackers that got off the train from Durango at Needleton, on a Wednesday at that, we were glad we had taken the train less traveled. Despite this, the trail didn't seem as crowded as we were led to believe -- there's plenty of wilderness to go around and you can find your own peaceful place to camp. Also, there are fabulous swimming holes in the rivers along the route, if you can brave the cold water.
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This trail is absolutely stellar, and every American should see these incredible views at least once in their lifetime. The trails are all very well-maintained and quite easy to find. I think the best time to visit would be in late July or August, as there was snow above 11,500 ft when we visited. Bring bug repellant (no brainer), and make sure you sterilize your water religiously. I came back with Giardia, and I sterilized with a Steripen, so be extra careful. There are well-placed camping spots all along the route. The most dramatic aspect of this hike is the wildflowers. Fields and fields of them. July/August is the Rocky Mountain monsoon, so expect rain in the afternoon and equip yourself accordingly. Temperatures dipped into the high 20's above 11,000' at night, and the day temps were in the 60s. We rode the train, which I have mixed feelings about. My son and I (he's 12) paid $120 for two roundtrip tickets, which is really expensive. The train is full of snobby tourists and punk kids on vacation with their rich parents, so be prepared. The views from the train up through the Animas river canyon are quite nice and dramatic. We averaged about 1.1 mph (from my GPS), but we were going pretty slow. I would give this trip 5-6 days, although the guide says 3-4. There were wild strawberries and raspberries below 12,000 feet in the wetter areas by the Elk Creek, but they weren't ripe when we passed through. End of July would be better for picking berries. We saw a large porcupine who invaded our campsite, and another group we met came upon a large cougar. Careful - there are critters all along this route.
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These trails are in excellent shape! There are only a few fallen trees to circumvent... so few that they surprised us. There are excellent campspots and accessible water along the entire way as well. The trail guide was very heplful too, warning us of creek crossings (mentally prepared) and the over population of Chicago Basin. There were a lot of people there! The trail guide said it was 40 miles... but our GPS said 36+ miles. An excellent hike... but then the sun shone every day and it never rained!

This loop required the train, i would try to avoid that in the future. It was a 3+ hour long, swaying, tourist filled, coal smokin' ride. For the cost of the cab ride from/to the Durango airport ($56), and the round trip train ticket($65) I'd rent a car.

Elk Park / Chicago Basin Shuttle Hike Photos

Trail Information

Nearby City
8,000 feet
Elevation Gain
Trail Type
Skill Level
5 days
Additional Use
Views, Waterfalls, Wildflowers
San Juan National Forest, Columbine Ranger District, Bayfield; (970) 884-2512; www.fs.usda.gov/sanjuan
Local Contacts
USGS Snowdon Peak, Storm King Peak, Columbine Pass, and Mountain View Crest; Trails Illustrated Weminuche Wilderness; DeLorme 3D TopoQuad CD-ROM; Maptech Terrain Navigator CD-ROM
Local Maps

Trail Log