Photograph by Dan Cox
The Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado would be almost impossible to access without the fortuitous presence of a famous (and spectacular) sightseeing train, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Savvy peak baggers see it as a sweet symbiosis—they hop aboard with the tourists, take the train as far as Needleton, then hop off to cross the Animas River footbridge for a seven-mile (11-kilometer) hike into Chicago Basin. The prize is access to a feast of peaks called the Needle Mountains. Notable Needles include three fourteeners: Mount Eolus (14,083 feet/4,292 meters), Sunlight Peak (14,059 feet/4,285 meters), and Windom Peak (14,082 feet/4,292 meters).
A classic route is to ascend the west ridge of Sunlight—nontechnical, but a Class IV blast to climb on clean, highly aesthetic rock. Then descend via the south slope and head up the west ridge of Windom for about as much fun as a mountaineer can have in a single day. Unless it’s to tick off Eolus the same day to score the highest of bragging rights. Then you can knock off thirteeners in your spare time. No matter what, a very early start is de rigueur to beat the afternoon thunderstorms. Going with a guide can save you some route-finding frustration and get you swiftly to the sweetest rock.
Chicago Basin is no secret among climbers—nor among increasingly brazen goats, who will eat pretty much anything. Hang your stuff while you’re out peak bagging, even your hard goods. And consider a fall trip, when the climbers are fewer and the aspen are shimmery gold.