Backpack into Chicago Basin from Purgatory Flats

Rate this Adventure Purgatory Flats Trail

This is an alternative way of getting in to the Chicago basin, without needing to take the train. The elevation change can be daunting if you're new to backpacking, but the views are stellar, and don't cost you a $100 train ticket. ;)

This hike begins at the Purgatory Flats Trailhead across from the purgatory resort. The register is about a hundred yards from the Trailhead and is located next to a trail map. From here you will begin your descent down into the flats, which is roughly a 600-700 foot descent over the course of just over a mile. Around .5 miles you'll come to a creek crossing, this is Purgatory creek. There are stepping stones here that provide stable footing as you cross the creek. Due to the creek intersecting the trail, there can be water running along the trail in multiples places. Work was recently done to divert the water, however high snowfall from the 2017 winter could lead to snowmelt that redirects the creek to its original course again. You will reach the flats shortly after 1 mile and come to a second creek crossing. Here you will want to take a right. 

The trail will diverge into 3 sections, and either trail to your right will get you to where you need to go. The trail to the left will dead end at an outcropping of rocks that overlooks Cascade Creek. The center trail will meet up along Cascade Creek after a quarter mile, where as the furthest right trail will take you through the middle of the flats. 

Just shy of 2 miles you will reach a 3rd water crossing. This water crossing typically runs high in early summer, and can be up to thigh deep. The logs used to cross typically are salvaged from surrounding dead fall, and can give way easily. Be careful with your footing. After this, you will begin your ascent into the canyon. The canyon will ascend and descend a few times over the course of 2 miles, sometimes overlooking the creek below by a few hundred feet. Bring binoculars, as goats and eagles can be seen along the canyon walls. 

Around 3.5 miles there will be an overlook that has views of Engineer Mountain to the North, and the intersection of cascade and Animas canyons to the south. Continue to switchback down to the canyon floor as you make your way through Ponderosas. At 4 miles there will be a junction, stay to the left, and follow the trail to a metal and wood bridge that crosses the Animas River. This is a stopping point for the Durango Silverton Narrow-Gauge railroad in the winter months. Continue on the trail going north-east, and you will cross the train tracks(right next to the trestle) after a quarter mile or less. If you look directly behind you at this point, there will be a short slope that goes down to a great camping spot that is elevated above the river and tucker behind a hill and in the Ponderosas. 

If you choose to continue onto the Trail you will pickup the Animas River Trail at this point, and have roughly 6-6.5 miles in front of you before you reach the Needleton Train station. Camping can be scarce along this portion of trail.  You'll gain 600 feet in elevation, and cross a decent sized waterfall at roughly 5 miles into the hike. There will be a log crossing off to the right, but stable footing is necessary. The crossing directly ahead is left open for horses to use. 

The Needle Creek Trail junction is at just over 9.5 miles, with the Needlton Train station another mile or so to the north. This trail junction has some ok spots to set up camp. To continue on to Chicago Basin, take the trail to the right from the Needle Creek Junction. At just over 11 miles you will come to another creek crossing. I believe this is New York Creek. As you leave the canyon, camping options will open up, however some of the best camping will be in the basin. 

Continue on for another 3-4 miles, at which point you will cross Needle Creek, and be in the heart of Chicago Basin. From here you can continue another 2.5 miles to the top of Columbine Pass if you would like, and the trail continues on to connect to various shuttle hikes. This area can be used as a base camp for 14er summits or deep Weminuche exploring. 

Once you're done, you can turn around and hike out the way you came in. The trip is roughly 26 miles round trip, and the combined elevation gain is close to 6,000 feet.  

Pack List

  • Tent
  • Down Jacket
  • Rain Jacket
  • Bear Canister/Bear Bag
  • Stove
  • Trekking Poles
  • Climbing Helmet if you choose to summit 14ers
  • Camera
  • Sunscreen
  • Bugspray
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Change of Socks
  • Dry clothes to sleep in in case you fall in any of the multiple water crossings
  • Beanie
  • Water Filter
  • Backpack
  • Food
  • Neck Gaiter
  • Emergency Whistle
  • First Aid Kit
  • Emergency Blanket
  • Map
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RT Distance 26 Miles
Elevation Gain 6000 Feet
Activities Camping, Backpacking, Hiking
Skill Level Intermediate
Season Summer, Autumn
Trail Type Out-and-Back
Dog Friendly


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