My Colorado Backpacking Trip

I’m back from my amazing week in Colorado! I can’t believe this trip has already come and gone. I’ve been planning and prepping for this trip for months and now that it’s over, I am not really sure what to do with myself. Plan my next trip to Colorado, I guess…

Anyway, I took this trip with some friends from work. There were seven of us traveling in a 15 passenger van with about $10,000 worth of gear. Our destination: the Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness of the San Juan National Forest.

We left in the late afternoon on Sunday and drove 17 hours straight through the night (except for bathroom breaks, of course) and arrived at our destination (Silverton, Colorado) late Monday morning. We walked around the town for a few hours, grabbed some lunch, and acclimated to the altitude before boarding the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train.

The train ride alone was well-worth the trip. It takes you through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery and along a winding river.

We only rode the train for about an hour before it dropped us off in the middle of the San Juan Wilderness where the trailhead to the Chicago Basin begins.

At the trailhead

From there, we hiked up a little over 6 miles to our base camp. Six miles may not seem like much, but it may have been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I had a 50lb pack on my back, which was almost twice as much weight as I wanted to carry, but this being my first backcountry backpacking trip, I wanted to make sure I had everything I needed. Was it worth it? I guess so. Although I did get sick after hiking uphill in higher altitude for almost 6 hours. And then I got sick again after I ate dinner. I don’t think it was from the altitude tough…more from pure physical exhaustion and pushing my body probably harder than I should have. Oh well. Lesson learned.

The next day (Tuesday) was a recovery day for us. We did a short day hike later in the afternoon to watch the sun set over the mountains, but it was mostly a rest and relaxation day. We set up a small shelter and went to bed early since we had to be up at 4am to start the climb up the 14er we were planning to do the next day.

The next morning (Wednesday) at the crack of dark, we got up, ate a little breakfast, and started our ascent up the mountain. (Hiking is SO MUCH easier with a small daypack!!) It was pretty easy at first since we hiked for about an hour and a half in the basin, but once we started ascending, it got much harder. The rain and hail storms didn’t help either, but thanks to my trusty, new Arc’teryx jacket, I was mostly warm and dry. Except for my gloves. Those were not waterproof in any way, shape, or form, and my hands were cold and wet most of the day. (Another lesson learned.)

At least the views going up were pretty. It definitely kept up morale for those who were battling altitude sickness. (Luckily, I was not.)

We even got to see American pikas, mountain goats, and marmots along the trail.


We did end up losing a guy from our group about 500ft from the summit. My poor friend, Jeremy, was really struggling with the altitude and his fear of heights. He, unfortunately, had to turn back down the mountain after he got sick and light-headed. The rest of us, however, made it to the top successfully!!! (I was actually the first one of our group to summit! Go me!)

Summit selfie!

We made it! 14,039 feet

The views from the top were simply amazing…like nothing I’ve ever seen before. You could probably see for hundreds of miles and it was nothing but mountains and more mountains. It was very surreal.

I have to say that the trek down the mountain was almost harder. Especially at the top where the path is only about 5 feet wide and there are 10,000-some foot drops on both sides of you. It was a little nerve-wracking having nothing to hold on to but the rocks you are standing on while you make your way down a mountain.

Heading back down from the summit

Luckily, everyone handled that technical part of the climb really well, and the rest was mostly a piece of cake. It was definitely hard on the knees though.

When we all got back to camp, it was a lazy rest of the day. Most of us took naps before dinner, and then we pretty much just hung out under the shelter trying to avoid the late afternoon thunderstorms that had rolled in.

Dinner time!

The next morning (Thursday), we were supposed to hike up another two 14ers, but the two other girls I was with decided not to go, and one of the guys was not feeling well so those of us who were still going decided to sleep in and just do a day hike up a smaller mountain. So on this day it was just me and a bunch of dudes. (Three to be exact…four of us total, including me.) But I felt like a real badass being the only girl, I’m not gonna lie.

The hike on Thursday was way more interesting. We passed a bunch of old mines on the way up and had some great views of the basin. We also walked through a bunch of open meadows with tons of really beautiful wildflowers. And the weather could not have been more perfect. Mostly sunny with a few clouds, but more importantly…warm and dry. It was the first day without any rain and it was glorious.

Columbine flowers on the mountain

An old mine that is currently being used for bat research

Old mining shack and rail

When we got to the top of the mountain, we had an awesome view of a small lake and a beautiful, green valley. We stayed up there for a while and just enjoyed the weather and the views. (Also, Jeremy was having a bit of a panic attack because of his fear of heights, so we let him rest a while. I was so proud of him for making it though!!!)

Top of the mountain

We love selfies!

We even ran into a solo backpacker who was passing through. He had been backpacking for a few days and was headed on his way out of the basin. He even said he saw a bear earlier that day.

We headed down the mountain after a while and headed back to camp for dinner. The next morning we had to return to the trailhead to catch the train back to civilization, so we spent the remainder of the day organizing our stuff and cleaning up. (Leave No Trace!) Before we went to bed, however, a few of us took our chairs to a nearby meadow and watched for shooting stars. The Perseid meteor shower was peaking that weekend so we took advantage of having almost zero light pollution. It was incredible to see the Milky Way so clearly and to see so many more stars than you would normally see.

The next morning (Friday), we all got up pretty early to pack up camp and start our hike back to the trailhead to catch the train.

It was a pretty miserable day: rainy and cold. But we all made it back fine and had plenty of time to rest before flagging down the train that would take us back to Silverton.

Crossing the finish line

Here is our ride back to civilization

The train ride back was not quite as enjoyable as it was on the way up. It was cold, rainy, and we were all exhausted. When we got back to Silverton, we packed up our stuff and headed to Durango for our first real food in five days. I had the most delicious green chile burger ever. And lots of beer.

We hung around Durango for a few hours then hopped back in our van and made our way to the Oasis campground just outside the Great Sand Dunes National Park. (We finally got to take showers!!!) Some of us stayed up to watch more of the meteor shower, but sleep seemed to be on everyone’s mind more than anything.

The next day (Saturday), we woke up, had breakfast at the little restaurant nearby (they had some seriously delicious breakfast burritos), then headed to Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

It was such a weird place. Just a bunch of HUGE sand dunes (some 700ft tall) in the middle of nowhere. My friend, Matt, and I were the only ones brave enough to make the hike up the dunes. It was a real bitch to walk up a mountain of sand I will say, but I’m glad we did it. Another great feeling of accomplishment!

Me at the top of a huge dune we climbed

Heading back down

After our stop at the national park visitors center so I could stamp my National Parks Passport and get my Great Sand Dunes patch (nerd alert!), we got back into the van for more driving. Our last stop was Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. It’s another weird geological wonder…just a bunch of red rocks sticking up out of the ground in the middle of Colorado Springs.

Garden of the Gods

I had heard a lot about this place, so we decided to make a quick stop on our way home. It was very touristy and pretty crowded so it wasn’t my favorite place ever, but I’m glad I got to mark that off my list too.

After our quick walk through the Garden of the Gods, we had dinner at a small, nondescript taco “restaurant” called Monica’s Taco Shop that my friend, Kyle, raved about. I have to say I was a bit skeptical when we pulled up to it. It looked like an old fast food place that someone had bought and turned into a sketchy taco stop. I would have never given the place a second look, but OMG the food was AMAZING. I don’t remember the last time I had Mexican food that good. Maybe never. The carnitas I had were incredible. I even tried the tacos two of my friends were eating: one apparently had tongue meat in it and the other one was made with cheek and/or head meat. (I didn’t really understand what exactly they were talking about when they described it to me.) They were actually pretty good. After we had ordered about 20 tacos/burritos between the 7 of us, we piled in the van for the last time and drove home through the night.

I was really sad to leave Colorado (especially since that meant having to drive through the whole length of boring, flat Kansas), but all good things must come to an end, I guess. It was definitely one of the most life-changing experiences for me though. I am really proud of myself for being able to climb a 14,000ft mountain, not to mention survive in the wilderness for 5 days without toilets, showers, a bed, or real food. And that hike up the 6 mile trail with 50lbs on my back…I applauded myself just for making it through that.

I’ve come to realized that backpacking sucks a lot of the time. It’s easy to get discouraged and frustrated when you’re tired, cold, and wet and have a huge pack full of crap you have to haul up a mountain. Not to mention having to eat meals out of bags and dig a hole in the ground every time you have to go to the bathroom. But it’s so worth it in the end. There is a huge sense of accomplishment and pride in a fun, successful backpacking trip. Would I do it again? Absolutely. After I upgrade my gear to ultralight status…

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