(WINTER) HOLD ON! If you don't have much high-elevation, winter climbing experience, be careful in your planning and take a partner. Even the "easy" 14ers (Quandary, Sherman, Grays & Torreys) can be deadly in winter.
Drive to Durango and follow signs to the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. It's near McDonald's and has a large parking area nearby. Buy a ticket for the train that stops at Needleton and ride the train 2.5 hours (~30 miles) to the Needleton stop. The train will drop you off next to a suspension bridge that crosses the Animas River. From here, it's a 6 mile hike to reach Chicago Basin. Note: you can also take the train from Silverton and be dropped off at Needleton.
Contact the Durango Silveton Narrow Gauge Railroad to reserve your tickets ahead of time. You must state that you are stopping at Needleton because it's a different train from the normal Durango-to-Silverton roundtrip ride. Train information can be found at www.durangotrain.com but don't book your tickets on the website - their system does not allow you to specify the Needleton train. Take a look at their Wilderness Access page which provides a schedule for the Needleton train and helpful information for the process. If you want to start at Silverton (10 miles shorter drive when coming from Denver), you will reach Needleton at ~3:45pm. Leaving from Durango will get you to Needleton at ~11:30am. If you want the extra time for the hike into Chicago Basin, a Durango start is the way to go. Also, leave your dog at home because pets are not allowed on the train.
Lakewood-to-Durango: MapQuest Driving Directions
Lakewood-to-Silverton: MapQuest Driving Directions
Leaving the Durango station - Photo #1. From Durango, the ride is only 30 miles, but it's a long 2.5 hours of slow travel. If you leave from Silverton, it's about 1 hour. Photo #2 and Photo #3 were taken during the ride. Roll into the Needleton stop (Photo #4, Photo #5, Photo #6) and grab your pack after it's unloaded from the boxcar. Cross the Animas River on a suspension bridge and turn right to begin the hike toward Chicago Basin. There is a great trail all the way to the basin. After approximately 0.8 mile, stay left at a trail junction (Photo #8) and continue up Needle Creek. Shortly after the trail junction, reach the trail register and entrance into the Weminuche Wilderness - Photo #9. Hike almost another 2 miles and cross a small bridge that spans the steam running out of New York Creek - Photo #10.
Grind out another 3 miles to reach the start of Chicago Basin. After leaving the forest, you finally get a view of some peaks ahead - Photo #11. Continue along the left side of Needle Creek to a camp location of your choosing. Taken near 11,000' in the basin, Photo #12 shows much of the basin and views to the northeast. Many people camp along the trail, but there are also campsites in the trees not far away. If you go all the way to the end of the basin, locate the trail junction for Twin Lakes. Available camping ends in this area and you shouldn't camp higher. If you stay on the main trail (now toward Columbine Pass), you will soon come to a stream crossing. For the 14ers, you will ascend the trail to Twin Lakes, so it's best to camp in this area or lower in the basin.
The train never exceeds 20mph, so it's a long ride to the Needleton stop. IMPORTANT: This route enters the Weminuche Wilderness area. Wilderness areas have special regulations and restrictions for party size, dispersed camping, campfires, etc. Also, dog owners should read the wilderness information carefully because some wilderness areas prohibit dogs to be off-leash and/or limit how close dogs can be to lakes and streams. If you have questions about the Wilderness area, please contact a U.S. Forest Service office for the National Forest(s) listed above.