Sunlight Peak Route Guide | A 14er for the Bold
Sunlight Peak is a difficult fourteener with a challenging class 4 summit block with lots of exposure. As a Chicago Basin mountain, it requires either a multi-day backpacking trip or a train trip to reach this remote area. Many people setup a base camp in the Basin and try to climb several high peaks while they are in the area. Plan a climb of Sunlight Peak with my Sunlight Peak route guide.
Sunlight Peak Route Guide Fast Facts
Sunlight Peak Route Guide - South Face
It’s harder to get to the Needleton trailhead than any other 14er trailhead… the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad provides train service to the location, which is how most people get there. Click here for information and buy tickets – make sure you call them and tell them you’re stopping at the Needleton stop. While you can do this trip without taking the train, it’s an extremely long backpacking trip only recommended for experienced hikers and backpackers.
My Sunlight Peak Route Guide begins in earnest from the Needleton train stop. You’ll see a few cabins and a bridge across the Animas River; grab your pack from the baggage car and hit the trail. Cross the bridge and take a right to get started.
A little less than a mile along this well-built and maintained trail, stay left at a junction, and shortly after officially enter the Weminuche Wilderness area. 5 more miles of hiking will bring you to the Chicago Basin area. I recommend following Needle Creek to find a good campsite, somewhere between 10,500 feet and 10,800 feet. This is a good place to stop for the night before your summit attempt. Sunlight Peak will be visible above you at the end of the basin.
From your camp in Chicago Basin, continue along the trail towards the upper end of the basin. This is the same trail used to climb Mt Eolus Peak. Around 11,200 feet, take a left to reach the lower Twin Lake. Hike through the forest, over rock slabs, and then cross two streams that flow down from Twin Lakes. The crossings are at 11,700 feet and 12,300 feet. Then reach the lake at 12,500 feet.
Contiinue around the lake up through some rocks to reach a headwall blocking the upper basin. Follow cairns and bits of trail to reach this upper area around 13,000 feet. Continue east, then turn left to go northeast towards talus below a gully separating Sunlight Peak and Sunlight Spire. Keep moving northeast amid this talus, looking for cairns that lead you to the dirt-filled gully. Climb around 400 feet along its left side to reach a saddle at the top. From there, turn left to enter a notch.
The rest of the route is class 3 and 4, with some difficult navigation. From the notch, traverse below a series of cliffs. Scramble up to the ridge at a point where there is a hole you can pass through. An easier alternative is to continue left and climb an easier section of steep rock with cracks. Swing left near the top to enter a small chimney.
Climb up the chimney to reach a hole at the top, and reach a ledge on the other side of the ridge. Turn left to walk up to the final summit pitch. It is an exposed block, but the rock is easy to grip if it is dry. Pick your line to gain the summit. Some find it easier to descend by jumping from rock to rock, if you are comfortable.
From the summit, enjoy the amazing views of the surrounding San Juans. Be sure to descend quickly enough to reach the tree line before afternoon thunderstorm risk becomes significant. I hope you found my Sunlight Peak route guide helpful and informative. Safe travels on the trail!
My Sunlight Peak route guide includes this topographical map of the route within the Chicago Basin area. I recommend that you download this map on your phone or print out a copy to bring with you on your climb. Always bring some hardcopy map in case your digital version fails or breaks.
Use these two sources to check the weather conditions before your trip. Consider the temperature high and low, wind speed, precipitation, and whether there are any storm systems on the horizon to be aware of. No Sunlight Peak Route Guide is complete without weather forecasts.
Hiking & climbing 14ers is an inherently high-risk activity – use my Sunlight Peak route guide at your own risk, and use the following best practices to help keep yourself safe.
- Bring the Ten Essentials and the knowledge/skill to use them.
- Leave your plans with someone back home along with a detailed itinerary.
- Start early, and end early: Be back at tree line by noon to avoid lightning.
- Check the weather forecast and stay home during inclement weather.
- Research your route and bring a compass & topographic map.
Hiking, scrambling and climbing up Colorado’s high peaks are inherently high-risk, dangerous activities. There is a significant risk of injury or death, even with proper planning and experience. Those using my Sunlight Peak route guide accept all risks associated with climbing 14ers and do not hold this website or any information they obtain from it liable for any accidents or injuries that occur while engaging in these activities on Colorado’s high peaks. It is each hiker or climber’s responsibility to research their route carefully, bring the ten essentials, and practice other safe practices, though even these precautions do not eliminate risk and danger. Visit these summits at your own risk.
About the Author: Alex Derr
Alex Derr is a mountaineer and blogger based in Denver Colorado. He is working to climb Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and the 20 tallest peaks in California. He created The Next Summit to share advice, stories, history & reflections from the Colorado Rockies & Sierra Nevada. When not climbing, he is managing the Communications strategy at Visible Network Labs.