The Rio Grande, one of the great rivers of the West, begins as melting snow high in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. Each flake of snow that falls – and these mountains get a lot – will be part of a 1,800-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. This 1.8-million-acre National Forest spans the river’s headwaters high on the Continental Divide and across the San Luis Valley to the spine of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Rio Grande National Forest is wild country; nearly one-quarter of the land is wilderness, a federal designation for places “untrammeled by man.” The Continental Divide forms the western edge, running 236 miles from the New Mexico border in the south to Monarch Pass in the north.
The forest is at its wildest in the south. The South San Juan Wilderness forms a huge expanse of this area, a myriad of lakes, 13,000-foot peaks, pleasant meadows, and waterfalls. This area has limited road access in summer and is inaccessible except on its fringes in winter. The Southwest Nordic Center operates four winter backcountry yurts on Cumbres Pass that are perfect for ski trips.
The seasonal town of Platoro is 30 miles up Forest Service Road 250. Most hikes in the wilderness start along this road or where it ends at Platoro Reservoir. Solitude is the norm on hikes in this remote region. The last grizzly bear known to exist in Colorado was killed here in 1977. She had had cubs that were never located. Some locals swear the great bear still haunts these woods. Let your imagination be the judge when you hear twigs snapping in the middle of the night from the tent.
The south San Juans meet U.S. Highway 160 at a place legendary among skiers: Wolf Creek. This family-owned ski area receives 450 inches of snow a year, the most in Colorado. When the weather pattern is just right, huge storms out of the southwest have been known to drop 6 feet of snow in as many days.
Moving north, the forest takes on a graveyard feel. Spruce beetles have decimated this area in recent years, and when the West Fork Fire broke out here in 2013, burning 110,000 acres, firefighters mostly just let it burn. What’s left is not ideal for recreation, though Rio Grande Reservoir remains a popular fishing and boating spot. North Clear Creek Falls, right along Colorado Highway 149, remains the most-photographed waterfall in Colorado. Stony Pass, the first road built to the boomtown of Silverton, remains a popular four-wheeling excursion.
The forest now bends east towards the colorful town of Creede. This was home to the last great Colorado silver rush, in the 1890s and remarkably well-maintained mining structures remain all along the Bachelor Loop, a popular driving loop above Creede. The La Garita Mountains, including 14,014-foot San Luis Peak, tower above the town. The lightly visited La Garita Wilderness offers the backpacker assured solitude. These mountains are inaccessible in winter, as explorer John C. Fremont discovered when he tried to make a winter crossing in 1848. The exploration party became lost and snowbound, and ten men died. Others resorted to cannibalism.
The forest ends in the Cochetopa Hills, the lowest stretch of the Divide in Colorado, where spruce-covered hills meet the largest alpine valley in the world. Across the San Luis Valley the National Forest makes up the west side of the mighty Sangre de Cristos. This narrow, sharp mountain range is full of stunning lakes and lofty summits above 14,000 feet. Most hikes are long, starting low in the valley, but the scenic payoff is usually worth it. To the south, the forest skirts Great Sand Dunes National Park and ends at Blanca Peak. At 14,345 feet, it’s Colorado’s fourth-highest peak, rising like Mount Olympus from the valley floor.
Recommended season(s): Year-round.
—R. Scott Rappold