San Isabel National Forest is a sprawling, disjointed unit, consisting of three distinct mountain ranges across a million acres of the Rockies. From the headwaters of the Arkansas River above Leadville to the craggy Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the verdant Wet Mountains, the forest ranges in elevation from 5,860 feet to 14,433 feet.
High in the Sawatch Mountains, the forest is a mountain-climber’s paradise. With the exception of Mount of the Holy Cross, the entire range – on the east side of the Divide – lies within San Isabel National Forest. So that means 14 mountains above 14,000 feet live here, including Colorado’s three highest: Mounts Elbert, Massive, and Harvard. These are huge, bulky mountains, rising dramatically above the Arkansas River Valley, all of which can be climbed on simple trails with no need for ropes. The natural forces that built them left faults that allow geothermally-heated water to well up, so there are several commercial hot springs to soak sore legs after a climb.
All roads through the Sawatch close come winter, so outdoor recreation in the area is limited. Cottonwood Pass is a popular snowmobiling and cross-country skiing area, but visitation is far, far less than in summer. However, U.S. Highway 50 remains open year-round over Monarch Pass, and that’s where you’ll find the forest’s sole ski area. Monarch Mountain has one of the highest base areas in Colorado and all-natural snow. A favorite among Colorado Springs skiers, Monarch offers affordable prices and lift lines are rare. The area is small and lacks the frills and glitz of the mega-resorts, but that’s just fine for the skiers who call Monarch home.
Leaving the Sawatch behind, the Arkansas River turns east. Here San Isabel National Forest spreads southeast into the Sangre de Cristos. This range is jagged and narrow, just a few miles across in places. Few roads brave its heights, and most of the forest is part of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. It’s a landscape of steep, narrow valleys, pretty alpine lakes, and forbidding peaks. Some of Colorado’s most dangerous fourteeners can be found here, including Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak. Danger brings those in search of an adrenaline rush, and the fourteeners here are immensely popular.
Across the valley floor to the east lie the Wet Mountains, one of Colorado’s lowest ranges. The only point that rises above timberline is Greenhorn Mountain, named for the Comanche chief who dared to challenge the Spanish and perished in battle near here. The national forest recreation through here consists mainly of dirt roads and ATV trails, though the Greenhorn Wilderness offers an easy hike to the summit of the namesake peak with great panoramic views of southern Colorado.
The national forest reaches its southern terminus in the Spanish Peaks region. These twin peaks were sacred to the Native Americans, who called them the “breasts of the world” as well as an important guide point on the Santa Fe Trail. Both can be climbed in a half-day, though West Spanish Peak is the easier of the two, despite its greater height.
Our Favorite Trails
- Lakes of the Clouds: Three lakes, each prettier than the last, can be reached by a modest hike on the east side of the Sangres near Westcliffe. It’s 4.5 miles, with 2,500 feet of climbing, to the uppermost lake, making this doable day hike. The trail starts at the Gibson Creek Trailhead west of Westcliffe and follows the Rainbow Trail for .6 miles. Turn left on Swift Creek Trail and begin the gradual climb up the valley. The trail gets steeper after a creek crossing as it winds the last two miles to the lowest lake. Continue around to the right of the first lake for a half-mile for the second lake. To reach the third lake, go left at the second lake’s outlet and continue uphill a short way. Great camping can be found around all three lakes.
- Mount Massive: It may be slightly shorter than its neighbor Mount Elbert to the south, but this behemoth of a fourteener near Leadville is far more spectacular and a great mountain to experience. You won’t find any other peak in Colorado with more terrain above 14,000 feet, and the mountain seems to have several summits. There are several ways to reach the top, but the quickest is up the southwest slopes. Drive two miles past the standard trailhead on a rough road, and it’s a four-mile hike each way to the top.
- Browns Lake: Of the many lakes that lie beneath the hulking Sawatch peaks, Browns Lake is among the prettiest. Located on the south side of fourteener Mount Antero, it makes a long day hike or a great overnight backpack trip. The trail, known officially as Browns Creek Trail, starts on the valley floor and winds up. Take the short spur to the left to the pretty waterfall. After four miles, you reach this stunning lake.
Other Notable Places
- Bishop’s Castle: Can just one man build a castle? Jim Bishop did. A bit of an eccentric person, he started building his own castle along Colorado Highway 165 in the Wet Mountains in 1969. Today it is a popular free roadside attraction.
- Twin Lakes: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation couldn’t have picked a prettier site for this massive reservoir fed by water pumped beneath the Continental Divide for the benefit of Front Range cities. Located east of Independence Pass, its cold blue waters are perfect for boating and fishing, with views so pretty you may forget what you came there to do.
- Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area: The upper Arkansas River is one of America’s most-rafted rivers, with trips ranging from water-in-your-face whitewater adventures to lazier floats through scenic canyons. Most people enjoy it on a commercial trip through this recreation area. There are also campgrounds, picnic areas and numerous places where anglers and boaters can access the river.
Recommended season(s): Year-round.
—R. Scott Rappold