The San Juans are Colorado’s largest mountain range, an unbroken sea of peaks stretching from the mountains west of Telluride all the way to the San Luis Valley. The 1.8-million-acre San Juan National Forest encompasses much of this range.
These are volcanic mountains, unlike some other Colorado chains. The volcanic rock is loose and erodes easily, giving these mountains their jagged, rugged appearance. These natural forces also pushed valuable minerals, including gold and silver, to the surface, and the San Juans were heavily mined.
Mining heritage still defines much of this national forest on the west side, north and northwest of Durango. Many of the popular four-wheel-drive roads that lace through the forest owe their existence to the mines, and touring old mine sites remains a popular summer activity.
But there are also huge chunks of the national forest that were too rugged for roads, too wild for mines. Much of this land is contained in the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado’s largest wilderness area. This is a 488,000-acre blank spot on the road map. Many visitors get a taste of this wilderness from the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad or on short backpack trips into Chicago Basin, home of three fourteeners. But to truly experience the Weminuche takes days on the trail and nights camped around remote lakes or beneath towering peaks.
The west side of the forest, where the jagged peaks have earned the nickname “the American Alps,” is the more heavily visited. The Lizard Head Wilderness contains the namesake 13,000-foot rock that was once considered unclimbable, as well as three difficult fourteeners, the Wilson group.
As the mountains spread east they become more spread out. The largest unbroken stretches of tundra in Colorado can be found here. Through hikers on the Colorado Trail often describe terrifying hikes through thunderstorms and snow with no shelter. This is Colorado at its most remote.
The national forest reaches its eastern terminus at the Continental Divide near Wolf Creek Pass. Trails get more crowded, due to proximity to tourist town Pagosa Springs. Spruce beetles have decimated this area as well, giving the forest a brown, lifeless look.
These mountains are so deep and rugged, few venture far into this national forest in winter, except for on the lifts at Purgatory Resort, the lone ski area, 20 miles north of Durango.
Whether it’s in a Jeep or in hiking boots, a person could spend a lifetime exploring the San Juan National Forest. Better get started.
Our Favorite Hikes
- Rainbow Hot Springs: Along the west fork of the San Juan River, 6 miles into the Weminuche Wilderness, is a true backcountry gem. The hike to reach this natural hot springs, consisting of three pools, is modest by Colorado standards, making this an ideal backpacking trip for even beginners. The area gets heavy use on summer weekends, so plan accordingly. The hike begins 2 miles past the West Fork Campground just west of Wolf Creek Pass.
- Chicago Basin Trail Loop: There’s a certain thrill about getting dropped off by a steam train in the wilderness. Most hikers who take the Durango and Silverton train get off at Needleton, where it’s a 6-mile hike into Chicago Basin. They climb the fourteeners and go home. Or you can get dropped off at Elk Park. From here it’s a 30-mile loop over three mountain passes into Chicago Basin. The loop follows the Elk Park Trail to the Vallecito Creek Trail, then south to the Johnson Creek Trail and over Columbine Pass into Chicago Basin. It can be done in three nights, but what’s the rush? Make a week out of it.
- Emerald Lake: The third-largest natural lake in Colorado is a stunning place, where cold blue-green waters glimmer with reflections of the surrounding peaks. It’s touch to reach, 10 miles up the trail northwest of Vallecito Reservoir, so only backpackers come here. But pitch a tent near its emerald shores and watch the sunset and you may never want to leave.
- Vallecito Reservoir: This large reservoir northwest of Durango is an outdoor lover’s dream. Amazing views, fishing, boating and camping await. Hikers can use it as a base for excursions into the Weminuche. Or just relax along its shores and enjoy the views.
- Durango and Silverton Railroad: This is a unique Colorado experience. Follow the historic railroad route to the boom town of Silverton about a working coal-powered steam train. Pass through epic valleys and over deep chasms. Enjoy sweeping views of the “American Alps.” Colorado has many tourist trains, but none offer such a beautiful trip.
- The Million Dollar Highway: U.S. Highway 550 between Durango to the south and Ouray to the north is one of the prettiest drives in North America. The twisting highway goes over three mountain passes, past innumerable mines and scenic vistas, providing access to endless camping and hiking opportunities. In winter it can be one of the scariest drives in North America.
Recommendended season(s): Year-round.
—R. Scott Rappold