The San Juan Mountains, Colorado’s largest chain, are broken up into three National Forests. Uncompahgre is the smallest, half the size of neighboring San Juan National Forest, but its mountains are no less dazzling. Covering the northern section of the mountains, roughly the Silverton and Telluride areas and everything to the north, it includes some of the largest mining districts in the San Juans.
The towns here all owe their origins to the miners who arrived beginning in the 1870s. Most of the four-wheel-drive roads here – and this forest has some of the best in Colorado – also exist because of the mines. Countless old mine structures, in various states of disrepair, cover the landscape. From Silverton, with the right vehicle you can drive over Cinnamon or Engineer passes to the Lake City area, with hair-raising drop-offs and the prettiest drive-to scenery in the state. Or take Ophir Pass (westbound traffic only) into Telluride.
Then there are places that have evaded man’s touch. The Mount Sneffels Wilderness, named for one of Colorado’s prettiest fourteeners, offers rugged backcountry camping at stunning Blue Lakes. Uncompahgre Wilderness farther east holds huge reaches of alpine tundra and two fourteeners, Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn peaks.
Handies, Redcloud, and Sunshine peaks are situated farther south and are easier than most other San Juan fourteeners with trailheads that can be reached by passenger cars. These are popular mountains and for good reason. The National Forest ends just to the east along the spine of the Continental Divide.
Not much is accessible in winter. The Colorado Department of Transportation has enough trouble keeping Red Mountain Pass on U.S. Highway 550 open. Slow down, and you’ll see a memorial to the plow drivers in the state who have died on the job, several of whom died on Red Mountain Pass. Skiers can head to Telluride Ski Area, a resort with great family skiing and some of the most insane in-bounds terrain Colorado has to offer. And really, really good skiers can go to Silverton Mountain, where there’s just one chair and the terrain is so steep and untouched, every skier must have avalanche gear.
Visit this National Forest and you’ll marvel at the ingenuity of the miners that scraped some gold or silver from the mountains, and the mountains’ ability to resist and reclaim the land.
Our Favorite Hikes
- Bear Creek National Recreation Trail: Just south of Ouray is a unique trail, running impossibly along the edge of a deep gorge. Miners built this trail and the mines above it in unforgiving terrain, without the benefit of modern power tools. HIkers can marvel at their achievement as the trail ascends a pretty basin and eventually enters the tundra of the Uncompahgre Wilderness.
- Blue Lakes Trail: These are among the most-photographed lakes in Colorado, three alpine gems beneath the western slopes of Mount Sneffels, in the namesake wilderness. It only takes 3 miles to reach the lower lake, and it’s 2 miles farther to the upper lake. Really energetic hikers can continue on over Blue Lakes Pass and climb Sneffels. Others like to set up camp at the lower lake, which Backpacker magazine once called “one of the best campsites in America.”
- Handies Peak: This 14,048-foot peak west of Lake City is one of the easiest in the rugged San Juans, with a strategic view of the entire range from its center. Passenger car drivers should stop at the Grizzly Gulch Trailhead, where there is camping, and make the 4-mile hike to the summit. Sturdier vehicles can continue into American Basin for a shorter hike, less than 3 miles and 2,500 feet of climbing to the top.
- Alpine Loop Jeep Road: This road is a must for four-wheel-drive enthusiasts, winding 65 miles through a dazzling landscape of red mountains and white peaks, past crumbling mining towns still reeking of failed dreams. Drivers can go over Engineer or Cinnamon passes, both above 12,000 feet, as they explore the high country between Lake City and Silverton.
- Yankee Boy Basin: Another beautiful area teeming with old mines, this valley on Sneffels’ east side is a very popular four-wheel-drive spot. Passenger cars can make it up to a point, but only the hardy continue all the way to the head of the basin, at the Sneffels trailhead. Drivers can also take Imogene Pass on a long, twisting course into Telluride from here.
Recommended season(s): Year-round.
—R. Scott Rappold