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5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains

05.17.18

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5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
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  • Wildflowers around Ice Lake with mountains in the background, including Golden Horn and Pilot Knob.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • View back toward Ice Lake.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • Island Lake with its namesake rock island in the middle.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • Rocky Mountain Columbine (Aquilegia saximontana).- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • Views north to Uncompahgre Peak (14,321 ft) and Wetterhorn Peak (14,015 ft) from the hike to Redcloud Peak.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • Redcloud Peak view from the approach basin.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • Heading toward the Blue Lakes Trailhead, the views are increasingly spectacular.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • Red columbine (Aquilegia elegantula) along the trail to Lower Blue Lakes.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • As the trail to Lower Blue Lake climbs, the views become increasingly grand.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • Lower Blue Lake rests below Dallas Peak.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • Hiking from Lower Blue Lake to Middle Blue Lake.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • Middle Blue Lake.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • Sun and reflection over the San Miguel River on the way to Bear Creek Falls.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • Yellow aspen leaves carpet spots of the trail to Bear Creek Falls in mid-October.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • The sun rises over Bear Creek Falls very late in the morning in fall.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • The Colorado Boy mine is part of the Red Mountain mining district.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • Ironton had about 1,000 residents at one time. - 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
  • A few of the buildings at Ironton are pretty well preserved.- 5 Incredible Hikes in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
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Officially Colorado's largest mountain range by area, the San Juan Mountains are at the southern end of Colorado's portion of the Rocky Mountains. Fans of the San Juans aren't shy about proclaiming this the premiere range in Colorado, and given the vast area, numerous creeks, rivers, and lakes, terrific backcountry opportunities, and high peaks, there is certainly a good argument to be made. The San Juans are home to 13 of Colorado's 14ers, led by the 14,309-foot Uncompahgre Peak. If you aren't dead set on bagging a 14er, however, you'll have 314 13ers to choose from in this range, and countless other smaller peaks that could keep a mountain-loving soul nourished for a lifetime.

Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Lake City, and Telluride anchor the mountain communities in the San Juans, all of which were forced to evolve from their early mining roots with varying degrees of success. The mineral content in the San Juan Mountains is very rich, and the 19th-century history of the region is a tale of resource extraction. Several abandoned mining towns stand as testaments to the rapid rise and fall of this industry in the area, at least on a small scale. Tourism is the renewable resource that fuels many of these economies today; skiers, river runners, mountain bikers, backpackers, trail runners, and day hikers help support a year-round industry based on the preservation and maintenance of this amazing place. Home to the San Juan National Forest and the Uncompahgre National Forest, the abundance of public lands helps to ensure that this trend will continue.

Hikers have a plethora of options to choose from in the San Juans, and itineraries are likely to be shaped by realities like your direction of travel, prevailing weather patterns, and snowpack. We've listed five of our favorites to get you started, and there are additional suggestions in the Featured Adventures below. Be sure to share your photos in the Comments sections once you return from your hike!

Spectacular views on the hike to Lower Blue Lake. Photo by Denis LeBlanc.

Blue Lakes Trail Hike to Lower Blue Lake: Creeks, turquoise alpine water, and Mount Sneffels views are all in store. This 7.6-mile hike is also a great choice for its moderate grade and easy access from the town of Ridgeway. Hikers looking for a longer day and more views should continue on the Blue Lakes Trail Hike to Upper Blue Lake.

Ice Lake + Island Lake Hike: This 8-mile round-trip hike gains 3,000 feet in elevation, starting in a subalpine forest and finishing at an undeniably gorgeous alpine lake. Along the way visitors will enjoy waterfalls, aspen groves, and amazing views of the San Juans. Campsites near the lake make this an ideal overnight trip.

Redcloud Peak + Sunshine Peak: With a 4,800-foot elevation gain over 11 miles, this loop isn't for the faint-harted, but the rewards are magnificent. Redcloud Peak is a great 14er to start with, and the connection and descent via Sunshine Peak adds variety and some route-finding excitement. A challenging hike that will make for an unforgettable day.

Redcloud Peak from the approach basin. Photo by Justin Michael.

Bear Creek Falls Hike: The trail to Bear Creek Falls is a moderate hike leaving from the Bear Creek Preserve adjacent to the town of Telluride. Popular with runners, bikers, and hikers, the route follows a creek up to the 80-foot falls.

Ironton + Colorado Boy Mine: A great hike for a glance into the history of mining and mining communities in the San Juans. Ironton exploded from its original founding to a town of more than 300 buildings in a matter of weeks, and its decline after mining activities dwindled was nearly as rapid. This historical site is well worth a stop, and it is surrounded by beautiful scenery.

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