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Jonathan Stull | 09.02.2016

For the outdoor enthusiast, the San Juan Mountains are one of the great playgrounds in the Lower 48, with 13 fourteeners and countless other beautiful peaks, the headwaters of the Rio Grande and numerous waterfalls, old frontier towns and a rich legacy left behind from mining booms of the 19th century. The San Juan Mountains are comprised almost entirely of public land, nearly 2 million sprawling acres in the San Juan National Forest, which includes Lizard Head, South San Juan, and Weminuche wildernesses, and the Continental Divide.

Take a week, take a month, take a year—take to the mountains and enjoy them in all of their splendor. There are far too many reasons to visit than we can count, but here are ten to get you started.

1. Take a Hike

A trip in the San Juan’s wouldn’t be complete without strapping on those hiking boots and wandering the wilderness. Whether you’re peak bagging, wildlife watching or spinning in a wildflower meadow, arms open wide, there’s a trail here for you.

  • Short and sweet, the Animas Overlook Trail is less than a mile with beautiful, archetypal Colorado views overlooking the Animas Valley. Take a picnic lunch!
  • The traverse from Redcloud Peak to Sunshine Peak is a great way to acquaint yourself with two fourteeners in the San Juans. There is hefty elevation gain over the course of this 11-mile trail, but the spectacular views are well worthwhile, especially if you coordinate with wildflower blooms.
  • Break up the peaks of the Wilson Group into challenging individual day hikes, or complete the traverse from El Diente to Mount Wilson in an overnight camping trip, like we did.
  • Popular with hikers near Durango, the Junction Creek Trail spans the beginning of the Colorado Trail, which straddles the Rocky Mountains for 486 miles from Durango to Denver.

2. Four wheels and open highway

The journey is just as important as the destination, and getting into the outdoors in the San Juan’s is just as beautiful as being in them.

  • It’d be worthwhile to plan your excursion in the San Juan Mountains around the San Juan Skyway, which is sometimes harrowing but always gorgeous. Just be sure to make use of its many pullouts.
  • Immortalized in Hollywood films, the unpaved Last Dollar Road showcases the mountain range’s fall foliage.

3. The Chicago Basin

Another of the premier destinations in the San Juan Mountains, the Chicago Basin is one of the area’s most popular sites and something that every backpacker should experience. Unless you want to add several days of hiking to your trip, the basin requires passage on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge, a historic railroad that offers a special rate to backpackers and drops them in Needleton, just 6.5 miles from the basin. Backcountry campsites at the base of Mount Eolus, Sunlight Peak, and Windom Peak—all fourteeners—offer a base camp for hikes and climbs in the area, including those to Twin Lakes and along Columbine Pass.

4. Castin’ lines and catchin' dimes

Anglers, take to the rivers and lakes of the San Juans with your fishing rod to drop a line in mountain waters teeming with fish.

  • The trout fishing is worth the 9-mile round trip hike at Clear Lake, but if you have four-wheel drive and high clearance you can make a drive to the alpine beauty.
  • Accessing Haviland Lake is far easier, just off of highway 550. There’s also nearby camping available at Haviland Lake Campground.

5. Sites unseen

Prospectors struck gold in 1873, irreversibly changing the region. The region produced more than $109 million between 1873 and 1940. The booms and busts left behind a mining legacy that can still be seen around the San Juan Mountains today.

  • The Yankee Girl Mine yielded one of the richest ore finds when John Robinson struck gold and silver in 1882. It is now a photogenic stop along the Million Dollar Highway.
  • Just south of Ouray, Ironton and the Colorado Boy Mine still has a few buildings that remain from booms in the 1880s and a mine to explore.

6. Shimmering pools

Colorado wilderness wouldn’t be complete without alpine lakes—and they come in so many different forms. The ponds, smaller pools, tarns, and reservoirs all have a multitude of outdoor activities to enjoy, and all of them are flanked by the rugged Rockies.

  • Up above treeline and pocked with ponds, the Ice Lakes are one of the most scenic lake destinations in the San Juan Mountains, with their bright blue glacial waters. A must-see!
  • Soak in Dallas Peak and the Mount Sneffels Wilderness along the Blue Lakes Trail. Backcountry campsites are available for overnight visits.

7. Take to that single track

Mountain biking in the San Juan’s breaks into two ranger districts: Columbine and Dolores. The state's best singletrack rides are in the San Juan Mountains!

  • Hermosa Creek in the Columbine Ranger District is one of the best singletrack trails in Colorado.
  • In the Dolores Ranger District, be sure to check out Boggy Trail, Italian Canyon Trail, or Turkey Creek Trail.

8. Oh, the amenities

Pitch a tent and kick up your feet. Just watching the clouds roll by is a great way to indulge in the San Juan Wilderness, but these will also serve well as a base of operations for your outdoor excursions.

9. Ice tools and subzero temperatures

Every winter, when the San Juan Mountains drop below freezing and the snows begin to fall, a little slot canyon in the Uncompahgre Gorge becomes a playground for ice climbers. The Ouray Ice Park is within walking distance of downtown Ouray, and there’s no better place in the San Juan's to polish your ice climbing skills.

10. What goes up must come down

Anywhere you’ll find glaciers and high elevation, you’ll find a stream that cascades down rocky alpine slopes. The San Juan Mountains are no different, where the source of the Rio Grande River begins high above tree line. Bear Creek Falls is a beautiful 80-foot cascade that drops in two pitches on its way to the Uncompahgre River.


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