Rio Grande National Forest Overview

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The immaculate 14,000-foot jagged summits of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) and the San Juan Mountains dominate the horizon in southwestern Colorado. Hikers and rock climbers can explore an intricate labyrinth of canyons straddled by sheer walls of welded volcanic tuff. Mountain bikers can explore a web of old logging and mining roads that snake their way through the forest along rock ledges carved into volcanic basalt cliffs. Fisherman can pull feisty trout and voracious pike out of secluded alpine lakes. The casual meanderer can wander through alpine meadows skirted by vast stands of Engelmann spruce, aspen, and fir. The geologically curious can marvel at the strange, otherworldly moonscape in the Wheeler Geologic Area where medieval spires are eroded from volcanic tuff.

The forest is named for the mighty Rio Grande del Norte, or Great River of the North, as the early Spanish and Indian inhabitants of the Southwest called it. It is the third longest river in the U.S. and its headwaters are found here in the Rocky Mountains of south central Colorado before the slow-moving river carves its way for 2,000-miles along a shifting course to the Gulf of Mexico.

The forest encompasses nearly 2 million acres along the eastern slopes of the Continental Divide.

Hike the Continental Divide
For a challenging hike, try the 17-mile segment of the Continental Divide Trail that links Knife Edge to Sawtooth Mountain. Most of this rocky trail is well-above timberline as it hugs the backbone of the Divideexpect constant, lung-burning elevations above 12,000 feet. Once deadly, the infamous traverse of the Knife Edge has been improved to reduce the hazards of crossing these still-dangerous cliffs.

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Climb Penitente Canyon Walls
Climb volcanic tuffs in Penitente Canyon. There are more than 100 bolt-protected climbs rated 5.6 through 5.12 in this desert landscape of juniper, sagebrush and pinyon pine. Most of the climbs are short (25' to 75') but challenging. If you've got the skills, try Mysterious Redhead (5.11a) and Bullet the Blue Sky (5.12c.) The canyon is situated west of the San Luis Valley near the town of La Garita.

Explore the City of Gnomes
Gothic sandstone spires haunt a medieval landscape of domes and pinnacles in the Wheeler Geologic Area. The 640-acre geological phenomenon has accumulated a variety of epithets and monikers including Dante's Lost Souls, White-Shrouded Ghosts, Phantom Ships, and the City of Gnomes. You can adopt one of these nicknames, or you can choose to think of a new onelet us know what you come up with to describe these unusual badlands.

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Fish for Northern Pike
The Rio Grande is a slow-moving sheet of water that takes wide, lazy turns as it passes through popular pike fishing spots at Five-Mile and Seven-Mile Dam. Battle the sharp-toothed northern pikea voracious predator that's easy to land because it goes after just about any bait or lure you throw in the water. Because of its needle-like teeth, the pike is sometimes called "the alligator of the north." Most pike weigh 2-3 pounds, but 20 pounders are out there.

Retrace the 1848 Expedition
During the brutal winter of 1848, John Fremont led an expedition in search of a plausible railroad route cutting through the central Rockies to California. In the La Garita Mountains, the group suddenly found themselves snowbound; 100 of their mules froze to death in a single night. To survive, the expedition cut timber and built a huge bonfire, subsisting on mule meat, and rumor has iteach other. The expedition of 36 men was whittled down to a few survivors rescued by Kit Carson. Today, crudely cut stumps remain and appear unusually high because of the deep snow at the time they were cut. These stumps serve as reminders of the haunted expedition of 1848.

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Ski Wolf Creek
Wolf Creek in Pagosa Springs, with 450 inches of annual snow fall, bills itself as the ski area with the most snow in Colorado. Wolf Creek also offers the Water Fall shuttleit ushers daring skiers up the Continental Divide where they can test their mettle on virgin powder. Cross-country skiers can swish and swoosh along beautiful trails in the Conejos Peak, Del Norte, Creede, and Saguache Districts. Other nearby ski areas includes Monarch, Cuchara and Ski Rio.

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Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 19 Apr 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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