San Juan National Forest Overview

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The San Juan National Forest is a natural and cultural oasis that nourishes the hiker, historian, fisherman, anthropologist, kayaker, mountain biker, and skier alike. The diverse terrain, which features alpine lakes, cataracts, canyons, and waterfalls, is suitable for casual hiking yet also offers serious mountain climbers the challenge of several 14,000-foot peaks in the Needle Mountains—one of the roughest ranges in the United States. With much of the area above timberline, alpine meadows and high spruce stands are interspersed with large areas of sharp/bold/granite extrusions, rock slides, and barren areas.

Long before Spanish soldiers and missionaries began exploring the San Juan, the region was inhabited by an ancient Indian civilization—abandoned archaeological ruins can be seen scattered throughout the forest.

Hike an Ancient Trail
Hikers can explore a vast web of trails—yet even with over 500 miles of trails weaving their way through the forest, large areas remain untapped and primeval. Only about a dozen thru-hikers a year actually complete the Continental Divide Trail which traverses the forest from Wolf Creek Pass to the Silverton area. So if you see any, be sure to give them lots of encouragement—they'll need it.

Many of the hiking trails through the area have been used for centuries. The raw beauty of the "Window" area near the towering Rio Grande Pyramid mountain peak was mentioned often in the notes and diaries of early travelers and explorers. The Pine River Trail that slithers through the Weminuche Pass was a main route over the Continental Divide used by the Weminuche Indians (Utes). Numerous trails penetrate deep into the Weminuche Wilderness.

More on hiking in San Juan National Forest

Paddle the River of Lost Souls
World-class kayakers descend the turbulent tributaries of the San Juan River. Spanish explorers appropriately deemed one of these rivers El Rio de Las Animas Perdidas—River of Lost Souls. Further down-river, novice and intermediate paddlers will find tamer waters for splashing around in—gentle rapids make sure everyone gets wet. River-rafting outfits operating out of Durango offer multi-day raft trips.

Fish a Mountain Lake
Anglers can battle with rainbow, brook and cutthroat trout in high mountain lakes, swift streams, and reservoirs located throughout the forest. Lakes in the forest include Emerald, Flint, Rock, Hossick, and Fourmile—while reservoirs such as McPhee, Vallecito, Lemon, and Williams Creek Lake are also popular among fishermen. If you prefer the challenge of fishing in a swift current, try the Pine River or the Vallecito, Hossick, and Weminuche Creeks.

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Spot a Herd of Bighorn Sheep
Birdwatchers can try their hand at identifying the nearly 300 species of birds in southwestern Colorado. With a pair of binoculars and a good bird book, you can identify many birds in the forest including the blue grouse, ptarmigan, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, raven, flicker, gray jay, mountain bluebird, and hummingbird.

You might be able to spot larger animals including black bear, elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep. Smaller critters such as snowshoe hare, pika, badger, marmot, marten, porcupine, and squirrel may also be observed.

More on wildlife in San Juan National Forest

Bike a Sandstone Bluff
Mountain bikers of the world, unite! Durango is a contender for fat-tire capital of the world—the town and the surrounding area is internationally known as a center of mountain biking. West of Durango, La Plata Mountains offer trails that start out humbly in foothills made of Dakota sandstone and then rise into the mountains at elevations exceeding 7,000 feet. These trails include the Jersey Jim Loop, North Fork, and Chicken Creek Road Loop.

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Skiing and Snowsports
Just north of Durango, skiers and snowboarders can cascade down the powder slopes of the Purgatory Ski Area. Although its name sounds daunting, Purgatory is an intermediate skier's paradise. Purgatory has a reputation for fresh powder and lots of sun. Expert skiers and snowboarders with an appetite for double-black diamonds should head for the Wolf Creek Ski Area, which, with a summit elevation of 11,775 feet, makes for raw, high-altitude skiing.

Camp Near a Hot Spring
The forest is home to 39 developed campgrounds. The Navajo Trail Campground is located near a hot springs and provides breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the San Juans. The West Fork Campground, just outside of Weminuche, is a mere four-mile hike away from Rainbow Hot Springs. We highly recommend camping in Transfer Park, an 11-acre meadow, used by miners during the late 1800s and situated in a beautiful aspen grove.

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Drive the San Juan Skyway
The historic towns of Ridgway, Ouray, Silverton, Durango, Mancos, Cortez, Dolores, and Telluride are all connected by the San Juan Skyway—a 236-mile route that cuts through the San Juan Mountains along state highways. Jeeping in the San Juans is also a popular pursuit; a web of old mining roads requiring four-wheel drive connects many of the high-altitude towns. These roads often cut through harrowing mountain passes such as Black Bear, Ophir, Imogene, Engineer, and Cinnamon Pass.

More on driving in San Juan National Forest


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Oct 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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