Hiking in the San Juan's
Every one of the towns along the scenic 233-mile San Juan Skyway that traverses the heart of the San Juan Mountains is near fantastic hikes for a day or longer that range from very easy to very difficult and strenuous. Encompassing more than 10,000 square miles, the San Juan Mountains contain some of the most spectacular peaks and glacial valleys in Colorado and the USA. Sixteen peaks tower above 14,000-ft. and hundreds of summits top 13,000-ft. With three national forests and seven wilderness areas, hiking enthusiasts of any level of skill and fitness will discover huge swathes of amazing landscapes.
All of these mountain trails are best hiked between mid-July and mid-September. Many lead above the timberline to beautiful mountain lakes and to and over passes with glorious views. Many alpine meadows are filled with unforgettable swathes of wildflowers. A matter of choice, round trip hiking distances typically range from a few to about a dozen miles. Elevation gains usually range from 1,000– to 3,500-ft. All of the trails can provide shorter hikes and comfortable turnaround points. for those seeking shorter hikes.
Most important, a great many choices of some of the best hiking trails in North America are less than an hour’s drive from Ridgway, Ouray, Telluride, Durango, Silverton, Rico, Cortez and Dolores. The Lake City area is located east of the San Juan Skyway, but its many outstanding hiking choices are near enough to the Skyway to be included in hikes from a base in one of the Skyway’s towns. Lake City is linked with Ouray and Silverton by the Alpine Loop National Backcountry Byway that is better known for its network of jeep roads but also provides fabulous hiking options.
From a base in Telluride, experienced hikers who can enjoy strenuous trails often head for the long, scenic Sneffels Highline. The trail crosses a high saddle separating two beautiful alpine basins and traverses meadows filled with wildflowers. Spectacular views of high peaks surrounding Telluride and the San Miguel Mountains will not be forgotten. With an early start, preferably on a beautiful day, hikers can leave right from town to cover the trail’s 12.7 miles and climb to 3,380-ft. Another great hiking choice for hikers based in or heading for Telluride is the very scenic Lizard Head Trail. This loop trail traverses the panoramic spine of Black Face Mountain on its way to the base of Lizard Head Peak (13,113-ft.). The famous Lizard Head is an eroded 400-ft. tall spire with its lizard face gaping at the sky.
So often the profound experience hikers seek comes from panoramic views of awesome mountains that gradually reveal themselves almost with every footstep. From the ridge leading to the top of Black Face Mountain, hikers have a one-of-a-kind dramatic backdrop: the San Miguel Range’s Mount Wilson (14,245-ft.), Gladstone Mountain (13,913-ft.) and Wilson Peak (14,017-ft.). To the east hikers have spectacular views encompassing Trout Lake and the peaks surrounding Lake Hope basin. To the north, Sunshine Mountain rises above Wilson Meadows. In the distance rises the majestic Sneffels.
Stunning views of high peaks fill the area surrounding Telluride. None seem more daunting for hikers than the iconic Ajax Peak towering above the eastern end of Telluride’s box canyon. The hiker’s experience can start in downtown Telluride when, looking up at the peak, they find it hard to believe that its trail reaches the summit. But fortunately it does thanks to the Bridal Veil Road that climbs 1,300-ft. to the beginning of a trail with steep switchbacks to the summit of Ajax Peak. This is a jeep road that leads to stunning views of Bridal Veil Falls, the tallest free falling waterfall in Colorado, the historic power plant perched on a ledge above the falls, and the Telluride valley.
The Bridal Veil trailhead also leads to Blue Lake, Lewis Lake and other popular hiking destinations in the Bridal Veil basin. The scenic hike up Bridal Veil Basin passes historic, largely intact, 5-story Lewis Mill en route to Lewis Lake nestled in a glacial basin at 12,700-ft. Once again hikers are well rewarded for their efforts with stunning 360-degree views from atop the peak. In the distance are the high peaks of the Mount Sneffels and Lizard Head Wildernesses. Beyond Lewis Lake a trail climbs to panoramic views of the Columbine Lake basin near Silverton and peaks around the Telluride area.
A hike to Columbine Lake is worthy of special mention because it is little known and opens fantastic views of Bridal Veil Basin and the Sneffels Range from Columbine Pass. No question it’s a strenuous hike off the beaten path but that is what hiking in the San Juans usually offers as compensation for the effort. Looking for solitude? Gorgeous alpine meadows? A turquoise lake tucked into a stunning glacial bowl ringed by peaks over 13,000-ft.? It’s only a matter of the time and energy available to hikers in the San Juans.
Moving on to Ouray and Silverton, areas near these towns can boast of dozens of wonderful hiking trails for day hikes and longer ones. For example, the scenic beauty of Ice Lake is hard to beat. Climbing 1600-ft. in the first two miles, this trail takes hikers to two gorgeous lake basins, traverses wildflower-filled meadows (columbine, larkspur, aspen daisies, chiming bells and cow parsnips and more), and passes numerous waterfalls along the way. This alpine wonderland includes dramatic peaks that form the backdrop for upper Ice Lake. The climb is steep but leads to the turquoise blue waters of Ice Lake within a cirque of sculpted ridges and peaks that soar well above 13,000-ft. Like so many trails in the amazing San Juans, it is surrounded by alpine lakes that invite exploration and sidetrips.
The Blue Lakes Trail, another popular hike near Ouray, reaches three scenic lakes nestled in beautiful glacial basins set amid rugged ridges and peaks: Mount Sneffels (14,150-ft.), Dallas Peak (13,809-ft.) and Gilpin Peak (13,694-ft.). Beyond the lakes the trail climbs to dramatic Blue Lakes Pass south of Mt. Sneffels. This hike is one of the few in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness. Like so many trails in the San Juans, it offers both tougher hiking days for hikers with more energy to burn and also easier ones, both to worthwhile destinations. For an easy day, Lower Blue Lakes is a 6.3-mile round trip while, for hardy hikers, Blue Lakes Pass is an 11-mile round trip.
There are days when the weather or energy levels suggest staying near Ouray and taking advantage of its scenic Perimeter Trail that follows cliffs, canyons and forested hillsides. The trail can be hiked in comfortable segments that include several points of interest, including the Ouray Hot Springs. The trail ascends along cliffs toward beautiful Cascade Falls, the lowest of a series of seven waterfalls on Cascade Creek. Great views of high peaks open up along the trail. Hikers have choices of switching to other intersecting trails or continuing on the Perimeter Trail to a high point (8,500-ft.) that reveals the Uncompahgre Gorge, Hayden Mountain and other dramatic mountain peaks. The descent back to Ouray covers several miles of enjoyable hiking and sightseeing.
Another scenic hike in the vicinity of Ouray climbs to two pretty lakes in gorgeous Porphyry Basin. Along the way the trail travels through wildflower-filled meadows and passes waterfalls and interesting mining ruins. The lovely alpine meadows of the upper basin offer several options for off-trail exploration. The initial part of this hike follows a lightly trafficked jeep road but soon ascends through wildflower-filled meadows and past lovely waterfalls to Bullion King Lake nestled in the stunningly beautiful Porphyry Basin (12,800-ft.) cradled beneath Three Needles Peak (13,481-ft.).
The area around Silverton offers hikes to beautiful lakes amidst scenic alpine meadows. One of these very special hikes leads to three of seven Highland Mary Lakes in the spectacular high alpine tundra of the Weminuche Wilderness as well as the Verde Lakes, all above 12,000-ft. Hikers also have the option of visiting a segment of the Continental Divide Trail. Although the hike takes more effort, it clearly becomes well worth it as the trail climbs through a landscape interspersed with picturesque waterfalls to reach breathtaking views of the Grenadier Range. The segment of the Continental Divide Trail reveals even more great views of the Grenadiers and high peaks rising above the Deep Creek Valley.
With so many hiking options near the San Juan Skyway, the thousand square miles of public land around Lake City and its hiking opportunities understandably may not be part of hikers’ itineraries in the San Juan Mountains. But at some point in the exploration of hiking opportunities around the San Juan Skyway region, hiking enthusiasts have to visit this remote little town situated at the confluence of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River and Henson Creek, surrounded by the Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests and the Gunnison BLM district. Still relatively unknown to hikers, trails in the Lake City area are not crowded.
Hikers can climb the area’s five 14,000-ft. peaks, wander through many different wildflower-filled meadows and traverse vast expanses of alpine tundra. One of these peaks, Uncompahgre Peak (14,309-ft.), a landmark in the San Juan Mountains, is a bit rough and not as formidable a climb (for fit hikers) as it looks. Although there are many other trail climbs in the area, the ascent up the mountain’s south ridge is doable and well worth the effort. The main thing for hikers to know is that the trailhead is reached by a rough 4WD road. Hikers that ascend Uncompahgre Peak will have breathtaking, unforgettable vistas in all directions: Matterhorn and Wetterhorn Peaks to the west; in the distance the summits of the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness; to the north/northwest, the peaks and valleys of the Uncompahgre Wilderness; and to the south/southwest, the peaks of the San Juan Mountains.