OverviewThe San Juans are undoubtedly Colorado's finest range with unsurpassed beauty and enough peaks, lakes and open meadows to feed your mountain climbing, backpacking and photography desires. In fact, the San Juans are the best place in Colorado to embark on long treks involving many consecutive days of cross country travel. There are 12 of Colorado's 53 ranked 14ers in the San Juans with an additional two, El Diente and North Eolus that often make climbers' lists due to their beauty and overall difficulty to ascend despite not quite having 300 feet of prominence. The highest peak in the San Juans goes to Uncompahgre Peak at 14,309 feet in elevation. One striking feature about this mountain is that it is massive! While many San Juan peaks have steep slopes and cliffs leading to tiny summits, Uncompahgre has very broad slopes leading up to a giant summit area that's large enough to house an army. This was a true surprise when I climbed it and gave the mountain a unique feeling...highly recommended.
Although there are 14 beautiful 14ers in the range, it is the 13ers that make the San Juans so special. With 314 rugged peaks between 13,000 and 13,999 feet the San Juans include an astonishing 43 percent of all the 13ers in the state. The only three centennial 13ers in Colorado that require class 5 traveling are found in the San Juans and offer a monumental capstone trio for many Colorado climbers working towards the Centennials. In total there are sixteen centennial 13ers in the San Juans, added on to the twelve 14ers, to provide you an incredible list of peaks to climb! The San Juans are remote, rugged and wild.
|Mountain||Elevation (ft)||Prominence (ft)||Easiest Route||CO Rank (300P)|
|Uncompahgre Peak||14,309||4,242||East Slopes - Class 2||6|
|Mount Wilson||14,246||4,024||North Slopes - Class 4||16|
|El Diente Peak||14,159||259||South Slopes - Class 3||Unranked|
|Mount Sneffels||14,150||3,050||Lavender Couloir - Class 2+||27|
|Mount Eolus||14,083||2,183||Northeast Ridge - Class 3||32|
|Windom Peak||14,082||1,022||West Ridge - Class 2+||33|
|Sunlight Peak||14,059||399||South Slopes - Class 4||39|
|Handies Peak||14,048||1,908||West Slopes - Class 2||40|
|North Eolus||14,039||179||From Mount Eolus - Class 3||Unranked|
|Redcloud Peak||14,034||1,436||Northeast Ridge - Class 2||46|
|Wilson Peak||14,017||877||West Ridge - Class 3||48|
|Wetterhorn Peak||14,015||1,635||Southeast Ridge - Class 3||49|
|San Luis Peak||14,014||3,114||East Slopes - Class 1||50|
|Sunshine Peak||14,001||501||From Redcloud Peak - Class 2||53|
|Stewart Peak||13,983||883||North Slopes - Class 1||55|
|Pigeon Peak||13,972||1,152||Southwest Slopes - Class 3+||57|
|Gladstone Peak||13,913||733||North Ridge - Class 3||67|
|Phoenix Peak||13,895||1,515||South Slopes - Class 1||73|
|Vermilion Peak||13,894||2,105||Southeast Ridge - Class 2+||74|
|Vestal Peak||13,864||1,124||South Slopes - Class 2+||77|
|Jones Mountain||13,860||520||South Ridge - Class 2||78|
|Half Peak||13,841||1,501||South Ridge - Class 2||86|
|Turret Peak||13,835||735||Northwest Slopes - Class 2+||89|
|Point 13,832||13,832||812||Northwest Ridge - Class 2||90|
|Jupiter Mountain||13,830||370||Southwest Slopes - Class 2+||92|
|Jagged Mountain||13,824||964||North Face - Class 5.1||94|
|Rio Grande Pyramid||13,821||1,881||East Slopes - Class 2||97|
|Teakettle Mountain||13,819||759||Southeast Ridge - Class 5.3||98|
|Point 13,811||13,811||551||South Slopes - Class 1||99|
|Dallas Peak||13,809||869||East Face - Class 5.3||100|
The San Juans are divided into seven wilderness areas, including Colorado's largest, the Weminuche Wilderness which is also among the list of favorite places for many Colorado climbers. Shown below is a summary of the wilderness areas within the San Juans.
|Weminuche Wilderness||Spanning from the Animas River to the town of South Fork, this is Colorado's largest wilderness capped my Mount Eolus and home to 492,418 acres of wild and unspoiled mountains. The Needle and Grenadier mountains dominate the wilderness and offer some of the best mountaineering in the state.|
|South San Juan Wilderness||Located to the east of Pagosa Springs, the South San Juan Wilderness is the only place left in Colorado that might still hold a small grizzly bear population. The area is so rarely traveled yet home to 158,790 acres of wild and volcaniclastic mountains. All the rocks seen here are the remnants of 20,000 foot volcanoes that existed millions of years ago. Today, the wilderness is capped by 13,300 foot Summit Mountain.|
|Mount Sneffels Wilderness||This small, but insanely rugged wilderness capped by the namesake mountain also holds the two hardest centennial 13ers in Colorado. Like the S. San Juan area, these mountains are the remnants of ancient super-volcanoes and are young in geologic age. This area is known for the classic calender photos of Mount Sneffels particularly in the fall when masses of aspen trees glow bright yellow and orange.|
|La Garita Wilderness||Meaning "The Lookout" in Spanish, this wilderness is one of Colorado's original five and hosts 128,858 acres of land in the far eastern parts of the range. The highest peak is San Luis but nearby are two high 13ers. Rocks here are also volcanic in origin and areas like the Wheeler Geologic Area show very well how wind and water can play a role in the deposition of volcanic material during an active eruption.|
|Uncompahgre Wilderness||This 102,721 acre wilderness, home to the highest peak in the range, is slightly gentler than other areas in the San Juans for general cross country travel. Despite this, peaks like the Wetterhorn and the Coxcomb are found here and give this area a more friendlier ruggedness feel which generally draws more people. This area spans the northernmost part of the range and largely accessed from Lake City.|
|Lizard Head Wilderness||Not intended for climbers uncomfortable with exposure, the Wilson group calls this wilderness home. These mountains are different than most in the San Juans in that they are a large igneous intrusive body of granite that failed to reach the paleo-surface and have since been exposed by erosion. The Lizard Head is Colorado's most technical ranked 13er and calls the name of the heartiest of climbers. In the recent past private property issues in the northern part of the wilderness have proved problematic for access to the Wilsons from the north but a resolution has now been put into place and the Rock of Ages TH is now open once again!|
|Powderhorn Wilderness||This smaller wilderness area lies just to the NW of the La Garita Wilderness and is surrounded with the same volcanic type of rocks like the Fish Canyon Tuff. Due to the nature of the erosion process of tuff, like the La Garita Wilderness, the area is topographically gentle however flocked with lots of wildlife. No area in this wilderness exceeds 13,000 feet making it scarcely visited.|
Access into the San Juans highly depends on which area you're pursuing and what time of year you go. There are many trailheads around the entire periphery of the range and many have the option for high clearance four wheel drive vehicles that in some places can take you well above treeline in the summertime. Described below are directions to the major trailheads that I believe provide the best summer access for many of the Centennial 13ers in the San Juans.
Keep in mind it takes for ever to drive around this range. You cannot very easily climb all the high San Juan peaks without a good plan. The towns of Gunnison, Lake City, Creede, Pagosa Springs, Durango, Silverton, Telluride, Ouray, and Ridgeway are all San Juan mountain towns. They are also all a considerable distance apart from one another and I would recommend circling the range one time if you want to get them all in one trip.
La Garita Wilderness: Access to San Luis, Organ and Stewart Peaks
Stewart Creek TH - Gunnison
From Highway 50 near Gunnison head south for 20 miles on CO 114 and turn right onto the Old Agency Road (FS 3083). Follow Cochetopa Creek for 3.5 miles and turn right onto FS 3084 which will turn into FS 788. After 8.8 miles on this road bear left onto FS 790 and follow this for 10 more miles. Turn left onto FS 794.28 (also Perfecto Creek Road) and continue 4 miles crossing two creeks and then make a right on FS 794. Continue 4.5 miles to the trailhead where you will have just driven 30 miles on dirt roads! This trailhead is very inaccessible in the winter as are the peaks in the La Garita Wilderness.
Another trailhead with an equally long drive on dirt roads is the West Willow Creek (Equity Mine) Trailhead accessed from the town of Creede.
Uncompahgre Wilderness: Access to Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn
Matterhorn Creek TH - Lake City
From Highway 50, head south on CO 149 for 45 miles to Lake City. From the Second Street and Gunnison Avenue (CO 149) near the center of town, head west on 2nd Street for two blocks at the roads' end and turn left on Bluff Street. Continue on this road, which quickly turns into Henson Creek Road. After 5 miles pass the Nellie Creek Road turnoff and after 9.2 miles on this road arrive at the North Henson Creek Road at the town-site of Capitol City. Turn onto the North Henson Creek Road (FS 870) and head 2 more miles to where the road gets much rougher. 4WD vehiches can proceed to the wilderness gate half a mile further. Camping can be found here.
The Nellie Creek TH, useful for just a climb of Uncompahgre can be accessed by turning onto the Nellie Creek road mentioned above.
Mount Sneffels Wilderness: Access to Sneffels, Teakettle and Dallas
Yankee Boy Basin TH - Ouray
From Ouray, head a half mile south on 550 and turn south on CR 361. This road climbs steeply so beware! After 5 miles stay right and continue on what I think is the most bazaar road ever. It's carved out of an overhanging cliff!
After about another mile on this road continue straight and park cars at mile 6.7 at 10,700 feet elevation. Four wheel drive can go another 1.3 miles to around treeline where there is a small pit toilet and lots of jeeps that tend to hang around.
Handies Group TH: Access to Handies, Redcloud, Sunshine, Point 13,832, Point 13,811 and Half Peak
Silver Creek-Grizzly Gulch TH - Lake City
From Lake City, head south on CO 149 for 2 miles and turn right on the Lake San Cristobal Road and continue 13.1 miles to the Mill Creek Campground. As a fun fact, Lake San Cristobal is the largest natural lake in Colorado! About a mile past the campground, turn right onto the Cinnamon Pass Road and follow the shelf road for an additional 4 miles to the TH. There is lots of camping here and a well kept outhouse. Passenger cars must stop here. 4WD vehicles can continue another 3.5 miles to the American Basin TH for a shorter route on Handies. For Half Peak, instead of turning right on the Cinnamon Pass Road, continue left for 1.2 miles to the Cataract Gulch TH.
Weminuche Wilderness: Access to the Needle and Grenadier Ranges
Refer to the next section for detailed info about the Weminuche
Lizard Head Wilderness: Access to the Wilson Group and Gladstone
Rock of Ages TH - Telluride
This TH provides feasible access to all these peaks and has recently been re-opened thanks to the hard work that led to the building of a very windy but legal trail around the private property in the area north of the Wilson group. From the junction of CO 145 and CO 62 near the small town of Placerville, head 6.7 miles east on CO 145 and turn south on the Silver Pick Road. Bear left at 3.3 miles and take the middle fork 0.75 mile further. About 2.3 miles after taking the middle fork, enter the Uncompahgre National Forest after traveling 6.3 miles on this road. Stay left a tenth of a mile further and reach the TH after 7.2 miles from the highway. Good camping can be found here and a windy trail leads southwards to the Rock of Ages Saddle where you can then drop into Navajo Basin.
Other trailheads include the Navajo Lake TH and Kilpacker Basin TH on the southwest side of the Wilson group but these have much longer approach hikes.
Jones Group TH: Access to Jones Mountain, American and Niagara Peaks
Grouse-Burns Gulch TH - Silverton
This TH will allow one to climb all three peaks in one simple day. From Silverton drive 4 miles on CO 110 to Howardsville and pass the ghost town of Eureka after 8 miles. Start climbing steeply just past Eureks for three miles to the TH where a 4WD road crosses the Animas River to the right. This is the start of the route and the TH. 4WD can continue 1.8 miles into Burns Gulch after fording the river.
South Mineral Creek TH: Access to Vermilion Peak and Ice Lakes Basin
Ice Lakes Basin is a special place tucked away close to Silverton. Lone Centennial Vermilion Peak is accessed from here. From Silverton head 2 miles west on Highway 550 towards Ouray and turn left on South Mineral Creek Road. Continue up this good road and stay left after 3.7 miles and reach the TH after 4.4 miles. Most vehicles can also head right at mile 3.7 and climb steeply for 1 mile to a sharp switchback and park. There is room for only a few cars here but this option knocks 500 feet off your approach. Just pass by a nice waterfall and meet up with the main trail up Ice Lakes Basin.
The Weminuche WildernessApproaches into the Weminuche
Elk Park/Needleton Trailheads
Six miles south of Silverton down the Animas River at 8,860 feet is the Elk Park Trailhead. One can fairly easily walk to this trailhead either from Molas Pass or from the town itself. If you decide to park at Molas Pass and hike the Colorado Trail down to Elk Park, the trail is very scenic indeed but loses 1,800 feet of elevation over a one way distance of 3.5 miles. It is likely you will have to re-gain this at the end of your trek.
For those less monetarily challenged the standard way to reach Elk Park is by the Silverton-Durango Narrow Gauge Railroad. Schedules for the train varies by season and time of day. This ride is said to be something everyone from Colorado must do before they die. I highly recommend it as an approach into the Weminuche. The typical summer schedule to ride the train is described below:
Note: This is the updated schedule for the 2012 summer season
|Dates||Train Departs Durango||Train Arrives Silverton||Train Departs Silverton||Train Arrives Durango|
|May 5th - October 27th||8:30 am||12:00 pm||2:15 pm||5:45 pm|
|May 14th - October 13th||9:15 am||12:45 pm||2:45 pm||6:15 pm|
|June 4th - August 9th||9:45 am||1:15 pm||3:15 pm||6:45 pm|
See This Site for more information about scheduling and rates for the train.
As you can see, if you plan to take the train into Elk Park, you will be getting a late start your first day. This is the one crucial disadvantage to taking the train because they never leave Silverton in the morning. You could however take the train in from Durango to start earlier but the train ride is much longer and considerably more expensive. It's also important to note that there are three (3) trains that run. In the peak of the summer season, they all run as seen in the schedule. As of summer 2011, be aware that NONE of the trains stop at both Elk Park and Needleton. It is not possible to get on a train at Elk Park and get off at Needleton, or vice versa. If you get on a train, you are bound for either Silverton or Durango, depending on the direction of travel. All the trains start in Durango in the morning, leave Silverton in early afternoon and arriving back at Durango in the evening while stopping at either Elk Park or Needleton.
There are four different classes each increasing in price. The standard class, which I think is the best is cheapest. It has open air cabins and usually costs about $83. The cost only increases as you upgrade to the Deluxe, First or Presidential classes. Not needed for us backpackers!
From Elk Park, the Colorado Trail continues east following Elk Creek. To reach the Vestal Group and beyond, you will find a faint boot path heading south following Vestal Creek from where it dumps into Elk Creek. Following this path can be difficult at times and one must also cross Elk Creek to reach it which can be dangerous or even impossible in early summer after a wet year. The boot path follows Vestal Creek on the east side before reaching Vestal Lake at the base of the Wham Ridge route on Vestal Peak, one of Colorado's premier mountaineering routes.
If you are coming from Molas Pass, a nice bridge crosses the Animas River allowing easy access to Elk Park. Heading beyond Vestal Basin you enter Colorado's most remote and rugged mountains.
The Needleton trailhead, which is also along the Animas River, is seven miles further south than Elk Park and therefore 600 feet lower. There is an alternative to the train to reach Needleton known as the Purgatory Trailhead. This trailhead is located right off Highway 550 at the Purgatory Campground, 7.7 miles south of the summit of Coal Bank Pass. It's a long walk to Needleton from here!
The primary destination for people entering the Weminuche from either the Needleton or Purgatory trailheads is Chicago Basin. Three 14ers and one Centennial 13er ring this beautiful place and is accessed by a gentle 6 mile long trail from Needleton. Mt Eolus, Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak are almost always climbed together from a camp in Chicago Basin. This place is very popular in the summer and it shows. There is no camping allowed at Twin Lakes in upper Chicago Basin and the nice sites further down get taken fast. Get there early! Much fewer people climb Jupiter but it can be a great way to spend another day in this grand place.
For the more adventurous, peaks like Jagged Mountain, Pigeon Peak, Animas Mountain, Knife Point and most of the Numbered Needle Peaks can be accessed by heading northwest over the small Twin Thumbs Pass and into the wild and rugged Ruby and Noname drainage basins. This class 2+ climb is only suited for people prepared and in great shape. A great way to escape the crowds of Chicago Basin without testing your limits too much would be to follow the well established Columbine Pass trail to the southeast of the basin. Use this trail initially to climb Jupiter Mountain.
This trailhead arguably gets you the closest to the heart of the Weminuche than any other, although you will be further away from the bigger peaks on the western margain of the wilderness. Simply getting here could be the most difficult part of a trip and surely be an adventure in and of itself. A high clearance four wheel drive vehicle is required for this long and rough road. From Silverton, drive north out of town on CO 110 and drive along the Animas River on this good dirt road for 4.2 miles. Once you get to Howardsville, turn right onto the Cunningham Creek Road (FS 589) and go 1.7 miles. Head left onto the Stony Pass Road (FS 737). After 4.2 miles on this rough road you will reach the summit of Stony Pass. A commanding view of Rio Grande Pyramid can be seen from here. Start descending the other side and continue 6.5 more miles on what is now the Rio Grande Reservoir Road (FS 520) and finally, turn right onto the Beartown Road. Going 5.6 more miles on this exceedingly rough road, passing one difficult ford of the Rio Grande River and the ghost town of Beartown, gets you to the Beartown Trailhead at last!
This trailhead makes a great place as a re-supply station for hikers thru-hiking the Colorado Trail as the section through the San Juans is long and rugged with few places to pick up supplies and food. Climbing the Centennials from here is however a little impractical due to the longer approach required (although it's about the same if you start at the Purgatory Trailhead) and the insanely long jeep ride. This place may be better suited for off road enthusiasts due to the lack of wilderness areas in this part of the range.
Off-RoadingOutside the wilderness boundaries surrounding Silverton and Ouray there are numerous jeep roads that are very popular with 4X4 enthusiasts. During the summer, one can drive over Ophir Pass as a short-cut between Telluride and Silverton instead of heading all the way around through Ridgeway and Ouray. This saves at least an hour with a high clearance vehicle and brings you to 11,800 feet with spectacular views. This area is well known for abundant wildflower displays rivaling that of Ice Lakes Basin so take your time here. The town of Ophir is a quaint little place as well. Although passenger cars are able to summit Ophir Pass from the east side only, it isn't recommended. Cinnamon Pass, likely the most popular connects Lake City and Silverton by heading west from Animas Forks. It has a summit elevation of 12,600 feet.
Passenger cars can make it all the way to the Silver Creek-Grizzly Gulch TH on the Lake City side and the Burns Gulch TH on the Silverton side. Although it is possible to drive over in a Subaru Forester, don't! His car didn't escape unscathed...
Another popular track is Engineer Pass with a summit elevation of 12,800 feet. It branches off to the north from Animas Forks and descends to Ouray. This stretch of Engineer Pass near Ouray is by far the most difficult and will test stock 4WD vehicles. Combining Cinnamon and Engineer passes takes you along the famous Alpine Loop which is a drive than can be done in one day but more time is recommended to enjoy the scenery.