(Click to enlarge
true-color satellite image)
Click here for my San Juan gallery
The San Juan Mountains are my
favorite area in the state for the mountainous region that it is
and the beauty that blankets it. This area encompasses more than 10,000
square miles of mountains, an area roughly equal in size to the state
of Massachusetts. It is said to be the largest mountain system in America.
It is a juxtaposition of many distinct ranges, no less than ten of which
are named, and the additional ones are more blurred in their definition
and less distinct. There are fourteen 14ers here and 70 others over 13,000'.
Truly a great place to be if you love the mountains as much as I do, and
is why I call this area my home away from home. One of my favorite quotes
has to be this one:
you should, in your imagination, put together in one small group,
perhaps twelve miles square, all the heights and depths, the rugged precipices
and polished faces of rock, and all the sharp pinnacles and deeply
indented crests, and 20 times the inaccessible summits that both of
us have ever seen, you would not have a picture equal to this.”
Henry Holmes of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey when describing
the San Juan Mountains in 1876
Where does one begin to try to explain the majestic beauty found in this one pocket of the state? If you landed on this page, I’m guessing you’re looking to vacation here and see what it offers, so I'll try and take a quick stab and cover the seasons and some of the area’s natural highlights. I will say that all of my excursions are spent almost entirely away from the towns and are purely camping-based and focused on the natural locations, so I am unable to provide any information on lodging options, dining resources, and other in-town attractions, save for a couple that I’ll list.
This region, like much
of the state, is very rich in mining history and there were thousands
of camps here during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Current ghost towns
like Animas Forks and Middleton were bustling with people at the turn
of the century. It would not be uncommon for these towns to have a few
hundred to a few thousand residents, a couple newspapers, a general store,
and saloons galore. If it weren't for the extremely heavy mining activity
in the past, Rocky Mountain National Park may very well have been located
here instead of its current location. Even still, I find the mountains here much more attractive than those in Colorado's Front Range and this is my playground of preference when I want to experience the Colorado Rockies. It is difficult to talk about the San Juans without mentioning the expansive network of high roads. While some purists may scoff at the scars of roads this region has, it is an area rich in mining history, as previously mentioned, when all of them were built. To our benefit, it gives us all unbelievable backcountry and front country access and a window into wilderness that is second to none, especially for those physically unable to hike or whatever else.
One individual who shouldn't go unmentioned
for his impact on this region is Otto Mears, who is known as the pathfinder of the San Juans.
Mears, a Russian immigrant, constructed a series of toll roads between
1867 and 1886, about 450 miles altogether throughout this region. He also
is credited with building railroads here as well. The most famous of his roads is the Million Dollar Highway, which took three years to build.
This section, which goes between Ouray and Silverton, is part of the San
Juan Skyway, a 236-mile loop. This loop has been designated as an All
American Road, only one of six in the country. Yeah, it's a pretty nice
drive, and one that is full of photo opportunities all by itself.
I do have most of the main four-wheel-drive roads covered in my 4WD roads section, but I do admit most of them are old and I am embarrassed of the quality. I'm honestly not sure why I have them still up. The best resource that covers the roads online is TrailDamage.com, and don't worry about it's name, it is a tread lightly outfit. In general, the 4WD road in the San Juans are about as tame as it gets. Nothing is really technical, except for one spot on Poughkeepsie Gulch, which probably is best served for experienced drivers only. In fact, most of the roads don't even require four-wheel-drive as such for traction purposes, but low-range will be required to use engine braking for the long downhill descents, which is about the only time I engage it. If you're a photographer looking to visit in the summer months, it would be extremely beneficial for you to have access to a 4WD vehicle, either your own, or by renting one in one of the towns. It will really open up the doors to the whole region and allow you to really see what it's about. If you haven't driven any Colorado high roads before, I would suggest starting with the tamest options, such as Cinnamon and Ophir passes, before moving to any of the of the others. The one thing you can count on with virtually all of the roads is shelf sections. If you are a bit apprehensive about driving yourself, you might consider one of the area tour operators to handle the task.
Being that the tourism is a main aspect of this region's economy, most of the 4WD roads are plowed in late spring, whereas all of the others throughout the state are left to naturally melt off. Ophir Pass is the first one to get cleared on an annual basis, which is usually early June. It is closely followed by Cinnamon Pass. In an average snowpack year, most of the rest are open in mid to late June. Imogene and Black Bear Passes are the last to get plowed and the aim is to always have them open for Independence Day weekend, but it is not uncommon for them to go a few days past. Here is a page that is kept current that you can follow to keep track of openings early in the season.
The roads are usually fairly busy with activity during the summer, especially during weekends, but get nice and quiet after 5 PM and before 8-9 AM. The most technical part about all of the roads is when you come upon oncoming vehicles and you're on a shelf where someone will have to do some backing up. Sure, technically, the uphill driver has the right-of-way, but common sense needs to prevail and do whichever is safest. With a lot of flatland drivers who can be out, don't be surprised if you come across another person who doesn't have a clue what to do!
Driving in Governor Basin (one of my favorites) with Stony Mountain as a wonderful backdrop
scenic highway drive is the Silver Thread
Scenic Byway which goes from the town of South Fork to the south,
and Lake City to the north. If starting from the south, you are treated
to many wonderful views of the famous Rio Grande River, which gets pretty
wide at times, by Colorado standards anyway. It is really breathtaking
in the late afternoon when the sun provides backlight on the waters. Further
to the north, and seven miles south of Creede, is a turnoff to get to
Wheeler Geologic Area, which is a great unknown even to most Coloradans.
This is Colorado's miniature version of Bryce Canyon in Utah. To get to
this City of Gnomes, it is 22 miles back in which makes it extremely
remote. It is truly one of the great features that make Colorado so diverse.
It was actually named a national monument in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt,
but by 1950 this status was removed due to lack of visitors to the area
because of its extreme isolation, and it still is very much an out-of-the-way locale. A great quote that summarizes this unique
remarkable site . . . before us, enhanced by the rays of the setting
sun, lay the vista of what seemed to us an enchanted city. Spires
and domes, castles and cathedrals, mosques and temples, with their
fluted columns and wonderfully carved friezes, were arrayed in a confusing
panorama of form and color.”
—Frank Spencer, an explorer, who in 1907 was
responsible for pushing for the National Monument status of the Wheeler
There is a lot of bad information on the access road to Wheeler on the Web. I can't say I've seen an accurate description. My only thought on that is that the respective authors are trying to keep the number of visitors down, or they were driving a Corvette. So, since I don't have it covered elsewhere on my site yet, I'll just say the following: If anyone wants to take a shot at the title, my fastest times were 16 minutes to go the initial 10 miles to Hansons Mill, and 59:17 to go the 14 miles to the end. Don't try to break that last leg time if your tires are at street pressure, or you'll break your truck! You can probably tack on a good 45 minutes to my time otherwise. It's a wide-open, low-clearance, two-wheel-drive road that is contrary to everything else you'll probably read about it. If you do the math on my times, you'll likely figure out that it is likely nothing more than a standard dirt forest road, which is pretty accurate to say. There is a short section early on with a small embedded rocks that is chatty going over, and most of the road is predominantly dirt mixed in with tiny flat rocks and full of fun whoop-de-dos. The road would be problematic when wet to navigate and has a spot with deep ruts in the final third of the route, but again, won't pose a problem when dry.
Wheeler Geologic Area
Beyond Creede, if traveling northbound, the most popular photo stop along Highway 149 is North Clear Creek Falls, which is signed from the highway and located just off of it. There is also the far less visited South Clear Creek Falls accessed from South Clear Creek Falls Campground three miles to the south, also immediately off the highway. Further north at Slumgullion Pass, just above Lake City is an overlook that provides a view of Sunshine, Redcloud, Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre peaks, all fourteen-thousand-foot summits. It's more of a snapshot location, but I suppose if there was good morning light, you could get some good pictures with a long lens.
North Clear Creek Falls about midway between Lake City and Creede
The budding of cottonwoods and aspens signal the true start of springtime in the Colorado Rockies, which happens annually on Memorial Day weekend and the week prior with the lower elevations budding first. Sure, fall has a magnetic hold on sightseers with the trees’ dominating brilliant performance, but spring should not be overlooked. I really love the new leaves of spring with their fluorescent lime greens. With snowcapped peaks above, it is a combination that is tough to beat. The leaves seem to last almost as short as they do in the fall before they take on their much darker summer green where they become much less photogenic. If you want to see them, I would suggest visiting anywhere between Memorial Day and June 10.
Gateway to spring along Lime Creek Road between Molas and Coal Bank passes
To me, summer in the high country starts on July 4th. Pretty much all backcountry road access is open by this time and the camping season begins in earnest. It is then when the tourist season also goes in full-swing and the San Juans become a suburb of Dallas, where seemingly every third vehicle has a Texas plate. That's not necessarily a complaint, but rather a statement of observation. I guess I can’t blame them escaping their humidity to come up for the perfect mountain air. Admittedly, even for Denverites like me, heading to the mountains during the summer is more than welcome to get away from the heat, where it's usually about 20 degrees cooler.
Typically, the daily monsoonal rains and thunderstorms start around the last week of June and end by the last week in August. They come like clockwork. Late July is the best time to visit, which is peak wildflower season, and runs between July 20th and August 5th without fail. If you're taking just one week or less off to visit, make it the last week in July, which is always when I plan my wildflower trips. If you're looking to see some of the best areas for wildflowers, visit my San Juan wildflower page. There is usually just a small bit of snow still clinging to the mountains by this time other than the permanent snowfields, and by early August the mountains are virtually totally bare with the least amount of character. Thankfully, even then they still look good, so there isn't really a bad time to visit. By late August, the tundra is getting ready for fall already as it turns a golden-brown.
La Plata Mountains northwest of Durango from Indian Trail Ridge along the Colorado Trail
The San Juans are full of opportunities to take in the gold rush in the fall. If you choose to just stay in this region and not visit the grand aspen forests of the Elk Mountains, you'll still be able to fill your time and get a number of good pictures between September 25th all the way to October 10. The Red Mountain Pass area goes first on the earlier side of that date range followed by the Silver Jack Reservoir area near Owl Creek Pass. Then, in the first week of October, most of the rest of the main forests turn from Ridgway to Telluride. For further information on when and where to go, visit my fall color drives page.
Aspen forest below the Cimarron Ridge along the Owl Creek Pass road out of Ridgway
Winter is certainly the most restrictive time of year to photograph in the San Juans, as it is in the rest of the state since all of the back roads are blocked by snow. Thankfully, there are still multiple locations worthy of photographing, primarily along the San Juan Skyway. In Silverton, the road stays plowed to Eureka, and on the Telluride side, the road atop Wilson Mesa is plowed for the area home owners. Those are the two main roads that come to mind that allow you off the highway a little bit. The Silverton and Telluride sides can be a bit problematic to photograph as there are a lot of areas open to snowmobile use and there are a lot of tracks that are difficult to avoid.
Mineral Creek just outside of Silverton (off-frame to the left)
Some of the main towns in this region include Telluride, Ridgway,
Ouray, Silverton, Durango, Lake City and Creede. Of this fine and impressive
list, and all the other cities throughout the state, I believe Telluride
to be the most scenic, which makes it my personal favorite. The town was
established in 1878 and was originally named Columbia, but because there
was also a Columbia, California, the Postmaster General would not permit
a post office here for potential and probable confusion. For two years
until 1880, the town went without mail. The name had to change and Telluride
was one suggestion given. Telluride is an ore associated with the element
of tellurium. Oddly enough, telluride was no where to be found in this
area, but the name was settled on nonetheless. After the mining boom ended here, the town laid stagnant
until 1968, when ground was purchased for the ski area by two Aspen locals.
And by the early 70s, the ski industry here began to gain momentum and
revitalized the town into what it is today. The current population is
1,500, but still a far cry from the 5,000 that lived here in its mining
The San Miguel County Courthouse signature
landmark was built in 1887, shortly after the original building burned
down. The original bricks were salvaged off the first building to use
on the present structure. While the building has undergone a series of
modifications, no restoration work has ever been done to it. The Gondola,
which goes to the top of Coonskin Mountain, then on to Mountain Village,
is the first of its kind anywhere. This $16 million public transportation
system opened in the fall of 1995 and was built to improve air quality
in this box canyon by reducing vehicular traffic in the town below by
providing a link to the upscale (a vast understatement) community of Mountain
Village to the west. I'm telling you, this is the best ride in America.
And, it's free! If you're lucky enough to be the only one in one of the
26 eight-passenger cabins, the ride is quite soothing, especially on a
fall day when the breeze rustles the leaves of the aspens below. You have
to have the windows open to hear them, though! From the station in Telluride
to the top of the mountain is 1,800' and takes a little over six minutes.
The second leg to the Mountain Village station is an additional 4.5 minutes,
and two more to the Station Village parking area. It is 2.5 miles long in
all. Definitely plan to take the gondola if you're in the area to see the most stunning view of town from above. Some facts:
• The world's first alternating current power plant was built
• Telluride was the first town in the world to have electric street
• The Tomboy Mine was one of the world's greatest gold producers.
By 1904, more than $360 million of gold had been extracted from area mines.
• Butch Cassidy (Robert LeRoy Parker), who was the town butcher
in nearby Ophir, began his notorious career of bank robbing here, and in
1889 along with The Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh), walked away from
San Miguel National Bank with $24,580 of miners' money.
Telluride from immediately below Station St. Sophia, the gondola transfer station
Ridgway is the northern gate into the San Juans
and is a fine town in and of itself. It lies in the perfect spot to serve as a hub
for all of your ventures into the San Juans as it is located on the northeast
elbow of the San Juan Skyway. Go west to Telluride, south
to Ouray and Silverton, or to the northeast to the Owl Creek Pass/Silver
Jack Reservoir areas. Just to the north is Ridgway State
Park at Ridgway Reservoir. The closest larger town is Montrose, 25 miles to the north.
True Grit Cafe is the best known spot to eat at and has quite a bit of John Wayne memorabilia. Named after the movie, which was mostly filmed
in town and in the surrounding area below Owl Creek Pass (as was a scene in How The West Was Won) and near Last Dollar Road. My
favorite spot in the state is just out of Ridgway: head west out of town on Highway 62 for four mile; turn left on County Road 7, signed as East Dallas Creek, which is a well maintained dirt road
that leads to one of the most beautiful valleys in the state along the the
East Fork of Dallas Creek. The great view of the basin and the majestic
Mt. Sneffels is reached at about the 7-mile marker and the Blue Lakes
trailhead is mile further at the end of the road, but not before a number of prime camping spots can be had. It is absolutely
stunning and one of my favorite areas to camp.
There is no water other than the creek you could filter out of, and there is one outhouse nearby.
Would you believe I don't have a picture of Ridgway?! I'll have to get one in 2011.
My favorite place: Mt. Sneffels (14,150') from near the end of CR 7 just outside of Ridgway
Known as The
Switzerland of America, Ouray lies 10 miles south of Ridgway and at
the eastern terminus of the Sneffels Range. It is located near a vast
network of 4WD roads that cover the region. Just out of Ouray is the start
to the Imogene Pass road that goes to Telluride. A spur off of it goes
up to Yankee Boy Basin, a wildflower Mecca for only a couple weeks in
the summer. Ouray is just another great mountain town in the state where
you can visit the shops along main street or soak in the hot springs on
the north end of town.
Ouray by moonlight
the other towns in this region claiming to be in the heart of the San
Juans, but actually sitting more along the perimeter, this one actually
lives up to this label. It is truly dead-center of it all. It is the only
town in the state that you have to go over a mountain pass to get in and
to get out. Winters can be tough here, or so I hear! That's the main reason
there are only 500 year-round residents. It's more laid back than Telluride
or Ouray being that it is a little less touristy and a non-resort town. It's more of a traditional hard-working western town, which I dig.
original boom in this area came when the railroad was built here from
Durango in 1882 which severely cut rates on shipping ore by mule. It is
now known as the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad which caters
to many tourists to the area in the summer (open year round) and highly
recommended if you love mountain railways. I have only been on it twice
myself. Once when I was seven, which I remember like yesterday, and most recently in 2010. Although
I loved trains when I was young (who didn't?), this is a trip the whole family will
love and enjoy. Truly an awesome experience. The main route into the
Silverton area prior to 1882 was via Stony Pass, which can be driven from
the ghost town of Howardsville, which lies a couple miles east of Silverton,
up through Cunningham Gulch. A description of this route can be found
in my Stony Pass trail report.
This is a 28-minute backpacking trip report video-slide show, but contains quite a bit of footage of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, primarily for the first 7.5 minutes that will give you a good feel of what it's like.
Silverton, as viewed from my favorite viewpoint in the San Juans, atop Kendall Mountain
Quick tip photo suggestions that are passenger car-accessible listed in order from Ridgway, Telluride, then Silverton areas. The pictures linked are but just one example of views from these places. In most instances, there are multiple other possibilities.
• County Road 5, Ridgway
• Dallas Divide
• Beginning Owl Creek Pass road on Ridgway side looking to Sneffels Range
• Last Dollar Road on the northern end (that's by my friend, Tad, since I don't have an AM pic from here)
• Hwy 145 near Telluride looking to San Miguels (Wilson Peak, etc.)
• Wilson Peak from Wilson Mesa
• Engineer Mountain from Lime Creek Road beaver pond
• County Road 7 (East Dallas Creek)
• Dallas Divide
• Silver Jack Reservoir area
• Beginning Owl Creek Pass road on Ridgway side to Sneffels Range, Chimney Rock/Courthouse Mountain, or Cimarron Ridge
• Last Dollar Road on the Hwy 62 side looking to Sneffels Range, or from below the high point on the Telluride side
• Telluride from above via gondola from St. Sophia transfer station
• Wilson Peak from Wilson Mesa (that's an afternoon shot, but would get better light in summer months)
• Trout Lake near Lizard Head Pass
• Crystal Lake below Red Mountain Pass
• Molas Lake south of Silverton
• Snowdon Peak from Little Molas Lake
• Andrews Lake (I can't find my Andrews Lake shots at the moment, but will put one up when I do)
• Molas Pass
• Twilight Peak from near Coal Bank Pass
Page last updated on 7/6/11