By Mark Winkworth
San Juan Mountains Association
It seems that winter finally has made it to the San Juans, and its a great time to visit Forest Service or BLM lands for a real winter experience. Whether you are new to winter recreation or a seasoned veteran of the snowy months, its always fun to review some of the exceptional locations and opportunities the Durango area has to offer.
The first thing to do before heading out into the snow is to check the conditions. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center provides the best and most up-to-date weather and snow conditions for regions throughout Colorado, including the southern San Juans. Check the website at http://avalanche.state.co.us or call the hot line at 247-8187 for the daily updates. If weather or avalanche conditions seem to be threatening, adjust your plans accordingly or reschedule to a more favorable time.
If things outside look nice and safe, you just need to decide what it is you would like to do. Cross country ski touring, ice climbing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling are just some of the popular winter getaways around Durango. Now is a great time to try something new, get that old equipment out or just take advantage of all the new snow.
Equipment and safety precautions are the next things to consider, and there are entire books that cover these for each form of recreation. If you are new to the game, read about it or, better yet, take a class or hire a licensed guide until you know what you are doing. I wont cover those details here, but suffice to say, that it is well worth the investment to make sure your first experience is a good one.
Where to go? Figuring that out is really part of the fun, but here are a few suggestions you may not have tried.
Cross country ski touring Cascade Creek
Take U.S. Highway 550 north of Durango 1.5 miles past Durango Mountain Resort and just past Cascade Village to the first big hairpin curve in the highway. Skiers can park on the outside (north) side of the curve where the road is plowed in a short distance. Be careful to leave plenty of room for other cars and dont get stuck.
Ski north up the canyon where the route usually is well-packed for the first couple of miles until past the private cabins. This section can be speedy coming down. Continue up along the creek as far as you would like to go. Cascade Creek often is a good place to visit if the weather is rough and you want to stay out of the wind and off the passes.
Ice climbing Cascade Canyon
Directly across the highway from the Cascade Creek cross country skiing route, the creek drops into a shallow but steep gorge. Access the area by turning off the highway to the inside of the curve and driving a quarter mile down the Lime Creek Road to a small, signed parking area on the west side of the road. The trails down to the base of the climbs start here.
The wall itself usually has a variety of short steep routes that range from thick, well-pecked ice to thin mixed climbing. All can be (carefully) top-roped, and there also is some low-angle ice a short distance downstream.
Snowshoeing Andrews Lake
Almost everybody who has snowshoed near Durango has been to Andrews Lake, but it still is worth a mention. Take U.S. Highway 550 north from Durango about 43 miles over Coal Bank Pass to the Andrews Lake Recreation Area sign. Dont park here as you may have done in the past. CDOT has plowed a larger, safer parking area about a quarter mile farther up the highway.
The recreation area surrounding the lake is closed to snowmobiles, so it is attractive to snowshoers and skiers. The terrain is at high elevation and usually has loads of snow. It also is characterized by rolling hills and open areas that lead to good exploring.
Snowmobiling Beaver Meadows Road
To find good snow somewhere besides U.S. Highway 550, try driving eight miles east of Bayfield on U.S. Highway 160 to where Beaver Meadows Road (FS 135) connects on the north side of the highway. The first two miles of the road up to the Forest Service gate are maintained for the houses in the area, so when parking a trailer, be very conscious not to block other parking, turnarounds or private access.
The Beaver Meadows Road system consists of dozens of miles at elevations ranging from 7,500 feet to 10,000 feet, much of it groomed by the San Juan Sledders Snomobile Club. Check its website at www.sanjunasledders.org for grooming and trail condition reports.
Conditions are getting better every week, so get out, be safe and have fun.
Mark Winkworth works in visitor services for the San Juan Mountains Association.