It is easy to understand the draw of Ice Lake’s Caribbean blue water, or the challenge of Horse Gulch’s climb to sweeping vistas. But overuse has trampled natural areas and introduced toilet paper and trash into the very landmarks that are known for their untouched beauty.
“There’s not a lot of facilities at these trailheads,” said Theresa Graven, spokeswoman for the Durango Area Tourism Office.
A new rise in COVID-19 cases throughout the South and the West has travelers opting for outdoor adventures, but overtourism is starting to take a toll on these fragile environments.
“People are guided by convenience, and we are trying to figure out how to make things more convenient, such as receptacles,” Graven said.
In the meantime, The Durango Herald compiled a list of lesser-known but just as resplendent hiking destinations for locals and visitors looking for an escape into the Southwest Colorado landscape.
But equally important to remember when visiting these trails is to “leave no trace,” such as trash, and avoid tampering with the surrounding environment of the trail, Graven said.
“Also, consider the time of day you head out, and try to avoid the busier times of day by planning ahead and being ready to go,” Graven said. Early mornings or later in the evening are times that these trails generally see less traffic.
Little Molas LakeSilvertonA Durango resident and former columnist for the Herald, John Peel, recently published a new edition of “Hiking Trails of Southwestern Colorado.” One of the first places he recommends that is guaranteed not to have a high number of passersby is the section of the Colorado Trail near Little Molas Pass. If hikers take a left to head West, “really quickly you will be above the timber line,” Peel said. From there, you can get panoramic views while avoiding crowds.
“In my mind, it’s an aesthetic thing,” Peel said. “If I spend all day passing people on the trail, it’s not as fun.”
Jura KnobNear Silverton
Jura Knob rises near U.S. Highway 550 in the San Juan Mountains. From Jura Knob, hikers can travel to Engineer Mountain or down to Deer Creek and see stretches of Weminuche Wilderness. The trails are moderately trafficked but easy to access. The slopes to the north are gentle and roll down to a 12,000-foot-high pass between Rolling Mountain and Twin Sisters. The southern slopes of Jura Knob have steep cliffs that could be intimidating to hikers wary of drop-offs.
“Always check weather and trail conditions before you go, share the trail with other users and stay safe on the trails so you don’t get hurt or require a rescue,” Graven said.
Stevens CreekNear HermosaFollowing the trails leading out from Stevens Creek, hikers can travel to nearby Missionary Ridge. Up the road 3 miles, Stevens Creek Trail provides expansive views of the Animas Valley and surrounding forest. Engineer Mountain is also visible. The 7-mile trail is also available for horseback riding and camping.
Island LakeNear SilvertonIf you’re looking for the beautiful aqua-blue water of Ice Lake but don’t want to crowd the trails there, Island Lake is a lesser-known option with the same Caribbean hue. The alpine lake can be reached from the South Mineral Campground on U.S. Forest Service Road 585. The steep 4-mile hike gains 3,000 feet in elevation and leads hikers to the basin of glacial waters.
La Plata Canyon Trail Near HesperusThis 3.6-mile trail is lightly trafficked, with beautiful wildflowers. On AllTrails, the hike’s difficulty level is rated as moderate. The surrounding area is also open to camping and mountain biking.
Grayrock PeakNorthwest of PurgatoryGrayrock Peak is Graysill Mountain’s highest point, a “C-shaped” area of uplift to the northwest of Purgatory Resort in the San Juan Mountains. Peel recommends going up the east fork of Hermosa Creek to Relay Creek Forest Road. There is some exposure on the trail, with a drop-off on both sides at 12,500 feet, but Peel said there are incredible views of the Weminuche Wilderness.
In addition to these suggestions from Peel and Graven, there are more than 300 miles of trails within 30 minutes of downtown Durango. The tourism office encourages both visitors and locals to spread out and explore some trails less traveled.