The San Juan Mountains offer some of the most stunning vistas anywhere. There are acres upon acres of public lands that are ripe for exploring.
In the summer months, it is easy to access this wonderland. Possibilities abound whether you want to walk one mile or 100, whether you are driving an off-road vehicle or pedaling on two wheels.
Winter access to the backcountry is a different story. In addition to the usual backcountry hazards, travelers need to consider factors such as avalanches, hypothermia, snow covering thin ice and whiteout weather conditions. Many summer hot spots are inaccessible to all but the hardiest and boldest of adventurers.
However, there still are many places to explore this time of year. You can have a safe and fun adventure as long as you are prepared.
The San Juan National Forest has a great informational brochure called Where to Go in the Snow. It highlights areas for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, snowmobiling and other snow activities. Information is provided regarding difficulty of terrain, directions, parking and objective hazards such as avalanche danger.
Here are just a few of those places. Stop by any of the San Juan Mountains Associations bookstores in San Juan Forest Service offices for a full brochure.
Haviland Lake Area Located 17 miles north of Durango on the east side of U.S. Highway 550, this area offers three to five miles of easy, ungroomed trails for snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Tromp around Haviland Lake or head back to Forebay Lake 1.5 miles away. The terrain here is gentle and quiet with lots of wildlife. It is a great place for kids.
Vallecito Trail Looking for more of a challenge when snowshoeing or cross country skiing? This trail travels somewhat steeply up and down as it covers the path of least resistance along Vallecito Creek for as far as you dare to venture. This trail travels into the Weminuche Wilderness where no mechanized vehicles are allowed, so be prepared for a truly wild experience.
Avalanche danger is a risk along this trail, so educate yourself at http://avalanche.state.co.us or call the hotline at 247-8187 for daily updates.
The trailhead is 18 miles north of Bayfield and 24 miles northeast of Durango. Drive north along the west side of Vallecito Reservoir on County Road 501 to County Road 500, which goes straight to the trailhead at the campground. The parking lot at the Vallecito Campground usually is plowed in the winter, except shortly after a big storm.
Echo Basin Snowmobilers, snowshoers, cross country skiers, dog-sledders, and other winter enthusiasts can enjoy the wide-open spaces along the Forest Service roads in Echo Basin. Snowmobiles generally pack down a nice track, allowing others to travel more speedily through the backcountry on more than 30 miles of trails. Sunshine abounds in this open basin. It is a great place for folks of all ages and ability levels.
To get there, travel 2.5 miles east of Mancos on U.S. Highway 160, and then turn north on County Road 44. Go three miles to the Forest Service gate and a large parking area.
Boggy Draw Just up from Dolores is another destination for snow enthusiasts. Follow County Road 31 for 1.5 miles, and then turn right on County Road W. The parking area is one mile ahead on the left. A network of trails winds though Ponderosa forests and open meadows. There are more than 30 miles of snowmobile trails and 10-plus miles of snowshoeing or cross country skiing.
The San Juan Mountains Association has provided many previous articles with a variety of winter recreation tips. Visit www.sjma.org for more advice. Be safe and have fun.
MK Thompson is the education assistant for San Juan Mountains Association. SJMA is a nonprofit dedicated to public-land stewardship and education.