Best Hikes in Rio Grande National Forest (CO)


The 1.83 million acre Rio Grande National Forest is located in south-central Colorado and remains one of the true undiscovered jewels of Colorado. The Rio Grande river begins its 1800 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico high up in the San Juan Mountains in the western most part of the forest. The Continental Divide runs for 236 miles along most of the western border of the forest and the jagged tops of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains form the eastern border. In between these two mountain ranges sits the San Luis Valley, a large agricultural alpine valley. 

Portions of four Wilderness areas make up almost a fourth of the forest. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is located just east of this forest as well.The Rio Grande National Forest is composed of a myriad of ecosystems ranging from high elevation desert at 7600 feet above sea level to rocky crags at over 14,300 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Keep in mind with the hikes in Rio Grande National Forest described below that afternoon thunderstorms can appear out of nowhere at high elevations. Official Website.

Nearest Metro AreaColorado Springs, CO
Area Size1,860,000 acres
EstablishedJuly 1, 1908
Hiking Trails1,352 miles

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Trailhead Traveler’s Recommended Hikes in Rio Grande National Forest

(*** = Best Hikes in Rio Grande National Forest)

Blanca Peak Trail #886 – 14.0 miles out and back

Blanca Peak (14,345′) is the fourth highest peak in Colorado. Spectacular views along the way are the rule rather than the exception. Side trips can be made to two other 14,000 feet peaks, Little Bear Peak (14,037′) and Ellingwood Point (14,042′). The formal Blanca Peak trail begins at Lake Como and is almost entirely above timberline, the trail ends at the ridge leading to Blanca Peak. The first half of the trail is fairly easy. The last half becomes quite steep and rocky, with the trail disappearing and turning into a scramble over rocks. The upper trail is difficult and can be dangerous. The overall distance from Como Lake to Blanca Peak is 2.5 miles.

Willow Lake Trail #865 to Challenger Point and Kit Carson*** – 15.8 miles out and back

Difficult but worthwhile hike and climb up to 2 classic Colorado 14ers. Starting from the Willow Lake Trailhead you will reach the lake in a little over 4.5 miles. From here you begin your sharp ascent to Challenger Point. Although difficult to spot at times, follow the cairns to help guide your way to the summits. The scramble up to Kit Carson is a class 3 and does not require any climbing gear but you should be wary of any falling rocks especially if there are others in front of you! Enjoy the expansive views of the Crestones!

Zapata Falls Trail #852*** – 1.0 miles out and back

Zapata Falls Campground sits at 9,000 feet at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It offers sweeping views of the San Luis Valley, the San Juan Mountains and nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park—plus spectacular sunrises, sunsets and night skies. Getting to the falls is an adventure in itself, involving a wade through cold creek water and a climb over slick boulders. Hike one-half mile from the trailhead to Zapata Creek, wade upstream into the narrow cave to view the falls. The 30 foot high waterfall cascades within a narrow chasim.

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