Best Hikes in San Juan National Forest (CO)

San Juan National Forest Overview

The San Juan National Forest encompasses about 1.8 million acres in the southwestern corner of Colorado. Terrain ranges from high-desert mesas to alpine peaks, with thousands of miles of back roads and hundreds of miles of trails to explore. More information on the best hikes in San Juan National Forest can be found below!

The area features a National Forest Scenic Byway, the San Juan Skyway and a Bureau of Land Management 4WD Scenic Byway, the Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway. The San Juan National Forest shares management of three designated Wilderness areas including, Weminuche Wilderness, Lizard Head Wilderness and South San Juan Wilderness.

Nearest Metro AreaDurango, CO
Area Size1,878,846 acres
EstablishedJune 3, 1905
Hiking Trails1,155 miles

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Trailhead Traveler’s Recommended Best Hikes in San Juan National Forest

(*** = Best hikes in San Juan National Forest)

Columbine Lake Trail #509*** – 8.1 miles out and back
Columbine Lake, Photo by US Department of Agriculture

The trail is difficult to access and steep. It consists of many steep switchbacks, and then eases out into the basin below Columbine Lake. Water is fairly scarce, but it is there. A few camp spots are also there, and tents should be moved if you plan to stay more then two days, because of the fragile tundra. As with all high-altitude areas, storms can move in rapidly, bringing severe wind, lightning, rain, snow, or hail any time of the year. Therefore, only experienced mountaineers should climb the surrounding peaks. Parking at the immediate trailhead is limited so most start down the road a ways.

Crater Lake Trail #623 – 14.3 miles out and back
Crater Lake, Photo by US Department of Agriculture

The Crater Lake Trail is an excellent long day hike or an overnight trip. The lake itself is nestled in a basin at the base of Twilight Peak, making the peak readily accessible. Snowdon Peak is also accessible from the Crater Lake Trail. Climbing either of these peaks affords a spectacular, panoramic view, including the Needles, the Grenadiers, and the distant town of Silverton. The beginning section of the trail switchbacks up a 500-ft. rise, but once that has been ascended, the rest of the trail proceeds gently through alternating heavy timber and open meadows. Toward the end of the trail, one will encounter several marshy ponds and the trail becomes somewhat indistinct, but with a keen eye, the trail is discernible. Crater Lake is reached in 5.5 miles but a manageable climb up North Twilight Peak is highly recommended if you have enough energy left!

Elbert Creek Trail #512 to Castle Rock Peak – 5.4 miles out and back
View from Top, Photo by Beth Filar-Williams

The trail is access into the Hermosa Creek drainage. From the Needles Country Store, the trail climbs steadily uphill on an east-facing slope inhabited by aspens. A spring surfaces near the cabin at the base of Castle Rock. Further, the trail curves around the base of Castle Rock and continues to climb. A side trail can be taken north to get to Castle Rock Peak with gorgeous views down below.

Fourmile Stock Drive Trail #569 – 9.4 miles out and back

Out and back trail in the San Juan mountains that take you to 3 waterfalls along Fourmile Creek. The trail gets more strenuous the further you get from the trailhead but can be easily completed in a one-day hike. The trail is usually not busy on a summer weekend and certainly a great chance to experience the forest without the crowds.

Highland Mary Lakes Trail #606*** – 7.9 mile loop
Cunningham Gulch
Cunningham Gulch, Photo by Courtney Gibbons

This is an incredible loop through the Weminuche Wilderness combining the Continental Divide Trail, Cunningham Gulch Trail, and Whitehead Trail. The loop features sweeping views of Cunningham Gulch, wildflowers, and beautiful high alpine lakes. It is recommended to take the loop clockwise so you approach the lakes from above. The trails are poorly marked at times so make sure you plan ahead before you arrive and bring a GPS or topo map to be safe.

Ice Lakes Trail #505*** – 9.0 miles out and back
Fuller Peak, Vermillion Peak, Golden Horn, and Ice Lake
Fuller Peak, Vermillion Peak, Golden Horn, and Ice Lake, Photo by Adam Baker

Ice Lakes Trail is short and steep. It is uphill all the way to the lake basin. The first half is below timberline and passes through aspen and conifer vegetative zones. Lower Ice Lake is slightly below timberline, at the base of a towering ridgeline. The upper half of the trail switchbacks up a cliff and then levels out when it reaches the basin. Typically the basin is covered by wildflowers in late July and August. This lake basin is also surrounded by several peaks, which include Grant Peak, Fuller Peak, and Beatie Peak. As with all areas above timberline, there is little natural shelter from the elements. Storms can move into these areas very rapidly.

Piedra River Trail – 4.0 miles out and back
Piedra River
Piedra River, Photo by Kerry

This is an excellent trail any time of the year offering something for every type of outdoor enthusiast. The trail journeys through a great mix of river canyon, meadows, and forest. Wildlife viewing, whitewater rafting, fishing, backpacking, bird watching, wildflower admiring and ample photography opportunities are to be found along this 11.2 mile long trail. The first couple of miles from each trailhead are relatively busy. However, if you venture into the inner stretches of this trail it is possible to find great solitude. The bridge 2 miles from the trailhead makes for a good turnaround spot if you don’t want to hike further.

Spud Lake Trail #661 – 2.2 miles out and back
Spud Lake, Photo by Joe Giordano

This trail is short and easy. Passing through aspen glades, it offers excellent views of Engineer Mountain, Grayrock Peak, and Spud Mountain, as well as good views of the Needle Mountains to the east. The lake has excellent fishing and a pleasant place to relax. This is a great summer hike for all ages, and the aspen leaves during the fall can be spectacular.

Vallecito Creek Trail – 14.2 miles out and back
Vallecito Creek Trail, Photo by US Forest Service

The Vallecito Creek Trail begins in the Vallecito campground. The hike begins in a steep canyon with ponderosa pine forest, aspen and conifers. After .6 miles you firstly enter the Weminuche wilderness. The trail climbs gradually as you follow Vallecito Creek north. You will cross Taylor Creek, Vallecito creek, and Second Creek as you continue on through meadows and aspen groves. Look for waterfalls, cascades, and pools as the trail steepens as you reach the Continental Divide Trail. The alpine meadows are full of blooming wildflowers in late July and in August. This area provides excellent views and photographic possibilities. The 3rd bridge crossing over Vallecito Creek around 7 miles from the trailhead was washed away several years ago and unless you want to ford across the water, this spot makes for a nice place to turn around.

Featured Image: Hiking to the Ice Lakes. San Juan National Forest, Colorado , Photo by Paxson Woelber

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