In the heart of the southern portion of the rugged San Juan mountains as they stretch toward the New Mexico state line, the remote South San Juan wilderness is known among outdoorsmen for its wild and rugged beauty. Pristine alpine forest among thirteen and twelve thousand foot peaks, the South San Juan wilderness is a sanctuary for deer, black bear, elk, marmot and other wildlife that thrives when unmolested by human activity. It comes as no surprise then it was here that the last Colorado grizzly was shot in 1979.
The South San Juan area is special for its rugged scenery. It’s expanse of thick forests, and high altitude trails lack crowds and offer a sense of remoteness difficult to find elsewhere. High ridges, pinnacles and deep canyons, carved by the headwaters of the San Juan, Conejos, and Blancos rivers characterize the geography of the wilderness.
The best backpacking in the state is here, some would argue. Far from the burgeoning cities of the Front Range, the area receives the heaviest use in the fall by elk hunters. Outside of the hunting season, solitude can be easily found.
Visiting the South San Juan Wilderness
The South San Juan wilderness extends from south of Hwy 160 to just north of Hwy 17. Access to the wilderness is mainly from the north via Hwy 160 or from the east through the town of Antonito.
Summers are sunny with frequent afternoon thunderstorms, deadly lightning, and heavy rain. August is the rainiest month, with a unique weather phenomenon called the ‘monsoon’ which consists of day after day of heavy rain and lightning. Many have been caught in these storms unprepared. You should always bring protective rain gear. See our Colorado Backpacking Guide for more information about weather and
The South San Juan winter is harsh and it is not uncommon for heavy winter snows to occur, even early in the fall. In many years, the highest recorded snow fall is measured here (as claimed by the Wolf Creek Ski resort to the north). This is because the South San Juan mountains are geographically ideally positioned to catch moisture laden Pacific storms as they hit the state of Colorado.
Strenuous, 5 miles one-way. A hike in the heart of the S. San Juan wilderness, Blue Lake is located at 11,465 ft, just a few feet from the Continental Divide Trail.
The hike begins at the Conejos trailhead southwest of Platoro Reservoir in Conejos County. Follow the Conejos River Trail to Three Forks. Ford the Conejos River. This will be difficult in the spring, or after heavy rains. The trail will be visible on the opposite bank. The El Rito Azul Trail begins here at Three Forks. It follows the El Rito Azul creek to its source at Blue Lake. Be sure to hike to the west side of the lake to find gorgeous views to the south of the Navajo drainage and Navajo Peak.
A thirteen thousand foot peak located in the middle of the south San Juan range. Conejos Peak is worth the climb not only for the summit views, but for the spectacular scenery found along the way. The Tobacco Lake Trail leads to the summit. For detailed directions follow the SummitPost.com instructions.
Nearby Wilderness Areas
The South San Juan wilderness area is located close to the Weminuche Wilderness, and La Garita Wilderness.