Wild and rugged, the San Juan Mountains of Colorado stretch in an arc over a hundred miles long from southwestern Colorado into northern New Mexico. It is in a remote part of the San Juan range, just to the north of the New Mexico state line that the South San Juan wilderness is found. It is in this place that the San Juan mountains remain yet untouched by man and where the wanderer can find solitude from the crowded avenues of the city.
The South San Juan area is special for its rugged scenery, large expanses of forest, and high altitude trails that 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. Pristine spruce, fir and ponderosa forest make the South San Juan wilderness a sanctuary for deer, elk, bear, and other wildlife that thrives unmolested by human activity. It comes as no surprise then that it was in this place that the last Colorado grizzly was shot in 1979.
The best backpacking in the state is here, some would argue. In the autumn, the area is popular with hunting parties looking for trophy elk. But outside of the autumn hunting season, solitude can be more readily found here for the soul who is willing to seek it out.
The South San Juan wilderness is located in southern Colorado near the towns of Pagosa Springs, South Fork, and Antonito. The wilderness boundary 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.
For visitors to the South San Juan, it is important to be prepared for a variety of weather conditions that can occur at high altitude. Summers are sunny with frequent afternoon thunderstorms, lightning, and heavy rain. August is the rainiest month, with a unique weather phenomenon called the ‘monsoon’. The San Juan mountains experience a rainy season known as the monsoon season which consists of day after day of torrential rains and overcast skies. The monsoon arrives in late July or early August and can last into the first weeks of September. See my Colorado Backpacking Guide for more information about weather and preparing your trip to the Rockies.
Winters in the San Juans are 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 for the state is measured here (as claimed by the Wolf Creek Ski resort just to the north). The high snowfall is due to the geography and location of the southern San Juan mountain range being ideally positioned to catch moisture laden Pacific storms as move from the Four Corners region into southern Colorado.
Hiking and backpacking is allowed any time during the year. No permits for hikers or campers are required at this time. You must abide by all wilderness rules and regulations.
Blue Lake – 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 here. The Conejos can be difficult or dangerous to cross during the early season or after heavy rains occur. 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.
Conejos 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.
When hiking in the backcountry, maps are a required piece of navigation gear. Personally, I like to use National Geographic’s excellent series of Trails Illustrated maps for their durability, accuracy and ease of use. I’ve included a link to the South San Juan wilderness map below.
The South San Juan – Del Norte is a Trails Illustrated double-sided topographical map printed by the professionals at National Geographic. Map is printed in color on durable plastic.
The South San Juan wilderness area is located close to the Weminuche Wilderness, and La Garita Wilderness.