[SW Colorado | July 2020 | By Kathryn R. Burke]
LOST IN A HIGH and stunning glacier-carved wilderness that will leave you, quite literally, breathless, San Juan County has the highest mean elevation of any in the United States! And her mountains, some of them topping 14,000 feet, have been voted a “Top 10 Adventure Destination” by National Geographic, Outside, and Skiing magazines. That’s quite a testimonial from well-respected sources that cover Southwest Colorado in all its seasons.
To get to that gorgeous scenery, local guides and tour companies are quick to point out that Silverton, the capital of San Juan County, has more year-round access to more alpine backcountry than any town anywhere, including in Alaska.
The trails are steep and rugged. Consider safety, stamina, energy, and your health when deciding the best way to enjoy them.
When exploring the high country around Silverton, your two biggest decisions will be where to go and how to get there. Both offer a multitude of choices.
You don’t have to be a mountain goat or extreme athlete to glimpse this alpine wonderland. The San Juans are crisscrossed by a 500-mile network of some of the country’s best four-wheel-drive roads that link the historic mining towns of Silverton, Ouray, and Lake City (the Alpine Loop), Telluride, and a few other tiny villages, some mostly ghost towns now. Jeep trails wind through gleefully mountainous scenery lush with waterfalls, wildflowers, and wildlife. You’ll see plenty of fascinating relics of the old mines, including towering headworks, stamp mills, and rails from one of the three railroads that once served this area.
Tour companies offer a variety of scenic adventures. Their skillful mountain drivers are experts on the geology, history, and highlights of the area and love to share their stories with you. If your group (maybe only two of you) isn’t large enough to fill a tour vehicle, you might want to rent a Jeep, ATV, or motorcycle and head out on your own. If you’re not a motorhead and want to see, feel, and hear the quiet of that magnificent scenery, you can hike or mountain bike, the latter being available for rent in several locations. If your feet and seat would like a less strenuous, non-motorized adventure, guided horseback tours are also available.
Whatever your chosen method of transport—on foot or wheels, with or without a motor—if you’re going out on the trails without a guide, get a map and ask for directions and information. Stop in at the town Visitor Center and learn what to see and do and where to go before you set off on the trail. And when you do go, take plenty of water! High altitude is dry altitude, and you need to stay hydrated. (You can drink from mountain streams, but considering what metals or other materials might be in them, it’s better to bring your own water.) And wear layers. Alpine weather is capricious; often cold in the morning, hot in the afternoon, frequently wet, and it can even snow in mid-summer. Bring sunscreen and a hat! Hot sun in thin air can cause serious sunburn. Bring a camera, your smart phone, or tablet. You’ll want to take pictures, and lots of them. If you’ll be out all day, bring snacks and trail food. You won’t find fast food stops or snack bars along the trail. (With very few exceptions, you won’t find restrooms, either.)
However and wherever you go, follow the basic rules: Take only pictures, leave only footprints. Pack it in, pack it out. And if you’re driving, follow basic mountain courtesy: right-of-way to the uphillers. It’s harder to maintain an uphill drive on steep slopes than it is to pull over when you are driving downhill. While you wait, or if you’ve just pulled over to take in the scenery, breathe in the beauty that surrounds you. Practice patience. The mountains aren’t going anywhere. They’ve been here a long time. Take time to enjoy them.
Regardless of your preferred mode of transport, or the length of your high-country adventure—a few hours, a few days—you’re in for an unparalleled visual treat when you decide to soak in the scenery of the majestic San Juan Mountains.