Planning A Trip To The San Juan Mountains In Colorado

Offering a variety of landscapes and natural beauty, the San Juan mountain range is every hikers dream.

Explore
By Joanna Lee
Explore Ambassador

The San Juan mountain range of Colorado — if you have visited, you know the hype isn’t just hype; the excitement about the beauty of this mountain range is well worth it. It is known for its magnificent and very tall mountains, breathtaking alpine lakes and intensely fun off-roading. If you haven’t visited, you should start planning your trip right now. While there is so much of this area that I still want to explore, based on the time I have spent there I have recommendations to help you plan your trip. For more details, routes and directions on all of the hiking and off-roading recommendations below, check out AllTrails.

(Photo: Joanna Lee)

The first decision to make when visiting this mountain range is, which side will you go to? When looking at a map, all the towns appear close, which they are distance-wise, but unless you have a high-clearance 4WD vehicle, you will have long drive times to get between the different areas. If you do have an off-roading-capable vehicle or rent one for your trip, there are also some off-roading recommendations below.

Near Lake City

Recreation

Handies Peak – One of my favorite 14ers! It has two routes, both off Cinnamon Pass, which starts in Lake City. The first route, from the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch trailhead, has easier access due to the road conditions. Most cars can reach this trailhead. This route is slightly longer but has stunning wildflower views in the summer. The second route is the American Basin route. You will need an SUV to get through American Basin, but there are spots to park before the actual trailhead if you can’t drive the entire road; you will just add on a little mileage. There are also a few campsites in the basin. The American Basin route is full of wildflowers and has an alpine lake about halfway up. It is a very straightforward and well-marked trail with stunning views the whole route. American Basin is such a stunning view, I highly recommend camping here if you can.

(Photo: Joanna Lee)

Uncompahgre Peak – Another favorite 14er of mine. You will need a 4WD SUV to access this trailhead. There were a variety of SUVs at the trailhead, so I don’t think high clearance is necessary, but it is a very bumpy and narrow 4-mile drive up Nellie Creek Road. There are campsite options on the way up the road and right at the trailhead. This route is very straightforward and well-marked. There is one section before the final ascend that requires a small scramble, but it is harder to come down than it is to go up because of the loose rock and gravel. Once on top, it is a unique mountain with a football-field-size open space. I love this route because your focal point for the entire ascent is the mountain, appearing to stand alone at the angle you are coming from. The views from the summit are 360 degrees, and there are a couple of rock outcrops that make for very cool photos!

Lake San Cristobal – If you are looking for a relaxing day, this is a great spot. From boating to fishing to paddle boarding, there is something for all family members. You can also camp here; there are 31 campsites for both tent camping and RV camping. The cost is $15 per night.

Accommodations

You truly have your choice of accommodations in this area. There are a couple of hotels and rental properties in downtown Lake City. There are also multiple organized campgrounds in town for both tent camping and RV camping with hookups. They all have amenities as well. Another option is dispersed camping. There are unlimited options for dispersed or wild camping in this area; many of the off-roading roads that lead to trailheads have campsites all the way along them.

Food

Lake City Brewing Co. has a unique food menu and a great selection of beer, made in-house. It has both indoor and covered outdoor seating. Southern Vittles is a great local spot for lunch or dinner. I highly recommend their famous fried catfish and fries!

Near Silverton/Ridgway/Ouray

Recreation

Columbine Lake – My personal favorite lake in the San Juan Mountains. The first portion of this hike is up switchbacks that are very strenuous and steep. After this, you open up into a beautiful basin where you continue climbing. Once you climb out of the basin, it is all above treeline and an easier hike. The wildflowers in July were absolutely unbelievable. The lake is so blue, and the reflection was like nothing I had ever seen. A truly stunning alpine lake!

Ice and Island Lakes – Another beautiful hike and two lakes in the San Juan range. It is accessible in any car but does have a small parking lot. It is a very popular hike and will be busy even on weekdays, so arrive early. It also features many creek crossings and a waterfall. The trail is relatively steep the entire way up and is about fifty-fifty in the shade versus the sun. However, both lakes are absolutely stunning. They are unique in their color and surrounded by beautiful, jagged peaks.

Blue Lakes – Possibly the most well-known hike in Colorado for a very good reason. The drive to the trailhead is a bumpy road but doable in most cars. Campsites are also plentiful on the drive up and very close to the trailhead. The views from above the first lake are like nothing I have ever seen before. The color of the water is truly as blue as it looks in photos. The views of Mount Sneffels, one of Colorado’s tallest mountains, are also amazing. The narrow and winding trail to the first lake is completely in the trees. There were a lot of people backpacking this route, and there are designated campsites near the first lake. If you choose to backpack, make sure you research the rules and regulations of the area; for example, no campfires are ever allowed due to how fragile the tundra is. After the first lake, you keep climbing to go to the second lake, which is where the best views of the first lake are. I highly recommend starting this hike early; it is a very busy trail.

Ridgway State Park – A great place to relax or have a rest day. With a day pass you get access to the whole park; this includes showers if you’re on the road and camping like I was. You can camp here but do need to make reservations at Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s website. My favorite spot is the beach at the Dallas Creek entrance. You can drive on the sand right up to the water, and dogs are allowed to be off-leash in the water as long as they are respectful and under verbal control. You can paddle board, kayak or just relax on the beach. A perfect family spot.  

Dallas Divide – A paved and maintained road just west of Ridgway is one of the best locations to photograph fall colors in Colorado. There is a lookout point, which can get busy on the prime weekends. It is worth it to explore some of the surrounding off-shoot roads to get a more intimate view without a crowd of people around you.

(Photo: Joanna Lee)

Million Dollar Highway – This paved and maintained road runs through the canyons between Silverton, Durango and Ouray. It clings to the edge of the canyon, winding through the mountains. It either got its name because of the extraordinary cost it took to build it or because of the million-dollar views the entire way. Either way, it is a stunning road that will keep the whole family occupied. It is particularly beautiful in the fall when the leaves are glowing.

Molas and Little Molas Lakes – If you are looking for a relaxing recovery day, Molas Lake is your spot. This 25-acre lake, located just south of Silverton, is the largest body of water in San Juan County. It provides absolutely stunning mountain views, and I highly recommend being here for sunrise or sunset; the colors are breathtaking. The Colorado Trail passes alongside the lake and connects Molas Lake to its smaller counterpart, Little Molas Lake. It is a leisurely walk with panoramic views. In addition to hiking, you can also spend the day paddle boarding, kayaking, picnicking or fishing. The lake is stocked with fish by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. In addition, you will see plenty of wildlife and wildflowers all around the lake. You can also rent a campsite near the lake; it is described as the most scenic developed campsite in Colorado.

Accommodations

Similar to Lake City, there is a variety of options to be found here, including hotels, motels, organized campgrounds, cabins and wild camping.

Food

My No. 1 recommendation for food is GNAR in Ridgway. These were some of the best tacos and margaritas I have ever had! Beth’s sandwich shop was also a fantastic lunch stop and conveniently located right off the highway.

Near Telluride

Recreation

Hope Lake – I think this hike is underrated; it is one of my favorite lakes in the San Juan range. The lake is absolutely beautiful; the trail has a little less incline than some of the ones above and is generally much quieter as well. The road to the trailhead is a little rough but doable in most cars. The trail is in the trees until just before the lake and has a gradual incline. The lake is a stunning blue and surrounded by so many amazing and colorful mountains.

Bridal Veil Falls – This can either be a hike or a scenic drive. The end result is more absolutely stunning alpine lakes and multiple waterfalls. 

Ride The Gondola – No one is ever too old to ride a gondola, especially when it climbs a beautiful mountainside. It is about a 15-minute ride from town to the top of the mountain, giving you expansive views of the San Juan Mountains the whole way. Bonus: It is free to ride.

Accommodations

Staying in a hotel or Airbnb in Telluride is going to be fairly expensive. However, like the other cities, there are plenty of campgrounds and dispersed camping options nearby.

Food

The main street of Telluride is lined with many food options, ranging in price. We tried many of them during our weekend trip and were not disappointed by any of them.

Off-roading

Cinnamon Pass – This off-roading trail connects Lake City to Silverton. There is some exposure on the initial section near Lake City, but the remainder of that side is not a technical drive. After the halfway point, the road increases in difficulty and a high-clearance 4WD is recommended.

Engineer Pass – This off-roading trail also connects Lake City to Silverton, with the option to go to Ouray instead. The Lake City side is very straightforward. I highly recommend taking a break on top of the pass to admire the 360-degree views. The descent down the other side is a little bit trickier with some exposure, narrow sections and steep switchback turns. A high-clearance 4WD is required for the entire pass. 

Ophir Pass – This off-roading trail connects Silverton and Telluride. The Silverton side is very straightforward and easy. After the top, there is a very steep switchback turn before you head along a narrow ledge that is all shale-like loose rock. It is a short section before you are back onto an easy road into Telluride.

Last Dollar Road – This off-roading trail connects Ridgway and Telluride. It is an easy road compared to the above roads, just a little rocky and bumpy. This road is a must-do in the fall; it is lined with aspens and gives views of all the colorful mountains. 

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