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36 Hours of Adventure :: Exploring Colorado’s San Juan Range

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Colorado’s San Juan mountain range is arguably one of the most spectacular groupings of peaks within the state. Characterized by extremely steep (and often crumbly) multi-colored slopes interspersed with vibrant green meadows and expansive stands of aspens, this region in Southwestern Colorado was formed by the collision of two continental plates, an event that spurred expansive volcanic activity.

Because of their origin, the San Juans are highly mineralized, a quality that led to extensive mining throughout the turn of the century. Abandoned infrastructure and mine tailings (bright piles of excavated rock) can be seen everywhere, from the forested canyons to the steep hillsides and often high above the treeline. But despite the scars that early exploitation left on this landscape, the mountains are still just as rugged and beautiful as ever.

Our previous trip to the San Juan Range.

My first time visiting the San Juans was in the winter of 2013, and I was immediately captivated. Having spent almost five years living in Colorado’s Front Range, it was hard to believe that the mountains could get even more spectacular. I had to explore further.

In 2019, we returned to the San Juans to explore the northern leg of the historic alpine route between Lake City and Silverton. This network of high alpine roads took us deep into the mountains and brought me even closer to the multi-colored rock walls and towering volcanic peaks that had captured my heart during the first visit.

But as I drove home from that second trip, I was even more intrigued than the first time. I wanted to explore the valleys, peaks, and rivers further. I wanted to sleep under the stars and, more importantly, I wanted to share this magical place with those I cared about. Surely they would appreciate it as well.

Royal and Tom taking a break in the Airstream during our drive from Denver to Telluride.

 

After outlining my idea to spend a week adventuring near the mountain town of Telluride (in the heart of the San Juans), two of my brothers who live on the East Coast had purchased plane tickets and were eager to join my partner, Amanda, our dog, Royal, and me, in our Airstream. Would it be crowded? Undoubtedly. Would we be able to shower? Questionable. Would it be fun? Absolutely.

Our trip began in Denver, where we packed everyone’s belongings into the trailer. It was already feeling a little bit crowded, and I reflected on the fact that many of my favorite and most memorable adventures have often had an element of discomfort. It’s what we call type two fun; uncomfortable in the moment but enjoyable in hindsight.

Lucky for us, my brothers were less concerned with the lack of space and more excited by the self-contained habitat. With everything we needed for the adventure at hand, there was nothing holding us back.

Spectacular sunset colors over Antero Reservoir.

The San Juan mountain range is about as far away from Denver as you can get while still remaining in the state of Colorado, and getting there requires a combination of multiple highways and county roads.

Instead of giving up a whole day to driving, we decided to break up our travel and stop over at Antero Reservoir. While this stop was more of a convenience than a destination, its beauty was not lost on me. And for my brothers, who are more familiar with the Appalachians than the Rocky Mountains, this made for a spectacular first evening.

Water doesn’t get much fresher than this. Filling up and cooling off below Monarch Pass.

 

The next day we continued deeper into the mountains, traversing the Arkansas River Valley and climbing over Monarch Pass. If you ever find yourself in this part of Colorado, look out for a large pullout as you descend from Monarch Pass toward Gunnison. There is a fantastic mountain spring where you can fill up your water bottles, and the water is clean and refreshing.

Driving West, we passed through Gunnison, the Curecanti Recreation Area, Cimmaron, Montrose, and finally Ridgeway, the views getting more impressive around every bend in the highway. I don’t think it would be a stretch to call the final 40 miles of road from Ridgeway to Telluride one of the most beautiful drives I’ve experienced anywhere.

Having spent a full day in the truck, the sight of the river was just the motivation we needed to pull over and try our luck at some fly fishing. Even if we didn’t catch anything, it would be a great excuse to stretch our legs and cool off in the water. But as luck would have it, the fish were biting, and after getting used to the frigid river, we managed to hook into a few trout.

Who needs waders? Catching trout in the San Miguel River.
We caught a mix of Rainbows and Browns, all small.
Later that evening, we found ourselves driving through towering stands of quaking aspens in search of the dispersed campsites we’d found using the iOverland app. With no certainty that there would be a site available when we arrived, we were ecstatic to find that one of the best was still available. We disconnected the truck, leveled the trailer, and kicked back. The stars slowly faded into view as the sun set behind Lizard Head Pass, and eventually the Milky Way came into view above our camp.
Towing the Airstream off the beaten path.
A sunset framed by wildflowers at our campsite. Lizard Head peak looks like a needle in the far distance (just left of center).
Our favorite campsite, perched high on a mountainside, overlooking the town of Telluride.
Dark skies make for great Milky Way photos.

With so much at our fingertips and only a short window to see it all, we wasted no time heading into the town of Telluride the next day, en route to the highest free-falling waterfall in the state of Colorado. Bridal Veil Falls towers 1,650 feet above the town and is visible from the main street. After filling our water bottles, we began the climb, which was steep and rocky. For those of you who plan to visit this area, there are many other, smaller waterfalls along the route.

Downtown Telluride is literally surrounded by mountains.
Depending on the time of year and the amount of precipitation, there may be some water crossings required to get to the base of Bridal Veil Falls. This year, the crossing was dry.
Climbing is not required on this route, but with opportunities along the side of the trail, I had to test the rock.

We memorialized our hike with a group photo below the Bridal Veil plunge pool while reflecting on how lucky we were to be enjoying each other’s company during such a challenging year. Retreating to town, we decided to continue the adventure and see how far we could make it up Imogene Pass. It’s not quite as infamous as Black Bear Pass (which is also in Telluride), but Imogene is no joke either. Its extreme exposure has led to a number of fatalities over the years. The good news is that if you keep your eyes on the road and take it slow, it’s very manageable. Driving over Imogene Pass will deliver you to the town of Ouray, another destination in the San Juan Mountains worth exploring.

The view out the window of the truck. Note the steep drop-off.
The Imogene pass road is a bit tight for full-sized trucks, but we made it work.
Imogene Pass has it all: a rock tunnel, mining ruins, and LOTS of exposure.

 

As we drove up the narrow road, carved into the side of a steep mountainside, we spied crumbling mining ruins peeking out from the dense trees. Three thousand feet of climbing brought us to Savage Basin and the Tomboy mining camp, established in 1894. As one of the largest mining encampments in the state of Colorado, several hundred people (possibly as many as 1,000) called this location home. The site had a school, general store, stables, a YMCA (with a bowling alley and tennis courts), and a club that held dances for the local community. After the Tomboy Mine produced a considerable amount of gold, it was sold for two million dollars in 1897 but closed in 1928, and the town was abandoned.

Mining ruins remind us of the pioneers who made their living in this extreme alpine environment.

 

We wandered through the piles of rubble, scanning the ground for relics from the past. But aside from broken glass and the occasional rusty nail, decaying timbers and crumbling brick walls are all that are left. Eager to get some rest, we returned to camp and enjoyed the dark skies once again.

 

Abandoned buildings don’t survive long in this harsh environment.
Another night in camp.

 

The next morning, Amanda and I dragged ourselves out of bed at 4:00 a.m. Having already explored the river and the mountains, it was time for us to sample the air. A San Juan hike-and-fly adventure would be the perfect cap to an incredible adventure. After driving into town, we jumped into the bed of an old Tundra and rumbled up the steep switchbacks to the top of Bridal Veil Falls.
Early starts are crucial for flying ultralight aircraft in the big mountains.

 

Stopping at the locked gate, our small crew jumped out of the truck, shouldered our paragliding gear, and began the additional climb on foot. If I learned anything on this trip, it’s that when Telluride locals tell you that the hike won’t be too hard, you need to reconsider where you are. The following two hours of hiking were some of the steepest I’ve ever experienced in Colorado. After arriving at 12,300 feet above sea level on a grassy alpine knob, I was completely winded. Luckily, my breath quickly returned as we prepared to take flight.
Veering off of the road, the approach hike became much steeper after we crossed this creek.
Almost to the launch.
This is why we came to the San Juans.
Feeling very small, high above the town of Telluride. Behind Amanda, the Imogene Pass road can be seen snaking across the steep hillsides.
Shooting from the air is difficult, but I managed to capture this gem of a photo. Amanda soaring high above the sheer cliff faces.

 

I always leave the San Juan Mountains with a deeper appreciation for the region and a stronger desire to return, and this trip was no different. From the fly fishing to the four-wheel-drive routes, hiking, and paragliding, this place has captured my heart. The spectacular scenery combined with rich history makes for one of the best destinations for adventure in the state of Colorado. Now, excuse me while I go wax my skis and start planning a winter visit.
Special thanks to YETI for helping to make this trip a possibility. The YETI products shown are:

Matt is a paragliding pilot and adventure seeker living full-time in a 25-foot Airstream travel trailer pulled by a Ram 2500. His love of the outdoors has driven him to explore remote destinations across North and South America in search of the most aesthetic peaks and beautiful flying sites. IG: @m.b.swartz