Rio Grande National Forest

Rio Grande National Forest is a 1.83 million-acre paradise of numerous habitats and ecosystems located in south-central Colorado, northeast of San Juan National Forest. From wetlands and prairies to alpine zones and desert crags, these woods host what seems like an entire planet’s worth of biomes. It is no wonder that so many animal species, including endangered and threatened ones, inhabit this wild green woodland. Read on to start planning your trip to one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets, the magnificent forest of Rio Grande.

Rio Grande River at sunset - Rio Grande National Forest is named after this river.
The namesake of the Rio Grande National Forest is, of course, the Rio Grande River – Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

About Rio Grande Forest

The scoop on the terrain: The foothills of the forest begin at 7,800 feet above sea level and climb all the way to peaks of 14,345 feet. The land contains some 2,000 miles of rivers and streams, all connected to the Rio Grande River, the third largest river in the United State.

The continental divide touches Rio Grande National Forest on the western side through the San Juan Mountains, while the Sangre de Cristo Mountains occupy the eastern border. Between the towering cliffs to the east and the west lies the San Luis Valley. Approximately one-fourth of the forest is made up of designated wilderness areas.

The weather here tends to be perfect for recreation all spring, summer, and fall, as the average high in June, July, and August is only in the sixties. Winter in Rio Grande is all about the Wolf Creek Ski Lodge and Ski Area, because believe it or not, this place sees over 400 inches of snowfall a year! Just be careful spending a snow day here, as average winter temperatures for Rio Grande Forest tend to hover below zero.

History of the Forest

The forest was formed in 1908 when President Theodore Roosevelt combined a portion of the San Juan Forest with a portion of the Cochetopa National Forest. The resulting 1,262,158 acres is now managed from headquarters in Monte Vista. In addition, there are ranger districts in Del Notre, La Jara, and Saguache.

The forest is named after the Rio Grande River, the headwaters of which begin just to the west of Creede. The waters make their way down to New Mexico and through the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, a 242,555-acre swath of land designated as a monument by President Barack Obama in 2013.

Some of Colorado’s oldest communities reside in the San Luis Valley. This is where Spanish explorers carved their trail up through New Mexico and into Colorado for the first time. As of February 2021, you can explore these historical routs via the new Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic Byway. This road winds through the valley and eventually pops out in the southern San Juan Mountains. Need to stretch your legs on that drive? Stop by The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve!  

Rio Grande National Forest
Rio Grande hosts a variety of different terrains and ecosystems.

Recreation in Rio Grande National Forest

Traffic in Rio Grande is light compared to other recreational forests. The mountain ranges on either side of the San Luis Valley make this fertile basin a picturesque destination. From fishing and horseback riding to skiing and snowboarding, this forest has everything the more famous and heavily trafficked forests have.

Hey all you fisherfolks, have you tried ice fishing yet? Winter sports aren’t just for skiers you know! Several of the lakes west of Creede freeze over beautifully in winter, providing ample opportunities for ice fishing.

Beaver Creek Reservoir is one of the most popular sites for successful catches. Conveniently, it’s an easy access area suitable for visitors of all ages and abilities to explore. This fantastic fishing spot is located only 20 minutes or so from town. This means you can get out into your element without wasting all day driving! Other recommended ice fishing sites include Big Meadows Reservoir and Road Canyon Reservoir.

Wilderness Areas

Rio Grande helps support four wilderness areas. None of these are located entirely in Rio Grande, but spill over into neighboring forests.  

The Weminuche Wilderness Area is the largest in the state of Colorado at 499,771 acres. It was first established in 1975. Then, in 1993, the government expanded its territory as part of the Colorado Wilderness Acts. This wild land is full of rocky, difficult terrain, encompassing part of the bumpy continental divide. Speaking of intimidating landscapes, did you know that grizzly bears might be living within wilderness areas of Rio Grande? The official story is that the last grizzly bear was shot and killed in The South San Juan Wilderness Area in 1979. However, witnesses attest that very small populations of these great bears still exist in the furthest recesses of the forest.  

If you want to learn more about the rarer animals of the forest, the USDA has prepared a list of them all. Each animal listed is linked to an in-depth description of the animal itself, its habitat, and its conservation status. The list includes everything from owls and otters to butterflies and lynxes.

The three fourteeners in the area are Mount Eolus, Sunlight Mountain, and Windom Peak. Treacherous as this terrain may seem, people still travel here every year for the gentle eruption of wildflowers that bloom in mid-July. If you do visit during this beautiful time, prepare for scattered thunderstorms.

A lynx - although not commonly seen, they are present in Rio Grande National Forest
With a bit of luck, you might spot a lynx in Rio Grande National Forest – Image by Markus Wittmann from Pixabay

Visit Rio Grande National Forest

This Alerts and Notices page from the USDA isn’t just a general forest newsletter, it is a board of news specifically for the Rio Grande National Forest. It can tell you about road closures, trail conditions, fire hazards, and more. Make sure you give this page a look before you head out to enjoy your adventure!

The National Forests.com is a great source for information on all of America’s National Forests. If you’re a traveler looking to explore even more of America’s wilderness, keep it in your reading list!

Have fun, stay safe, and leave no trace!

-by Heaven Morrow

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