San Isabel National Forest

The greatest attraction in San Isabel National Forest is Mount Elbert, the highest peak in The Rocky Mountains. If that weren’t enough for climbing enthusiasts, the forest also contains 18 more fourteeners. San Isabel and its conjoined neighbors make up over one million acres of central Colorado land, spread out over 11 counties. Those 11 include:  Chaffee, Summit, LakeHuerfanoPuebloSaguacheLas AnimasFremontParkCostilla, and Custer counties. 

Mountains and valleys in San Isabel National Forest
The endless mountains of San Isabel National Forest – Photo by Jacob Flora on Unsplash

About San Isabel National Forest 

San Isabel is managed jointly with one other forest and two grasslands: Pike National Forest, Cimarron National Grassland, and Comanche National Grasslands. These neighbors border San Isabel to the east (Gunnison and White River National Forests border to the west). All four lands (abbreviated PSICC) are managed from a town to the south called Pueblo, although the ranger districts in Canon City, Leadville, and Salida help manage the forest. The northern half of the forest is split into an eastern section and a western section, separated by The Arkansas River Valley. The Wet Mountain Valley separates the southern half into an east and west section. 

These beautiful blankets of shimmering green grass, tall, elegant conifers, and intimidating peaks fourteen-thousand feet in the air are only a two-hour drive from Denver. The drive is a little shorter if you’re staying in Colorado Springs.  If you’re looking for the closest major towns and attractions, you’re looking for Buena Vista, Leadville, Alamosa, and Westcliffe. 

This may be the most challenging terrain the Rocky Mountains has to offer, however, that doesn’t mean San Isabel is all work and no play. There are tons of opportunities for more lax campers who are simply looking for an easy, scenic trail or maybe a day out on the lake with a boat, a lure, and some lunch. In other words, your experience in this forest is what you make it. Even if you don’t feel the need to conquer any fourteeners, they sure are an unforgettable sight to enjoy from your picnic table! 

Recreation in San Isabel National Forest 

The Arkansas River, which dips into San Isabel, is the most popular river for whitewater rafting in the western United States. Why wouldn’t it be? Depending on your skill level, guides can take you through gentler or feistier rapids, so this isn’t just a river for experts; these waters are for everybody! Some rafting companies even go out of their way to offer other activities for group members who don’t necessarily want to get wet, such as horseback riding tours. Rafting centers are located in Royal Gorge and Buena Vista. To book a rafting tour online, click here

Whitewater Class I-V

When you book a tour, you will see that different sections of the river are classified I-V. Most people get the gist of this ranking system, but it’s always good to have a strong grasp of what these important labels actually mean before selecting one. 

Class I: This is the easiest class to raft. The waters are flat and calm with very few waves or obstacles to maneuver around, if any. The raft simply slides breezily across the water’s surface, a great opportunity to sight-see and relax. These joyful little rides are scenic and tend to be a blast for kids. 

Class II: These areas contain mild waves and only mild obstacles with otherwise clear passages. Low difficulty maneuverability. 

Class III: This is where you begin to see more energetic waves, narrower passages that require skilled maneuvering, and rocks. 

Class IV: These waters are difficult and require experienced rafters. Rapids will be rough, and passages will be filled with dangerous hazards. 

Class V: This requires extreme skill levels. Rapids yield to very few breaks in between rough parts, passages are tight and rocky, and there are drops and much faster water currents. If you don’t know how to handle one of these, there’s a good chance you will end up in the water in need of being rescued, perhaps with injuries. (Are you some kind of adrenaline junkie?) 

Class VI: Unraftable. (You look at it and just say “nope”.)  

Time lapse of whitewater, something San Isabel National Forest has plenty of.
San Isabel National Forest has class I-V whitewater – Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Wilderness Areas

San Isabel contains a total of 7 alluringly undisturbed wilderness areas, with 4 of those reaching out of San Isabel and into neighboring forests. While the areas under the canopy of firs, pines, and cedars may sound more tempting on the outset, keep in mind that there is plenty to do and see in the grassland wilderness areas as well. 

The grasslands offer hiking, biking, educational tours, picnicking, and exploration of historical sights on horseback. Honestly, gazing out over the green sea of waving grasses while the mountains loom in the distance and the rivers trickle by, from under a wide-brimmed sunhat on the back of a horse, is one of the most sublime and unforgettable ways to see America. If you’ve never given yourself the pleasure of a prairie horseback ride, we highly recommend it.  

Wilderness Wildlife

In these wilderness areas, you’re bound to see multiple species of wildlife on the grasslands. From burrowing owls to swift foxes, there is so much more to appreciate in the tall grass than people realize. Yes, you can see more than just prairie dogs! Birders may be particularly interested in grasslands. There are ample opportunities to spot hawks, prairie chickens, longspurs, meadowlarks, grouse, sparrows, and even Colorado’s state bird, the tiny yet striking Lark Bunting. 

Have you ever seen Colorado’s state bird? If you’ve ever wanted to, the grasslands are your best chance to see them. The lark bunting is a species of sparrow. The breeding males are ink-black with milk-white patches running down the outer edge of their wings. Their beaks are a dark river-stone gray. Females, juveniles, and non-breeding males are a smart, streaky brown that disguises them perfectly in the brush. If you’ve never seen one, perhaps you’ve heard one. Click here to see and hear the call of the lark bunting. 

A mountain stream in San Isabel National Forest
A mountain stream in San Isabel National Forest – Photo by Jonathan Speek on Unsplash

Visit San Isabel National Forest

Still thirsty for info? You can visit the USDA’s San PSICC homepage here, where you will find information on everything from permits and regulations to safety announcements such as fire warnings and road closures. Pay special attention to the Alerts and Notices tab if you plan on making a trip soon. This section features the latest news on forest conditions. 

Enjoying learning all about America’s national forests? Well, we enjoy teaching about it! Save The National to your favorites bar so you will always have a connection to America’s wilderness. 

Have fun, be safe, and leave no trace!

-by Heaven Morrow

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