San Juan National Forest

Places like San Juan National Forest are the reason Colorado is known as “The Switzerland of America,” and, “Colorful Colorado.” Truly, from atop the graceful peaks of San Juan, with views of rolling clouds mirrored by turquoise lakes and fields of rainbow wildflowers, one might mistake the view for the Swiss Alps. This isn’t Europe though, this paradise of a landscape is right here in America’s backyard. 

San Juan is 120 miles wide and 60 miles long (north to south). Obviously, there is no shortage of terrain to explore! Read on to learn more about how to prepare for a visit!

The terrain in San Juan National Forest is greatly varied – Photo by Laiton Barbo on Unsplash

About San Juan National Forest

San Juan is made up of over one million acres of wild southwestern Colorado mountains, woods, and prairies. The terrain is quite variable in this forest. You can begin your journey in a high-desert on the mesa and end up in alpine territory.

The forest is headquartered in Durango, Co. with ranger districts in Bayfield, Delores, and Pagosa Springs. Administrators kindly offer this Interactive Map of the forest to help you quickly find campsites, trails, fishing spots… anything you can think to search for, really. Once you have your map pulled up to the most relevant areas, you can print it off by selecting the settings icon. It’s always a good idea to have a paper map when venturing into the forest, you never know if that phone will get service in the mountains! 

With elevations upwards of 14,000 feet, it’s easy to get altitude sickness, and nothing ruins a perfectly good hike like altitude sickness. Not sure if you’ve ever experienced this before? Altitude sickness causes you to feel dizzy and lightheaded, sometimes with a sudden loss of appetite. The USDA urges anyone who feels these symptoms to drink extra water and eat snacks while lowering their altitude. 

If your symptoms persist even after you’ve come down the mountain, you may need to go lay down in the car for a bit, or seek medical attention, depending on the severity. Don’t feel too intimidated, though. Altitude sickness affects many hikers, and most are able to deal with the symptoms by adhering to the above tips. Besides, if climbing high isn’t your thing, there’s plenty to do and see from the valleys! 

History of San Juan National Forest 

President Roosevelt set aside about 2 million acres of land in the southwest corner of Colorado in 1905. At the time, the land was not called San Juan. The name has changed many times over the years, but most people still recognize the names “Montezuma” and “Durango National Forest.” The name “San Juan” is the Spanish pronunciation of Saint John, for which the forest and San Juan river are named. (Or, more specifically, the river is named after Saint John and the forest is named after the river.) 

Before 1905, there was no federal regulation to keep the land from being overharvested and overhunted. When President Roosevelt transferred administration of the forest reserves over to the Department of Agriculture (the USDA), the land finally had protection against overuse. The USDA continues to regulate timber logging, hunting, grazing, fire control, recreation, and visitor safety. 

Educating the public and organizing volunteer services to maintain the forest is also part of the USDA’s mission to protect the land so that everyone can continue to take part in its bounty for years to come. How would the San Juan forest look today if protection had not been arranged for it over one hundred years ago? 

The Original Durango

Durango is a town truly born from the riches of the San Juan Forest. The structure of the town and its economy was sustained by the precious timber used to build everything from schools to railroads, and the mines in the mountains provided ore and coal for Durango’s smelters. With such a wealth of resources, Durango quickly grew to a population of over three thousand by the year 1900. Ranchers raised horses, sheep, and cattle, and the Tacoma Hydroelectric Plant provided electricity. 

Fun Fact: in early 1900s Durango, a man could buy a round trip train ticket to Silverton for $2.00, a good suit for $20, and a nice house for $600. The average wage was about $0.22 an hour! Yes, twenty-two cents. This is back when only about 8% of the homes in town even owned a telephone. 

A barn with the mountains of San Juan National Forest in the background
A barn in Durango near San Juan National Forest – Photo by Luciana Pucci on Unsplash

Recreation in San Juan National Forest

Remember that interactive map we talked about earlier? You can use that to find all kinds of recreational opportunities! From ATV trails and horse trails to wildlife viewing areas and boating sites. Looking to conquer your next fourteener? Weminuche and Lizard Head Wilderness Areas are great places to start, as there are several fourteeners in these areas on top of fantastic wildlife viewing. Bring those binoculars, you’re going to want them! 

Want to take in more mountain beauty, but too tired to take another step? Go for a drive down any of the forest’s designated scenic byways. These roads will weave you in and out of landscapes fit for calendar covers, following gentle waters and lively conifer woods full of moose, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, and elk. If you don’t know where to start, The San Juan Skyway (232 miles) and The Alpine Loop (65 miles) are two byways that come highly recommended. 

Wilderness Areas

San Juan harbors four official wilderness areas. These are special places set aside to never be logged, mined, or built on in any way. Some wilderness areas don’t allow motorized machinery of any kind, even drones, so be sure to check the rules before you go. Respectful hikers and their cameras are always welcome! Click on each of the wilderness areas below to learn more.  ● Weminuche ● South San Juan● Lizard Head● Hermosa

Visit San Juan National Forest

Excited about visiting the forest and eager to hear from people who have already been? You can check out photos and reviews from hikers here. This is also a great way to get more ideas for specific trails and activities. 

Make sure you always check this Alerts and Notices page before you go, as it will give you important updates on things like trail closures, weather and fire conditions, permit requirements, and more. 

Having fun learning about America’s amazing forests? Save The National Forests.com to your reading list so you always have a connection to your National Forests! 

And as always, have fun, be safe, and leave no trace! 

-by Heaven Morrow

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