Uncompahgre National Forest

Uncompahgre National Forest is home to Uncompahgre (un-come-pah-gray) Peak, the tallest of the San Juan Mountains, and the sixth tallest in the whole Rocky Mountains. The forest covers 955,229 acres- that’s 1,492.55 square miles! With the forest spanning such a wide area, it’s no wonder that Uncompahgre is shared by 8 Colorado counties: Montrose, Mesa, Gunnison, Delta, San Miguel, Ouray, Hinsdale, and San Juan.  

A hiker on a mountaintop in Uncompahgre National Forest
A hiker in Uncompahgre National Forest – Photo by Jonathon Reed on Unsplash

About the Forest    

The Uncompahgre land contains the Uncompahgre Plateau and the north section of the San Juan Mountains. Three densely wooded wilderness areas keep the forest wild and beautiful, providing ample opportunities for hikers and photographers to experience the untamed majesty of central Colorado. 

If you search for Uncompahgre National Forest, undoubtedly you are going to run into the acronym ‘GMUG.’ This stands for Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison. Why? These three forests are managed jointly by the forest service, so usually when there is news about one of them, it has some effect on all of them. They are managed from headquarters in Delta City, with ranger’s stations located in Montrose, Gunnison, and Norwood counties. 

History of Uncompahgre National Forest

The forest was established in 1905. At the time, it was unjoined to any other forest’s management. It wasn’t until 1954 that Grand Mesa was lumped in with Uncompahgre, and then Gunnison was added to the mix in 1973, giving us the GMUG setup we have today. 

GMUG is filled to the brim with historic sites. Honestly, even if you’re not looking for them specifically, you’re probably going to come across one somewhere in the forest. You can find everything from mills and historic ranger stations to fire lookouts, cabins, and even hauntingly charming ghost towns.

Do you have a passion for history? Uncompahgre, Gunnison, and Grand Mesa need volunteers who can help maintain the historical sites of the land. Volunteers help repair and renovate buildings, create and install interpretive plaques, and capture photos. Volunteers work with forest staff in a program called Passport in Time, which you can find contact information for here.   

Fun Fact: William Kreutzer, America’s first park ranger, spent many years working in Uncompahgre. 

Recreation in Uncompahgre National Forest

What is there to do in Uncompahgre? What isn’t there to do? Take your pick between biking, riding, boarding, fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, and everything in between. If none of that sounds appealing to you, but you still want to take in the alpine scenery, take a drive through the mountains and grasslands on any of the designated scenic byways!  

GMUG contains six of Colorado’s 17 scenic byways. Have you seen those blue roadway signs with the flower on it? Those are the signs for scenic byways set out by The Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways Commission. These byways can take hours to complete (and nobody said you had to do the whole thing), so if you want to stretch your legs midway, these roads usually follow paths of recreational stops as well. For example, Unaweep Tabeguache Scenic Byway runs along the outskirts of Uncompahgre near the Utah border, and from it you can stop at various picnic tables, historic sites, and rafting spots on the Gunnison River.  

A fisherman in the Gunnison River which flows through Uncompahgre National Forest
A fisherman tries his luck on the Gunnison River – Photo by Jarrett Mills on Unsplash

Wilderness Areas

There are ten wilderness areas between Uncompahgre, Grand Mesa, and Gunnison. Within Uncompahgre itself lies the following three protected areas: ● Lizard Head Wilderness  ● Mt. Sneffels Wilderness● Uncompahgre National Forest 

These all-natural spaces are free of motorized machinery, logging, construction, and so on, as the purpose of a wilderness area is to preserve the natural state of the earth. Hikers and photographers go to wilderness areas to get some peace and quiet and to truly enjoy nature.  

These spaces also provide ample opportunities to spot wildlife you won’t see anywhere else. You’re likely to spot elk, moose, mountain goat, deer, and blackbear. More elusive inhabitants of the deep woods include Canada lynx and mountain lion. A peek in the waters may reveal cutthroat trout, roundtail chub, bluehead sucker, and boreal toad. Also, don’t forget to keep eyes on the sky for bald eagles and peregrine falcons!   

All three of the above wilderness areas contain climbs that appeal to more experienced mountaineers, however there are still plenty of horizontal spaces to explore if rough rocky terrain isn’t on your itinerary. Try out the American Flats, or take a drive down Alpine Loop.   

Visit Uncompahgre National Forest

There are lots of things the USDA wants you to know before you go to a National Forest, so they have created special Alerts and Notices pages specific to each forest (or, in this case, three forests). 

These pages are kept up to date with the latest rules and regulations (did you know National Forests have rules about drones now? You can find them in the alerts and notices page!) It will also inform you of important safety news, such as fire, avalanche, and weather status. Sometimes trails are closed, sites are under construction, permit requirements change, and so many other things. Luckily, you don’t have to be in the dark, the USDA has you covered, so just give that page a glance before you take your trip. 

Enjoying learning about America’s National Forests? Save The National Forests.com to your reading list so you’ll always have a link to your country’s wild side!

As always, have fun, be safe, and leave no trace!


-by Heaven Morrow

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