The winter season in Southwest Colorado is one of beauty, change, quiet and inspiration. It is difficult to imagine a more picturesque winter mountain setting than what each one of us is blessed with on a daily basis. People from across the country travel here to experience the aesthetic beauty possessed by the mighty San Juan Mountains. When the snow has fallen and many trails, peaks, and alpine lakes seem inaccessible, know there are safe locations to travel to and different methods to reach those special places.
The informed winter enthusiast must always consider the topography and potential for avalanches, current snow condition, future weather possibilities, and have the proper gear and the knowledge of its use. Even when all of these factors are prepared for, during certain weather conditions there is always the potential of avalanche danger. Remember this simple but important truth, “Enough snow to ride? Enough snow to slide.”
While we don’t want to deter folks from getting out in the snow, the winter recreationist should know the potential for danger if the proper precautions are not taken into account. Any number of different “gear lists” can be found on-line for different occasions; some essentials to bring on your San Juan adventure include: at least one detailed map of the area, a compass, extra warm clothing, a warm blanket (in case of an unplanned overnight stay), flashlight or headlamp, pocket knife, first aid/survival kit, extra nonperishable food, and more water than you think you would need. The San Juan National Forest offers a free winter guide/brochure, “Where to Go in the Snow, on San Juan Public Lands”, which includes a gear list as well some avalanche awareness and survival tips.
Purgatory, Hesperus, Telluride, and Wolf Creek are good options to downhill ski and snowboard, but where would a person go in the San Juans if they were looking to walk a trail, snowshoe, cross country ski (XC ski), or snow-bike? Haviland Lake about 17 miles north of Durango offers a wonderful winter trail system. This is an area with minimal avalanche danger, a well-established and maintained trail system, it is right off Highway 550, and no major mountain pass prevents its access. Are you looking for more snow and a higher elevation experience? A little further to the north past Purgatory lies the Molas Pass Winter Recreation Area. If the snowpack is minimal, or there is an early or late season urge to snowshoe, Molas Pass is where to go. Just to the south of Silverton off Highway 550, at an elevation of 10,910 feet is where you will find this gem. There are 200 acres designated specifically for non-motorized use, which allows for more of a wilderness experience and provides a safer environment for all.
Closer to Cortez and Dolores there are some good prospects to be explored. Just north of Dolores is the Boggy Draw trail system, which functions as a snow-bike and snowshoe trail system in the winter months. Closer to Mancos is the Chicken Creek XC Ski area, which provides another nicely groomed trail system with the emphasis here being on cross country skiing. These areas near Dolores are a bit lower in elevation, so if we experience a lack of a winter like last year these locations may not be covered in snow. Up near Lizard head pass next to Trout Lake on the Uncompahgre National Forest is another vast winter playground to explore. Cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snow-biking, and snowmobiling each can find a home here at 10,222 feet on Lizard Head. The trail destinations mentioned in this article have been selected because they generally do not exhibit extreme avalanche danger. However safety and preparation are ultimately up to the user, one must “know before you go”. For more information about winter safety and recreation please visit or contact the San Juan Public Lands Center at 15 Burnett Court in Durango or (970) 247-4874. The Public Lands Center contains one of our bookstores for the San Juan Mountains Association; we have an assortment of guide books and maps available, along with first-hand knowledge and information to benefit any winter recreationist.
The snow covered peaks of the San Juan Mountains are sure to inspire and charm, but must also be respected. The solitude one can find in these mountains is utterly remarkable, there is an entire outdoor recreation industry in the Four-Corners which can attest to that. Even in winter, John Muir knew exactly what he was saying, “the mountains are calling, and I must go.”
“Shoo!” “Scram!” “Oooogaboogaboogaboo!”
The Wilderness Information Specialists (WIS’s) in training started throwing rocks at a hollow log. The sound startled the mountains goats and they ran away. We rejoiced! We had chased the mountain goats out of our camp.
Any nature savvy individual knows that harassing wildlife is a faux pas. It stresses the animals and can scare them away from water or forage thus leaving them in a weakened state and more prone to predation. But the mountain goats in Chicago Basin are NOT afraid. The love us. They want to get as close as they can. Why?
Mountains goats normally live above treeline (~12,000’ in SW Colorado) but in Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness, goats can be spotted as low as 10,500’. They have moved lower to be closer to the salt people leave behind – especially our urine. Goats will destroy vegetation in order to get at the salty urine. Therefore, it is important for visitors to urinate on rocks or logs.
And that is just one iota of what folks should know before visiting “The Basin”. There are volumes of information regarding the 4 W’s: Water, Weather, Wildlife, and Waste.
But how is a visitor supposed to know all this stuff? There are plenty of resources available online (search for SJMA’s “Chicago Basin Trip Planning Guide”), by phone, and at the trailhead. But if a visitor gets all the way to The Basin without proper knowledge, a WIS there can explain proper etiquette and why it matters.
On July 19 – 21, another guide and I took a group of six local teenagers to The Basin as WIS’s in training. Before the trip, the teen WIS’s had to complete an online training and test. This included general information about the Wilderness Act, Wilderness regulations, and a list of FAQ’s specific to Chicago Basin. By the start of the trip, these kids were ready! We hopped the Durango-Silverton train to Needleton. We began educating hikers and backpackers before we even got off the train. It took some prodding at first to get the teens to approach visitors, but by the third day the folks hiking in could barely get past them without receiving an onslaught of Wilderness information. The teens were nearly talking over each other to be sure that their information was heard. We talked to 91 visitors over three days!
What was their information?
- Weather: From July into September, afternoon lightning storms are a real threat. Be off the high summits by noon. Keep an eye to the sky and seek cover if the clouds look ominous.
- Water: Treat your drinking water in order to protect from the parasites giardia and cryptosporidium. Avoid getting water from sources contaminated by mines. Look for aquatic macroinvertebrates living in the water – this is a good sign. Also, camp at least 100’ from any water sources in order to avoid compacting riparian soil and prevent scaring wildlife away from their drinking water.
- Waste: Pack out all your trash INCLUDING TOILET PAPER. Critters will dig up buried toilet paper. There are natural items that can serve as toilet paper. Pack out your human waste or bury it 6 to 8 inches underground at least 200’ from any water sources.
- Wildlife: In addition to the mountains goats, be prepared to keep your food and salty gear away from marmots, chipmunks, bears, and moose. Store salty gear (packs, poles, shoes, clothes) at least 5 feet up a tree or in an enclosed tent. When not in camp, store all food at least 10 feet up and 5 feet out.
- No campfires are allowed in the Needle Creek watershed.
- No mechanized or motorized use is allowed in designated Wilderness, including drones.
- Most importantly, this isn’t just a list of regulations to ruin your fun. This is public land that is here for all of us to enjoy. We need to work together to keep it pristine for ourselves and future generations. In designated Wilderness, “man is a visitor who does not remain”. Wilderness is nature in its natural state.
It’s no secret that public lands are under fire right now. But here at the San Juan Mountains Association, we are training the next generation how to educate others to take care of these treasures that belong to all of us. This was the 5th annual teen backpacking trip and I assure you that there will be more to come.
By MK Gunn
Not every adventure goes according to plan, but if it is not planned, the adventure might never go.
This is the sentiment that occurred to me, not all at once, at some point in college. I was, and still try to be, of the spontaneous sort. I don’t mind a good flying by the seat of my pants. Life should be filled with magic and serendipity. It should be a “choose your own adventure” book – you don’t know what life has in store for you next until you turn the page.
I first moved to Durango as a clueless 19-year-old. I was certain of very few things. I knew that I loved the mountains, didn’t like school and needed to stay in school because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life besides go mountain biking and snowboarding.
I arrived in Colorado with most of the proper equipment and waited for the spontaneity to happen. And, to be fair, there certainly was some adventure. I was smart enough to join the Fort Lewis College mountain bike team, which took me traveling all over my new state. I saw new mountain ranges. Explored new towns. Fell in love with new trails. And did some really stupid, fun, irresponsible things.
But these were not my adventures. I was just a follower; a participant. I was not driving my own life … just along for the ride. If no one else was doing the planning, I rarely went farther than the trails behind my apartment. Was this what spontaneous and magical adventure was?
At some point, the fog lifted from my young brain. If I wanted to really choose my own adventure, I had to stimulate the catalyst. I had to start planning.
This wasn’t a lucid thought but rather a long, largely unnoticed transformation. Really, one day I turned around and there I was – the reluctant leader of our next adventure. If you want something done, you have to do it yourself. My life was transformed.
I never make any promises to my followers. My cheesy but true motto has become, “It’s always an adventure with MK.” I frequently find myself amid misadventure, whether it be some unintentional, miserable bushwhack or up some gully that is too steep to ascend without climbing equipment or on a slickrock pinnacle in a snowstorm. I’ve been caught in lightning storms above tree line, topped out rock climbs after dark and gotten lost far from camp in the middle of a multiday trip. I’ve broken trail in 3 feet of snow, burned a hole in my pants trying to smoke out mosquitoes and carried a sick llama’s saddle on my back. I’ve broken bones, torn tendons, compromised cartilage, jostled joints and skewered skin. All with no regrets. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the thick of a major mishap and thought to myself, “This is going to make a great story if I ever get out of here.”
You see, the reason I never enjoyed planning when I was younger is that nothing is ever quite as exciting when it goes according to plan. Spontaneity and serendipity are forms of art. Planning seems to lend itself to the exactness of science. To be clear, I have nothing against the sciences: I am fully committed to the laws of physics, intrigued by the growth and function of living organisms and even teach science to folks via outdoor education.
Despite planning’s potential for boring exactness, it could lead to the art of misadventure. Nowadays, knowing that not every adventure goes according to plan but if it is not planned the adventure might never go, I am obsessed with planning new adventures. Some I plan an hour before, some months in advance. Here in the San Juan Mountains, my favorite season is what I call clear tundra season – the time of year when the tundra is snow-free. So I have this planned out months ahead of time. If you want me to set aside a day in July, you should have asked me last year.
What’s my point? Here’s an example: My husband and I spent months planning to hike the Colorado Trail. We had an exact time line, including daily mileages and camp spots, boxes of meticulously portioned food, friends lined up to help with resupplies and contingency plans if we needed to send our dogs home early (which we did). We were grateful for such a fastidious plan. Our resupplies went flawlessly. Having a daily mileage goal kept me motivated. We finished on the exact date we had planned and had a day to recover afterwards. But those were not the exciting parts of the trip. The excitement still came from the unexpected wonders and misadventures along the way.
Ten days into the trip, along the West Collegiate route, we came across a sign telling us that we could detour onto a 26 mile reroute that contained 20 miles of new single track on the Continental Divide. The old route consisted of dirt roads and motorized double track. Any adventurous soul would have opted for the mapless reroute. For two days, we would not be certain of where we could find water or if there was a good camp. But within 2 miles, we saw out first moose of the trip. We slept on the Continental Divide that night in a flattish depression out of the wind. The next day, we were caught in a lightning storm above tree line at 9 in the morning. We pulled our tent over us and hunkered down right there in the open. I can assure you, it’s not scary when it’s actually happening because there is absolutely nothing you can do. And the lakes, flowers, mountains and pikas seemed slightly more wonderful on this mysterious path. There was more excitement on this unknown, unplanned way. We were flying by the seats of our pants.
So, please make a plan. Make a good plan. If nothing else, remember the six P’s: proper planning prevents piss poor performance. Use scientific tools to check the weather forecast. You can even plan to explore geologic structures and treat your water with scientifically proven methods. But even the most exact of science is susceptible to the occasional chaos. Sometimes, a catalyst might disrupt the normally predictable into a whirl of serendipitous wonder. Or, you might have to hike home with duct tape and p-cord holding your shoe together.
MK Gunn is the education and program assistant for San Juan Mountains Association. Her book of short stories, Zero Chance of Rain and other Tales of Misadventure, is due out in 2018. She implores you to expect the unexpected.
Ah, the thrill of the wilderness! The mountain vistas! The serene lakes! The smell of the spruce trees! The aching back and feet! The soggy sleeping bag! Wait… hang on… these things don’t have to go hand in hand when you are backpacking. With thousands of miles under a pack and trips in every month of the year, I’ve learned things the hard way so you don’t have to.
Pack your pack correctly
A properly packed pack can make a huge difference in comfort.
– Least dense items go in the bottom. (Sleeping bag, mat)
– Medium density item go in the middle. (Tent, clothes)
– Densest items go on the top or closest to your back. (Water, fuel, toiletries, tent poles, stakes)
– Compress, compress, compress! A loose load will wobble.
– Avoid strapping items to the outside that might swing around.
– Be sure to keep important items accessible such as snacks, bug spray, and rain gear.
Keep your stuff dry
– Store your sleeping bag and puffy coat in a drybag AND use a pack cover or line your pack with a heavy duty trash bag. This is a good idea for defense against both rain and creek crossings. Don’t think you are so nimble that you will never fall in a creek!
– A lightweight trekking umbrella can be a sanity saver! It’s especially handy when there is intermittent sun and rain. Stopping every five minutes to put on or take off your rain jacket might drive you crazy. An umbrella is also portable shade.
– Dry socks are like gold. Bring a pair of socks that will only be worn in your tent. This makes for dry, happy feet.
Keep your luxury items to a minimum
I have seen some VERY large packs on the trail with some VERY tired hikers beneath them. Once a hiker was carrying full sized camp chairs. He told me that many years ago his backpacking mentor advised him to bring everything that he would need to be comfortable at camp.
I believe the opposite is true. If you have a lighter pack, you will be less fatigued at camp and therefore won’t need as many luxuries. All these little items add up. By the time you pack a hammock, seat, playing cards, umbrella, full tube of toothpaste, too many wet wipes, water bottle full of wine, and mini pillow, you’ve added 7 pounds to your pack.
If you’re not trying to pack super light, a goal weight for your pack for 3 days should be 30 pounds including food and water. This will also help you go farther.
Choose your camp wisely
– Water – Sleeping next to a babbling brook lulls me to sleep and rocks me like a baby all night long. But camping in a deep river valley can be miserable in the morning. The colder air sinks down to the bottom and dew can condense so much that you may wonder, as you greet the crystal blue morning sky, if you slept through a rainstorm. It is amazing how much warmer and dryer things can be just a short ways up slope. You will also be farther from mosquitoes.
– Morning Sun – Higher camps also mean more sunshine. With summer temps in the Colorado mountains regularly dipping into the 40s, a ridge camp can be delightful even if water access is challenging. When choosing a camp, get out your compass to see if you have a clearing where the sun will rise. In early summer, the sun rises in the northeast (51 degrees). At the fall and spring equinoxes, it is due east. If you are brave enough for winter camping, the sun rises in the east southeast in late December (116 degrees). You can calculate exact bearings at http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/AltAz.php.
Bring hiking poles
Let your arms help your legs. Some people think that poles are for old people but I think they are for smart people.
Wear your favorite footwear
I’ll spare you from the entire history of backpacking footwear, but 50 years ago, 8 inch high boot tops and rigid boot soles were all the rage. These days, you’ll find folks hiking 500 miles in a pair of trail running shoes or even sandals. The point is, not everyone needs a ton of ankle and foot support. Wear what makes your feet happy. You needn’t wear big heavy boots just because your backpacking mentor told you to.
Author MK Gunn is the education and program assistant for San Juan Mountains Association (sjma.org). She is currently on track to backpack in every month of 2016.
(Picture caption: Well packed packs help you to be more stable.)