Enjoying the Rio Grande National Forest
The Rio Grande National Forest is partially located in Rio Grande County and is host to the beginning of the mighty Rio Grande River as it makes its 1,885 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Designated a national forest by Theodore Roosevelt's Presidential Proclamation in 1908, the Rio Grande Forest covers more than 1.8 million acres of mountain peaks and valleys that are rich in minerals, timber, wildlife and scenic resources.
Activities within the Forest are limitless. Excellent fishing opportunities are provided by the area's 80 cold water lakes, 150 streams and the specially designated Gold Medal fishing waters of the Rio Grande River. Whether you enjoy hiking, mountain biking, scenic driving tours, camping, horseback riding or photography, the Rio Grande National forest has something for everyone.
Explorers will find scattered remnants of Colorado's rich history throughout the forest. Early day mining camps and homesteads are abundant, and with a map and a little imagination, visitors can trace the routes of early explores such as Juan Bautista De Anza, Zebulon Pike and John C. Freemont.
Big game hunters find abundant deer, elk, mountain sheep, bears, antelope and mountain lions. The area also boasts large numbers of small game mammals, birds, and water fowl.
Winter brings the opportunity to enjoy downhill and cross country skiing, snowmobiling, snow shoeing and sledding.
Silver Thread Scenic Byway
117 mile road trip through the Rockies
The colorful old mining and logging camps of the Silver Thread Scenic Byway offer a wealth of history, while the surrounding Wilderness and National Forest lands serve up a huge dose of scenic beauty. Follow the Byway as it traces the routes of old toll roads, stagecoach lines and railways.
Grab breakfast in South Fork, and start the first leg of your trip at the old water tower, which serviced steam locomotives til 1956.
Hwy 149 then winds along the banks of the mighty Rio Grande. Catch a glimpse of an elk or deer as you travel by Coller State Wildlife area (where the Ute Indians set up their hunting camps). Marvel at the Palisade rock formations and take a quick peak inside Post Office Rock, where early settlers would leave notes for those in the mining camps.
Pass through Wagon Wheel Gap and travel on to the historic mining town of Creede. Browse art galleries on their dramatic main street and tour the Underground Mining Museum (yes, visitors enter mine shafts bored into the cliff face, wander through tunnels mined from solid rock, and visit with former hard-rock miners!). Continue up the canyon a bit for a spectacular view of the Commodore mines.
As you get back on Highway 149, Bristol Head Mountain looms ahead. You will loop around its southern side, and meet back up with the Rio Grande as it snakes its way through the outer rim of an ancient volcano. Travel by San Juan City, a former toll road stop, and begin climbing Spring Creek Pass. A bounty of natural wonders preside, including the sparkling and spectacular North Clear Creek Falls, the Slumgullion earth slide, and the shark-like fin of Uncompahgre Peak.
Spring Creek Pass is steep, and must be traveled carefully. These mountains can be unforgiving so be prepared before embarking on any journey. (Legendary John C. Fremont lost 1/3 of his men in 1848 here, and a quarter of a century later Packer cannibalized his companions in two ill-fated winter expeditions).
Take in the turquoise-colored Lake San Cristobal from a steep vantage point, and descend into Lake City. This picturesque town has over 200 buildings in the historic register. Stop for lunch and a walk around town.
Head out through the steep canyon walls of the Lake Fork, passing by The Gate, an impressive rock formation. This final leg of the trip takes you towards Gunnison, through widening valleys where successful ranching communities sprang up and prospered. End your trip crossing the Blue Mesa Reservoir (a hot-spot for trophy lake trout) and entering Gunnison, a former Ute Indian summer camp - turned ranching community / college town.
Your return trip back over Spring Creek Pass will be met with a spectacular view of the sun setting over the San Juan Mountains. Stop in Creede for dinner and a showing at the highly-acclaimed Creede Repertory Theatre, then return to South Fork where hospitality is a big as the west!
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The Great Sand Dunes
Across the San Luis Valley and against the backdrop of rugged 14,000-foot peaks, the Great Sand Dunes provide a stunning sight to behold. Over 30 square miles of dunes appear as a “sea of sand” against the nearly vertical face of the Sange de Cristo Mountains. These unique dunes, created by the continuous work of water and wind moving sand, provide a recreation area unlike any other. Medano Creek flows seasonally at the base of the dunes, providing a place where visitors enjoy sand, water and sun in a spectacular mountain setting.
Climb the “High Dune,” nearly 700 feet above the valley floor, and sand board or “sled” back down! Before leaving the park, be sure to visit Zapata Falls. A half-mile hike leads uphill to an intriguing waterfall. Along the trail, enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding country, including the Great Sand Dunes far below.
If you wish to spend a little more time in the area, we recommend a stop by the Colorado Gator Farm, where you may view and feed over 400 gators as well as dozens of pythons, turtles, rattlers, iguanas, dragons, geckos, parrots, tortoises, and more. Learn more at www.nps.gov/grsa - Approximately 80 miles from South Fork.
Bachelor Loop Historic Tour - Creede
This 17-mile driving tour loops through Creede’s historic silver mining district and ghost towns. The tour’s first interpretive stop is just north of Creede in Willow Creek Canyon at the juncture of East and West Willow creeks. A passenger car can traverse the graded gravel road to the Equity Mine and then return to Creede via Bachelor Road (FS Road 504) and the old town site of Bachelor.
Guidebooks, keyed to numbered markers along the loop, are available at the Creede Visitor Center and various businesses. The 25-page guidebook with map costs $1.00. The loop road has some narrow stretches and steep grades that require caution. Check on road conditions during inclement weather. Several 4-wheel-drive roads lead off the tour route into less accessible terrain. Allow a minimum of 1 hour for the tour.
Penitente Canyon & La Garita Arch
Experience the Power of Place
Grab breakfast in town before heading east towards the San Luis Valley. To take the “scenic route” east, turn off at the Ute Bluff Lodge onto CR 19, cross the mighty Rio Grande and follow the paved/dirt CR 15 as it snakes along the river, through scenic ranches and farmland for about fifteen miles. Consider a detour at the sign for Colonel Pfeiffer’s Grave, and visit the land granted to him by the Native Utes. Pass by Indian Head and other unusual and remarkable mountain outcroppings. Zigzag south-east-north just before getting onto Colorado 112 and travel north along the outer edge of the Valley for just over 2 miles. Follow the signs for Penitente Canyon and La Garita, and turn onto CR33/38A.
You will first take an 11 mile round-trip expedition to see the Arch, or La Ventana (spanish for “window”), one of southern Colorado’s most unusual natural formations. Note the interesting geology of the area: about 33 million years ago during a period of explosive volcanic activity, large amounts of volcanic debris and ash were ejected into the air. Heat and pressure formed the ash into very hard rock, and millions of years worth of erosion deteriorated the softer material, leaving behind what we see today! The Arch was carved out of a volcanic “dike” and you might notice the signs of weathering on nearby companion arches.
To see the Natural Arch: Take a left off of Rd 33/38A onto FS 660/Rd A32. Follow this road for 4.1 miles. Take FS 659/ Rd 35C and go another 1.6 miles north.
South Fork to the Natural Arch: aprox 1 hr drive.
Return to Road 38A and continue north-bound. Next up is Penitente Canyon, a designated Special Recreation Area with something for everyone!
For the sight-seer, hiker and history buff: Take the short hike up to see the Wagon Wheel ruts, a part of the Old Spanish Trail that served as a pack-animal route for traders traveling west to California in the mid-1800s. Wander throughout the unusual canyons in search of the San Luis Valley’s largest collection of pictographs. Most is the work of indigenous peoples who lived in the area 2,000 years ago, but a newer example is the faded blue Madonna high up on a rock face, reportedly painted by locals in the mid 1900s.
For the rock climber: Penitente Canyon is an internationally recognized climbing area, providing 60-70 incredible sport climbing routes. The unusual volcanic landscape (rock that eroded and cracked over time) not only created a mystical backdrop for recreation, but the smoothed and rounded rock-face provides good hand-holds! South facing routes can be climbed year-round and range from beginner to advanced levels.
For the mountain biker: 2 mountain bike loops offer a great opportunity to see the area. The B-loop is best for the beginner, while the A-loop is more fun for an advanced rider. Each route is less than three miles, and can also be hiked.
If you need a snack break, return to CR 38A and drive the short distance to the town of La Garita. Stop at the Cash Store, an old log cabin turned general shop. Visit the picturesque 1924 Catholic church that today houses the San Juan Art Center. Make your return trip via Del Norte. Consider a stop by the Rio Grande County Museum for more about the local heritage and make a note to ask about Colonel Pfeiffer, a well know and respected Indian Agent! Wander Grand Avenue’s antique shops and art galleries, and have dinner at the Historic Windsor Hotel.
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