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Colorado Trail: Stony Pass to Celebration Lake

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Star Star Star Star Star

Distance: 39.8 miles


The very best section of the 483-mile Colorado Trail lies along this 40-mile San Juans stunner. Start at 12,500 feet and drop past hidden waterfalls into the Animas River Valley, where the Grenadier Peaks tower overhead.
  • The Animas River from the Colorado Trail
  • Stony Pass
  • Sign for CT and CDT
  • Old Mining Cabin
  • Small alpine lake
  • Alpine meadow
  • First light on the Grenadiers
  • Sunset at 12,600'
  • No trees equal big views
  • Vestal Peak at dawn
  • Alpine grass
  • Colorado Trail straight ahead
  • Old mine shaft
  • Old mine shack
  • Notch in the rock
  • Moss in the stream
  • Nutrient rich water grows algae
  • Sun behind vertical rock shelf
  • Hidden waterfall
  • Colorado trail by Elk Creek
  • Aspen aglow in fall colors
  • Vestal and Arrow Peak behind a beaver pond
  • The valley up to Wham Ridge and Vestal Peak
  • Mountain with bald tops
  • Wildflower
  • Pastel hillside
  • Dusk on Point Pun
  • The Durango-Silverton narrow nauge tracks
  • The Grenadier Range
  • Animas River Valley in the fall
  • The train and smoke roll through the valley
  • Gold fills the lower elevations
  • Trail sign to Molas Lake
  • Family fishing at Little Molas Lake
  • Two hillside ponds
  • Trail rolls past multi-colored bushes
  • Gold fall ferns cover the floor
  • Whitetail deer
  • Cliffs line the hill tops
  • Small stream and rock overhang
  • The trail ascending Lime Creek drainage
  • Cairn leads the way
  • Grizzly Peak looming behind grassy fields
  • Trail junction sign
  • Cliff side and talus
  • Cascade Creek falls just off-trail
  • Snow falls on the high peaks
  • Cascade Creek
  • Cascade Creek Falls
  • Fall colors on one leaf
  • Looking up to Sliderock Ridge
  • Peaks in the sun
  • Sliderock Ridge
  • Flat fields west of Sliderock Ridge
  • Hermosa Peak

For most of us, taking on the entire Colorado Trail is a distant, and rather unrealistic, dream. But hitting some of the best highlights in just a few days is in reach thanks to this 40-mile point-to-point route in the San Juans. Enjoy alpine solitude among some of the most astounding mounts and falls in the region. Catch postcard-perfect shots along the entire trail, especially near the Animas River and the teeming Cascade Creek Falls.

From the trailhead, which lies at 12,500 feet, begin by heading south six miles on the well-defined path. Meander through the treeless, alpine environment, passing remnants of a mining camp along the way. In spring, look for fields of wildflowers as you travel seven miles toward camp at Eldorado Lake or the Elk Creek Drainage area.

In the morning, begin the nine-mile descent into the cavernous Elk Creek Drainage area. Find water at a number of waterfalls that drop into the area. Enjoy the aroma of hillsides filled with Spruce and Aspen. Set up camp at the Animas River, where there are great views of the Silverton-Durango Narrow Gauge and the Grenadiers.

On the third day, feel the burn on a 1,900-foot climb over 4.5 miles to Molas Pass. Well-graded switchbacks make this section manageable and the breathtaking views of the San Juans don’t hurt either. During the summer, stop by the Molas Lake Campground for supplies and a hot shower. From here, continue nearly one mile, crossing the Million Dollar Highway (US 550), to Little Molas Lake Campground. Enjoy lunch and a view before finding a campsite. Several great spots lay between miles 25 and 27.5.

On day four, start the steady climb up Rollings Pass, enjoying sweeping views of the drainage on the descent to Cascade Creek. Hike to a campsite at mile 33, to rest for the climb on the last day. Wake up with Grizzly Peak standing tall overhead and begin the last climb up to a small pass on Sliderock Ridge. Keep an eye out for views of the pink and sand rocks of Engineer Mountain as you pass through trees in an old spruce forest. Enjoy the last stretch, through a grassy meadow, before reaching Celebration Lake.

CAUTION: Prepare for snow along this entire route until early July. 

PERMIT: San Juan National Forest has no formal backcountry permit or reservation system for small groups. Larger groups, as well as hikers looking for more information, are advised to visit the San Juan Public Land Center in Durango, CO for planning assistance, safety tips, directions, and regulations.

INFO: San Juan National Forest, (970) 247-4874; fs.usda.gov/sanjuan

-Mapped by Jeff Chow

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