COLORADO Rarely does real life match our childhood imagination, but I swear the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado resemble the pointy M-shaped peaks that I doodled in grade school. It's here that the Rockies achieve their angular apex in an empire of summits that maintain the highest average elevation anywhere from New Mexico to Montana.
At 12,000 feet or more, the passes are higher than most mountains elsewhere. They'll test your lungs and stamina, then reward you with long views of endless peaks, glaciated valleys, and alpine tarns that remain gripped in ice deep into summer. This is not kid stuff.
It is Colorado's largest wilderness area, though, and certainly among its most scenic. For a sample of the 500,000-acre wilderness' best features, including the Needles Mountains and Grenadier Range, try a classic, 47-mile loop that begins at Purgatory Creek, then follows the Animas River and Needle Creek to popular Chicago Basin, a broad bowl at 11,000 feet ringed by three 14,000-footers. Grunt up and over 12,600-foot Columbine Pass, walk along Johnson Creek, turn north up Vallecito Creek to 12,500-foot Hunchback Pass, then descend Elk Creek Valley, reaching trail's end at US 550 at Molas Pass. You're left with an 11-mile vehicle shuttle or a hitchhike back to your car.
Plan your trip for mid- to late summer, since snow lingers long in the high country. No permit is needed for small groups, but check with the management agency about local campfire restrictions.
Where: 245 miles (4 hours) northwest of Albuquerque and 300 miles (5 hours) southwest of Denver. The Purgatory Creek trailhead is 27 miles north of Durango, and Molas Pass is 38 miles north of Durango, both on US 550.
Maps:Weminuche Wilderness, #140 ($9.95, Trails Illustrated, 800-962-1643) and Walking in Wildness, by B.J. Boucher ($20.95, San Juan Mountains Association, 970-385-1210), deliver all the guidance you'll need.
Trail Info: San Juan National Forest, Durango, (970) 247-4874.