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Maybe it’s the jagged 13,000-foot peaks clawing the sky that make the area seem so raw and foreboding. Those peaks greedily wring summer’s monsoon and feed it to verdant, almost impenetrable forests and meadows. Or maybe it’s the thought of grizzlies. Colorado’s last official griz was killed here in 1979, but unconfirmed sightings persist to this day. Given the untamed lay of this land, it’s not hard to figure why holdout bears would choose the South San Juans as their last stronghold. This probably is Colorado’s wildest expanse, straddling 50 miles of the Continental Divide north of the New Mexico border.
A sobering uneasiness about your place in the local food chain notwithstanding, you can trek an incredible 26-mile circle route by stitching together five trails within this 158,790-acre wilderness. The South Fork Trail culminates at Blue Lake beneath the Divide, where you can peer west to the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant (site of the ’79 grizzly encounter). For the return leg, use Glacier Lake, Twin Lake, Conejos, and Roaring Gulch Trails, and you’ll cross alpine cirques, glacially carved tundra, and subalpine meadows.
Where: 335 miles southwest of Denver and 230 miles north of Albuquerque. From Antonito, drive 23 miles west on CO 17 to Forest Road 250, then north 12 miles to the South Fork trailhead.
Maps:South San Juan/Del Norte, #142 ($9.95, Trails Illustrated, 800-962-1643).
Trail Info: San Juan/Rio Grande National Forests, Conejos Peak District, (719) 274-8971.