Hiking in the San Juan Mountains

Top Trails Draw Hikers to the Wilderness
West of the Continental Divide

Dan Leeth

            It will soon be summer – time to head to the backcountry for an at-home visit with Mother Nature at her boisterous best.  And there are few better places to do that than the American West.  The vast expanse between the Great Divide and Pacific Shore is chockfull of mountains, deserts and canyons that remain nearly as wild and wooly today as they were back when the Anasazi farmed valleys, Lewis and Clark canoed rivers and gold-lusting miners tunneled into hillsides.

            With so much to choose from, picking exactly where to go has always presented a problem.  After all, a map of the West shows a calico patchwork of national parks, monuments, forests, wilderness, primitive and recreation areas, nearly all crisscrossed with their own network of footpaths.  Almost any area can offer a good hike, but some tracks are better than others.

            With that in mind, here’s a list of candidates vying for the territory’s “top trail’ title.  They cover topography from summit slogs to canyon descents, historical venues from cliff-dweller chasms to rail-served mining camps and alpine routes from volcano-rounding loops to range-tracking traverses.  Some can be done as simple overnighters while others take longer. 

            All share one thing in common.  They beg ramblers to lace boots, hoist packs and hit the trail.



            While the view from the top of Arizona’s Grand Canyon can be stunning, the best way to appreciate the canyon’s grandness is to walk across it.

            The easiest traverse begins at the North Rim with a 13.8-mile descent down the North Kaibab Trail.  Canyon walls engulf hikers, each stony stratum offering its own textures and colors.  Buttes and buttresses reach for cerulean skies.  Pastel bands paint distant walls.  The sheer immensity inspires awes and incites blisters.Hikers in the Grand Canyon

            Bright Angel Campground offers canyon-bottom tent sites.  From there, the 9.6-mile Bright Angel Trail leads to the top.  At first, the path parallels the Inner Gorge whose metamorphic rock marks the roots of ancient mountains.  It then corkscrews upward to Indian Gardens Campground near the half-way point.  After crossing the sloping Tonto Platform, it zigzags some more.  Finally, atop one broad hairpin stands Kolb Studio at the edge of the South Rim.  Brews, baths and beds lie blissfully beyond.

            Inner-canyon campsites (928-638-7888, www.nps.gov/grca) must be reserved well in advance.  Contact Xanterra (888-297-2757, www.xanterra.com) for rooms at North and South Rim lodges.  Trans-Canyon Shuttle (928-638-2820, www.kaibab.org/serv/gc_po_tc.htm) provides rides from one rim to the other.



            For those who are flab-free and fit, California’s 14,494-foot Mt. Whitney can be hiked in one day.  Most people, however, prefer to make the 22-mile roundtrip, 6,000-foot ascent more sensibly.  They camp halfway.

       Hikers on Mt. Whitney     The trail up the highest American summit south of Alaska leaves from Whitney Portal, 12 miles west of Lone Pine off US 395.  It climbs through forest, crosses streams and skirts meadows.  At timberline the view opens to show a wall of pillared peaks and plunging precipices.  Near the base lies Trail Camp, the last place to tent for the night.

            From here, nearly 100 switchbacks climb to Trail Crest, a 13,600-foot high saddle topping the escarpment’s edge.  Deep breathing and a slow, steady pace help overcome the final 2.5 miles to the mountain’s summit.  Legs may ache, but the feeling of accomplishment makes the pain palatable.

            Permits (760- 873-2483, www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/recreation/wild/howto.shtml) are needed for the hike and must be obtained far in advance.  Campground reservations for Whitney Portal (877-444-6777, www.reserveusa.com) are recommended.  



            The journey to southwestern Colorado’s Chicago Basin begins in Durango with a ride on the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.  One wonders what the other passengers think when 33 miles into the trip, the iron horse stops and a handful of backpackers depart seemingly in the middle of nowhere.Hiker and mountain goat

            From the railroad siding, the hiking trail follows an old wagon road cut beside the steep course of Needle Creek.  Six miles later it enters a long, broad valley.  Flower-filled meadows line the stream, while swaths of spruce and fir border barren peaks and rocky ridges.  High in this alpine Eden, miners once tried to coax fortunes from the ground. 

            At the head of the valley lie two lakes bordered by a wall of crags and spires that include three of Colorado’s most remote 14,000-foot summits. A herd of mountain goats live nearby.  Accustomed to visitors, they show little fear of humans, and those who sit quietly may find the approaching animals will sometimes surround them.  To them, hikers may be just two-legged brethren.

            No permits are required to hike or camp, but train reservations (877- 872-4607, www.durangotrain.com) are a must.  For hiking and camping information, contact the San Juan National Forest (970-247-4874, www.fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan).



            It’s the magnitude that characterizes the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area located on the Montana border of east-central Idaho.  This vast tract of mountain, forest and water contains over 1.3 million acres, making it the third largest federally protected wilderness south of Alaska.  Wide and wild, the land appears little changed from the days when Lewis and Clark canoed nearby.

   Moose         There’s no perfect starting point for exploring this vast landscape, and no single trail samples it all.  One favorite Selway-Bitterroot excursion begins at Elk Summit, 17 miles south of US Highway 12 on the northern edge of the wilderness.  From there, hikers can walk a loop route that skirts ridges and crosses valleys before paralleling the east fork of aptly named Moose Creek.

            Cloaked in clouds, the rounded mountains can take on a mystical, “Lord of the Rings” appearance.  Streams flow Evian-clear, mushrooms sprout from the forest floor, and late season blueberries hang from trailside branches.  Bear scat on the pathway let hikers know they are not the only species who savor the dangling delicacies.

            No advance permits are needed for the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.  For information, contact the Clearwater National Forest (208-476-4541, www.fs.fed.us/r1/clearwater). 



            A perfect hike may be one that forms a complete loop by leaving in one direction and returning from the other.  That’s the first benefit to hiking the 40-mile Timberline Trail, a tree-hugging pathway that rounds Oregon’s Mt. Hood.  The changing views rendered along the route provide a scenic second incentive for circling the slopes.

            The ramble begins and ends at Timberline Lodge, 60 miles east of Portland.  The glacier-clad volcano looms over one shoulder while rolling forest extends beyond the other.  Each turn of the trail reveals a different profile of the snowy, 11,245-foot summit.Gnarl Ridge and Mt. Hood

            In spite of starting and ending at the same altitude, the mountain-rounding hike can be physically challenging.  The trail gains and drops 9,000 feet humping ridges and descending ravines, and bridgeless stream crossings can be wet and wearing.  Still, damp feet and cramped muscles seem a small price to pay for the opportunity to embrace the mountain’s ruggedness from Gnarl Ridge, the trail’s high point, and to feel the soft mystique at Ramona Falls near its low.

            Wilderness permits are free and self-issued at the trailheads.   Last year, part of the trail was closed due to washouts.  For current conditions and other  information, contact the Mt. Hood National Forest (503- 668-1700, www.fs.fed.us/r6/mthood).



            Centuries ago, the ancient pueblo Indians commonly known as the Anasazi inhabited the Southwestern canyons where they built homes and granaries high on sandstone walls.Hiker in Grand Gulch

            While the cliff dwellers’ largest settlements have been preserved as national parks and monuments, those with a spirit of discovery may find it more exciting to search out the lesser known sites that lie scattered throughout the slickrock country.  One favorite is Grand Gulch, a 52-mile canyon southwest of Blanding, Utah. 

            The full journey begins at Kane Springs off Utah Highway 261.  Downstream, reddish-tan walls rise as the canyon narrows, twists and turns.  Towering cottonwoods shade the stream and anchor creek-side benches.  Atop these silty surfaces, Anasazi farmers once grew crops. 

            In cliff alcoves nearby, the native’s 800-year-old structures range from small, grain storage units to two-story family dwellings.  Often, the former inhabitants left behind personal marks of occupation.  Fingerprints indent mud mortar and pictograph art decorates the cliffs.  Far from the tourist hoards, it’s easy to sit back and feel the historic aura of an ancient past.

            Information and hiking permits can be obtained from the Bureau of Land Management (435-587-1510, http://www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/monticello/recreation/grand_gulch_and_cedar.html) who maintains a ranger station at the Kane Springs trailhead.



            Entering the Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming is like walking straight into Nature’s jewelry store.  Ruby-red wildflowers speckle emerald meadows, aquamarine lakes stud jade-green valleys and a tiara of silvery peaks scrape a sapphire sky.Woman fishing in Wind River Range

            Through the heart of the Winds runs the Highline Trail, a 70-mile route paralleling the mountain crest.  The path provides access to over a thousand lakes and tarns, dozens of glaciers and four dozen summits above 12,000 feet.

            The southern end lies at Big Sandy off Wyoming Highway 353 with its northern terminus lying at Green River Lakes near Wyoming Highway 352.  Between them, hikers can spot moose, stalk picas, ogle eagles, shoo jays and hook rainbows.

            The Winds are also used by campers who have their gear packed in by horseback, which often includes such luxuries as stand-up tents, screened-off porta-potties and even solar-heated showers.  After fishing all day, they get to sit in lawn chairs and sip cocktails.  It’s enough to make even the most diehard hiker honestly envious.

            Group size in the Winds is limited to 15 with permits required only for organized groups and those using pack animals.  For more information, Contact the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Pinedale Ranger district (307-367-4326, www.fs.fed.us/r4/btnf/offices/pinedale-bw.shtml).


Article ran in seven newspapers across the U.S. and Canada including the Oregonian, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post and Toronto Star.