Soutwestern Colorado’s jagged San Juan Mountains lay claim to 14 of Colorado’s 53 peaks above 14,000 feet and 314 of the state’s 637 Thirteeners (peaks between 13,000 and 13,999 feet). Tucked in the midst of all this grandeur at 9,318 feet, the well preserved mining town of Silverton is the type of place where you could still get in a bar fight with a prospector. It’s also a prime basecamp from which you can access a wonderland of trails that climb deep into the San Juans in a hurry. Start with these three sure-to-please hikes, then branch out:
HIGHLAND MARY LAKES
Best For: A day hike to alpine lakes
Length: Five miles round-trip, 1,500 feet of elevation gain
In a Nutshell: Waltz through fields of postcard-perfect wildflowers on your way to a series of alpine lakes. While it’s one of the most idyllic day hikes in the region, relatively few people find their way here.
Do It: Start from the Cunningham Gulch Trailhead at 10,750 feet and head south along the Highland Mary Lakes Trail (No. 606) Cunningham Creek. You’ll scale rock steps to climb the increasingly steep trail, which funnels through a narrow rocky band cut into the cliff. Cross to the east side of the creek and traverse a slope strewn with boulders to reach the signed Weimnuche Wilderness Boundary. Cross the creek again and the trail levels out to follow sparkling Cunningham Creek as it cuts through a huge slope dappled with rocky outcroppings. After you climb halfway up the slope, you’ll lose the path for a bit and have to navigate across a boulder field and a marshy area. From here, rejoin a distinct trail that climbs briefly before it reaches the first lake. The second lake is just above the first. Keep climbing south through a picturesque glacial basin to reach the third, and largest lake. Take some time to soak it all in (and maybe cast a few tenkara flies) and head back down the way you came.
Best For: Big views from an easy-to-attain peak
Length: 11 miles round-trip, 1,990 feet of elevation gain
In a Nutshell: Hiking enthusiasts of all levels will love this moderately challenging trail that clambers to the top of Engineer Mountain, the distinct and captivating 12,968-foot peak that dominates the surrounding skyline.
Do It: From the Pass Creek Trailhead, pick up the gentle dirt path heading north. The first meadow you hit is a treat in itself, filled with the towering psychedalia of monument plant, loveroot, orange sneezeweed, Coulter’s daisy and corn lily. Soon, the trail levels out and skirts the north shore of a small pond. Beyond it, for the next half-mile, meander from forest to meadow and back again. Continue west through a thick stand of waist high blooms to reach the junction of Engineer Mountain Trail (No. 508) and Pass Creek Trail (No. 500). Stay on the Engineer Mountain Trail and head directly west toward the maroon crags of Engineer Mountain. At 5.5 miles, you’ll reach a giant rock slab that marks the beginning of the climb. Take care on the progressively steeper, rockier trail to the top, and practice caution while scrambling along the narrow, exposed summit ridge—it holds some of the San Juans’ notoriously loose and chossy scree.
Best For: A classic San Juan backpacking overnighter
Length: 11 miles round-trip, 1,300 feet of elevation gain
In a Nutshell: The trip to 11,640-foot-high Crater Lake delivers huge rewards with minimal effort. It’s a steady climb through expansive meadows to the serene lake surrounded by the West Needle Mountains.
Do it: Start at the parking area at 10,800 feet near Andrews Lake. Follow the Crater Lake trail as it skirts the lake and then ascends a series of switchbacks to the Weminuche Wilderness boundary. From here, romp through alpine meadows with views of thirteeners Snowdon, Grand Turk, Sultan and Twilight Peaks. Less than half a mile from the lake, the trail descends into bogland. Climb a small hill to the tree-lined bowl cradling Crater Lake. Get here by sunset to photograph 13,075-foot-high North Twilight Peak, reflected in the lake’s waters.
Set up camp, and spend the next few days exploring. An easy 0.4-mile hike leads to the 11,770-foot saddle southwest of the lake. Head west for a class 3 scramble along a narrow, exposed ridge to the summit of North Twilight Peak.