South San Juan Stroll

A backpacking trip in the South San Juan Wilderness

The San Juan Mountains (aka the San Juans) are arguably the most impressive mountains in Colorado. Sharp, pointy and vast, these mountains seem a bit more wild than the mountains near my Front Range home.

With some time in between jobs, I wanted to explore the relatively little visited South San Juan Wilderness. An area that is a bit more off the beaten path than the San Juans to the north.

The trip started off by picking up two of the Warrior Hike folks in Pine, CO and dropping them off at Wolf Creek Pass. I’d be driving right by Pine and my planned hike was to start at Wolf Creek Pass.  I was quite happy to help out two of our country’s veterans on their CDT journey.

Pictured are The Real Hiking Viking and Doc Rocket. (Photo courtesy of Mr Viking!)


The Warrior Hike program is a great idea that is well worth supporting. In the tradition of Early Shaffer, the first Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, the Warrior Hike program helps veterans to “walk off the war”.  The peace and tranquility of nature is always a healing time.

I wished both of them well on their CDT journey north and I headed south from Wolf Creek Pass on the CDT.

I walked near the Wolf Creek Ski area and saw the mountains that waited for me further down the divide.

The trail continued to call further.

Now, I decided to do this stretch as I had to drop lower on the CDT during my own thru-hike. It was a chance to see what I had by-passed.

Towards the end of the day, I saw a gentlemen hiking along the trail. We talked and he said he was not sure if I could park at Wolf Creek Pass. Though it is a very wide parking area at WCP, he did not think it was a trail head per se.  I thanked him and continued on.

Made camp and thought about it at night. The following morning, I hiked out.  Sure enough, when I arrived back at the car, there was a 48 hr tow warning on the car antenna. Doh! Good thing I arrived back earlier. 🙂

Plan B was made. I would drive to the first pass south on the CDT from WCP accessed by a well maintained dirt road: Elwood Pass.

From there I would park my car at a no-doubt-about-it trail head, hook on the CDT and meander around the South San Juan Wilderness. Due to the weather patterns, I would do less meandering than I expected. 🙂

View from Elwood Pass. Looking to the Summitville Mining area.

The sky was overcast and it looked like it was about to lightning and thunder. Above treeline was perhaps not the best place to be.  I scooted to the trees below. But enjoyed some wildflower viewing first.

At about 3PM, the lightning rolled in. I set up my tarp and relaxed that evening with a book I packed in at the last-minute. It would rain, hail or sleet until 8PM that night. My foam sleeping pad had quite a bit of static electricity build up!

The following morning was quite beautiful. I made my way along the divide.

At a saddle, the trail dropped below into a valley. The views into the valley were quite striking.

By 1 or 2 in the afternoon, the wind was picking up. A similar pattern was about to happen.

My tarp was set up, tea was made and more reading was done. Perhaps a relaxing trip was in order. A chance to recover from a case of job burn out. And just what I needed.

The rain and lightning continued all night.

The following morning, the skies were again clear.  More wildflower sightings were enjoyed.

As less mileage was made than anticipated, I decided to turn around. My delays at Wolf Creek Pass and the weather made for a shorter trip mileage wise.

No matter. The morning was glorious. And the views from a not-quite-13000 peak was wonderful.

I reached the summit and contemplated walking along the divide itself.  Peak bagging while walking cross-country along the ridge.

Alas, while the view from the top was beautiful, clouds were building up again.

I abandoned my high perch and walked cross-country back to the trail.

Below the mountains,  I encountered two people and a dog walking  south-bound along the CDT. I warned them that the weather was about to turn nasty. They politely thanked me but continued on.

Shortly after this point, the wind picked up. Hail came down. And thunder rumbled. Just below the shoulder of Montezuma Peak, I made the decision to drop into the sparse tree cover and walk cross-country back to the car. I would be lower and, hopefully, safer. It also had the added benefit of shaving about one hour off my time.

The trees provided some coverage from the sometimes painful hail!

The photo below shows the cross-country route I took from a saddle just above some tarns. The un-named tarns are below the CDT.

While hiking cross-country, a bull elk did not like my presence! I can best describe what he did as barking. Needless to say, I did not get too close to him.

From the point above, I entered some actual wooded cover. I came out right to my car. Not bad. 🙂

I started up my car, put on the heat and found a secluded camping spot off the dirt road. Some warm and dry clothes were changed into, the Mag Mobile became a poor man’s RV for the night and a pleasant evening was spent with warm drinks and finishing up my book.

The San Juans trip may not have been what I planned, but it was what I needed. A chance to unwind between jobs and be in the mountains.

And the following day? I’d meet a friend and we’d see Chimney Rock National Monument.

A wonderful trip. If a bit different from what I had planned.

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9 years ago

Sounds like a nice hike. Good writeup and photos. I love the San Juans and it’s always nice to read trip reports of that area. It’s spectacular scenery.

9 years ago

Were skeetz bad yet? Nice pics

Randy Martin
Randy Martin
9 years ago

An area I haven’t spent much time hiking in but one for which I have many pre-routed trips in mind. Glad you made lemonade from lemons!!

Hiker Box
9 years ago

What, no umbrella?!

9 years ago

Thanks for th great pics. I’m backpacking vicariously through th postings. What camera did you use?


Rob of the WV
9 years ago

Nice photos but where is the map? You could sketch one or just drop your GPS track into gpsvisualizer or another freeware program and this would help elucidate your route and your trip. Thanks for the report, Rob of the WV