Snowshoeing in the San Juan Mountains - An Adventure Not to be Missed!
So often when one thinks on winter activities, the mind travels to downhill skiing, ice climbing and snow mobiling. Speed and adrenaline rule the day! Snow shoeing and cross country skiing are often overlooked by many a winter enthusiast.
Whether you have never tried snow shoeing, or are a seasoned hiker, nothing can compare to traveling across fields of untouched snow; a sense of oneness with the forest around you. Granted the sport is a work out, but the beauty is that you can set your own pace, taking time to breathe in the phenomenal sights and awe inspiring silences of winter in the San Juans.
Possibly the best thing about snow shoeing is that you can go virtually anywhere (within reason) that you might hike to in the summer months. As with hiking the back country in the summer though, it is very important to never snow shoe alone, have the proper equipment, be aware of the weather conditions and plan accordingly. If you did not bring all of the gear necessary to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience, you can always rent or purchase needed supplies here in Ouray at Ouray Mountain Sports on Main Street.
Once you and your friends have all of your gear, it is time to pick a trail. Ouray County boasts a large number of spectacular trails, however, it is important to base your final decision on your level of experience, snow and weather conditions, and the length of time you would like to spend on your adventure. Always remember that when you travel into the back country, you are entering possible avalanche areas. Be sure to check the snow and weather status before heading out, and remember it is always safer to go earlier in the day before the sun has had a chance to soften the snow too much.
It is hard to list just a few trails to explore, however after trying a few and speaking to some real snow shoeing enthusiasts, here are the top five trails ranging in difficulty that are highly reccommended:
1.) Uncompahgre River Trail - Easy
Approximately two miles round trip, this easy, extremely level trail is located right in Ouray and travels along the river. You will be sure to encounter fellow hikers and cross country skiers (proper snow pack provided), as this trail is great for beginners or for a quick stretch for the more seasoned snowshoer. This trail can be accessed either at the Ouray City Park or off of Oak Street on the other side of the river.
2.) Ice Park Trail - Easy to Moderate
Still in town, but a bit more challenging, the Ice Park Trail is accessed off of Campbird Mine Road and offers breathtaking views of the Uncompahgre Gorge. You may be able to get a true bird's eye view of ice climbers below as you traverse the canyon above. The climb is not too extreme, but steep enough in spots to take your breath away. Offering a little of everything, the Ice Park Trail is a great adventure right out your front door.
3.) Ironton Park - Easy to Moderate
Ironton Park is located about nine miles north of Ouray off of Highway 550 or the Million Dollar Highway. Known more for its beautifully groomed cross country ski trails, this is also an amazing spot for snow shoeing as well. Just remember the best way to give yourself a bad name as a snow shoer is to trample or otherwise alter the groomed tracks on a ski trail. Offering a variety of trail options, the easiest being the Townsite Loop. About 2 miles long, this trail takes you to some of the old buildings of the town of Ironton, where you can explore this old ghost town and imagine the lives of those who once called this area home.
Accessed off of the Townsite Loop are the Saratoga and Brooklyn Bash trail heads.
A short ways on the main loop will bring you to the trail head for Saratoga and Iron Fen. Although the mine is no longer visible, this trail takes you through a flat valley with views of the surrounding forest before taking you into the woods in a path leading back to the beginning junction. Along the way, the trail head to the Brooklyn Bash takes adventurers through a grove of aspens as you climb to the mine through thick bushes and a small creek, which may vary in difficulty depending on snow depth. Once past the mine and creek, the trail takes you back down to the Saratoga intersection.
4.) Yankee Girl - Moderate
Accessed off of County Road 31, a couple of miles north of Ironton Park off of the Million Dollar Highway, parking is a bit off the road, and may need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to the trail head, but, believe me, its worth it! Climb up County Road 31 past the head structure of the once booming Yankee Girl Mine to the former site of Red Mountain Town, once home to over 1000 year round residents before looping back around for an easier descent. This 4 mile trail is a true adventure in history and scenic photo ops.
5.) Amphitheater Basin/Portland Mine - Moderate to Difficult
Just above Ouray to the south, the Amphitheater Basin offers some of the most talked about snow shoeing trails in the San Juans. At the entrance to the Amphitheater Campground, just before the bridge you will find the Portland Trail. Travel south up the road (it is steep) for about ten or fifteen minutes to the Portland Trailhead. Follow this trail past a serene meadow and unparalelled views of the Ampitheater until you eventually find yourself on a back jeep road leading to the Ouray Mine. this is an incredibly rewarding trail offering scenery well worth the climb.
This is just a small taste of the many opportunities to explore Ouray County in the winter. Literature abounds on snow shoeing and cross country ski trails, and please take advantage of the knowledge of the Ouray County Nordic Council, whose collective knowledge is responsible for the mapping and grooming of so many fantastic trails. The staff at the Box Canyon Lodge and Hot Springs are happy to connect you with the best possible guidance to ensure the safest and most pleasant adventure on your next snow shoeing expedition, and of course, what better way to finish off a day in the back country than to come home to the Box Canyon and enjoy a long soothing soak in our natural mineral hot spring tubs?
See you soon!