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Travel: Scouting Colorado’s San Juans

Adventurer Kim Fenske is back on the road, exploring the San Juans

Grand Mesa Colorado sunset

Sunset from Grand Mesa.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

Among the rugged southwestern mountains of Colorado lie three Fourteeners: El Diente, 14,159 feet; Mount Wilson, 14,246 feet; and Wilson Peak, 14,017 feet. Since I had never visited this section of Colorado, I prepared a trip into the area with a plan to hike to Navajo Lake at the base of these three magnificent peaks. The three peaks are situated near Telluride in the Lizard Head Wilderness Area of the San Juan Mountains.

The drive from Copper Mountain is about three hundred miles, so I decided to break up the trip by heading west toward Grand Junction, then turning south to camp on the Grand Mesa.  Several campgrounds lie among the small lakes trapped in the highlands of Grand Mesa National Forest on State Highway 65 north of Delta.

Colorado camping

Author Kim Fenske enjoys his roomy new car-camping tent.

I decided to stay in developed campgrounds on this week-long adventure to test my new car-camping tent, a Big Agnes Tensleep. The Tensleep has a peak height of six feet, nearly three feet higher than the backpacking tent that serves as my usual shelter in the backcountry and is large enough to accommodate two queen-size beds. The tent was as easy to assemble as an ultralight tent, with a full-length rainfly that promised to be useful during the July monsoon season.

Colorado columbines

Blue columbine and Parry clover clusters among the boulders along the trail.

The Grand Mesa was a very comfortable place to camp, cooler than the desert I observed below the plateau as sunset approached. A few mosquitoes flew through the campsite, no doubt breeding in the adjacent pond, but failed to make an effort to annoy me.  In the morning, I prepared a big breakfast of tacos and walked over to the campground hosts to pay the fee for my site.

 

Lizard Head Wilderness Colorado

Entering the remote Lizard Head Wilderness in southwest Colorado.

Dropping down from the mesa, I headed south through the desert as the temperature rose above 90 degrees. At Ridgeway, I bought a couple bags of ice and drove west to Telluride. Encountering heavy summer tourism traffic, I took the roundabout option for State Highway 145 to Lizard Head Pass, at 10,222 feet, passing several overflowing campgrounds along the way.

While I found a dispersed camping area at the top of the pass, I wanted to find the Navajo Lake Trailhead before dark and decided to search for a campsite deeper into the forest, along Dunton Road. Finding the narrow, gravel Forest Service road about five miles below the pass, I drove slowly up steep switchbacks for six miles, past the southern face of Mount Wilson, before finding the parking area at the Navajo Lake Trailhead, at about 8,500 feet. 

I scrambled down to the Dolores River with my water filter to gather a few liters of water.  Scouting around the trailhead for flat ground to use my small tent for the night, I only found steep slopes unsuitable for dispersed camping.  So, I drove back to the main road and found Burro Bridge Campground a short distance away.

Dolores Peak Colorado

Dolores Peak, 13,290 feet.

Aside from the campground host, I was the only person in the camping area. When I inquired about trails and the surrounding wilderness, I discovered that the host had been brought out to Colorado from Florida by the private corporation that managed the Forest Service campgrounds across the San Juan National Forest.  She knew nothing about the public lands around her.  She did warn me against drinking the tap water in the campground, which was so over-treated with chlorine that it smelled like a swimming pool. I was glad that I had filled my water bottles from the Dolores River.

Up before dawn next day, I finished a breakfast of French toast with hot chocolate and arrived at Navajo Lake Trailhead by eight. Knowing that the trail was seven miles to the ridge near Wilson Peak, about 12,950 feet, I decided to make a day hike of my ascent to Navajo Lake and the amphitheater beyond. On the way, I paused in lush meadows to photograph thick stands of wildflowers, with Dolores Peak, 13,290 feet, in the background to the west and the broad crumbling ridge of El Diente Peak to the east.

I passed the junction with Kilpacker Trail at 10,100 feet that crosses West Dolores River and cuts south through the forest and out of the wilderness. At 11,200 feet and four miles from the trailhead, I turned right at a junction with the Woods Lake Trail and continued ascending for another half mile until Navajo Lake spread across the valley ahead of me and below the enormous ridges that formed a wall three miles long. Arriving at noon, I sat down on a rock beside the lake and enjoyed slices of cheese on rice chips for an energizing snack beneath a cloudless blue sky.

Colorado wildflowers

Brilliant paintbrush blooms along the Navajo Lake trail in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado.

 

Colorado wildflowers

Gathering pollen from paintbrush blossoms.

I continued east on a clear trail that passed past bouquets of blue columbine, then alpine forget-me-not nestled in sheltered crevices of the rocky tundra.  As the hours passed into early afternoon, the sky quickly began to fill with puffy, white cumulous clouds. Then, I saw blackened clouds begin rolling over El Diente Peak while I continued climbing out of the ravine to the distant ridge. I met a half dozen climbers carrying technical gear retreating from the threatening sky to seek the shelter of their base camp tents on the shore of Navajo Lake. Thinking that the storm would soon pass, I continued ascending above 12,500 feet.  Then, the sky broke open, showering me with hailstones.

I opened my day pack, unfurling my down jacket and pulling on  down mittens.I quickly initiated my retreat out of the exposed boulder field. When I reached Navajo Lake, the hail turned to a shower that dripped through the trees shielding the trail.  Then, my boots and pants were soaked on the four-mile hike down through the steep water-saturated meadows. I slid through the black grease that the trail had become among the fields of cornstalk lily, chiming bells, and paintbrush. 

After two hours of slow descent, struggling to keep myself upright, the clouds vanished.  I arrived at the trailhead and continued to my campsite, where I lit the burners on my stove with a shivering hand and heated a few liters of water. I wiped myself down with steaming water, then slipped into dry fleece and drank a liter of hot chocolate to break my hypothermia.  Sleeping into mid-morning next day, I finished drying my clothes and tent before departing for the scorching desert lowlands of Mesa Verde.

Gladstone Peak, Colorado

Gladstone Peak, 13,913 feet, from Navajo Lake.

Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.

More travel and hiking stories:

Alaska:

Spring excursions:

Kim’s winter 14er series:

Autumn hikes:

 

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