Powderhorn Wilderness, nestled along the edge of the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, was designated as a wilderness area in 1993 and is 62,050 acres in size. The Gunnison National Forest manages nearly 14,000 acres of the southern portion of the wilderness area. The Bureau of Land Management manages the many remaining acres. The area is mountainous with elevations ranging from 8,700 feet to over 12,000 feet. Powderhorn is home to Cannibal Plateau named after the cannibal Alferd Packer.
There are about 40 miles of hiking trails within Powderhorn Wilderness. Wildflowers bloom in the spring months filling the landscape with bright colors. Forests of pine, spruce, aspen, and fir cover much of the terrain while providing a home for the local wildlife like deer and elk. Fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing, and horseback riding are other popular activities at Powderhorn. Hike-in primitive camping is permitted within the wilderness, and many other campgrounds are available nearby.
The most popular time of year to visit Powderhorn is from June to November. Temperatures often reach into the 80s during the summer months, with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 40s. Visitors should dress in the layers for the fluctuating temperatures. During the winter months, snow and freezing temperatures are common in the high peaks and ridges. Though some brave the cold to hike or snowshoe, winter visitors should keep an eye on weather conditions.
Around 250 miles southwest of Denver, Powderhorn Wilderness is located along the edge of the San Juan Mountains near the small community of Lake City, Colorado. This community is also the closest town to the wilderness area. Gunnison is about 30 miles to the north of Powderhorn. Depending on the time of year you visit, some businesses and services may be closed in small communities. Many of these businesses are open during the peak season only.
The wilderness can be accessed from Highway 149, which is a paved highway. Five trailheads serve as access points into the wilderness area from the highway. These trailheads are down dirt roads. Though these roads are dirt, two-wheel-drive vehicles should be able to navigate them during the late spring to early fall before the snow arrives that the winter months may bring. Visitor Centers, BLM offices, and Forest Service offices are located in both Gunnison and Lake City. Visitors can pick up wilderness maps and check road conditions before continuing to the wilderness.
There are several hike-in sites within Powderhorn Wilderness, but these are inaccessible to travelers in RVs. About 14,000 acres of the wilderness is managed by the Gunnison National Forest. The national forest has many campgrounds that can accommodate RVs and trailers. Many of these campgrounds aren’t far from Lake City.
The campgrounds at the national forest are developed but have very few amenities. The campsites do have fire rings and picnic tables, but none of the campgrounds have hookups for RVs. Either vault or pit toilets are located within the campgrounds. Some of the campgrounds do have water available via hand pumps, but it’s best for RVers to come well-stocked with plenty of their own. Food and trash should be stored in containers or a vehicle to avoid attracting wildlife.
There are some dispersed campsites off of roads within the national forest. The dispersed sites and many of the developed campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Very few allow reservations. Check with individual campgrounds to see if they take reservations.
There are several trails within Powderhorn Wilderness for visitors to hike and explore. Powderhorn Lakes Trail is one of the most popular trails within the wilderness area. It leads to two lakes that are perfect for fishing or simply enjoying the views.
Many other less-traveled trails lead to overlooks, plateaus, and scenic sights. These trails include East Fork, Powderhorn Park, Canyon Inferno, and Devil’s Creek. The trails at Powderhorn total over 40 miles, which makes them an excellent opportunity for multi-day hikes and backpacking. The trails range in difficulty from moderate to strenuous.
Anglers will find plenty of opportunities for fishing at Powderhorn Wilderness. There are many creeks and streams as well as two large lakes, Devil’s Lake and Powderhorn Lake. Anglers can expect to reel in various types of trout from the lakes and streams, including greenback cutthroat, brown, rainbow, and brook trout. Don’t forget your Colorado state fishing license when heading to the wilderness.
The abundant wildlife brings hunters to Powderhorn Wilderness during the fall months. Elk and mule deer often pass through the forests of spruce, aspen, pine, and fir. These are two popular types of game that attract hunters to Powderhorn.
Unit 66 and 67 are popular hunting units in the wilderness. Be sure to pick up a hunting license prior to your trip. Hunting regulations are enforced by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Equestrians will enjoy riding the miles of trails at Powderhorn Wilderness on horseback. Depending on the path taken, equestrians will find themselves riding through forests of tall trees, past lakes, overlooks, and other scenic landscapes. The Powderhorn Lakes Trail is a popular trail during the summer months, but many of the other trails are less traveled. Hikers also use the trails. Keep an eye out for those on foot.
The Silver Thread Byway is a 117-mile scenic route that visitors can take to the wilderness. It’s also well worth continuing the drive to explore the many small towns, attractions, and scenery along the route. While two-wheel-drive vehicles can easily navigate the road, four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended if you plan to head off the beaten path through many of the loops and less-traveled roads. Visitors will pass by old mines, ghost towns, and many other points of interest along the route.
While exploring the trails at Powderhorn, keep an eye out for the different types of wildlife that roam through the wilderness area. Mule deer and elk are often seen along the plateaus or within the forests of aspen and pine. Moose have even been spotted on occasion. Beavers live and swim through the many streams and lakes within the wilderness. Coyotes, mountain lions, and bears also wander through the area. If you're planning to camp or picnic, food should be stored in a vehicle or container to avoid attracting wildlife.