San Juan National Forest in the southwestern Colorado, a little over 300 miles southwest of Colorado Springs, covers 1.8 million acres of varied terrain, from alpine peaks to high-desert mesas. It encompasses the Chimney Rock National Monument, the majority of three designated wilderness areas, and several well-known historic mining towns such as Ouray and Telluride. History fans will enjoy exploring the historical buildings believed to have been created by the Ancestral Puebloans of the Chaco Canyon. Wildlife and photography buffs will enjoy the wide range of wild animals, including mule deer, mountain goats, black bear, mountain lions, and lynx. Fishing enthusiasts will also be delighted with the large number of lakes, streams, and rivers that are filled with several varieties of trout as well as Kokanee salmon.
This National Forest is pet-friendly and dogs are allowed in the campgrounds and on the majority of the trails as long as they are under either physical restraint or voice control. They are not allowed on many of the interpretive trails, inside buildings, and must be restrained by a leash when visiting Chimney Rock National Monument. The roads in San Juan National Forest are challenging mountain roads, many of them dirt and gravel. These roads are typically manageable, although heavy rains and snows may make them somewhat more treacherous. In this guide, we have highlighted three of the San Juan National Forest's many campgrounds.
The main roads that lead into San Juan National Forest are typically two-lane paved roads that wind through the mountain wilderness using a number of twists, turns, and altitude changes. While there are relatively few designated turnouts, there are generally some tiny communities and a few parks and rest-stops along the way where adventurers can slow down to take in their surroundings as well as stretch their legs. There are also a few parking spots available near many of the trail heads in this forest.
The majority of the roads in the forest are composed of dirt and gravel. While these roads are curvy with several inclines, they are generally manageable for most RV drivers who drive conscientiously and obey the speed laws when the road is clear and dry. During inclement weather such as rain or snow, the road can get fairly slick and it may become rather difficult for larger rigs to traverse. Those who do attempt the roads during this type of weather should use additional caution, and watch for boggy areas to ensure that your rig doesn’t get stuck in the mud. No matter what the weather, keep an eye out for wildlife that may be grazing or hunting in the area, particularly in the dawn and twilight hours, when they are most active.
McPhee Campground is nestled in the Pinyon and Juniper trees in the eastern portion of the San Juan National Forest, just under ten miles from the small town of Delores, CO. It is considered part of the McPhee Recreation Complex and sits near the shore of the McPhee Reservoir, the second-largest reservoir in Colorado. The McPhee Campground has 50 campsites that are available for reservations, approximately 44 of which are suitable for RVs and trailers up to 35 feet in length. The campsites are spacious enough to give you a sense of privacy, but the sizes of the parking pads can vary somewhat from site to site, so it is important to check your reservations carefully if you are bringing a larger sized rig.
None of the sites have sewer or water hookups, but 12 of them are equipped with 30-amp electrical hookups and each site has a fire pit and picnic table. Several flush toilets are scattered throughout the campground as are faucets with fresh, drinkable water. There are also four group sites adjacent to the main campground, with room for anywhere from 25 to 50 campers each. A ball field, volleyball posts, and horseshoe pits are available to use nearby the group campgrounds, but you will need to bring your own equipment if you want to play.
Vallecito Campground is located in the southeastern portion of San Juan National Forest, less than ten miles north of the town of Vallecito, CO, and adjacent to the Weminuche Wilderness area. The campground is composed of 36 reservable sites that can accommodate RVs or trailers up 30 feet in length, three of which include electrical hookups. There are an additional 40 campsites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis as well. Several vault toilets dot the campgrounds, so you are never far from a restroom, and potable water faucets are also scattered throughout the grounds.
Generators with spark arresters are allowed during daytime hours, although the forest service in this national forest limits the use to no more than one hour at a time. Generators are not allowed during quiet hours, from 10 PM to 6 AM. While there is an unloading dock as well as hitching posts for those who wish to explore the trails of San Juan National Forest by horseback, overnight camping with horses is prohibited.
Williams Creek Campground is a secluded campground on the eastern edge of the San Juan National Forest. It is nearly 25 miles north of the closest small town, Pagosa Springs, CO and is quite close to the Rio Grande National Forest as well, making it an excellent base camp for both national forests. It is made up of over 60 campsites that are able to accommodate RVs or trailers, seven of which have sewer and water hookups, and a few with driveways large enough to accommodate rigs up to 50 feet in length.
The driveway size is highly variable in this campground, so if you have a larger rig, be sure to check your reservation carefully to ensure that your vehicle will fit comfortably. It is important to note that some of the sites located in this campground are not particularly level, so you should bring your blocks to stabilize your campervan if needed. Each site is provided with a fire ring, grill, and picnic table, and there are several faucets with clean water and vault toilets scattered throughout the campground.
Chimney Rock Archaeological Area was designated as an official national monument by Barack Obama in September of 2012. This 4,726-acre area encompasses several archaeological structures and artifacts from the Ancestral Puebloans of the Chaco Canyon. Some of the buildings that have been excavated include a Great Kiva, a pit house, a Chacoan-style great house pueblo, and a multifamily dwelling. These cultures also used the pinnacles that the area is named after to frame certain astrological alignments, making this area one of the best-recognized archaeo-astronomical resources on the North American continent.
Fishermen will want to be sure that they pack their rod and reel in their trailer when visiting San Juan National Forest. It is dotted with 92 lakes and reservoirs and crisscrossed with innumerable streams and rivers filled with several different varieties of trout, including brook, cutthroat, rainbow, and German brown trout. Many of the waters, including Williams Creek and the Lemon and Vallecito Reservoirs, provide a home for Kokanee or landlocked salmon as well. Some lakes or streams may have additional rules and restrictions, such as artificial flies and lures only, to prevent overfishing.
RVers who are looking for a short break from sleeping in their campervan may want to stay a night or two in this unique lodging facility. Originally a fire lookout that was used by the Forest Service, this tower has been re-purposed as guest lodgings with unparalleled views that can accommodate up to four guests. Those who wish to stay here will need to be in adequate physical health to navigate five flights of stairs with 70 steps each to reach the top of the tower, some 55 feet above the ground. This is a popular destination, and reservations to stay in this historic tower are often booked out months in advance.
San Juan National Forest has a number of spectacular trails for all skill levels that wind through the wilderness. Those looking for an easy nature walk will enjoy short, easy trails such as the .9-mile Baby Bathtubs Trail, peppered with colorful wildflowers, or the one-mile Piedra Falls Trail, which features a beautiful waterfall. Those looking for a longer journey that is still fairly easy to traverse will enjoy watching for wildlife along the 7.9-mile Piedra River Trail or the 5.3-mile Sauls Creek Trail.
Hikers who enjoy a challenge can negotiate the 8.1-mile Ice Lake Basin Trail, which is surrounded by amazing mountain peaks, or the Engineer Mountain Trail, an extremely difficult 12.7-mile trail with an elevation gain of 3,106 feet. While dogs under voice control are allowed on most trails in the San Juan National Forest, not all trails are particularly suitable for all canines, particularly rocky or high altitude trails and those with sheer drops.
You will want to be sure that you pack your camera in your trailer when visiting San Juan National Forest. Along with the scenic views from the mountain tops, gorgeous waterfalls, and huge fields full of wildflowers that are available to photograph in this forest, it encompasses several designated wilderness areas. There are a plethora of wild animals that live here. You are likely to be able to spot many of the more common animals such as squirrels, rabbits, mountain goats, and mule deer. Other animals you may be lucky enough to capture images of may include mountain lions, black bear, marmots, and lynx.
The activity of geocaching, a worldwide treasure hunt of sorts, was made possible with the advent of cellular technology and the removal of selective availability from GPS technology. Geocaching participants use GPS technology, clues, and good observation techniques to locate caches, small containers with a log sheet or logbook inside. Some caches even contain small trinkets that participants can exchange for another trinket of similar value, or specialized tokens or toys that can be tracked from one destination to the next. If you are an active geocacher who plans to place a cache in San Juan National Forest, remember that while the activity is welcomed in the majority of the forest, designated wilderness areas, national historic landmarks, national scenic areas, and historic trails are off-limits.