Welcome to the mountains of Southwest Colorado!
This area is one of the most beautiful in Colorado. The majority of it is public land—your lands—managed for you by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The area receives some recreational use during the winter, but the vast majority occurs from June to October, when the snow is disappearing and the roads are passable. During this time, the area is a hiker's paradise, but as with any backcountry adventure, you must be well prepared.
The first consideration is the altitude. Most of the trails start above 9,000 feet and some go above 14,000 feet. For folks who live at lower altitudes, this can cause some serious huffing and puffing - not to mention altitude sickness. It is always best to give yourself some time to acclimate; usually about 24 hours is sufficient. When you do hike, take it easy. There are no prizes for high-speed hiking, but there are many rewards for those who go slow enough to appreciate the scenery and observe the wildlife and wildflowers. If you do notice a headache and/or nausea, it is probably altitude sickness. Take a good rest and see if there is any improvement. If there is none, you should head back downhill and spend more time acclimating. Often a camp midway up the trail will help you acclimate and it will break the hike into more manageable segments.
Weather is another major factor. High mountains tend to foster unpredictable weather. In general, summer days are cool - from 50° to 75° F. It is not unusual to see snow or sleet on the peaks in July or September. Nights are cold and, depending on the altitude, can be below freezing. Afternoon thundershowers accompanied by wind are common during the summer. Be prepared for changing weather. Carry several layers of clothing, including good rain gear, on all hikes. Windproof clothing is helpful on the high peaks.
It is usually best to start hiking early, especially on climbs to major peaks so you can make the summit and head back down before the afternoon thundershowers roll in. Plan to be off the peaks by 1:00 pm if you can. There are few things scarier than dodging lightning bolts on a barren rocky peak. If you do get caught, find shelter between large rocks away from the summit and make sure you stay low to the ground, as lightning is attracted to the highest features in a landscape.
Along with making breathing difficult, the thin air at high altitude blocks less ultraviolet light and makes it much easier to get sunburned. Carry an appropriate sunscreen and sunglasses, especially if you are hiking on snow.
Take enough water for your hike. Because of the cool temperatures, the tendency is not to drink much on hiking trips, but the dry air and strenuous exercise can dehydrate a person very quickly, which can cause headaches & fatigue and contribute to hypothermia. So sip your water often even if you don't feel thirsty. Although the clear water in Colorado's mountain streams appears potable, be safe and don't drink it! Two factors are responsible for the unhealthy water in the mountains - the first is potential mineral contamination from old mine operations or natural sources, and the second is bacterial and protozoa contamination such as giardia. Bacterial/protozoan contamination can occur in clear, cold streams and lakes. It is spread by fecal contamination of water systems by humans and many species of animals & livestock and can make you extremely sick. Boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes, or using a good quality water filter are the only reliable ways of avoiding these problems. So, bring your own water or be prepared to boil or filter stream water.
Some trails are clearly marked, others are not. You should have topographic maps of the area where you are planning to hike and know how to read them.
Whether you are hiking alone or in a group, it is always a good idea to check in with the local BLM office in Gunnison or at the Lake City Visitor Center to let us know your plans and to get current trail information. Free trail brochures are available.
Leave No Trace
As much as possible, BLM encourages Leave No Trace camping, which means that you try to leave the backcountry as unmarred and undisturbed as possible. Most impacts from backcountry use are centered around campsites. Here are a few tips to help lessen your camping impacts.
- Use camp stoves for cooking rather than wood fires as much as possible. Wood is scarce near tree line and absent from the tundra. Many popular campsites have been stripped of their wood and some folks in desperation have turned to cutting up live trees. Stoves are quicker, cleaner, easier and don't leave a scar.
- If you must use a fire, use only down and dead wood. Standing dead wood is important for wildlife and live wood is too wet to burn.
- Use existing fire rings as much as possible. We all hate to see a meadow scarred by fifteen fire rings within 10 feet of each other. A fire kills the soil beneath it and leaves a lasting mark. If there are no fire rings in the area and you must make a new one, keep it small and clean it up before you leave. Bury ashes once they are cold and dead, don't scatter them. It is best to keep fires at least 150 feet away from lake shores and stream sides. Make sure fires are dead out when you leave.
- Place your camp well. For sanitary reasons it should be located at least 150 feet from lake and stream shores. Place your camp inconspicuously. A meadow with one obvious tent in the middle always seems more crowded than one with 5 tents hidden in the surrounding trees. Bury human waste at least 150 feet from streams. Carry out all your garbage.
- Respect other users. Many people go to the backcountry for the feeling of remoteness and solitude. Don't intrude on that experience with excessive noise. Please keep dogs under control.
- Soap, even biodegradable soap, is a stress on the environment. Do as much of your cleanup as possible with soapless hot water. When using soap to wash yourself or your dishes, do so at least 150 feet from any water source and pour the wash water into absorbent ground.
- Trail systems are expensive to build and maintain. We need your help to keep them in good condition. Wear appropriate footwear for the terrain you are in. Heavy leather hiking boots do a lot to erode trails and many people are discovering the comfort and reduced impacts of lightweight boots. Stay on the trail. By cutting switchbacks, you increase erosion and open the trail for quick deterioration. As you are walking, pick up any trash that may have been left by careless visitors.
The backcountry is getting more and more use these days and it is starting to show the scars and impacts of that use. In order to preserve the natural beauty we have come to enjoy, we must all take an active part in the protection of these areas. By seeking to reduce the impact of our recreational use, we ensure that these areas will remain in their present state for our future use and the enjoyment of generations to come.
Please help protect your public lands...