13 min read

Travelogue: Backpacking Colorado's San Juan Mountains

In August 2021, as the world started recovering from pandemic and quarantine, we took off for our first vacation in eighteen months: a backpacking trip in the San Juan Mountains of south-central Colorado with some good friends.
Cimarrona Peak, viewed from our trail.
Getting to this view required a thirteen-hour drive and a nine-mile hike, and we'd all do it all again.

In August 2021, as the world started recovering from pandemic and quarantine, we took off for our first vacation in eighteen months: a backpacking trip in the San Juan Mountains of south-central Colorado with some good friends.

The Plan

We targeted a hike along the Williams Creek Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness of the San Juan Mountains, taking us from the trailhead up almost 4,000 feet over about 12 miles to the Continental Divide Trail, known among backpackers as the CDT, before reversing course and hiking back out the same trail.

Our trail plan overlaid on a topographical map of the Weminuche Wilderness.
Our original, ambitious trail plan, courtesy of AllTrails.

Unfortunately, we all live in San Antonio, Texas, which is not close to Colorado, so we had some work to do before starting the hike. We spent the first day on the road, going west through San Angelo, Texas, and Roswell, New Mexico, before turning north toward our hotel in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. That would give us a good twelve hours of acclimation to the altitude before we started hiking.

While this is a story about a backpacking trip with, for us non-professionals, an ambitious climb, most of our climb actually occurred in the car. San Antonio is 950 feet above sea level, while the trailhead was at 8,370, so our trusty CR-V did 2/3 of the vertical work before we even got there.

The Team

The four adventurers with their backpacks at the trailhead: Meera, Andrew, Mindy, and Jerry.
These folks have no idea what they're getting into. From left: Meera, Andrew, Mindy, and Jerry.

While Meera and I have done a lot of camping, both separately and together, neither of us had been backpacking in more than ten years until this trip. Our friends, on the other hand, have been much more recently, so we relied on them to pick the trail and plan the trip. We brought (most of) the food.

The Drive

Anybody who's driven through west Texas—which starts not far from San Antonio and continues for more than five hundred miles—knows there's not much to see beside amusingly juxtaposed oil derricks and wind farms.

West Texas wind farms in the background and oil derricks in the foreground.
There's not much to see in West Texas, but this juxtaposition of old and new energy is pretty common. 'Out with the Old, In with the New' by Ben (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lafaske/) CC BY-SA 2.0

Everything went according to plan until we started hunting for dinner.

I'd been to Santa Fe before, and we'd stopped in San Angelo for a fast-casual fried chicken lunch (Cane's, if you must know), so I suggested we find a place in Santa Fe, which wasn't too far off our trail. We finally found and ate at a Mediterranean place, but unfortunately it got dark and started raining while we ate, so when we got back in the car, the drive had become much rougher.

The New Mexico Department of Transportation apparently doesn't see the need for paint, Botts' dots, guardrails, or other driving aids through the mountains. So after much cursing, we made it to the Alpine Inn in Pagosa Springs.

Where the jacuzzi is in the bedroom.

Jacuzzi in the bedroom at the Alpine Inn in Pagosa Springs, CO.
In case you need to soak after your spin class on the stationery bike conveniently also located in the bedroom.

The next morning, we set out for the trailhead an hour's drive outside of town. We lost cell coverage almost immediately, making us glad that we had both offline digital maps and a printed map of the area. And that we had downloaded the songs on our themed playlist the night before.

The Trail

With great energy and no idea what we were getting ourselves into, we piled out of the car, put our boots on our feet, our sandals on our packs, our packs on our backs, and set out for the trailhead.

Twenty feet later, we had to stop to sign in to the trail. I wish I had a picture of our sign-in sheet, but I was focused on getting a picture of ourselves before we started up the mountain.

We started walking, and I knew immediately I was in trouble.

I have an idea of myself, cemented when I was in high school, as a reasonably in-shape individual. I certainly love beer, but I'm active, and Meera and I have done plenty of six-mile hikes while camping in Texas. Unfortunately, none of that helped me as we gained 500 feet before we'd walked a mile.

I started doing math, Mark Watney-style. We're walking 12.5 miles and gaining 5,564 feet. That's 445 feet per mile, a average grade of 8.4%. I'm breathing heavy after half a mile at 9.4%—I'll never survive the next twelve miles. And then we have to turn around and walk back down the same distance. (If you're thinking that going down should be easier, I regret to inform you that it is simply hard in different ways.)

Honestly, my pride kept me walking—slower and slower—until someone else called the first break. Having some experience now, Meera rebalanced her pack, and we cemented our marching order with Andrew as the pace-setter and me taking up the rear.

I had to keep up or be left behind.

Fortunately, Andrew had mercy on me, and we slowed down. Three hours in, we found a nice flat-ish spot to sit for lunch.

Let me tell you about lunch.

Will Stronghold says, 'I eat lunch' in SKY HIGH.
Yes, it's a movie about high schoolers. Yes, I've seen it repeatedly. Yes, it's worth it.

Meera makes amazing food. I'm required to say that, because she co-authors this blog, but you should know she's spent years learning new techniques and cuisines, and the lunches she makes for us to take to work are truly excellent—especially for meals that have to live in a glass container for several hours before encountering a microwave en route to a plastic fork and, subsequently, my mouth.

I have rarely looked forward to a lunch more than I did for the half-hour we spent looking for a place with seats.

Mindy and Andrew sit on a log and eat lunch.
It's nice when nature gives you a place to sit. By this point, I would have been happy sitting on the ground.

We had an epic lunch of cheese and sausage on tortillas, orange cups that took me back to middle school soccer games, and water. (If you're now thinking that carrying orange cups up a mountain was a mistake, I can only say that some snacks are worth the weight.)

Someone noticed that, along with seats for lunch, we had found a trove of sticks, so as we sat, I hunted down two nearly-straight sticks for Meera and me to use to help us hike. Andrew and Mindy, more recently experienced than we, had brought synthetic hiking poles.

Since I was carrying most of the food, I assumed when I put my pack back on after our hearty lunch, it would feel light and cloud-like. Spoiler: it did not.

In another treachery of hiking natural trails, our first several hundred feet of walking after lunch lost us almost fifty vertical feet; all I could think of was having to regain it later. But we were refreshed (a bit), and for all my complaining, we had in fact moved some weight from my back into our bellies, so onward we hiked.

Still, another three hours in, I was exhausted. We saw a beautiful spot to camp, not far from the creek we were following, so of course we walked right past it.

Half a mile later, we decided we couldn't go any farther. We saw another great camp location, just on the other side of the stream and just outside the trees, so we turned off the path and started down the slope, thus beginning a saga best described in the cold light of hindsight as "challenging." I'll spare you the details, but half an hour later we had suffered two bee stings, discovered the grass at our initial campsite target was closer to four feet tall than four inches, walked another half a mile (Mindy walked up and down the hill to the trail a few times, too), and finally found two almost-flat places to pitch our tents.

Meera picks her way through very tall grass with her walking stick.
In the morning, we would swear this hill was a thousand feet high.

I'm happy to report that both parties brought good tents (although, as I lamented later, not as light as I'd thought), so we had them pitched in minutes and crawled inside to hide from the sun for a few minutes before dinner.

Some time later, we awoke from our naps, pulled out the camp stove, and dug into our freeze-dried meals with gusto.

Let me tell you about dinner.

When you rehydrate freeze-dried food, you first boil the water. At high altitudes, however, like the 9,680 feet of our campsite, water boils at lower temperatures; specifically, just under 195° F. So our meals that should have been ready in 20 minutes would instead take 40 minutes to rehydrate.

Sad face.

While waiting for dinner, I pitched an idea to save the dignity I had left and also the leg muscles that had just about quit complaining by that point: cut the hike short.

We had planned on 25 miles over 4 days; I suggested cutting it to 18 miles over 3 days. In my younger years, I would have been far too egotistical to suggest such a thing. I'd have soldiered on, pretending that pure manliness was sufficient to make up for lack of training. I've grown wiser as I've grown older.

Unfortunately, that meant our second day would be a microcosm of the whole journey: out and back. On the plus side, we had already identified that beautiful little spot by the stream, so we wouldn't have to seek out a campsite the second night, assuming we didn't walk straight past it again.

To my great relief, my companions agreed with me, and even intimated that they were slightly more tired than they appeared. (I appeared, I suspect, exactly as tired as I was.)

That night, as I struggled to sleep despite my exhaustion, I heard snuffling at our tent. A whuffling outside our door. Some little creature curious about this bright orange thing that had cruelly invaded its habitat. I was too tired to get up and see what our furry friend was all about, but the next day on our way back, I captured him still in a mood.

A marmot gives me some side-eye as I walk past.
This little marmot gave me some serious side-eye as we walked past. Sorry, little guy. Thanks for sharing your woods with us for a night.

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Day Two

I am not a morning person.

I've never been a morning person, even though my professional life has meant sorta-kinda-almost becoming one.

Imagine my relief when everyone else took a leisurely breakfast with me (instant oatmeal and fussy pour over coffee—195 °F isn't great for freeze-dried food, but it's perfect for fussy coffee). We took our time filling hydration reservoirs and water bottles with filtered water from the stream, and we broke camp about 10:30, in time to begin hiking... straight up that damn hill we climbed down to get to the camp.

Six hours and a thousand feet of climbing later, we made it back to the trail. No, sorry, it just felt like that to muscles that hadn't quite recovered despite my attempt at stretching that morning.

But then, an hour or so into the hike, a funny thing happened. I found, as they say, my stride. Suddenly, I was sad I had recommended cutting the trip short. I was eager to go faster, go farther. I was even dismayed when, three hours later, we stopped for lunch and I had plenty of energy to burn.

But I'm an adult, and I had suggested this course of action in the first place, and I was remembering that despite that hard first day we had actually gained only about 1,300 feet of our 5,564, and today's three miles had only gotten us to 10,760.

Maximum elevation: 10,760 feet.
It's 1,640 feet short of where we wanted to be, but let me feel proud of myself.

That meant... crap. Our next three miles (or so) would gain 1,640 feet, a blistering 546 feet per mile, a 10.3% grade that would make truckers blanch. And we would gain it right out of the tree line into the August Colorado sun which, while last night's temperatures had dropped into the 50s, was making its presence felt the higher we climbed.

So, as an adult, I sat down and had lunch with my wife and my friends and didn't lament that we weren't going to tire ourselves any further.

Another sausage-and-cheese tortilla and halftime snack later, we took a few more pictures and turned around.

The hike down was much faster, if more treacherous. We made excellent time, improving our pace from 1 mph to more than 1.5 mph. We spent a lot of the journey saying things like, "I don't remember this" and "are you sure we haven't passed it?"

Meera looks back on the way down the mountain.
I'm pretty sure this look means, "I'm glad you're at the back so your picture-taking doesn't slow us down."

We had not. It turns out the view going up a trail is vastly different from the view going down. We had, in fact, never seen this perspective before, so our complaints were, on reflection, a bit silly.

We recrossed the creek a few times with greater confidence and less splashing, and we made it down to our nice little campsite with plenty of sunlight to spare. We cleared space, pitched tents, filled water, "cooked" supper, hung the bear bag, and had hours of conversation before it got remotely dark.

Meera peeks out of our tent on night 2.
Meera shows off one of our tent's two 'vestibules,' a thing I didn't know tents had.

But dark it got, and cold. That night, temperatures plunged right through 50 and kept heading down, so that despite my nice sleeping bag, I woke up at 2am freezing and added a wool base layer. Eventually, I warmed up and made it back to sleep, glad to have a use for at least some of the cold-weather gear I'd brought.

Day Three

I had use for more of it the next morning, as we found ourselves deep in the valley in the shadow of the mountains. We could see sun blazing on the tops of the mountains to our west, but we started the day wearing gloves and jackets.

The morning sun on only the tops of the mountains near our campsite.
Sunrise was beautiful, if somewhat far away.

Breakfast brought two surprises. First, Meera and I had brought an experimental freeze-dried "breakfast skillet"—we hadn't tested it back home, but we thought it would be fun.

It was... fine. It was far too salty and sufficiently chunky that it was kind of hard to eat until Meera had the insight to use the extra tortillas to create a backpacking breakfast burrito. A bit of Frank's Red Hot, and it could almost have been breakfast.

The second surprise was much better: I realized we now had extra coffee. We had brought three mornings of coffee, but now we only needed two. So the coffee on day three was far stronger and more delicious than the previous day.

We broke camp a bit faster as well, leaving before 10:30. I said "a bit" faster.

Andrew, Mindy, Meera, and Jerry spread out along the trail to start off the final day of hiking.
Look at all those smiles! What a shame this was our last day on the trail. This picture also shows off that great stick I picked up.

Traveling down a mountain, as I've said, is not at all easier than climbing up. It's hard to walk down at that angle—hard on your ankles, hard on your knees, hard on your stick. Rocks that mostly stayed in place when you walked up them now tumble downward and take your boots along.

Despite the challenge, I felt great. We'd eaten more pounds off my back, I was fully acclimated to the altitude, and almost I could have jogged down the slope. It's good that I was still at the back, so my pace was limited by more rational hikers. Still, we continued to make good time, and almost made it back to the trailhead before electing to eat one last lunch. We had a long drive in front of us, after all, and it's more fun to eat in the woods than in a parking lot.

The sun above a mountain on the trail.
Capturing every last ounce of beauty before we re-encounter the parking lot.

So eat we did, and finished off those orange snacks along with most of the remaining sausage and cheese.

And down the mountain we came.

We hit the trailhead just before 3pm, looking surprisingly less tired, less dirty, and less angry than I'd always assumed we would.

Jerry, Meera, Andrew, and Mindy back at the trailhead.
These smiles are nearly 85% sincere!

Meera and I left our hiking sticks, exactly one hand-height now worn smooth (and slightly sweaty) from use, for the next hikers who didn't bring carbon fiber with them. We swapped the boots for the sandals again, and we hopped in the car.

Of course, we still had a seven-hour drive ahead of us.

Drive to Ruidoso

Meera's parents have a condo in Ruidoso, New Mexico, so instead of starting a 13-hour trek to San Antonio at 3 in the afternoon, we had always intended to stop off there on our way back. We mostly had no trouble, and even got some good food and beer at Second Street Brewing in Santa Fe on our way.

Of course, we arrived in the dark, so as the driver I was once again treated to New Mexico's apparent aversion to anything that might make the roads safer or easier to drive.

After a couple of days' rest and recuperation, we eventually made it back to San Antonio, already eager to turn around and go back to the mountains.