Situated just southeast of Telluride, the county of San Juan is one of the least populous in the state, making it the ideal destination when all you want to see is the wide open wilderness. Snow-capped peaks loom over nearly every horizon, and the paths are littered with robust trees and a menagerie of wildlife, worlds away from any 4×4 service center. But don’t let the isolation steer you away: this slice of the state plays host to some of the best views, toughest climbs, and exhilarating creek crossings. Just be sure to check in with your mechanic in Fort Collins before making this epic southwest journey, and pack all the necessary gear for both off-road driving and survival. You never know what forces of nature you’ll encounter in this pristine untamed frontier.
This is our list of three of the most fun and varied off-road adventures just waiting to be had. Perform a systems check of all your 4-wheel parts, grab a buddy or two, and you’ll be good to go!
- Skill level: Easy to Moderate
- Trail length: 6.15 miles
- Nearest City: Silverton
- Elevation: 10,400-12,100 feet
If you don’t mind traveling a bit of a distance for some true peace and quiet, then Kite Lake is a good choice for you. Since you have to travel the length of the Stony Pass Trail (appx. 11 miles) before even reaching Kite Lake Trail, chances are you won’t encounter many other people here. The path is relatively easy going, with a smattering of large rocks and a couple of creeks to traverse, but the scenery and opportunities for hiking and camping are plentiful. This out-and-back trail culminates at the lake, a gorgeous blue diamond (or kite)- shaped water feature, where you may see a brave hiker or two setting up camp or enjoying the surreal views.
To get here from Silverton, follow 550 and bear right on the paved road. After 5 miles, turn right on County Road 4 (there’s a sign for Stony Pass) and follow this for 1.75 miles to the trailhead.
- Skill Level: Moderate
- Trail Length: 5.34 miles
- Nearest City: Silverton
- Elevation: 11,500-13,200 feet
The intense hills here will provide a chance to improve on your skills and put your rock-crawling 4-wheel parts to the test. Massive outcroppings and cliffs dot the area, and the trail can be downright dangerous in spots, with its sheer drop offs and rocky squeezes. Be sure to bring a friend and stay focused during this run! The incredible views of both Hurricane Peak and Lake Como may prove distracting to some, but if you want to keep things mellow, simply opt out of the overlook spur section. However, if you are ready for a challenge of wits and capability, this section leads to one of the best outlook areas in the state. Since this will place serious strain on your rig, be sure to run it by your mechanic in Fort Collins when you return to put everything back in tip-top shape.
From the nearby ghost town of Animas Forks, take either the California Gulch or Poughkeepsie Gulch to the trailhead (three different trails converge here).
- Skill level: Challenging
- Trail Length: 4 miles
- Nearest City: Ouray
- Elevation: 10,100-12,600
One of the highest-recommended trails in the region, Poughkeepsie Gulch has a silly name but packs serious punch with its infamous rock obstacle course and nail-biting climbs. Along the short but technical trail, there are many lines to choose from, ranging from the conservative to the downright crazy, and many opportunities for mistakes. Several sections may require the use of a winch, especially just after a rain, so be sure to check in with your local 4×4 service center to test yours out: chances are you might not make it to the top without it! This trail is not for the timid driver, nor is it safe to run as a single vehicle, so grab some daring-but-experienced friends and make a day of rock-crawling adventure here.
From Ouray, take Hwy 550 south approximately 3.7 miles until you see the trailhead for Mineral Creek on the left. Follow Mineral Creek 3.5 miles to the Poughkeepsie Gulch trailhead.
If you ever find yourself in this undomesticated swath of Colorado, don’t hesitate to take advantage of the incredible off-road experiences that lie in wait. There are dozens to choose from within a relatively small area, so consider making a weekend of it. And like always: be safe, check your 4-wheel parts before embarking, never travel alone, and make sure you and your rig are prepared for whatever may come!