Conejos Peak Loop, South San Juan Wilderness, CO

Situated in the south east corner of the wilderness, this 22.2 mile hike in the Conejos Peak (pronounced coe-NAY-hoes) area offers a mix of wooded valleys, alpine meadows and huge herd of elk. It begins at the South Fork Trailhead on FR 250, follows the South Fork, Canon Rincon and Roaring Gulch Trails.

The Maps: The maps are true 1:24,000 scale based on the USGS 7.5 minute quadrangles. The loop is shown in red and is based on the GPS track taken on the hike. The trails in blue and purple are other trails in the area and are from the Forest Service GIS dataset. There was very good correlation between my new GPS track and the forest service’s version of the loop, so I suspect the other trails depictions are reliable. The purple trail is the Continental Divide Trail. Green depicts unmaintained trials such as to the top of Conejos Peak. The green and black line is the wilderness boundary. The forest roads are in black and based on aerial and satellite imagery. Check with the Forest Service to make sure the minor or more remote roads are passable with your vehicle. Although camping is at large, selected established camp sites are green “^”.

These maps are FREE to download and print. Click on image to access full size maps and download them. They are formated for 11x17 paper. Alternatively, both maps are available on 11x17 Rite in the Rain weatherproof stock for $5/sheet ($10 for the set) plus S&H. Email cew5151@gmail.com.

Trip Mileage Table: Click here for trip mileage table.

Track of the Loop: This link is to a Google Earth KML track file of the Conejos loop. You should be able to right click the file and save it on your computer. Then open it with Google Earth to see the entire loop in interactive 3-D. You can also load this on top of the wilderness dataset found on the South San Juan page. If you have the right software you can select the tracks you want and load them on your GPS.

Google Earth Images:
Waypoints SJ-01 to SJ-04
Waypoints SJ-04 to SJ-05
Waypoints SJ-05 to SJ-06
Waypoints SJ-06 to SJ-07
Waypoints SJ-07 to SJ-08
Waypoints SJ-08 to SJ-09
Waypoints SJ-09 to SJ-10
Waypoints SJ-10 to SJ-11
Waypoints SJ-11 to SJ-12
Waypoints SJ-12 to SJ-13

The Hike. The Conejos Peak Loop begins at the South Fork Trailhead. Sign in at the registry at the south end of the parking lot (SJ-01, 0.0 miles) and begin walking down hill to the Conejos River on Trail 724. While the trail is not blazed, the path is usually evident. This won’t be the case if there is a lot of snow pack.

On the way down to the river, pass an old cabin on your right (0.2 miles). It is behind a fence so it is probably on private property. At the bottom of the hill there are several small hills spread across the valley that look like drumlins. However, they are facing the wrong way, with the steep slope on the down glacier side. While that configuration would be ideal for a roche moutonnée, it lacks the exposed striated rock.

Cross the bridge over the Conejos at 0.4 miles and reach the South Fork sign (SJ-02, 0.4 miles). In front of you to the west is the open grass covered valley of the South Fork. The trail veers north, heads up a slight hill, passes a gate (0.7 miles) and reaches the junction of Trails 724 and 720 (SJ-03, 1.0 miles). Turn left and pass the Trail 724 post. For the next several miles you will hike though meadows and small sections of trees. At 1.7 miles there is a distinct trail the heads straight up a small rise towards the trees. Turn left instead on what appears to be a lesser trail and stay in the meadow heading west. In this area you will pass a pretty aspen grove covered with corn lilies.

Cross Hansen Creek at 3.3 miles. When we crossed on the July 4th, 2008 it was a braided stream of cobbles with multiple channels. We could get about half way across before we had to take off our boots. There was a lot of snow melt so it may be a dry crossing later in the year.

SJ-04 (3.7 miles) was our camp site. We came in late, were not sure there would be a good site in the narrows of the South Fork canyon and set up in a meadow next to an open grove. The best part of the site was a spectacular set of rapids (video) in the creek. About a mile beyond the site, pass through another gate. Soon the valley will narrow into a canyon and the trail will cling to the north side. With a few exceptions, the trail stays several hundred feet above the creek.

At SJ-05 (5.9 miles), Trail 726 takes off to the south, crosses the South Fork and heads up Canon Verde. There are several good campsites here, one in the upper meadow south of the junction and another next to some trees down by the creek. The loop continues west on Trail 724. Although there was a sign pointing the way, the path was over grown making it look like the trail might have been re- routed. That was not the case, it was just over grown. Future hikers may not have the benefit of the sign because it was dangling half off the post.

At about 6.4 miles the trail crosses a talus slope of fractures reddish andesite. At about 7.3 miles the trail passes under an excellent out crop of the volcanic conglomerate. About 0.1 miles before SJ-06 is a small stream side camp site and then the crossing of Canon Rincon. The water was pretty high and it was another wet crossing. SJ-07 (7.9 miles) is the junction of Trial 722 and 724. The sign post was down but you could still read the signs. Trail 724 stays on its western course to Blue Lake. Turn north on 722.

Since the gate this side of SJ-04, the trail has gained 850 feet. It is another 1600 feet up the Canon Rincon to the upper meadow. Cross the Canon Rincon again at 9.3 miles. This was also wet for us, and in more ways than just the creek crossing. We got hit by a short but violent thunder storm and were pelted with dime size hail. After it ended it was back on the trail (video). At about 10.2 miles we hit a boggy meadow where the trail disappears and got nailed by another storm (video). Once again short lived and the last of the trip.

SJ-07 is in a huge alpine meadow and is the junction of four trails. The Glacier Lake trail heads west, crosses the Canon Rincon and switch backs up the cliff to Glacier Lake. Going southeast is the trail to Timber Lake. There is another trail to the west Twin Lake, but it wasn’t very apparent in the meadow. The same is true for the fourth trail, our trail (722), which goes north past the east side of the east Twin Lake. We found a great campsite (video) up the hill from the junction that would have provides shelter if to stormed again and some excellent views (video). This where we began seeing the elk herds.

Back at the 4-way intersection, just head north keeping west of the stunted Engleman spruces until you see a cairn and a path heading north. If you can’t find it, just head to the east side of the east Twin where the path is again prominent. After passing Twin Lakes the trail splits for a few hundred yards and come together at the top of a small nose (SJ-08, 11.5 miles). Take in the view (video). To the south and south east is the valley you ascended. To the south west is the plateau where Glacier and numerous other lakes reside. Below and to the west are Twin Lakes. To the north across a mile of alpine meadow is Conejos Peak. To the east even more meadow. And below, next to your feet, are clumps of rich blue alpine forget-me-nots and white mountain phlox (?).

According to the Trails Illustrated map, trail #722 is now called the Twin Lakes Trail. According to the Forest Service GIS data, it is still the Rincon Trail. Since there are few markings and the signs tend to just point out destinations, it should not cause you any trouble in the field. If you want to debate which is right, you'll note that I continue to call it the Rincon Trail on the maps so I'll take that side.

The next mile (video) was my favorite. The trail traverses the meadow at about 11,800 feet passing two small lakes. Just before the Hansen Creek we crossed a snow field that also provided a bridge across the creek. To the west and north were two herds of elk numbering as many as 100 head, working their way across the upper valley (video) just below Conejos Peak. Below us to the southeast, the waters of Hansen creek were lost in a snow tunnel only to exit in a roar of thundering water.

SJ-09 (12.4 miles) is just across Hansen Creek where the trail to Conejos Peak and Tobacco Lake head north up the slope. The loop follows the sign to Roaring Gulch and goes down hill to the east. There is another junction at mile 12.9 (SJ-10, 12.9 miles) where Trial 722 heads north to Saddle Creek and a trailhead on Forest Road 105. The loop goes right and southeast on trail #720. Trails Illustrated calls Trail #720 the Conejos Trail and then the Roaring Gulch Trail. The Forest Service only uses Roaring Gulch. Once again, I don't recall any signs on the trail adopting either name.

The next several miles are mostly level, through alpine meadow and a few wooded patches. The vistas continue to be outstanding as you get unobstructed views of this alpine environment. The path disappears in this area but it always comes back. Look for the occasional cairn. After a short climb you’ll reach SJ-11 (15.9 miles), the ruins of a log cabin and a post marking an abandoned trail to Bear Lake. The area is very level and may seem like a good place to camp. However, the large expanse of level ground to the north was a mosquito bog (video) when we were there and I am not so sure it dries out in late summer. Although the post for the Bear Lake trail is present, there is no sign and no sign of the trail.

Go down hill cross the creek and head up towards the break in the trees on the next ridge. There is not much of a path so look for cairns and blazes. Pick up the path in the woods and lose it again in the next meadow as you pass to the left of a small pond. Back to the woods again and then out as you switch back down a small talus slope and into an isolated meadow (16.6 miles). The trails heads back into the woods at the southeast corner of the meadow. It was not readily apparent at first because there were a lot of downed trees and snow patches masking it. Look for the tree blazes.

Now the switchbacks begin dropping 2300 feet over the next 4.5 miles. The first and smaller set end at a long meadow that follows the upper reaches of Roaring Gulch. There is a small creek side campsite right next to the crossing at the upper end of the meadow. After the junction with the trail to Bear Lake (SJ-12, 18.3 miles) the switchbacks continue in long descending legs. The aspens forests in this area were magical. The trails passes through another gate at 20.8 miles (SJ-13) and closes the loop back at SJ-3 at mile 21.2. The last mile takes you back to the bridge and uphill past the cabin to the trailhead.

Info: USGS 7.5 minute Quadrangles: Spectacle Lake, Victoria Lake, Platoro and Red Mountain. Rio Grande National Forest, 1803 W. Highway 160, Monte Vista, CO 81144, Telephone: 719-852-5941. Website: http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/riogrande/.  

Directions: From Antonito CO take Highway 17 west for 22.5 miles. Turn right on Forest Road 250, a gravel road marked with a sign for Platoro. Go north 11 miles to the South Fork Trailhead.

To Buy Maps: These maps are FREE. Click on image to access full size maps and download them. Both maps are available as a two map set on color, weatherproof, Rite-in-the-Rain paper (11x17). The maps are $5/sheet ($10 for the set) plus S&H by emailing cew5151@gmail.com.

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