Picture a thick aspen forest, with the leaves all bright yellow and golden, and the trunks completely white. Now add beautiful snow-capped mountains in the background, with green, brown, gold, and yellow colored treetops all blending together on the slopes. The weather is perfect – clear blue sky and a temperature around 70. Now, to top it all off, imagine you’re riding through this aspen forest looking at all the scenery, and enjoying the perfect weather.
If you can picture all this, you’ll have a basic idea of our trip to southern Colorado’s San Juan National Forest!
But before I tell you all about the ride, let me give you a less dramatic description of this incredible area…
The San Juan National Forest is located just north of Mesa Verde National Park, in the southwest part of Colorado. It’s exactly 1,878,846 acres in size, reaches into 10 different counties, and covers almost 3000 square miles! Roads and trails vary from amazing, to more amazing, to most amazing. Elevation (in the area we rode in near Mancos) ranged from about 7600 feet to almost 10,000 feet.
Nearby towns are Cortez and Mancos – Cortez being the big one with all the stores, and Mancos being the little tourist type town just a few miles down the mountain from the San Juan National Forest.
We ended up deciding to stay at the San Juan Bible Camp, located north of Mancos at the edge of the San Juan National Forest. It was a perfect location – right at a crossroads of forest roads that zigzag all across the landscape, with an maze of trails connecting them. My dad and I also enjoyed helping out the camp manager with cleanup from some logging that was going on. It worked out good on both ends – the manager got help with some stuff that needed to be done, in exchange for a free campsite for us during our stay.
We started small with our rides – only going 15 or 20 minutes away from the camp. Even within that distance we were able to ride to two small lakes, an ancient Indian cliff dwelling, and beautiful spots to see the mountains. At that elevation (7600 feet), though, there aren’t hardly any aspen. The forest roads are mostly lined with ponderosa pine and some sparse oaks. Once we began venturing farther and farther away, and into higher elevation, the landscape and scenery changed drastically.
On my birthday we went for our first long exploration deep into the National Forest. I felt like a traitor leaving my Honda 250EX behind, but just for the day, I drove everyone around in my parents’ new Kawasaki Mule 4010. After riding for about 30 minutes, we finally got up into the edge of the aspen forests, and it sure was pretty! I think we probably ended up doing more hiking around that day than we did riding. There were three places I pulled over at, and each one seemed more amazing than the last. We rode about 45 minutes one way, not including the almost two hours we spent between the three places we stopped, before turning around and heading back.
The Indian cliff dwelling was somewhere we rode to a couple times, and it was equally as interesting each visit. The only thing really visible from the road is what looks like a small rock wall. After hiking over to look at it, we found the remains of some kind of structure on top of a rock ledge (about 15 feet tall). Further down the rock face there’s a small cave, and that’s where we found the actual “cliff dwelling”. Unlike the ones at Mesa Verde National Park, which we visited twice, this one only looked big enough for one family, and was completely in ruins. Next to the piles of rubble, there are two small drawings on the side of the cave that looked similar to some at Mesa Verde. Of course, alongside them were more recent, less Indian-like, writings such as “ANGELA WAS HERE 1987”, or something like that. We were very careful the whole time not to disturb anything or add our own “artifacts” to the area. All of us should try to help preserve any remote historical site we may find on public land. Just because there isn’t a park ranger looking over our shoulder doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want out there!
Riding about an hour up to around 9000 feet elevation, we finally got into the beautiful forests of aspen trees I was describing at the beginning of this. There were literally areas where the woods were solid white and golden yellow (the aspen trunks are white and the leaves are yellowish gold in the Fall) – no pine or oak trees at all. At certain places up on the a ridge we could see through the trees and look at the snow-covered San Juan Mountains. Up in this area the road started getting rougher. At a couple spots it was only one lane, and with the sharp corners we had to be careful of other people that might’ve been exploring as well. We stopped at several meadows to hike around and take pictures, but usually didn’t stay long so we could see what was just around the next corner, or just over that next ridge.
Finally we came to the well known Transfer Campground and the Aspen Guard Station, way out in the middle of nowhere. At the Aspen Guard Station were several RVs that apparently the rangers stay in. If I worked for the forest service, this is somewhere I’d definitely want to be stationed at – way up in the mountains, surrounded by big pine and aspen trees, and miles away from the nearest town or paved road!
Something I’m not used to, being from southern Missouri, is all the free-range cattle roaming around the National Forest. In Missouri, it’s not very common to see anything but wildlife out there, while in Colorado I’ve found it’s very common to see big herds of cows on almost every ride. Most of them seem to be used to off-road vehicles, but occasionally there’d be one that apparently didn’t like us riding past. Bears and mountain lions are something to be careful of in this area – both have been seen in or around the camp where we stayed.
Another creature we encountered during our ride were hornets. We found two of their cone shaped nests while on our way through a thick patch of woods on a trail connecting two forest roads.
Once hunting season started, that ended any riding for several days. The San Juan National Forest, at least the part we saw, was full of deer! If you enjoy riding AND hunting at the same time, then this might just be a perfect place for you to come visit.
Once hunting season ended we went for one last ride before it was time to load up and head out. Day by day, Winter seemed to slowly be creeping in, and Fall ending. With one last longing look at the snow-covered mountains, golden aspen trees, and green valleys, we left the camp and headed back east.
Actually, as I’m typing this, we’re driving through miles and miles of flat road, cactus, and scrubby cedar trees – Colorado’s less appealing far eastern part. But, before I’m fully reminded of how much I can’t stand the desert and flat plains, we’ll be back to the forest again, somewhere on the other side of Kansas.