San Juan Splendor: Circumnavigation of Mt Wilson

While winter has already set in over in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, Todd Gillman and a troop of friends snuck in one last hurrah of the year, a two-day leaf peep bike tour to circumnavigate Mt. Wilson while the leaves were still poppin’. Read on for Todd’s lively route description and file this instant backcountry classic away for next year—you won’t soon forget Aaron LaVanchy‘s stunning photo set…

Here’s a lightly-traveled adventure route that’s spittin’ distance to the edge of civilized society, yet remote enough in the Back Forty that crossing paths with others is unlikely, dispersed camping is plentiful, and experiencing a serious mechanical or injury would be quite inconvenient. This one will test both the fast ‘n light contingent on their single-day speed challenges, as well as the rest of us average joes on a standard high-elevation two or three-day bikepacking adventure. With eye-popping San Juan Mountain scenery along its entire length, you’ll have your hands full simply maintaining focus on what’s rolling beneath your wheels.

Some would claim that Southwest Colorado’s rugged San Juan Mountains are among the most stunning in the state, if not the entire nation. I happen to be one of those people. The San Juans encompass an area of over 12,000 square miles and boast the US’s highest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks, as well as Colorado’s largest wilderness area (Weminuche Wilderness). The mighty Rio Grand-ee-o is born here, as are the San Juan, the Dolores, the Animas, the Uncompahgre, and the Piedra Rivers.

This route, however, celebrates just the Wilson Group, a subset of high peaks on the western reaches of the San Juans that’s home to the Lizard Head Wilderness and feeds the Dolores and San Miguel Rivers. The Wilsons are iconic for their perfect form—a child’s drawing of mountains will inevitably turn out looking much like the skyline formed by Wilson Peak, Mt. Wilson, and Sunshine Mountain as seen from HWY 145 near Telluride. If you’ve ever felt the call of the wild while staring at the alpine scene on the label of a Coors Light, well, that’s the Wilsons. Literally. From afar, they often appear to be a range unto themselves, separated from the rest of the San Juans by miles of high mesas and aspen-shrouded meadows. But a short jaunt south of Tinseltown reveals a connection of sorts to the rest of the rugged peaks to the east of the range near Ophir, where a narrow cleft in the mountains through which the old Rio Grande Southern Railway once carried ore, coal, and passengers between Durango and Ridgway, forms one of the highlights of the ride.

As a geographical circumnavigation, one cool feature of this route is that it can start and end at numerous points along or near the loop. I live in Rico, in the Dolores Valley on the southern side of the Wilsons, and have always just started from home, but one could just as easily do the same from Ophir, Telluride, Placerville, Norwood, or even Dolores. Additionally, there are endless ways one could tweak the route to make it longer, shorter, or more or less difficult. I’ve ridden it four times and haven’t yet done it the same exact way twice.

After our last adventure in October 2023 at the peak of Southwestern Colorado’s explosion of fall colors, I’ve landed on the version I like the best, at +/-115 miles and +/-13K feet elevation gain. Unless you drive to a starting point somewhere along the actual route (which is easy to do), you will probably spur onto and off of the loop from one of the aforementioned communities. Starting in Rico necessitates a 12-mile / 1,200-ft paved climb up to Lizard Head Pass. Alternatively, you could just park up at Lizard Head to avoid that cold-start pass climb on HWY 145, but you’ll end up climbing back to your car at the end of your trip—no matter where you start or finish this route, there will be no free lunch.

I’ve done it both clockwise and counterclockwise. I’ve done it as an overnighter. And I know that people will do a slightly shorter version as a century. There are a couple of alternate singletrack leg options that add some challenge for more of an MTB feel, and yes, you can absolutely extend the route infinitely in all directions on the endless USFS, BLM, and county roads that tie into the loop. Speaking of MTB’s, if you’re coming from out of the region to ride this route, you’ll be just a short drive to Moab’s famed trails, so you might as well bring your squishy rig along even if you’re planning to ride the gravel/ATB on this multiday route.

I’ve enjoyed myself the most doing this one as a two-night trip, allowing for more time to really soak in the stunning surroundings, contemplate life’s complexities and questions, and enjoy the camp experience more. Don’t let the relatively short daily distance numbers lure you into sandbagging yourself; there is substantial elevation gain and some rowdy, rim-taco’ing terrain to negotiate. A poorly timed mechanical can easily turn your casual camp plans into a late-night arrival, or even a brutally long evac. Treat the route as a backcountry experience and be prepared for the types of things that can go wrong in that environment.

The route is characteristic of the San Juans, which is to say, big ups followed by equally big rewards on the descents. If ridden counterclockwise from Rico, the first big up comes immediately with a climb to the headwaters of the Dolores, and crossing over into the San Miguel drainage where San Bernardo, Sunshine, and Yellow Mountains all come together in a tight pinch of awe-inspiring alpine ruggedness at Ames. The views over the Ilium Valley, up into the Ophir Valley, and to the north toward the Sneffels Range are stunning from your precarious perch on the Galloping Goose rail-trail, but try to keep your eyes ahead on the big mixed descent that follows the South Fork San Miguel down to its confluence with the main Miguel. (An alternate MTB/singletrack option exists in this zone by taking Sunshine Mesa Rd from the rail grade steeply up to the Wilson Mesa TH, followed by 13 seriously rugged and rooty miles of ups and downs. Not recommended for rigid bikes.)

You’ll soon be making up all that lost elevation on a brutally steep climb out of Bilk Creek back up to and then across Wilson Mesa. This leg takes you through a wide swath of rare undeveloped high mesa land with breathtaking views of the SM Valley, San Sofia Ridge, the ski resort, and the Wilsons. But you’ll soon reconnect with polite society as you wind your way through the ranches of Wilson Mesa (please close the gates behind you), before dropping down to Fall Creek Rd. Climbing again, you’ll approach Woods Lake, where, if you’re looking for a chilly dip, you can add a couple miles of additional climbing to reach this stunning alpine lake. There is developed camping here. Otherwise, you’ll follow 618 to the right en route to the expansive Beaver Park zone. This is another long pass climb that can be broken up by finding good camping along this stretch.

I like to start day two by finishing the climb and then the five-mile descent that follows is one of the best of the route, taking you down into the wide open rolling foothills of Beaver Park and the West End. Once you cross Beaver Creek, you’re basically on a long, steady climb to the eastern flank of the 12,600-ft Lone Cone, the westernmost major peak of the San Juans. The end of this climb (and the start of the descent) is rugged, chunky backcountry jeep road and is very remote—don’t blow it here. An alternate MTB/singletrack spur exists at around mile 62 at Goat Creek, a climb that will meet back up with the main route on its descent from Lone Cone.

This zone holds snow late into spring, and on our last trip was already holding snow from the two small storms we had in early fall. The descent down to W. Beaver Creek is phenomenal with stunning views of the west San Juans and back to Lone Cone. Camping is plentiful at the bottom, or you can begin your climb following W. Beaver—be careful not to get lured off-route, as the “main” (manicured gravel) road bends left before a burly climb that leads you into the hinterlands. Be on the lookout for Rd 612, a rutted, rough road to the right that follows W. Beaver up toward Groundhog Mt. There is also ample camping along this section.

Topping out on Groundhog affords sweeping Southwest views of the Four Corners area including the Abajos, Sleeping Ute, and the lower Dolores Canyon. Excellent descending ensues leading you back to the toe of Dunn and Dolores Peaks, and ultimately down to the West Fork of the Dolores River at the swanky-yet-rustic Dunton village/resort. The last big grind awaits, where you’ll ascend from the depths of the WF Valley back up to the base of the high peaks of the main Wilson Group where the imposing fourteener El Diente dominates the view. Once you’ve reached the scenic high meadows at Kilpacker TH, you’ll be on the home stretch back down to HWY 145.