Rio Grande NF Overview
Divide Ranger District - Winter scene, large Ponderosa Pines in the foreground
The 1.83 million acre Rio Grande National Forest is located in southcentral Colorado and remains one of the true undiscovered jewels of Colorado. The Rio Grande begins its 1800 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico high up in the San Juan Mountains in the western most part of the Forest. The Continental Divide runs for 236 miles along most of the western border of the Forest and the jagged tops of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains form the eastern border. In between these two mountain ranges sits the San Luis Valley which is a large agricultural alpine valley. The Forest is composed of a myriad of ecosystems ranging from high elevation desert at 7600 feet above sea level to rocky crags at over 14,300 feet in the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Portions of four Wilderness Areas (South San Juan, Weminuche, La Garita and Sangre de Cristo) make up almost ¼ of the Forest.
The Rio Grande National Forest is located in southcentral Colorado about four hours south of Denver and four hours north of Albuquerque. U.S. Highway 285 provides access from the north and south, while U.S. Highway 160 provides access from the east and west.
Spring: The mountains are still covered with a deep blanket of snow, while the south facing slopes of the foothills often begin to dry out in early April. Temperatures vary widely with the lows usually below freezing and the days are often windy with gusts reaching 30 mph or more.
Summer: The high elevations may hold large snow fields on north facing slopes well into July. July is also when the alpine wildflowers begin to bloom, generally peaking during the second half of the month. Temperatures may often reach well into the 80s in the lower elevations, but often peak out in the mid-70s above tree line. Monsoonal flows will often develop in July and bring afternoon thunderstorms to the mountains until late August.
Autumn: The first aspen begin to turn gold in early September, but generally the colors don’t peak until late in the third week of September in the Creede area and then a week or two later on the rest of the Forest. Every year is different and in some years, the fall can be quite mild with temperatures reaching the 70s during the day all the way into early October. Once the first heavy snow falls on the mountains (sometimes in October), the temperatures can bottom out in the single digits at night.
Winter: The San Juan Mountains in particular are famous for their deep snows. Wolf Creek Ski Area averages over 460 inches of snow a year. The light powder that often falls in December and January attracts skiers and snowboarders from around the world. Temperatures can be extremely cold in the San Luis Valley generally dropping below zero every clear night from mid-December to mid-February. The mountains actually tend to be a bit warmer than the Valley and day time temperatures will often hit the 20s, but feel much warmer than that on sunny days.