About the Forest

Photo of Crystal Lakes - Divide District


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 river 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, a large agricultural alpine valley. The Rio Grande National 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 Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Portions of four Wilderness areas make up almost a fourth of the forest.  

Seasonal Information

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.


Lake Ann in South San Juan Wilderness.From the Sangre de Cristo to the San Juan Mountains, the jagged peaks and rushing rivers of the San Luis Valley public lands wrap themselves around this Rocky Mountain basin. Whether viewing the mountain scenery from roads or finding challenge on trails, visitors discover solitude and self-reliance through uncrowded year-round recreation opportunities.

Forest History

Sheepherder campPredating the formation of the Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF) in 1908 an Act of Congress, dated March 3, 1891, authorized the President to establish reservations of timber lands (State of Colorado 1983). Reasons for this authorization was a growing concern by the public and by newly formed forestry groups for conservation of timber resources. The concern included watershed protection and maintaining the forests for recreational purposes (Robinson 1975).

Public sentiment pertaining to formation of the original Forest Reserves was varied. Generally, the local communities were in favor of the reserves. Farmers wanted protection of the watershed from fire to insure water for irrigation, miners, a continuous supply of timber for their mines, and cattleman wanted the reserves to protect their ranges from overuse by sheep. Local business people were in favor whatever was good for the general welfare of the community (DuBois 1903).

Sheep men opposed the formation of the reserves because they felt that, possibly, the summer range would become closed to sheep grazing altogether. Lumbermen were also worried about restrictions on cutting, although some realized the benefit in the long run (DuBois 1903).

The RGNF was officially created on July 1, 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt in Executive Order Number 887. It was formed by combining 1,102, 798 acres from the existing San Juan National Forest and 159,360 acres from the existing Cochetopa National Forest, for a total of 1,262,158 acres (FS USDA 1908). This original area was within the Rio Grande drainage, excluding the Saguache and Carnero Creek drainages (State of Colorado 1983). In 1944 the west side of the Sangre de Cristo range and the Saguache Creek area were added, while the Mount Blanca area became an addition in 1954 (n.d FS No. 1). Total land area within the RGNF is now 1.84 Million acres. Read more about history of the forest.

Facts about the Rio Grande National Forest

  • The RGNF is so named because the 1,800 mile long Rio Grande begins high up in San Juan Mountains in the western most portion of the Forest
  • The Continental Divide runs for 236 miles along most of the western border of the Forest.
  • Blanca Peak is the highest point on the Forest at 14,345 feet above sea level.
  • The Forest contains a myriad of ecosystems; from pinyon pine and juniper dotted foothills to high elevation alpine tundra.
  • The Forest surrounds the rural San Luis Valley, a large agricultural basin.
  • Portions of four designated Wilderness areas (South San Juan, Weminuche, La Garita and Sangre de Cristo) are located within the RGNF.  
  • Temperatures during the summer peak out around 80 degrees and dip to well below zero during the winter.
  • Some parts of the San Juan Mountains within the Forest average more than 400 inches of snowfall a year.
  • The RGNF is located 3 1/2 hours south of Denver, CO and 3 ½ hours of north of Albuquerque, NM.


The Rio Grande National Forest Leadership Team

Leadership team members stand in front of Rio Grande National Forest Headquarters sign

The Rio Grande National Forest utilizes a Forest Leadership Team approach to setting the Forest’s annual goals, prioritizing projects and workload, and providing guidance to our great team of dedicated land stewards. Meet the team.

Natural Resources

photo of Range Land

Some of the Rio Grande's natural resources include; animals, ecology, wildlife, geological resources, rangeland management, water, air and soil. 

Ranger Districts

Creede Ranger Disrict

Construction on the Rio Grande Reservoir 1928