West Elk Wilderness

Peak in West Elk Wilderness

West Elk Wilderness within Gunnison National Forest is 176,412 acres, the fifth largest Wilderness in Colorado. Elevations range from 7,000 to over 13,000 feet. This Wilderness is a large untamed area with little visitation. Only during fall hunting season do the trails and campsites fill with people.

Elk and deer number in the thousands. Here you’ll find mountain passes leading to secluded valleys filled with beaver ponds and lined with trembling aspen that turn gold in September.

Past volcanic activity has produced long lava flows in the area. Ridges have been crumbled and carved by wind and water into fantastic turrets, pinnacles, and crenellated bulwarks. The topography is reflected in many of the area's geographic names: Castle Pass, Castle View, Castle Creek, and the Castles.

About two hundred miles of trails offer opportunities for extended loop hikes through the West Elk Wilderness. Most of the trails provide excellent pathways for horse traffic. Mill Castle Trail is one of the most rugged and scenic trails in this Wilderness.

The rugged mid-country of the West Elk Wilderness is very remote. It is recommended that visitors be able to navigate the backcountry using topographic maps.

Points of interest include: the Castles, West Elk Peak, Sheep Lake, North/Middle and South Baldy mountains, and East and West Beckwith mountains.

For access points off of Gunnison County Road 12 also known as Kebler Pass Road, follow Forest Service Road 709, also known as Coal Creek Road. Coal Creek Road is an 11 mile long, narrow one lane forest road with turn-outs. The Through Line Trailhead is about 9 miles from Kebler Pass down Coal Creek Road on the right which has primitive camp sites and a vaulted toilet. The road ends at the Little Robinson Trailhead just before private property which is gated. Traveling on this road when wet or in adverse weather is not recommended.

Please always use Leave No Trace techniques to help keep these areas wild, clean, and pristine.

View a West Elk Wilderness brochure or Map.

At a Glance

Rentals & Guides: Outfitter Guide Services - Paonia Ranger District, Gunnison Ranger District.
Usage: Light
Busiest Season: Fall Hunting
Restrictions: Wilderness restrictions apply. Dispersed Camping and Horse Camping is allowed.
Closest Towns: Paonia, Colorado; Gunnison, Colorado
Water: Treat all non-potable water before consuming.
Operated By: Forest Service
Information Center:

General Information

General Notes:

National Forest Recreation Map- North Gunnison (pdf)  (Zoomify)

Topo maps

Forest Service Topography Maps: These maps overlay Forest Service assets, such as roads, trails, and campgrounds, on USGS's topographic maps. They are available for download by quadrangle.

Buy maps online

National Forest Store: Offers a full, nationwide selection of National Forest, Ranger District, Wilderness, and Specialty Maps for purchase online or by phone, fax, and mail.

Colorado’s Fourteen Thousand Foot Peaks (14ers)

Fourteen Thousand Foot Peaks on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest.

Find more information about climbing Colorado’s peaks at the Rocky Mountain Region 14ers page.


Go to Wilderness.net for additional maps and information about Wilderness.


Trailheads/trails that access West Elk Wilderness (Paonia RD):

Cliff Creek Trailhead 

Coal Creek Road (709) Access:

Little Robinson Trailhead

Smith Fork (712) / Virginia Creek (814) Roads

Bald Mountain Access (from Black Mesa)/ Crystal Creek Road (713):

Trailheads/trails that access the West Elk Wilderness (Gunnison RD):