Backpacking in the Colorado: San Juan National Forest

San Juan National Forest, August 2020

Overall Experience

San Juan National Forest is in Southwest Colorado. One of the closest larger neighboring cities is Durango, Colorado.

It is known for its beautiful mountainous backcountry terrain.

I chose this forest because of its well known dispersed camping trails. Colorado wildfires were wreaking havoc in the northwest Pine Gulch region and sending smoke along the entire state. The trail-head we chose was roughly 6 hours south of Denver, but it was a beautiful and clear sky for the most part. We wanted to avoid adding any extra factors to our strenuous trip!

This was my first ever backpacking trip. Even thought it was extremely challenging, overall I would say that it was a great success!

This blog will discuss the trail, the trip, and a few things I learned along the way!

Here are a few notes from my first trip!

The Trail

This trail led to Emerald lake, a beautiful alpine lake at the top of a 10 mile trail. This is the trail that we took with the intention of a 3 day-2 night- trip.

Unfortunately due to our pack load, come one noob, we were unable to make it to the alpine lake.

The trail was a 20 Mile out-and-back trail, so 10 miles to the lake and 10 miles back. The first 7 of the 10 miles leading up to the lake is only about 750 ft of elevation gain, no biggie. However, the remaining 3 miles to the lake is roughly 2500 ft of elevation. This elevation gain in a short distance combined with the weight of our backs broke us down emotionally a bit and we decided to stay on the lower portion of the trail and enjoy the flowering meadows and beautiful flowing river instead!

Athena and I

There were plenty of camping spots along the river, we happened to find 2 really great secluded spots without being too deep into the unknown.

The trail walked along multiple fences of neighboring by ranches. Athena was ecstatic that she FINALLY got to meet a horse nose-to-nose! She has been catching scents of horses on a few of our hikes, but has not had the opportunity to meet one up close.

Brad, Athena and new friends

She can get wild when she smells a new animal she cannot meet!

Setting Up Camp

The first spot we set up at was a known spot with a small grill and campsite already established. Since we are beginnings of back country dispersed camping, having an already established site was very easy to get comfortable.

The first day of hiking started around 3pm after driving 6 hours. I am thankful that we have a Eureka Suma 3 Tent that has super easy set up because we did not give ourselves enough time to set up, cook and eat, and hang our bear bags before it got dark. When things get dark in the mountains, they get DARK.

For a full review of my backpacking gear, check out this ongoing list and product reviews!

We made everything work, but it definitely did not go as smoothly as I had hoped! Frustrations from driving and getting on the trail late only to realize we were not physically prepared started to boil over that evening.

That’s alright though! It was just time to stop. Take a deep breath of that fresh mountain air and keep moving forward!

It was hard to get any rest, just being in the unknown and all. I kept psyching myself out thinking I heard an animal when it was only the sounds of the soft rapids in the river below!

Soft rapids below our campsite

I believe most hikers have a hard time sleeping their first time in the wilderness so I chalk it up to a learning experience! If you take the necessary precautions for making your camp site as protected as possible, reeeest easy, you’ll need the energy tomorrow!

Athena in the evening
Brad in the morning light

The 2nd day was off to a rough start just from lack of sleep and energy. But, after a nice hot bowl of oatmeal and instant coffee, we were ready to face a new day!

This day we tried to spread out the weight a little more evenly between the two of us, but it was still very heavy and a hard physical and emotional hurdle to overcome. We decided to turn around and head half way back to find a camp spot closer to the trailhead, since on the third day we would be hiking and driving home.

There was an awesome meadow roughly 3 miles back from where started that day. Upon inspection of the meadow, we found a really awesome little tree canopy that was a perfect place to set up near the river once again. It was convenient having a water source near by, outside of 150 ft, for refilling our water bladders and being able to clean up a bit.

After setting up camp the second day with plenty of afternoon ahead of us, we explored down the river. That is when we found a fantastic deep point in the river that we jumped into! That freezing water was sooo refreshing after a long day of hiking in the Colorado summer sun! Brad had a blast and jumped off of an overhang boulder. The water was so clear and flowing with a steady current.

Our personal swimming hole!

Coming from Florida, both my partner and I are desperately missing the accessibility of swimming in springs, oceans and lakes. There certainly are some swimming treasures in Colorado, this was just the first time we were able to get out and enjoy one!


The weather was gorgeous and hot! When we arrived it had just started to rain. This is not uncommon for Colorado during the summer. The rain did not last long and actually cooled the afternoon off a little! After the rain, there was overcast but it was not gloomy, it was relaxing!

It has been in the high 80’s-low 90’s recently so we planned our outfits accordingly. I think having the right clothes can make a world of a difference! Something lightweight and airy, while also having protection from the elements and your own gear. This was something I invested in after this trip.

During the evening and into the morning it was in the 50’s. I was chilly, but nothing a nice warm beanie and jacket couldn’t fix! It was perfect in the morning as the sun began to rise above the mountain skyline, steamy and cool.

Key Lessons Learned

Clothes- Your’e not packing for vacation. Get used to the idea of being a little dirty!

Food- The quality is way more important than the quantity! I discuss some of my favorite snacks and meals in my blog Learning as I trek

Hiking- Go with the flow and allow your body to guide you! Some things dont go according to plan, ADAPT!

Gear- Gear is worth the price! For a full list of the gear I brought with me and a review of my favorite products, check out my post here!

Last day of our trek as we were leaving the wilderness

Do you have any tricks and tips for amateur backpackers? Do you have any favorite trails in the San Juan National forest? Leave a comment below!


Published by thetrekkingturnip

Florida native exploring the Rocky Mountains with my partner and husky pup.

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