Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Early pioneers came and miners arrived to this region of the San Juan Mountains in search of silver and gold. While the pioneers have come and gone, the Rio Grande National Forest retains its natural beauty and rich pioneer heritage. The Rio Grande offers a fantastic opportunity to get away from the crowds that flock to the Alpine Loop, without giving up any of the natural splendor that the Rockies are famous for.
Adventure Rating: Epic
Trip Length: 246 miles, 3-6 days
Season: June - September. Check with the Rio Grande NF regarding the status of high elevation mountain passes.
Technical Rating: Green
Typical Terrain: Well maintained dirt and gravel forest service roads. A few sections of the route have rocks, but nothing technical.
Recommended Vehicle: Subuar with all terrain vehicles.
Adventure Vans: Yes! 4x4 Sprinters should be able to manage the entire route.
Alternative Routes: Yes! See the bottom of the route details sections.
Need a Rig?
Colorado Overlander provides rentals of off-road and 4×4 vehicle fitted with rooftop tents, outdoor camping equipment that are perfect for your next adventure to Utah or Colorado.
The Rio Grande is an expansive national forest encompassing more than 1.8 million acres, stretching from the Colorado-New Mexico Border and north into the heart of the San Juan Mountains. While the Alpine Loop and the San Juan National Forest tend to draw large crowds of off road travelers and adventurers, the often overlooked Rio Grande National Forest has much to offer in terms of scenic beauty, majestic alpine vistas, a rich pioneer and mining history, and with a fraction of the crowds. One of the major benefits of the Rio Grande Backcountry Discovery Trail is its geographical location. The route sits squarely between the Peaks and Passes Adventure Route to the north, and the Carson Backcountry Discovery Trail to the south. The official start of the the Rio Grande Backcountry Discovery Trail (BDT) sits at the border Colorado-New Mexico border, which also happens to be where the Rio Grande and Carson National Forests meet. Dropping down the mountain, the route quickly meets the first discovery point-- the Cumbres & Toltec scenic railroad and the quick jaunt on pavement along highway 17. The highway gradually climbs, until it reaches first alpina pass along the route; La Manga Pass (elev. 10,230). As the highway begins to descend, the Conejos River comes into view. After you cross the Conejos, swing a left onto the well maintained dirt road that is FR 250, which follows the river for several miles. There are a number of developed campsites along this section of the route, along with numerous fishing locations. The trout fishing along the Conejos is reputed to be among the best in the state. As you make your way up northward up the valley, the surrounding mountain vistas can seem at the same time overwhelming and surreal.
At the base of Red Mountain, the route turns right onto FR 260 (Silver Lakes Road), another well maintained dirt road that circumvents the lower flanks of Red Mountain. The trail descends into another spectacular alpine valley, where the Alamosa River flows freely. After crossing the Alamosa, swing a left back onto FR 250. A few miles up the road you'll come across the old mining camp of Jasper (DP-4), that was founded in the late 1800s. Some more miles down the sits Stunner Campground. Just east of the campground, is the ghost town of Stunner, a failing mining camp. Once you've reached Stunner, you'll be on on FR 380, which climbs up to Elwood Pass (elev. 11.650). FR 380 is an incredibly scenic road filled with meadows, the surrounding alpine forest, and vista after vista of the towering Rocky Mountains. If you're seeking a bit of "luxury" along the route, consider looking into reserving the historic Elwood Cabin (DP-7), which was originally built in 1911 and served as a telephone line shack.
The descent from Elwood Pass is abbreviated, as the route beings its ascent up to the saddle of Grayback and Bonito Mountains. If you're seeking 360 degree views of the surrounding San Juan Mountains, we highly recommend taking the spur to the summit of Grayback Mountain (elev. 12.616'). As you descend down Grayback Mountain, consider making a stop at the picturesque Upper Beaver Meadows, a favorite among local and visiting photographers. The trail makes a brief ascent up Hogback Mesa, before dropping into the quaint mount village of Alpine. Considering refueling at the gas station just to the east, in South Fork. From Alpine, the route ascends the slopes of Pool Table Mountain, which happens to be one of the rockier sections of the route. If you like side adventures outside of the vehicle, consider making a stop at the Wheeler Geological area, a geological wonder comprised of eroded volcanic outcroppings. Descending the western slope of Pool Table Mountain, the Rio Grande River comes into view, along with its headwaters in the surrounding mountains. Just up stream sits the idyllic mountain village of Creede, where jagged vertical cliffs seamlessly transition into the storefronts of Creede's downtown, that looks more like a western movie set than a real town. Founded as a mining boomtown in the late 1800s, Creede and its surrounding mountains are filled with old mines and ghost towns. Silver was mined in large amounts, but gold, zinc, and lead were also extracted from the mines. A favorite OHV route in Creede is the 17 mile Bachelor Loop, which travels through the old mining districts in the northern slopes above town. Consider heading to the Creede Visitor Center to pickup a copy of Bachelor Loop Guidebook for a nominal fee. Some of the larger mines with many in-tact buildings and structures include the Commodore Mine (DP-14), Amethyst Mine (DP-15), and the Last Chance Mine (DP-17). The Bachelor Loop does have a few steep sections, but nothing that would qualify as a blue trail. Upon completing the Bachelor Loop route, hop back onto the pavement of Hwy 149 and head west until you reach the dirt of FR 520 (may be referred to as road 18 on some maps). Take note of the surrounding mountains, and the surrounding valleys and gorges that were carved out by glaciers over the millennia. There are a number of great developed campgrounds along this section of the route, but be prepared to pay a fee (check the Rio Grande NF site for info). Despite the proximity to the Rio Grande's headwaters, the river supports Road Canyon Reservoir (which you'll past first), and the more scenic Rio Grande Reservoir. From the Rio Grande Reservoir, continue to follow FR 520 up the slopes towards Stony Pass. During the summer, keep an eye out for the wildflowers on the western slopes, and if you're lucky, you may even catch a flock of sheep grazing. This part of the road is filled with rocks, and a number of streams that cross the trail. These streams are the headwaters that fed the once mighty Rio Grande River. The road tops out at Stony Pass (elev. 12,592') before making the descent into the old mining outpost of Howardsville, where the route concludes. If you need amenities or fuel, head left to the town of Silverton, a few short minutes down the road.
There are a number of high quality developed campgrounds along the route, especially along the Rio Grande, Conejos, and Alamosa rivers. However, the scenery and topography of the surrounding mountains is incredible. We encourage visitors to take advantage of dispersed camping, which is permitted by the Rio Grande National Forest.
DP-1: Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
DP-2: La Manga Pass
DP-3: Conejos River
DP-5: Stunner Ghost town
DP-6: Elwood Pass
DP-7: Elwood Cabin
DP-8: Summitville Gold Mine
DP-9: Grayback Mountain
DP-10: Upper Beaver Meadows
DP-11: Wheeler Geological Area
DP-12: Rio Grande River
DP-14: Commodore Mine
DP-15: Amethyst Mine
DP-16: Last Chance Mine
DP-17: Rio Grande Headwaters
DP-18: Stony Pass
Maps + Navigation
>> Always check with local land managers for road closures and conditions.
Gaia GPS (Neotreks Land Use layer, Gaia base layer)
Download GPX file
TIP: To expose alternative routes and points of interest in Google Maps, open the sidebar and select the desired layer.