Would you like to run or hike around the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado? If so, I offer the following advice. I wrote a version of this piece for this month’s column in Ultrarunning, but the magazine only ran part of it due to space constraints, so this full version includes my travel tips. I added a section at the end about a few favorite sub-ultra-distance trail races. Finally, you’ll find a personal update.
Every summer, countless trail runners make a pilgrimage to the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado to experience mountain running. Most nurture a desire to run parts of the Hardrock 100 course, which forms a giant loop through the historic mining towns of Silverton, Ouray, and Telluride while gaining 33,000 feet of elevation over multiple high-altitude mountain passes.
I’m blessed to live at 9000 feet close to a trailhead that connects to the Hardrock route. Social media connections inevitably message me in the spring with something along the lines of, “Hey, we’re coming to your area for a week in July. Can you recommend where to stay and trails to run?”
For them and for you, I offer the following advice.
First, where to stay? For the most plentiful and affordable options, check out Ouray, which has a variety of lower-cost motels, nicer hotels, vacation rentals, and camping spots. It’s also centrally located. You can easily access the middle part of the Hardrock course, as well as explore the routes that branch off from the July 22 Ouray 100 course.
Silverton, home to Hardrock and a 45-minute drive south from Ouray, is a must-see and must-run, but its lodging books up early. Above Silverton, on a mountain pass leading to the mining town of Ophir, sits one of my favorite lesser-known lodging options at 11,600 feet, the Opus Hut.
Telluride, while beautiful and also worth visiting, gets pricey and crowded in the summer due to weekend festivals. Its campgrounds fill up months in advance, and many of its overpriced hotel rooms require minimum stays of several nights. Ridgway, located 10 miles north of Ouray on the way to Telluride, is another good option for lodging. Lake City—the quaint mining town near the east side of the Hardrock route, and the start/finish for the June 25 San Juan Solstice 50—also is a lovely place to spend a couple of nights, although it’s a long, circuitous drive to get there.
Once here, where to go? If I had one acclimating hike/run to recommend, for someone new to the area and adjusting to altitude, it’d be a gorgeous (and “gorge”-ous) four-mile slice of Hardrock near its halfway point on the Bear Creek Trail, in between the town of Ouray and the Engineer aid station, out and back for eight total. You can go farther, of course, but I suggest going out four miles because this will bring you to remnants of a cabin and mining equipment at the Yellow Jacket Mine.
From Ouray, head south toward Silverton and park at the pull-off area next to the Highway 550 tunnel and pick up the well-marked Bear Creek Trail. You’ll immediately experience a common tough trail feature of the San Juan Mountains: switchbacks up talus fields. (“Talus” is chunky, sharp, plate-like rocks covering mountain slopes; “scree,” often found near talus fields, is smaller, scrabbly, loose rock, which covers Hardrock’s infamous Grant Swamp Pass.)
Hike up the switchbacks for a mile (trekking poles help here), and then the trail becomes smoother and more runnable. You’ll find yourself running the lip of a drop-dead (unfortunate pun intended) beautiful river gorge lined with aspen. The sunny south-facing trail hugs the river gorge for a couple of miles until transitioning to a meadow area and pine forest. Keep going until you find yourself admiring the collapsing old cabin at the mining site.
One of my favorite higher altitude, gnarlier sections of Hardrock starts in Telluride (going in the clockwise direction of the route). It’s about five miles one way, from Telluride to Virginius Pass, and gains about 4350 feet. Going up, you’ll understand why Hardrock is nicknamed “Hardwalk.”
From either Town Park or Tomboy Road (at the top of North Oak Street), get to the east end of the Jud Wiebe Trail, which connects after about a mile to the Liberty Bell trail. Keep going up, up, up, and where the trail forks at an unmarked spur midway, keep right. The trees thin out around 11,500 feet, and you’ll find yourself hanging out with marmots in Liberty Bell’s glorious alpine basin. Keep going up and over the Mendota Ridge. Then, if you’re feeling brave, traverse and scramble up scree all the way to the spot of Hardrock’s Kroger’s Canteen aid station on Virginius Pass. You’ll marvel at how hardy volunteers maintain an aid station at 13,100 feet on this narrow notch of a rocky ridgeline, which attracts the San Juan Mountains’ most extreme weather.
In praise of shorter trail races
Longer isn’t always better. I love half-marathon races for the opportunity to push harder for a shorter period of time and finish before lunchtime. If you want to travel to this region and enjoy a sub-ultra-distance mountain race, these are four I’ve run and recommend:
Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton, 12M and 11K, July 10: This race ascends up a mountain on an old mining road and features a summit scramble for the final quarter mile that will make you use your hands and curse out loud.
Telluride Mountain Run, 13M, August 27: Don’t be fooled, this is not “just a half marathon”! It gains 5,000 feet in the first half and hits a high point at 12.8K’ elevation. The second half runs down the Wasatch Basin, which is part of the Hardrock course leading to Telluride in the clockwise direction. (This race also has 24 and 40 mile divisions.)
Imogene Pass Run from Ouray to Telluride, 17M, September 10: This iconic mountain run traverses a mining road and tops out above 13,000 feet. Registration opens June 1 at 6 a.m. and fills almost immediately, so mark your calendar if you want to get online to register.
Ouray Mountain Trail Run, 13M, September 24: This is a low-profile, no-frills, hometown half marathon that provides an excellent introduction to the trails circling Ouray.
Reality bites this Colorado life
I’ll end with a personal update. It’s a downer, but it goes with living in one of the most beautiful places in this country.
You can’t live in Colorado without facing tough issues splintering Colorado communities everywhere—issues involving affordable housing for the workforce in a service/tourism economy, water scarcity and climate change, sprawl and population growth, the divide between haves and have-nots, red vs. blue. These issues dominate Colorado news. I can’t live in a bubble of privilege and ignore it and not do my part to address it, as many part-time wealthy residents who jet into Telluride to spend a few weeks of the year here in their mountain-luxury homes seem to ignore it. I’m trying to do what I can to give back to this community that I love and be part of solutions, not add to problems. But sometimes a proposed “solution” (in this case, a new neighborhood for housing) is more destructive than constructive.
For the past couple of weeks, I have been tied in knots, suffering insomnia, and grappling with tough questions after I learned of a high-density neighborhood being planned a half-mile from our home. For myriad reasons, I believe it’s the first step to opening this whole beautiful mesa for development. Because of my love of this land and my anger at the (lack of) public process, I put out my views on social media. I promptly got labeled a “NIMBY asshole” to which I say, this is Telluride’s backyard, let’s preserve it and gain access for low-impact recreational use so generations of Telluride can experience it as is, and so elk and other wildlife can continue to have their habitat undisturbed. Building higher-density housing closer to town must be exhausted before sprawling.
I am picking a fight that puts me in opposition with community members I know and like. I am committing myself to a long-haul battle that could be costly. It sucks all around, and there are no easy answers.
I will write about it more later, but for now, if you are interested, I invite you to check out these two Instagram posts and my Facebook page which has longer text about it.
Are you confronting similar issues in your Colorado town? Comment below if so.
A Refreshing Change, A Favorite Run
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Oh gosh Sarah, your not a NIMBY asshole. I've been reading your posts on the issue and my take is that it is very complicated and emotional. The problem is hitting many of our mountain towns of course, but there aren't any great solutions. I think you make a pretty convincing case. I for one am wishing you luck in the fight.
NIMBY? No way. NIMBY's oppose things new airport runways that might affect their precious sleep, or just for the sake of it sometimes. You're just being a good steward of a resource that we can either flatten and sell or save for many more generations! Keep up the good fight.