Backpack to (the other) Crater Lake in the South San Juan Wilderness

Rate this Adventure San Juan Stock Driveway

Crater Lake - a destination where you just might see more bear tracks than humans - even over the course of a summer holiday weekend in Colorado.

Holiday weekends can be frustrating for solitude seekers. The extra day to play always seems to be challenged by the expected crowds of competition for your sought after spots.  Fortunately for those of us who prefer quieter pastures, Colorado's 3.5+ million acres of wilderness still hold plenty of hidden gems. One such hidden gem is (yet another) Crater Lake, tucked away in the South San Juan Wilderness - an area labeled by many as "Colorado's wildest corner".

The trailhead for Crater Lake is a fair distance off any major highway - roughly 18 miles off of US Highway 160 - in close proximity to relatively unknown Elwood Pass (Forest Road 380). Despite its remote location, the roads into the trailhead in both directions are generally well maintained and (by Colorado standards) were easy for us to navigate during snow-free months. The trailhead does serve as an access point for the Continental Divide trail, so while we saw many hikers in the first mile of the hike, virtually none of them made their way down to Crater Lake itself.

The trail begins near treeline at just above 11,600' and gently climbs through a scattered sub-alpine forest of spruce and fir. Within 10-15 minutes of hiking, the views will open up and the Continental Divide and its various unnamed peaks in the area will be visible. Continue for another 10 minutes on a moderate grade through open tundra meadows up to about 12,040' - the trails may become faint at spots or covered in snow drifts in this area, so, if you're challenged with alpine navigation, be sure to keep a map, GPS or some other resource available. At this point, the Continental Divide trail will merge together with the Crater Lake trail for a short distance of about 1/2 mile. When this merge happens, veer left onto the CDT and continue uphill to the high point of the hike, at about 12,140' just above a small 12,132' saddle that lies off-trail between unnamed Pt's 12,498' and 12,550 (easily seen on topo maps). Off trail, the view from the saddle will face north toward the Elwood Creek drainage. Note: there may be a small seasonal tarn in this area as well.

From this point, you will begin a descent down a short section back down to the official Continental Divide itself (just above 12,000'), where the Crater Lake trail then breaks back off from the CDT. Along the ridge, there is somewhat of a "triangle" junction of trails (along with several other social trails in the area) but coming from this direction, you should simply be able to continue straight on the trail you are on (do not veer left onto the CDT). As a general rule, at this junction, anything continuing along the Continental Divide will veer left, so as long as you veer right and funnel downhill towards the Crater Creek drainage, you will remain on the correct trail. 

Once through the junction, you will begin what becomes a moderate-steep 1200' descent down into the Crater Creek drainage. Shortly after you begin descending, you will see a sign for the South San Juan Wilderness boundary. I expect that most hikers will reach this point within about 1 hour from the trailhead. From this point, continue downhill into the spruce/fir forest, which should begin at around 11,600'. For the next half mile, you will meander downhill in and out of forest and meadow, down to about 11,100' feet where the trail will begin to curve left, around Long Trek Mountain's northwest ridge. The curve will continue to round then even further left in the direction of the Crater Lake basin - nearly steering you into what becomes a long, drawn-out U-turn. This next half mile will be fairly level and densely forested, with a few nice open views down valley in the direction of Wolf Creek Ski Area. We began to see quite a few fresh black bear tracks and scat through this section, so please do be bear aware from this point forward.

As you continue to round the ridge, the peaks behind Crater Lake will begin to emerge. As a measure of time, we caught our first glimpse of the lake itself about 40 minutes after we passed the wilderness boundary sign on the Continental Divide - so, roughly about 1 hour and 40 minutes from the trailhead. As you approach the lake, one trail will veer right to dip down to Crater Creek and cross the creek to access the lake's northern shoreline (an area with campsites). Another trail will veer left, remain left of the creek and continue along the lake's eastern (left) edge into a network of social and game trails (many, many fresh bear tracks and scat were spotted in this area). 

In regards to setting up camp, the campsites on the north end of the lake are all well defined and rest loosely amongst mature spruce and fir trees. Several trees are well suited for hammock setups, if a tent isn't your thing. Multiple seasonal waterfalls were cascading into the lake from the snowfields melting above on the Continental Divide, and the countless signature ripples from trout feeding at the lake's surface were immediately noticeable. Just below the lake's outlet, the creek is loosely filled with logs and driftwood, and absolutely teaming with rainbow, cutthroat and even what looked to me to be some hybrid "cutbow" trout. If fishing for dinner is your game, you should have plenty of opportunities.

The biggest piece of advice that I can offer if you're camping at Crater Lake is to be highly bear aware. I've spent countless nights in the Colorado backcountry, and while we did not see a bear during our stay, the signs of active bears around this lake were vastly greater than any other location I've visited in Colorado since 2004. The last known Grizzly bear ever spotted in Colorado was found in the South San Juan Wilderness back in 1979, so, that alone, should tell you all you need to know about its suitability as bear habitat.

From there, enjoy the lack of crowds and, by today's standards, some relatively unspoiled Colorado wilderness. Several deer approached our camp from time to time and we only saw three other people at the lake over the next 48 hours before packing up camp - a definite rarity over 4th of July weekend in Colorado!

I also must mention, please responsibly pack-in-pack out and make your best effort to leave no trace. Rangers recently removed 438 pounds of trash and 273 piles of unburied human waste from the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. It takes a great amount of many people neglecting their backcountry responsibilities for that kind of situation to emerge. If you visit Crater Lake, please do your part to keep that from happening in the South San Juan Wilderness - every person and animal who visits the area will appreciate your effort. Keep in mind, as well, that at least 1 hour of the hike (in the middle of it) will be at, or above, treeline - so, do factor that into your timing if thunderstorms are in the forecast.

All the while, take joy in the fact that your pack should be much lighter going back uphill on the way back, sans the weight of your weekend supply of food and other consumable items!

Trailhead Elevation - 11,600 ft.
Maximum Elevation - 12,140 ft.
Destination Elevation - 10,900 ft.
Round-trip Distance - 9 miles
Total Round-trip Elevation Gain - 1,780 ft.

Trailhead Coordinates (pulled from Google maps)
37.404709, -106.644985

Crater Lake Coordinates (pulled from Google maps)
37.390793, -106.695448

Pack List

Summer Camp Necessities for this Area

  • Tent or other camping shelter (rainfly of some kind recommended)
  • Sleeping bag rated down to 35 degrees
  • Sunscreen
  • Bear cannister (recommended) - hanging system at minimum
  • Good hiking boots
  • Water filter
  • Rain gear (it rained off and on during our stay)
  • Clothing suitable for areas near and above treeline (temps upper 30s to upper 50s during our stay)
  • Food for the expected duration of your stay
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RT Distance 9 Miles
Elevation Gain 1780 Feet
Activities Fishing, Photography, Backpacking, Hiking
Skill Level Intermediate
Season Summer, Autumn
Trail Type Out-and-Back
Features
Forest
Lake
Scenic
Waterfall
Wildflowers
Wildlife

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

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