Rio Grande National Forest

Continental Divide Trail

Continental Divide Trail
General Information
The Continental Divide is the crestline of the majestic Rocky Mountains. It is one of Colorado's most prominent topographic features. Locally, the Continental Divide serves as the backbone between the Rio Grande, Gunnison, and San Juan National Forests. Approximately 235 miles of the Continental Divide flank the Rio Grande National Forest.

Even though a Continental Divide National Scenic Trail was designated by Congress in 1978, no specific trail or route has been marked on the ground. No marking of a designated route for the Continental Divide Trail will take place until after Congress has accepted a Comprehensive Trail Plan. Currently, interconnecting trail and road segments nearest the Continental Divide are commonly referred to as the route encompassing the Continental Divide Trail.

Elevations of Rio Grande National Forest trail routes near or along the Divide range from 10,500 feet to near 13,000 feet at a few isolated locations. At times, the trail will cross back and forth over the Continental Divide. Other times, certain trail segments depart from the Divide as much as three to four miles. A substantial portion of the Continental Divide Trail is above timberline, traversing alpine and sub-alpine grassland vegetative types. The trail along the Continental Divide travels through segments of the La Garita, Weminuche, and South San Juan Wildernesses.

Travel along the trail or road routes nearest the Continental Divide is not recommended before the first part of July or much after October 1st. Persons planning trips earlier or later should be prepared for winter mountaineering conditions and high water at stream crossings. Weather conditions along the Continental Divide can be very severe between October and July. Trail routes will often be hidden by drifted snow, making route finding very difficult, if not impossible. High winds can also be expected.

Summer travel along the Continental Divide Trail can be an enjoyable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Spectacular panoramic views are numerous. Opportunities to view a variety of wildlife species, to fish, to find solitude, to climb nearby 14,000 foot peaks, to challenge one's outdoor abilities, and to feel the raw beauty and grace of Mother Nature abound along the Continental Divide Trail.

Summer travel along the Continental Divide Trail can also be an unenjoyable experience for the person who is unprepared for the high elevations, the intense summer lightning and thunderstorms, and the rugged topography that must be traveled. Persons planning to travel the Continental Divide Trail are strongly encouraged to have appropriate topographic maps, proper (warm) clothing, sun glasses, sunscreen lotion, good camping gear, and be in good physical condition. Hikers are also encouraged to check in with local District Ranger Station personnel, inform them of hiking plans, and ask questions about specific trail segments they plan to travel.

The Continental Divide Trail twists and winds for approximately 65 miles through the Weminuche Wilderness on the Creede Ranger District and the adjoining Ranger Districts of the San Juan National Forest.

The trail is in rugged country, with elevations ranging from 10,600 feet to 12,000 feet. The majority of the trail is above timberline, crossing alpine grasslands, snaking up steep, rocky, talus slopes, and weaving through willow fields, wet meadows, and rock slides.

Vast, panoramic views from mountain peak to mountain peak and mountain range to mountain range are limitless in number and beauty. Feelings of solitude, closeness to nature, and spiritual awareness can easily fill one's soul while traveling along the backbone of the Continental Divide.

Continental Divide Trail #813: Stony Pass to Hunchback Pass Segment

Trail Beginning: Approximately 1/2 mile below Stony Pass, at the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, at an elevation of 12,200 feet.
Trail Ending: At Hunchback Pass, approximately 3/4 mile southeast of Kite Lake, at an elevation of 12,500 feet.
Length: 5.6 miles. (9.0 km.)
Use: Very Light
Difficulty: Moderate
USGS Map(s): Storm King Peak, Howardsville
Recommended Season: Summer to Early Fall

Access: Travel southwest from Creede on Colorado Highway #149 for approximately 20.1 miles to the junction of Highway 149 and Forest Development Road #520 (Upper Rio Grande River Road), then approximately 33 miles to a point about 1/2 mile below Stony Pass. A 4-wheel drive vehicle is required for the rough road conditions the last 17 miles of this route. Snowbanks and high creek crossings usually limit vehicle access until the first or second week in July. The trail crossing of the road is signed.

Attractions & Considerations: This segment of the Continental Divide Trail is not difficult to hike for those that are acclimated to high elevations and are in fair to good physical condition. Most of the hard climbing was done by the vehicle getting to the trail beginning. Wide open, grassy, rolling hill and plateau-like country is traversed. Numerous small"potholes" dot the landscape along the trail.

The trail provides access to trails leading to several lakes adjacent to the west side of the Continental Divide. Verde; Lost, El Dorado, Highland Mary, and Silver Lakes are the most popular for fishing. Kite Lake is a dead lake, so don't try fishing there. Evidence of historic mining activity can be viewed in the Kite Lake Area. Layered rock formations that have been twisted, turned, and uplifted provide striking geologic beauty in the Hunchback Pass Area. Camping spots can be found but lack of trees for cover and firewood can make camping difficult.

Narrative: The trail tread is not well-defined on the first 2-3 mile segment of the trail. Some stock driveway sign posts and rock cairns help mark the travel route. Before dropping into the Bear Creek Drainage, the trail basically parallels the Continental Divide. The trail will also become a 4-wheel drive road once the hiker comes to the area with old mining activity, north of Kite Lake. The 4-wheel drive road will intersect with the road to Kite Lake. After crossing the Kite Lake Road, the trail will begin to make a 3/4 mile climb to Hunchback Pass. For the most part, this final section of trail is well-defined.

Continental Divide Trail #813: Hunchback Pass to Weminuche Pass Segment

Trail Beginning: At Hunchback Pass, approximately 3/4 mile southwest of Kite Lake, at an elevation of 12,500 feet.
Trail Ending: At Weminuche Pass, approximately 4 miles south of the Rio Grande Reservoir, at 10,600 feet elevation.
Length: 20.4 miles. (32.6 km.)
Use: Moderate to Heavy
Difficulty: Moderate to Hard
USGS Map(s): Rio Grande Pyramid, Weminuche Pass
Recommended season: Summer to Early Fall

Access: Travel southwest from Creede on Colorado Highway #149 for approximately 20.1 miles to the junction of Highway 149 with Forest Development Road #520 (Upper Rio Grande River Road), then approximately 26 miles, to the Beartown Road #506 Junction. Proceed up the Beartown Road to 1/4 mile below Kite Lake, where the Continental Divide Trail #813 crosses the road. Hike 3/4 miles southwest to Hunchback Pass. A 4-wheel drive vehicle is required for access to the Kite Lake Area.

Attractions & Considerations: Many vacation adventures await visitors to this segment of the Continental Divide Trail. Perhaps foremost is the opportunity to see and visit the towering Rio Grande Pyramid mountain peak and the adjacent "Window" area. The raw beauty and inspiring views in this area will long be etched in the visitor's memories. The extremely rugged, ragged beauty of the Needles Mountain area of the Weminuche Wilderness can also be viewed in the distance from the trail, when traveling from Hunchback Pass to West Ute Lake.

Access to many fishable lakes in the Upper Vallecito and Ute Creek Drainages is provided by this trail segment. West Ute, Middle Ute, Twin Ute Lakes, Ute Lake, Rock Lake, and Flint Lakes either adjoin the trail or are a quick side trip. People pressures are high from mid-July to mid-August along the Continental Divide at the head of the Vallecito and Ute Creek Drainages.

This trail segment is well-above timberline for all but a one or two mile stretch near Weminuche Pass. The best camping areas are off the trail and at or below timberline, where trees provide protection, comfort, variety, and fuel wood.

Narrative: The trail from Hunchback Pass begins by making a fairly steep 1 mile descent into the Vallecito Drainage before making a steady climb up Nebo Creek. Approximately 1/2 mile up Nebo Creek, the trail will turn and pass through a flat open meadow below the towering ragged cliffs of Mount Nebo. The trail will continue through grassy open meadows and slopes before reaching West Ute Lake. The trail will then switchback up the rocky slopes south of the lake before reaching the divide between West Ute and Middle Ute Drainages. The Continental Divide Trail is very poorly defined from this divide to Twin Ute Lakes. Heavy willow growth and wet boggy areas make travel difficult to Middle Ute Lake. Most people follow the defined tread of the West Ute Cut-off Trail to the Main Ute Trail below Twin Ute Lakes. They rejoin the Continental Divide Trail at Twin Ute Lakes and proceed over hilly open country toward Main Ute Lake.

After reaching the ridge above Main Ute Lake, the trail will shortly make a steep winding ascent to the headwaters of the Rincon La Osa Drainage. The trail will again become poorly defined at the headwaters of Rincon La Osa. Be careful not to go down the well-defined Rincon La Osa Trail unless you are looking for a nice camping area in the tree-lined meadows. By staying close to the Continental Divide, you will eventually pick up the well-defined trail tread heading up the steep slope below the "Window". The trail will cross the Divide below the "Window". Once again, hikers need to be careful not to go down the Rincon La Vaca Trail but should bear northward across the open meadows below the "Window" and "The Rio Grande Pyramid". Shortly, the well-defined tread of the High Line Trail will come into view. Following this trail will take one along some narrow cliffs before dropping sharply to Weminuche Pass.

Continental Divide Trail #813: Weminuche Pass To Knife Edge Segment

Trail Beginning: At Weminuche Pass, approximately 5 miles from 30-Mile Campground, at 10,600 feet elevation.
Trail Ending: At Knife Edge, approximately 1/2 mile above Trout Lake, at an elevation of 11,800 feet.
Length: 17.2 miles. (27.2 km.)
Use: Moderate to Heavy
Difficulty: Moderately Hard
USGS Map(s): Weminuche Pass, Little Squaw Creek
Recommended Season: Summer to Early Fall

Access: Travel southwest from Creede on Colorado Highway #149 for approximately 20.1 miles to the junction of Highway 149 and Forest Development Road #520 (Upper Rio Grande River Road), then approximately 10 miles to 30-Mile Campground. Take the Weminuche Creek Trail #818 from the campground to Weminuche Pass. Once at the Pass, cross the diversion ditch and stay to the east side of the headwaters of the Pine River and you should have little trouble picking up the Continental Divide Trail #813.

Attractions & Considerations: Opportunities for many beautiful panoramic views exist along this segment of the Continental Divide Trail. Plenty of film will be needed by the camera buff. Fishermen will find some short side trips can be made to Trout, Williams, and Squaw Lakes. A side trip to Squaw Lake will provide a good camping area and good fishing, but a steep climb back to the Continental Divide Trail. Side trips to either Trout or Williams Lakes do not involve hard climbs back to the Divide Trail.

Much of this trail segment is above timberline. Good camping areas, with tree cover can be found at Weminuche Pass, the head of the North Fork of the Pine, and at Squaw Pass.

Domestic sheep grazing occurs in the area from Squaw Pass to the head of Snowslide Canyon. Bighorn sheep can occasionally be observed in the area near Hossick Peak. Elk can also be observed grazing at times in many of the meadow areas. The best areas for seeing elk are usually near Chief Mountain and at the headwaters of Little Squaw Creek.

Elevations are high and the air is thin, so plan to be in good physical condition. It is usually best to do your hiking in the early morning to early afternoon hours. Afternoon thundershowers can be severe, with few areas along the trail providing protection from lightning hazards.

Narrative: Shortly after leaving the tree cover at Weminuche Pass, the trail will cross a water diversion ditch and proceed through a wet, boggy meadow for about one mile. The trail will then turn easterly and proceed up the North Fork of the Pine River. It will climb gradually through the spruce-covered slopes of this drainage before getting above timberline and crossing the boggy meadows and willow fields at the head of Snowslide Canyon. The trail will continue along a broad open grassy ridge along the Continental Divide for several miles. It will then begin making a gradual descent through open meadows and parks below the rugged rocky cliff-like country near Hossick Peak. After Squaw Pass, the trail will make a rather strong climb through scattered spruce timber patches before entering the open grassy ridges near Chief Mountain. The trail will continue along the backbone of the Divide, weaving back and forth from one side to the other until it reaches the open pass between Williams Lake and Trout Lake. The Knife Edge lies directly ahead, with the trail carved into the side of a cliff, jutting sharply out from the Continental Divide.

The trail is well-defined for the vast majority of this segment. Some portions of this trail segment are poorly located on the Forest Service l/2" mile map, so it is best to have the more accurate U.S.G.S. topographic maps for reference and orientation.

Continental Divide Trail #813: Knife Edge To Sawtooth Mountain Segment

Trail Beginning: Approximately 1/2 mile south of Trout Lake at an elevation of 11,800 feet.
Trail Ending: Immediately south of Sawtooth Mountain at 12,400 feet elevation.
Length: 21.3 miles. (34.8 km.)
Use: Moderate to Light
Difficulty: Moderate to Hard
USGS Map(s): Spar City
Recommended Season: Summer to Early Fall

Access: Travel southwest from Creede on Colorado Highway #149 for 7 miles to the junction of Colorado 149 and Forest Development Road #523 (Middle Creek Road), then 9 miles on this road to the Trout Creek Trailhead. Proceed on the Main Trout Creek and West Trout Creek Trail to Trout Lake. The Continental Divide Trail #813 can be seen south and above Trout Lake as it traverses the fabled Knife Edge.

Attractions & Considerations: Beautiful views, isolated wild country, elevations approaching 13,000 feet, and spine-tingling climbs along-rocky cliffs await the hiker of this trail segment. The hiker who likes to fish will find only one fishable lake within two miles of the trail. Goose Lake not only is good fishing but has several nice camping areas. Little Goose Lake is a dead lake. Good camping areas, with comfortable tree cover are fairly frequent between the Knife Edge and Piedra Pass. From the Pass to Sawtooth Mountain one may have to wander away from the trail a short distance to find a nice flat camping area with tree cover and ready water supply. Hikers usually have this segment of the Continental Divide Trail all to themselves, as not too many people visit this part of the Divide during the summer months. Several trail junctions are not well-defined or signed, so be sure to have a U.S.G.S. topographic map for guidance. If you find yourself wandering more than a mile away from the Divide, stop to check your map to make sure you did not start down one of the ten trails that junction with this segment of the Continental Divide Trail.

Narrative: This trail segment begins with a 1/4 mile traverse of the cliffs that form the fabled Knife Edge. Crossing the Knife Edge is not as scary as it used to be, as the narrow, rocky trail tread of the past has been "improved" to reduce hazardous conditions. From the Knife Edge to Piedra Pass, the trail will go up and down like a roller coaster. Most of the "ups" and "downs" are reasonably short steep pitches. The trail stops quite close to the Divide and frequently weaves above and below timberline. From the water diversion ditches at Piedra Pass, the trail will make a rather lengthy long climb towards South River Peak. From the South River Peak Area to Sawtooth Mountain, the trail will wind along the crest of the Continental Divide, well above timberline. Some of the highest elevations along the trail occur in this segment of trail. Following this section of trail is occasionally difficult in places as some sections of trail tread can be indistinct.

Continental Divide Trail #813: Elwood Pass To Sawtooth Mtn.

Trail Beginning: 11,630 (3545 m) Ft. Elevation. Elwood Pass, approximately .25 miles west of the old Elwood Guard Station.
Trail Ending: 12,400 ft. elevation. Junction with Highline Trail #832 near Sawtooth Mountain.
Length: 25 miles. (40 km.)
Use: Moderate
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
USGS Map(s): Elwood Pass, Wolf Creek Pass and Spar City.
Recommended season: Summer

Access #1: 23 miles (37 km) west on highway 160 from Del Norte Ranger Station (7 miles--11 km--west of South Fork) to Park Creek access road #380. Turn left and follow Park Creek Road for approximately 17 miles (27 km) to the old Elwood Guard Station (cabin). The trail is about 1/4 miles (.4 km) west of the cabin.

Access #2: Wolf Creek Pass on U.S. Highway 160 20 miles (32 km) southwest of South Fork.

Attraction & Considerations: This is a small portion of the Continental Divide Trail which runs from Canada to Mexico. Much of this portion of the trail is at or above timberline. Many years find snow present until late June or July and severe weather can occur at any time. The high elevation and rugged terrain make this a moderate to difficult trail. The scenery along the trail is spectacular.

Narrative: As this trail winds along the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico it passes through a wide variety of topography and life zones. This particular portion of the trail, from Elwood Pass to Sawtooth Mtn., crosses some of the highest elevations on the trail. The trail is in good condition and not extremely steep. It is open to both foot and horse travel.

Continental Divide Trail #813: Elwood Pass To Blue Lake

Trail Beginning: 11600 Ft. Elev. (3536 Km.) at Elwood Pass
Trail Ending: 11460 Ft. Elev. (3494 m.) at El Rito Azul Trail #718
Intermediate High Point: 12680 Ft. Elev. (3866 m.) at Montezuma Peak
Intermediate Low Point: 11240 Ft. Elev. (3427 m.) at Adams Fork Trail #713
Length: 22.9 miles. (37.5 km.)
Use: Medium
Difficulty: Easy to most difficult
USGS Map(s): Elwood Pass, Summit Pass, & Chama Peak Quads .
Recommended season: Summer to Early Fall

Attractions & Considerations: The Continental Divide Trail is part of the proposed Continental Divide National Scenic Trail which will start at the Canadian Border on the north and continue to the Mexican Border on the south. The portion of this trail which passes through the Alamosa Ranger District is almost entirely within the boundaries of the South San Juan Wilderness area. The visitor should become familiar with Wilderness regulations before entering. The trail at present is poorly maintained and lacks adequate signing in places. Because of it's condition, it is suggested only experienced hikers attempt this trip. Horseback riders should be very cautious at the present time due to the numerous potentially dangerous areas. Visitors who do use the trail will be rewarded for efforts by spectacular vistas in all directions. Due to the exposed nature of most of this trail, extremely close watch should be kept on weather conditions.

Narrative: The Continental Divide Trail continues onto the Alamosa Ranger District, just off Forest Road #380 at Elwood Pass. Approximately 5 miles south of Elwood Pass the South San Juan Wilderness Area begins (motor vehicles are prohibited). The trail continues to the Conejos Ranger District boundary at Blue Lake on the South. The trail is poorly maintained and inadequately signed most of the way. The trail is scheduled for reconstruction but work has not yet begun. There are stretches of the trail which pose dangers to the careless or inexperienced hiker. Horse travel is dangerous at present due to these conditions which pose dangers even to riderless horses. Suitable camping areas are not numerous but an adequate number do exist. Water is available along the trail, but should be treated prior to use. The trail is above timberline most of the way. Sudden and violent storms can be expected. The visitor should be prepared for these and always watchful for their approach. The trail offers access to Crater Lake, Lake Ann, and Blue Lake.

Numerous trails provide access to the Continental Divide Trail. These offer numerous loop possibilities for trips of varying lengths. The following is a list of trails on the Alamosa District which offer access to the Continental Divide Trail:

  1. El Rito Azul Trail #718
  2. Middle Fork Trail #712.02
  3. North Fork Trail #714
  4. Adams Fork Trail #713
  5. Crater Lake Trail #707
For additional trails which offer access to the Continental Divide Trail, check the Del Norte and Conejos Ranger Districts of the Rio Grande National Forest, and the San Juan National Forest.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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