Camping in the San Juan Mountains
San Juan Mountains, CO
After having a pretty stagnant first six months of the year where we did very little travel, this camping trip was incredibly special. Poor planning, a natural disaster, and life having its own agenda left us constantly with cancelled plans. The summer wildfires were keeping us from locations we had hoped to go camping for the time we had taken off, and only 30 hours before we left for this trip was the destination discovered and settled upon. Simply arriving at our destination felt like a feat, because it meant we might finally be going on a trip! What we hadn’t a clue of was how incredible of an experience this last minute 12-hour-drive to southern Colorado would be. Let me show you.
THE EPIC HIKE
Our first morning we woke up at a KOA in Durango, drove to Molas Lake, snagged an epic campsite at said lake, and headed down the road about 20 minutes to the Ice Lake trail head. Being as last-minute as this camping trip was, I hadn’t done proper research of the trail’s length, or how much elevation would be gained. We headed out with one water bottle each and a few apples for a snack - anticipating a 4 mile round trip hike at the most. Around 3.5 miles in, and about 2000 feet in elevation gained, we were almost at the top to Ice Lake when we had to listen to our dizzy bodies. We had too little water and were feeling the elevation (sea level to 11,700 feet in 24 hours). We made the hard decision to turn around, and although it would have been nice to get to the top and see the beautiful blue lake everyone had been telling us about, we had no regrets. This hike took us through mountains and meadows that were truly the most majestic places we had ever been.
Thanks to an Insta-friend I knew who lived in Durango, Molas Lake was recommended to us to seek out for a campsite. We had anticipated staying only one night, but decided to stay the entire trip after arriving. It was one of the most beautiful lakes surrounded by forests and the stunning grey peaks unique to Colorado. The campsites are few, and spread out amongst the landscape - much less developed so you feel like you are really camping in nature and not in a tent parking lot. There are bathrooms, kayaks for rent, and some of the kindest camp hosts we’ve ever met. We luckily snagged the single campsite that was left, and in our opinion, it just so happened to be the most beautiful one.
We walked down to the lake for sunset after our s’mores. We knew it had to be beautiful, but what we didn’t know was that as the sun set behind the mountains to the west, the moon would rise simultaneously over the mountains in the east. The sky lit up the most etherial blue color, and we sat mesmerized - almost unable to take in how serendipitous this trip was turning out to be.
I wake up to Scott climbing out of the tent, knowing it must be time for sunrise. He never misses one when we are out camping. I turn over still sleepy, feeling out if my muscles are working well enough to follow him down tot he lake. They are, so I slowly pull my jacket and shoes on and meet him there. We’re alone as the sky starts to turn from deep purple and blue hues into lighter shades of pink and orange. The bright green forest lights up as steam rises from the mirror-like lake. After it’s completed and our tummies begin grumbling, we head back to camp to enjoy breakfast in the chilly mountain air with a small campfire before heading out to adventure for the day.
I’ve always dreamed of visiting the picturesque mountain town of Telluride, and being this close we just couldn’t miss driving to it for a day. It took around 2 hours, and what a gorgeous drive it was. After parking we walked the town a bit and ducked into a coffee shop when the thunderstorm rolled in (classic Colorado summer storms, they are beautiful). Then we caught the free gondola to take us up where we could see the town from above, and over to another small town that was a bit newer and less charming. We ended up just hopping on another gondola back and really enjoyed seeing the stormy mountains and cute little roofs of the town. We made lunch out of the cooler in the back of our car, walked the farmers market happening in town, and drove back to our campsite for another night of s’mores. We didn’t take many pictures on this day, but here are two from the gondola ride. The rest will just have to happen inside your imagination.
After breakfast we walked in the forest around our campground, packed up our campsite, and went for a kayak in the lake. It was sunny, it hailed, it was sunny again, and then it rained. All in a matter of an hour or two while on the lake. It was awesome. We saw the thunderstorm clouds developing over the peaks, so we pulled into shore and made lunch in the car while looking out over the lake. The hail storm began, then the rain, thunder, and lightening followed. We watched the snow clouds drift over the surrounding peaks, leaving a light dusting. It was an epic show and one of my favorite times of the whole trip. We eventually pulled ourselves away to drive down to the KOA in Durango, shaving some time off our drive home the following morning. Tears were pouring down my face as we descended from these mountains.
STOP FOR SUNRISE
We pulled out of our campsite sometime between 3:30am and 4am, packing our tent up in pitch black darkness. We sat in silence and let the music of S. Carey take us through the southwest corner of Colorado, onto the Indian reservation in Arizona. The sun began to rise, and we pulled off onto the side of the road to take it in while I made coffee on the ground. These are the perks of being up early on the road. The 12 hour drive home slipped by easily. Our souls had just been fed with everything they needed these past few days, and best of all, our trip happened - the curse was broken - and I’ve been dreaming about returning to these mountains ever since.