Conejos River Headwaters Loop Trailhead: Three Forks Trailhead

Activities: Hiking, Backpacking, Camping, Fishing

Closest City / Town: Platoro, CO (Monte Vista & Alamosa, CO)

Driving Directions:

  • Take U.S. 285 south to Monte Vista.
  • Continue on Colorado Highway 15 (Gunbarrel Road) south 12.0 miles.
  • Turn Right (West) on Twelve Mile Road.  The road turns into FR 250, a dirt road.  Follow FR 250.  (Note: you will be on Twelve Mile Road and FR 250 for 29 miles, which is where you should run into Platoro Reservoir).
  • Next, you will pass through Jasper.
  • Avoid turning onto FR 380.
  • Continue on FR 250 and begin heading up switchbacks to Stunner Pass.  From the summit of Stunner Pass you will descend towards Platoro.
  • Before you get to Platoro the road intersects FR 247 with signs to Platoro Reservoir and the Three Forks TH.
  • Take a right (Southwest) and head towards Platoro Reservoir.
  • After about 3.5 miles, you should arrive at the Three Forks Trailhead.

Hiking Distance: 31.5 miles (roundtrip)

Conejos River Headwaters Loop Trip Report:

Day One – Three Forks Trailhead to Blue Lake:

We began the trip at the Three Forks Trailhead.  It was a relatively flat journey for the first couple miles.  After Splashing through the Conejos River, our group started up towards Blue Lake.  Clouds slowly piled up overhead – a sure sign of perfect weather, right?  Downed trees littered the trail, blown down by a record snow year and strong spring winds.

As our group continued climbing up towards Blue Lake along the El Rito Azul, we could hear an echo coming from the adjacent ridge: “Here goats; come on goats; let’s go goats.”  Soon enough, a dozen or so goats came bumbling towards us.  Their owner – a Nebraskan who was scandalously clad in camo – came slowly thereafter.  As one member of our group recounted, “it looked like the guy was trying to heard cats.”  The goats followed us instead of their master.  The camo-clad individual then grabbed his “lead goat” in hopes that the rest of the goats would follow in tow.  Unbeknownst to the guy, there had clearly been an insurrection earlier that morning.  As he walked down the trail with his lead goat, all of the other little fellas latched onto us.  It took about five minutes to sort things out, but the goats eventually followed their owner downhill.

We  slogged through some snow before we finally hit Blue Lake.  Amazingly, there was a greeting party anxiously awaiting us; millions of mosquitoes exited the woodwork to say hello.  And, at nearly the same time, the skies blackened and the rain began to fall.  Both aforementioned factors – July’s monsoonal rains and mosquitoes – continued to impact us throughout the five day excursion.  Sleep soon followed the rains.

Day Two – Blue Lake to Timber Lake: It was a bluebird morning when we departed for Timber Lake.  One thousand five hundred feet of elevation gain rose before us.  Within a mile, we reached the divide between El Rito Azul and the South Fork of the Conejos River.  Our route dictated that we follow the South Fork up towards its headwaters.  At 11,800′, we hit the krumholtz and trotted beyond the last tree.

Water pooled everywhere; you could see out for miles upon miles.  As we crested over a ridge, a herd of elk and Glacier Lake slowly came into view.  On its west side, a palatial snowfield towered over the lake.  Parts of the massive ice body broke off into the water below.

We stopped at the highpoint of the day, 12,100′ elevation, to savor second breakfast.  The trail dropped steadily from this point down into Canon Rincon.  Hoodoos perched on mountain sides, the most prominent mountain being Conejos Peak.

As we neared Timber Lake, we encountered a fascinating blowdown area – likely caused by a microburst.  Approximately 200 yards wide and an entire ridgeline long, the area looked like 1,000 toothpicks had been laid down in a paralleling fashion by some industrious giant.  We continued to descend and passed directly through the blowdown area.

Needless to say, clouds and mosquitoes filled the sky as soon as we established camp.  Rain forced us into our shelters, yet gave way for a subtle sunset and arching full moon.  Timber Lake made for a perfect camp because it rested upon a cliff ledge like a nest in a tree, offering amazing views into the surrounding canyons.  The night was nearly silent; we were probably the only humans within a 5 mile radius.

Day Three – Timber Lake to Blue Lake:

We quickly razed our tents and retraced our steps back to Blue Lake.  Outside of stalking a large herd of elk (that knew we were in hot pursuit the whole time) and catching a clean eyeshot of Gunsight Pass, the hike was relatively uneventful.  However, there is no belittling the spectacular environs and solitude of the day – both were perfect.

A torrential downpour began around two in the afternoon and seemingly lasted forever.  Rain seeped, then gushed beneath our tents, creating somewhat of a waterbed effect.  It stopped for a brief moment – allowing us to skip rocks across Blue Lake – then continued through much of the evening.

Day Four – Blue Lake to Middle Fork of the Conejos River (aka the day of the flying dog):

Liz and Josh adopted this canine from the Boulder Humane Society, Emma, that will forever be a free spirit.  She was an absolute angel during the first three days of the trip.  It wasn’t until the fourth day that this roisterous angel received her wings and simultaneously decided to grow a pair of horns.

After consuming her regular morning ration, Emma broke into her secret reserve of super juice – also known as Liz’s Carnation Instant Breakfast.  She quickly slurped every last ounce of Liz’s breakfast out of a plastic backpacking cup before anyone realized what had transpired.  Like Gummy Berry Juice, the instant breakfast gave Emma an added boost of energy that simply couldn’t be contained.

We broke camp by 7:30 a.m. and hit the trail.  All 7 miles of the day’s hike snaked along the Continental Divide on the Continental Divide Trail, with the end destination being the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Conejos River.  After wrapping around to the west end of Blue Lake, the trail gave us a narrow glimpse into Navajo Canyon.  Full of large-scale rock walls and raw ruggedness, the canyon resembled a miniature Yosemite Valley.  We paused to absorb Navajo Canyon’s wild beauty, then continued on our journey.

With two hours of hiking behind us and just a couple hundred vertical feet to climb before reaching our highpoint in elevation for the day (12,150′), Arrow and Emma caught sight of a Ptarmigan.  The ptarmigan, a granite-looking bird, quickly took to the sky.  Liz called Arrow and Emma off, and Arrow returned immediately.  Emma, however, had other ideas in mind.  She darted after the bird, dropping out of sight below us.  The bird was never in danger, but we all feared for the dog.

In all honesty, I (Josh) have never expected Emma to live out a full life.  I’ve always pictured her finding her own end by running off some cliff or being swept down some rapid that she thought possible to swim.  And there we were, facing the factual scenario that I envisioned: Emma took off down the mountain into very steep terrain, laden with cliffs and a huge chasm full of ice and snow.  I quickly tore off my pack and raced about 100 yards down the mountain to the edge of a 20-foot high cliff, which dropped precipitously into the ice-filled coulee that ran out for at least 1,000 vertical feet.  Hesitantly peering over the cliff, I expected to see Emma dead or severely injured below.  There was no sign of her.

“There she is,” came someone’s voice from above me.  Somehow or another, Emma managed to fly off the cliff and land unscathed.  Her horns clearly got the best of her, while her wings bailed her out of the sticky situation.  If she were a cat, I’d say that she burned through eight of her nine lives that day.

In Denver, there is a microbrewery called the Flying Dog Brewery.  Our group spent much of the rest of the day joking about how Emma would be the perfect company spokesdog for Flying Dog.  Or, in the alternative, she should at least have a beer named in her honor: Emma Java Porter (a seasonal brew, packed with energy, of course!).

Night four was a gorgeous evening full of fair weather, marvelous views of the surrounding cirque, next to no mosquitoes, and great company.

Day Five – Middle Fork of the Conejos River to Three Forks:

Josh’s alarm, Mitch, knocked on the tent sometime around 4 a.m.  Josh and Mitch agreed the evening before to get up early to climb one of the unnamed peaks in the area in hopes of gaining a good view of the sunrise and the North Fork of the Conejos River.  With no sunlight, only the silhouettes of the peaks to guide the way, the two scrambled to the summit of the 12,887′ peak that shot up adjacent to their camp next to the Middle Fork.  The sunrise was better than most morning light shows, mainly because pollutants from fires raging in California during the summer of 2008 magnified the reds and oranges in the sky.

Josh and Mitch arrived back at camp around 7:30, while the rest of the group stirred from their lairs.  After coffee was had by some and breakfast by all, feet took back to trail (or lack thereof for the first mile).

The last day of any backpacking trip tends to invoke emotions of melancholy and joy. I find that I’m always sad to leave the wilderness and part ways with the folks who I’ve spent the preceding days with; yet, I am typically hungry as a horse, ready for a shower, and eager to sleep in my own bed.

That said, seeing Conejos Falls on the last day of the trip was quite a treat.  Water hurled from the crest of the waterfall and poured down to the pool resting eighty feet below.  From there, it was about a mile to the Three Forks (where the Middle Fork, North Fork, and El Rito Azul converge) and another two miles to the Three Forks Trailhead.

Worth Noting About the Conejos River Headwaters Loop: The last grizzly bear in Colorado was killed near Blue Lake in 1979.  South San Juan Wilderness would be a great location to reintroduce the grizzly bear in Colorado!  This idea is not farfetched and would likely facilitate a healthier ecosystem in the San Juan Mountains.  Visit the Colorado Grizzly Project and Wikipedia article on grizzlies for more information about reintroduction.

Worth Reading: If you’re interested in reading about grizzly bear population decline and history in the Southwest, check out The Grizzly in the Southwest: Documentary of an Extinction. For information pertaining specifically to the history of Colorado grizzly bears, check out Ghost Grizzlies: Does the Great Bear Still Haunt Colorado? For information about hiking in grizzly country, read Hiking With Grizzlies: Lessons Learned.
Are you thinking about taking this backpacking trip and looking for things to do in the San Luis Valley?  We highly recommend checking out some of the other tourist destinations around Alamosa!

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Caitlin from Colorado Springs November 6, 2015 2:14 pm
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So many thanks to The Colorado Hiker for posting this backpacking trip idea. Two of my girlfriends and I took a full week to enjoy the South San Juan Wilderness this last September. Conejos Falls was jaw-dropping!