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San Juan Mountains Colorado: Hiking & Wildlife Watching in Pagosa Springs

Pagosa Springs, our picturesque town nestled in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, is a nature lover’s paradise. The surrounding San Juan National Forest is teeming with native wildlife, and a diverse network of hiking trails leads to some of the area’s most outstanding views.

Our Pagosa Springs hotel is ideally located on the banks of the San Juan River, making it the perfect retreat for outdoor enthusiasts and casual wilderness explorers alike. When you stay at our Travelers’ Choice Award-winning hotel, you’re only a short distance from relaxing hot springs and a beautiful riverside trail in our backyard. Check out our top picks for outdoor adventure and fill your trip itinerary with wildlife-watching sessions and hikes along nearby trails during your stay with us.

Hiking in and around Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Hiking boots, standing on a log.

Trails for the Novice Hiker

Whether you’re new to nature hikes or seeking a trail the whole family can enjoy, you’ll find plenty of short trails with minimal elevation change in Pagosa Springs. Remarkable views await on the Treasure Falls Trail, a half-mile hike that will let you get an up-close look at the 105-foot-tall Treasure Falls waterfall. Similarly, the Piedra Falls Trail is a mile-long hike that will take you to the Piedra Falls waterfall.

Enjoy a lakeside hike by the waters of Harris Lake on the 1.6-mile Buckles and Harris Lake Trail. The family-friendly route is a short hike that takes travelers through scenic open meadows perfect for birdwatching or spotting wildflowers. The Opal Lake Trail is another short yet moderately-steep hike that winds through forests and crosses green meadows before arriving at Opal Lake, a picturesque destination all year-round.

Catch a glimpse of history in the Chimney Rock National Monument area with a short hike along the Great Kiva Trail. The .33-mile paved trail will take you to the remarkable Chimney Rock Archaeology Area, where you can see several historic structures and artifacts. Visitors to the site can expect to see ancient homes and ceremonial buildings built by the Ancestral Pueblo people, an ancient culture that inhabited the region hundreds of years ago.

Views of the road coming out of Pagosa Springs. Mountains with a little snow cover.

Intermediate-Level Hikes

Several moderately challenging trails wind throughout Pagosa Springs with steeper ascents and rockier terrain. Trails to mountaintops like Albert Peak and Long Trek Peak are longer hikes with greater elevation gain and uneven paths but culminate in remarkable mountain views. Hikers can see unique rock formations on the way up before resting at the top and admiring the scenic vista below.

Lace up your hiking boots and make the trek to Crater Lake along the Crater Lake Trail, a four-mile hike through lush foliage to the crystal-clear lake. If you prefer a more challenging waterfall hike than the Treasure Falls or Piedra Falls trails, travel the Fourmile Falls Trail, an approximately four-mile hike to a 300-foot-tall waterfall. After you reach the falls, you can turn back or continue on the trail for another four miles for a challenging hike with an even greater change in elevation.

Learn more about many of the hikes in the area on the Pagosa Springs Area Trails website.

Pagosa Spring Ranger Station sign

Treks for the Outdoor Expert

Stop by the Ranger Station in Pagosa Springs to pick up area maps. Experienced outdoor adventurers will find a plethora of challenging trails with steep inclines and rocky paths in southern Colorado. Located about an hour north of our hotel, the Cimarrona Trail will take you on an eight-mile hike through the Weminuche Wilderness to Cimarrona Peak in the San Juan Mountains. The first two miles of the trail are relatively easy, but don’t let that fool you – the trail will quickly become steep, with a total elevation gain of over 2,500 feet.

For another challenging hike through the beautiful Weminuche Wilderness, take the nearly ten-mile Williams Creek Trail. The trail is lengthy and has a total elevation gain of over 3,000 feet, but travelers will cross through remarkable rocky canyons and find overlooks that offer incredible views of Williams Creek.

Wildlife Watching Spots in Pagosa Springs

In between hikes, relax along the water or settle on a bench to see Colorado’s diverse native wildlife. Travel the paved San Juan Riverwalk trail near our hotel for the opportunity to see elk, deer, and water birds like mallards and sandpipers on the banks of the river. The warmth of the natural hot springs means that visitors to the wetlands can often expect to see wildlife in the area all year round.

In addition to its unique historic sites, the Chimney Rock National Monument is also a great location to spot wildlife. Plan a trip out to the rocky habitat to see wild animals like red foxes, prairie dogs, and several species of snakes and lizards.

Birding enthusiasts will enjoy a trip to Echo Canyon Reservoir, where waterfowl like osprey, ducks, and white-faced ibis can be seen flying above the waters. Fishing is also permitted with a valid fishing license, and anglers can expect to reel in species like rainbow trout, largemouth bass, and black bullhead catfish.

Bobcat hiding in the grass.

Wildlife Watching Tips

For a better chance at spotting unique wildlife, make sure you’re in a good location and causing minimal disturbances. We encourage guests to practice responsible exploration in order to preserve the natural area and increase their chances of a wildlife encounter.

Check out the following tips to make sure your wildlife-watching session is a successful one.

  • Choose the ideal time. Wildlife tends to be most active in the morning or shortly before dusk. Rise early or stay out late to increase your odds of seeing a diverse range of animals.

  • Do your research. Read up on the area and season to learn what type of wildlife you can expect to see. A little reading can help you choose an area where wild animals are most active.

  • Keep your distance. Use the “rule of thumb” when approaching wildlife. You’ll know you’re at a safe distance if you can stretch your arm out and hide the silhouette of a distant animal with your thumb. Remember to remain quiet as you watch, as the sounds of people can startle wildlife.

  • Leave no trace. Keep the natural area free from human interference. Pick up any litter, don’t feed wildlife, and make sure the area remains mostly undisturbed.

  • Pack the proper equipment. Bring along binoculars and a camera to capture the moment you cross paths with wildlife. You’ll also want to wear earth-toned clothing that makes minimal noise to avoid alerting animals to your presence.

Between scenic hiking trails, unique natural habitats, and remarkable historic sites, Pagosa Springs is your best bet for an outdoor getaway. Book now at our RiverWalk Inn to start planning your outdoor adventure in the beautiful Colorado wilderness of Pagosa Springs.


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