By Esther Godson
San Juan National Forest recreation managers are planning for another busy season and exploring new strategies to help visitors have safe and enjoyable outdoor experiences while protecting our shared natural resources, wildlife, clean water and healthy forests.
Chimney Rock National Monument opened May 15 and most developed recreation sites across the San Juan National Forest will be open by May 28. Shared stewardship of the land ensures recreation opportunities can be enjoyed by everyone for years to come.
“For outdoor recreationists, the most important message this year is to ‘Know Before You Go,’” said Dolores Ranger District Recreation Program Manager Tom Rice. “We are already seeing more visitation than we saw at the same time last year. Public lands visitors need to be prepared and use best recreation practices. If you don’t know what the best practices are for the activity you have planned, ask us. We’re here to help.”
Recreation on the rise
During 2020, the San Juan National Forest saw a tremendous increase in recreation, with many new forest visitors seeking outdoor experiences. This increase in visitation resulted in overflowing parking at trailheads and along narrow National Forest System roads, often obstructing the roadway and damaging vegetation. Forest visitors created thousands of new dispersed campsites as they pulled off roads and damaged resources, again trampling vegetation and compacting soils with tents and vehicles. Visitors left new rock campfire rings at dispersed sites and negatively impacted municipal water supplies with human waste and trash. The forest reminds visitors of the importance of knowing and following best practices while recreating to help these trampled places heal and ensure we all enjoy our shared natural resources.
Visitors can find developed and dispersed camping information on our camping Web page: https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/sanjuan/recreation/camping-cabins. Many developed recreation sites and group campsites can be reserved through Recreation.gov.
To help keep wildlife wild and reduce unwanted encounters, campers must properly store food at campsites and follow Living with Wildlife guidance from Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Visit https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/LivingwithWildlife.aspx.
Visitors looking for approved areas to dispersed camp must review the motor vehicle use map, which identifies where vehicles can legally pull up to 300 feet off road if it does not damage soil or vegetation. Visitors must follow rules for dispersed camping. Do not damage vegetation, do not level a site and dismantle all structures (including fire rings) when you leave. Utilize sites that have already been impacted to avoid further damage. Pack out trash, human and pet waste.
To reduce crowding at trailheads and parking areas this year, the forest has marked certain trailheads with “No Parking” signs. If there is not available parking within designated areas, please try a new location — do not park off road on vegetation. The forest encourages healthy, active outdoor fun that supports Leave No Trace on the land principles. This is critical for visitors to the Weminuche Wilderness. Remember to leave the wild places you visit the way you would like to find them.
For direction on recreating responsibly, visit the forest regulations Web page at: https://origin-fs.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd754176.pdf.
Roads and trails:
Variable conditions can be expected on several high-country roads and trails during the season. Anticipate conditions that could impact travel such as closed roads, washed-out or debris-blocked trails, trails that are difficult to find, and dead or fire-weakened trees that may fall at any time. Please be patient with forest officials who will be busy assessing conditions to ensure safe roads/trails and working with partners to maintain public access.
Trail work is planned across the Pagosa District trail system this field season. Visitors should know before they go, check route conditions, stay on designated routes and follow all signs. Visit the forest road status Web page at https://www.fs.usda.gov/ or call the local district for current route conditions.
Closures and law enforcement:
The forest is also working closely with local county officials to identify areas for increased visitor information specialists and patrol efforts. Forest recreation staff are exploring more sustainable options for managing these places into the future. Most notably, the Ice Lake Trail, outside of Silverton, Colo., saw tremendous visitation and burned in the Ice Fire. This area is under a forest closure order until critical life-safety trail and road work is complete, including the removal of fire-weakened trees, to ensure public safety.
Fire restrictions and preparedness:
Unfortunately, the San Juan National Forest is still in extreme drought with an above-normal fire year predicted. Due to this danger and compounded by the increase in visitors, the forest is working closely with its state and local partners to determine when to implement fire restrictions. Regardless of when fire restrictions go into effect, the public is urged to be extremely cautious and follow best practices to prevent fires. Visitors are reminded to check current fire danger and restrictions before their visit.
Know before you go:
Visitors can get the most accurate recreation information by checking the San Juan National Forest Know Before You Go resources at https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/sanjuan/alerts-notices/?cid=fseprd608296. In addition to weather forecasts and route conditions for the area, visitors should research how to make reservations on Recreation.gov, how to find campsites and whether campfires are allowed. Make your visit a safe and positive one. Know what you are doing, how to do it right and how to do it safely.
For more information, contact Pagosa Ranger District at (970) 264-2268.
For information on current fire restrictions, conditions and recreation opportunities on the San Juan National Forest, call (970) 247-4874.