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Crater Lake (South San Juan Wilderness)

  • Rating: Difficult

  • Distance: 8 miles (out and back)

  • Elevation:

    • Trailhead: 11620 ft

    • Gain: 2000 ft (630 ft out, 1370 ft back)

    • Max: 12,160 ft

    • Lake: 10,910 ft

  • Road Status: Elwood Pass Cabin (FR380c)

  • Trail: Crater Lake (562)

  • Trailhead Directions (29.3 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs)

  • Trail Map

  • Notes: Lots of elevation gain at high altitude, with large sections above treeline (lightning warning).  Difficult climb back to the trailhead - start early!

Tucked deep within a glacial bowl beneath two rugged 13,000-foot peaks, Crater Lake is one of the more accessible subalpine lakes in the Southern San Juans.  The tarn possesses a unique teal hue and is home to some good-sized native cutthroat, which can be easily seen feeding in the shallow, log-choked outlet. Montezuma Peak and Long Trek Mountain tower so high above the lake that it's difficult to compose a scene without a wide-angle lens.  The deep shade combined with the north-facing aspect ensures that the lake thaws later than most.  Crater Creek originates at the lake outlet, is a tributary to the East Fork of the San Juan River.  


The trailhead is located at 11,620 feet near Elwood Pass on the east side of the Continental Divide.  The sign at the trailhead says 3 miles to the lake, but it's actually 4 miles with steep climbs especially on the way back.  The trail climbs over 500 feet in the first mile at which point it is joined by the Continental Divide Trail above treeline.  The high point of the trail is the crest of the Continental Divide, and shortly after, you'll pass a small reflection pond with a great view into the Crater Creek watershed far below.  The Continental Divide Trail diverges to the left just before you pass the South San Juan Wilderness sign near mile 1.5.  From there, it's a steady descent back into the trees where the well-designed trail contours around through lush wildflowers and offers an occasional view into the East Fork Valley.  As you approach the still hidden lake, the trail splits.  Both routes will take you to the lake, but the right fork is more established and avoids a steep down-climb at the lake and passes through amazing wildflowers.  The right fork crossing Crater Creek, which is difficult to cross at high water, and terminates at a flat bench that overlooks the lake.  The bench has great camping options, but on the weekends, additional camping is available near the main inlet across the lake.  The logs in the outlet are stable enough to cross to the other side of the lake.  A faint fishing trail circles the whole lake.


If you're day hiking, plan to leave the lake earlier than you'd like since thunderstorms often develop before noon.  Keip in mind that you'll have to climb 1250 feet before you pass over the exposed divide, which is not a good spot to be during a lightning storm!  

Trail Map
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