Piedra River Trail near Pagosa Springs
Rating: Easy to Difficult
Distance: 11 miles (1-way), 22 miles (out and back)
Upper Trailhead: 7720 feet
Lower Trailhead: 7100 feet
Max: 7810 feet
Gain: 1800 feet (one way), 4200 feet (round trip)
Road Status: First Fork Road (FR622) or Piedra Road (CR600) is open year-round
Trail: Piedra River (596)
Directions to Trailheads
Notes: Great hike for kids. Great early and late-season option. Sand Creek will be impassible in early summer.
There are few locations remaining where the path of a river is too rugged for roads and the natural flow regime hasn't been altered by a reservoir. The Piedra River is one of those places. Accessible only by foot, or whitewater craft, an 11-mile trail clings to the edge of the Piedra as it carves deep box canyons on its journey to the confluence with the San Juan River. Along the way, Williams Creek, Weminuche Creek, Sand Creek, and First Fork increase its size and strength. Although the Piedra doesn't have the Wild and Scenic River designation, the river meets all the criterion.
The Upper Trailhead is located 19 miles northwest of Pagosa Springs via Piedra Road, which is open year-round. The Lower Piedra Trail is located near Chimney Rock, and a Forest Service gate blocks access in the winter. 22 miles west of downtown Pagosa Springs, the Piedra River passes under Highway 160, and the steep, narrow First Fork Road (Forest Road 622/County Road 122) climbs and winds 11.8 miles north to its dead-end near the Piedra Hunter's Campground. The trailhead is located on the west side of the bridge (which is where the road dead-ends).
For good reason, the Upper Piedra Trail is one of the most popular trails in the Pagosa Springs area. The Piedra promptly enters a spectacular sandstone box canyon, which is ideal for day hiking, fishing, and rock climbing. Very few people hike the whole 11-mile trail due to the logistics: the 2 trailheads are 46 miles apart by road, and the 11-mile trail is a bit far for a day hike, especially since it gains 1800 feet on its way downstream. If the 11-mile through-hike is not an option, I will describe several shorter day-hike destinations below (assuming you start at the upper trailhead).
Sandstone Box Canyon (0.6 miles)
The most stunning and yet accessible section of the trail is only 0.6 miles from the parking lot. Great picnic spots are accessible along the bank of the river below the rock climber-covered sandstone cliffs. The cliffs create welcomed shade in the summer and protect a stunning ice column in the winter. It's a great introduction hike for small kids or lowlanders seeking a short Colorado backcountry experience. Watch out for poison ivy along the trail!
Williams Creek Bridge (1.7 miles)
After passing through the sandstone box canyon, the Piedra turns west and the trail follows the broad, gently sloping river terrace. 1.7 miles below the upper trailhead, Williams Creek exits a narrow, remote canyon and joins the Piedra. A helicopter must have transported the steel pedestrian bridge that aids in crossing Williams Creek.
Piedra Stock Driveway (3 miles)
The trail continues to follow the gentle, wide-open river terrace and then gradually climbs away from the river to the next landmark, which is the junction with the Piedra Stock Drive Trail (3 miles below the upper trailhead). Barely visible from the trail, you can see the steel bridge that crosses the Piedra.
Weminuche Creek Bridge (3.7 miles)
Shortly after the Piedra Stock Trail junction, the Piedra Trail climbs steeply above the river. If you pay attention, you'll notice a shift in the geology from sedimentary sandstone to reddish-orange, igneous granite. After a great view down the canyon, the trail drops down a series of switchbacks to another steel bridge that spans Weminuche Creek. You'll notice the geology shifts again to dark, platey metamorphic rock. The trail is a bit overgrown and more narrow as day-hiker traffic dwindles.
Sand Creek (6.2 miles)
As the terrain narrows the trail climbs and clings to the hillside for a while before dropping back down to take advantage of the gentle river terrace. Whoever travels this section on horseback is brave - one slip would send horse and rider tumbling down into the river! White limestone is the next geologic shift as the trail approaches Sand Creek. There is not a bridge spanning Sand Creek since this area, known as the "Piedra Area", is managed like a wilderness. Crossing Sand Creek could be difficult during high water.
2nd Box/Little Sand Fire
Use the next half mile to prepare yourself to rapidly gain all the elevation that you just lost. As the river enters another narrow schist canyon (2nd Box), the trail is forced to climb 500 feet. As it does, you'll pass through a high-intensity burn scar from the 2012 Little Sand Fire. Without the forest canopy, there are great views of Pagosa Peak and an occasional glimpse of the sparkling emerald water muffled by the steep canyon walls. Once you reach the top, there are only 3 mostly downhill miles left to the lower trailhead.
After reaching the high point of the trail (7800 feet), you'll descend steeply back to the river level and pass through healthy ponderosa pine stands recently thinned by a low-intensity section of the Little Sand Fire. Soon, your roadless journey will end at the site of an auto bridge, which crosses the Piedra. There's a spring at the hunter campground if you need water. And if you need a soak, there are undeveloped hot springs that can be accessed from the Sheep Springs Trailhead, a few miles down the road.