South Fork, Colorado!
If you ever wondered where the mighty Rio Grande headwaters might be, then you probably traced the starting point on a map to a spot somewhere in central Colorado. The Rio Grande River actually starts in the Rocky Mountains just a few dozen miles east of Silverton and it winds its way southeast to the front range plains. Locally in the Rio Grande National Forest, this old river meanders its way through the many vast high elevation mountain meadows and Colorado State Road 149 parallels the river all the way to South Fork, which happens to be the gateway to outdoor adventure in this region!
South Fork is located at the intersection of SR 149 and U.S. Highway 160 in south central Colorado. Highway 160 is the main travel corridor for crossing the Rocky Mountains in southern Colorado and the infamous Wolf Creek Pass is located right next door to South Fork. Traversing Wolf Creek Pass can go like a charm during the summer season, but this high elevation mountain crossing can be belted with snow any time a storm front passes through from early fall till late spring. The road is steep in this section of Highway 160, so when the snow falls, snow chains or four wheel drive will be necessary for going uphill.
I can attest to how bad the road conditions can be in Wolf Creek Pass, because I had to do a trip from Durango to Pueblo on Highway 160 in the month of December. The original plan was to take care of business in Pueblo, then do a tour of SR 149 through the Rio Grande Forest on the way back home. As luck would have it, the long road trip took place during a rain storm, which turned into a white-out blizzard in the higher elevations. Wolf Creek Pass was murder to cross that day, because the slush from the fresh snow was turning into ice. My 4×4 Jeep made it through okay, but most of the long Wolf Creek Pass crossing was done under 20 miles per hour, so I ended up getting behind schedule. With the foul weather being the way it was, the original Rio Grande National Forest tour idea was cancelled. I ended up just driving home and waiting a couple of days till the storm passed, then I set sail for South Fork when the skies were crystal clear.
Visiting any place in the mountains after a brief winter snow storm passes through is a great reward for hunkering down to bear out the foul weather. After a winter storm passes, high pressure air usually settles in and the skies turn cobalt blue. The air is fresh, crisp and clean, so drawing in a big lungful feels like revitalization at its best! With the clear blue skies come extra bright sunlight and plenty of glare from the white snow. There is something satisfying about putting on dark sunglasses to view the majestic Rocky Mountain landscape after weathering out a dark storm indoors the day before. It is like there is a whole new revitalized world, especially when one’s own feet are the first to leave tracks in the snow.
The second attempt at doing the Rio Grand National Forest tour went off without a hitch. Even crossing Wolf Creek Pass on Highway 160 was a breeze, since the high elevation road was cleared. Rolling downhill into South Fork while the skies were sunny and bright definitely felt much better than when passing through during the winter storm a few days before.
Everything was a green light for doing the long drive through the Rio Grande National Forest all the way north to Montrose, since no more cold fronts were approaching. The only problem was that this long scenic drive takes all day, so to get to Montrose by dusk, I could not spend too much time at any single place along the way. This meant taking no time for dawdling around in shops or stopping to get a bite to eat at a local restaurant, because any extra time that I had would be spent photographing the scenery along the way. So, the fast and furious photo gathering mission began in South Fork, which is the gateway to both Wolf Creek winter sports and the Grand Canyon National Forest!
The community of South Fork began in the late 1800s as a timber mill site. The rich silver mine just a few miles north in Creede, Colorado, brought the railroad through South Fork and that was when this community saw some growth. Both South Fork and Creede became outposts in this vast wilderness area that sportsman adored. The hunting in this region became famous with big game hunters back in the days of the wild west and this tradition carries on into today’s age. Nearly every town along Highway 160 in the southern Rockies is a primary destination for hunters during the autumn rutting season and South Fork definitely caters to this crowd in a big way!
What is different about the accommodations in South Fork and at other communities in the Rio Grande National Forest is that a visitor will find old fashioned cabins, instead of cookie cutter motel rooms. Staying in an old fashioned timber lodge while on an outdoor adventure sure does add to the charm! Cozy little locally owned restaurants are another thing that one will find when touring this region. There are plenty of antique shops, trading posts and local art galleries in the towns along SR 149 too. If this all seems familiar, then you must have done some touring in Utah, because one will not see nationwide motel or restaurant chains out in the wide opens spaces of that state either. The towns in the entire Rio Grande National Forest region are as old fashioned as it gets and this appeals to those who wish to escape from the modern world.
During the summer, towns like South Fork are bustling with business and the business is good through the fall hunting season. After the last of the warm weather subsides, many of the businesses in this region are boarded up for the winter. Only the businesses that cater to winter sports enthusiasts remain open from November till the weather warms back up the following spring. This means that accommodations and dining options can be hit or miss during the winter season. Therefore, it is best to research businesses that will be open ahead of time, before setting sail for destinations in the Rio Grande National Forest during the winter season. Since South Fork is located at a major highway intersection next door to the Wolf Creek Ski Resort, it is a safe bet to say that every business in South Fork will be open, of course the exception would be for things like white water rafting venture shops.
If you need ski, snowmobile or ATV rentals, gateway towns like South Fork have got your needs covered. There are plenty of fly fishing tackle shops, outdoor outfitters and licensed hunting guides to be found too. All that one needs is a little log cabin to stay warm out in the snow covered woods to cap off the deal and as mentioned before, there are many rustic lodging options in this vast wilderness area. South Fork is as good as it gets as far as a gateway to outdoor adventure is concerned, so be sure to make note of this town when planning a trip to the Rio Grande National Forest in the majestic Colorado Rockies!