In this Wilderness, the northern verge of the San Juan Mountains reaches out into the Gunnison Basin, a dry land of sagebrush meadows dotted with fish-filled lakes, including Powderhorn Lakes. Scoured by glaciation, the Calf Creek and Cannibal Plateaus are said to be the largest unbroken expanses of alpine tundra in the Lower 48, and the feeling of sheer vastness unparalleled in Colorado. You'll discover terrain rolling along at around 12,000 feet with views of even higher mountains in the Elk, Sawatch, and San Juan Ranges, broken only by several escarpments that stand especially lovely in the light of the setting sun. Cannibal Plateau was named for Colorado's famous man-eater, Alferd Packer, who supposedly dined on five friends while lost near here during the winter of 1874. Elk and mule deer roam the plateaus and pass through the stands of aspen, pine, spruce, and fir that blanket the lower elevations.
The southern one-fourth of Powderhorn is managed by Gunnison National Forest, and the northern three-fourths by the Bureau of Land Management. About 45 miles of trails access this seldom-visited area. For an easily accessible hike into the backcountry, take the Devil's Lake Trail for 6.5 miles and find a jewel of water set in a treeless alpine meadow high on the plateau.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Powderhorn Wilderness.
The Powderhorn Wilderness is located about 230 miles southwest of Denver, about 30 miles south of Gunnison, and about 7 miles northeast of Lake City, Colorado. There are 5 trailheads. Entrances on the north end include the Powderhorn Lakes and the Ten Mile Springs Trailheads. The Devil's Creek Trailhead is on the west side of the area and the Powderhorn Park Trailhead is on the southeast side of the Wilderness. The Brush Creek Trailhead is on the south end of the Wilderness. Visitor Centers and BLM/FS Offices in both Gunnison and Lake City provide maps and directions to these trailheads.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
The Powderhorn Wilderness is a fairly popular destination for recreationists. During the summer, most of the use focuses on the Powderhorn Lakes Trail which leads to two scenic lakes. Visitors looking for more solitude should consider access into the area via the other trailheads. During the fall, while hunting use is widespread across the entire area, much of the use is centered in the eastern portion of the Wildeness.
Recreational opportunities include hiking, backpacking, fishing, horseback riding, and hunting. The area offers outstanding opportunities for solitude and self reflection. All trails can be used in conjunction with each other to create a beautiful 4 or 5 day trip.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
Season of use is mid June through November. Summer temperatures usually range from nighttime lows of 40 degrees F to daytime highs of 80 degrees F. Afternoon rain showers are common and often heavy. Map and compass use are good skills to have in this area, especially when hiking on the plateaus. Sunscreen, rain gear, and plenty of drinking water are recommended.
Safety and Current Conditions
Care should be taken to avoid ridgetops during rain showers because of lightning strikes. Take your time, enjoy the scenery and avoid over-exertion. Be sure someone knows where you are going and when you plan to return.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.