The Beginner’s Guide to Hiking Sangre de Cristo Wilderness

Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range

The Sangre de Cristo Wilderness is one of southern Colorado’s true hidden gems. This vast wilderness area in the San Luis Valley of Colorado covers nearly 220,000 acres (with parts in both Colorado and New Mexico) and it is home to several challenging hikes. The highest peak in the mountain range, Crestone Needle, is over 14,000 feet above sea level.

The Spanish settlers gave this area the name that means “the blood of Christ” because of the red color that the mountains turn at dusk and dawn. This area is also home to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, making it a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts and nature photographers.

This beautiful part of Colorado is managed by the Forest Service and the National Park Service. It has over 180 miles of trails, as well as amazing views at every turn.

This part of Colorado is certainly not for the faint of heart – many of the cliffs soar up nearly vertically and most of the trails require overnight stays. But the lush landscape and numerous waterfalls and lakes make this wilderness area incredibly scenic.

If you’re planning on adding a stop to the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness on your next family vacation, there are some things you need to know beforehand.

1) It’s All About the Prep

Hiking Excursion

As with any hiking excursion, you will want to make a comprehensive list of all the supplies you will need for the trail. According to All Trails, there are thirty-four hiking trails in total in this area, with twenty-six rated to be ‘challenging’ and ‘difficult’.

The shortest hike is 4.6 miles, with the longest being 23.1 miles – so you will definitely want to plan ahead and map out your route before you hit the trail.

Even the most experienced hikers should do thorough research and learn about the terrain of the trail to pack accordingly. As mentioned, some areas in the Sangre de Cristo exceed 14,000 feet above sea level; the temperatures and air quality can vary drastically.

This area is known for fast-changing weather – it will be sunny one moment and raining the next. Keep a close eye on the forecast as your trip approaches and pack extra weather gear just in case a storm blows through.

If you decide to take an overnight trek, you may want to check out the Zapata Falls Campground, which is located at the foot of the mountains. From this area, you can head towards the South Zapata Creek trail or the North Fork South Zapata trail.

2) Map Out What You Want to Experience

Sangre de Cristo Wilderness

In order to make the most of your time in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, you will want to plan out which areas to see – instead of winging it. There are so many options and beautiful spots within this area that it would be difficult to check everything off the list in just a few days.

So, if your time is limited, it is best to prioritize the things you want to see and create an itinerary around it.

For example, if you want to see some of the crystal-clear lakes, you will want to include one of the trails that leads to “The Lakes of the Clouds.” There is a difficult 10.6-mile long trail option, as well as the shorter alternate route – which is rated to be a little bit more moderate in difficulty.

Lakes of the Clouds

If you are going to be in the area during the colder months, there are several skiing trails in the area, too! Most of these are for the more advanced and experienced skiers, although Humboldt Peak has several intermediate trails.

Want to get that perfect shot for your travel blog or Instagram?

Wheeler Peak may be the best spot for you!

It is located just over the border in New Mexico, and this 8-mile long hike will give you a great viewpoint for spectacular shots.

3) Pick a Comfortable Home Base

Comfortable Home Stay

At the end of the day, you and your family are probably going to feel worn out from those arduous hikes. Be sure that you find somewhere comfortable to stay so you can rest and recharge at the end of the day.

Bringing or renting an RV is a smart choice – since hotel accommodations in this area can be pricey and located a good distance from many of the trails. Fortunately, our RV park is only about an hour outside the Sangre de Cristo area.

This area of Colorado offers plenty of RV parks and campgrounds – but you don’t want to just stay anywhere. If you are short on time, you should check out the closest RV parks to the particular trailheads you want to check out.

If you want to stay closer to a city, Cool Sunshine RV Park is located close to Alamosa – which has plenty of outdoor activities nearby and things to do downtown.

This means you can split up your time on the trails and also grab dinner or do some shopping while you visit, too!

4) Try Something New

Ride with llamas

Since the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness is so vast, there is much more to do that just hike and camp! Many of the trails are perfect for horseback riding. You can even book a wilderness trail ride with llamas!

There are also numerous guided Jeep tours available so an expert guide can take you to some incredible spots – while also teaching you about the history of the area.

You might even be lucky enough to spot some of the wildlife in the area, too. The Sangre de Cristo is home to elk, deer, and bighorn sheep. Just beware of the mountain lions that roam the area!

5) Know the Trail Rules

As with any national reserve and park, it is important that you follow the set regulations to keep the wilderness healthy and beautiful. The National Park Service asks that all visitors follow the “Leave No Trace” principles during their stay in the area.

This set list of guidelines requires visitors to:

  • Plan ahead and come prepared with supplies, especially freshwater.
  • Travel and camp only on safe and durable surfaces.
  • Dispose of any trash and waste properly. Do not litter!
  • Leave anything that you find where it belongs. Take only pictures, leave only footprints!
  • Follow proper campfire protocol.
  • Respect wildlife and be safe! Do not go near animals or invade their space.
  • Be considerate of other visitors by keeping noise to a minimum and giving others space to easily pass by on the trails.

Wrapping Up

A trip to the Sangre de Cristo mountains will certainly be one to remember!

There are some steps to take to make it a more incredible experience for you and your family.

Learn as much as you can and be prepared for wherever the trails take you! But, know that you have a comfortable and safe place to park at night to rest up at the end of the day!

(Image credit: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6)