Piedra River Trail
excerpts from the book
Colorado's
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
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    Distance: 10.5 miles
         (plus 47.3 miles by car)

    Walking time:  5 3/4 hours

    Elevations
    : 200 ft. gain, 700 ft. loss
       Piedra River Trailhead (start): 7620 ft
       First Fork Trailhead: 7,100 ft.

    Trail: Well marked and easy to follow.

    Season: Summer through mid-fall. There is usually snow on the trail from late November through early June.

    Vicinity: Near Pagosa Springs

    Piedra RiverPiedra River

     

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    Because of water rights issues in the Piedra River watershed this area missed being declared a Wilderness Area in the 1993 Colorado Wilderness Act. Fortunately, however, because of its vast expanse of old-growth forest it was decided to make it a "Special Management Area". Consequently, the virgin forest is now protected against future logging and road building activities, and its 62,550-acre size makes it the largest such forest preserve in the state.

    Fishermen have a special appreciation for the Piedra River area. The river and its tributaries are teaming with fish, with rainbow trout and brown trout being particularly abundant. The Piedra River is also the site of an experimental project to reintroduce the endangered river otter back into its native habitat. But even if you arenít carrying a fishing pole or looking for river otters there is enough great scenery along the river to make this trail a worthwhile walk.

    From the trailhead the well-used trail meanders southward for the first mile, passing through a particularly interesting area where the river is overhung by cliffs on the east side. After a mile the river makes an abrupt 90-degree turn and begins flowing westward through a long, narrow flat-bottomed valley. 0.6 mile after the turn it crosses a small bridge that spans Williams Creek, then it continues in a southwest direction along the north shore of the Piedra.

    The trail crosses Trail Creek about a half hour beyond Williams Creek, and 10 minutes later you will notice another trail branching off to the left. This is the Piedra Stock Driveway Trail, a lesser used trail that dips down to cross the Piedra River on another picturesque bridge and then veers away to the south. You should bear right at the trail junction and stay on the plateau above the north side of the river.

    0.7 mile beyond the Piedra Stock Driveway junction the Piedra River Trail comes to another footbridge spanning Weminuche Creek. It then returns to the shore of the river and closely follows its twists and turns for the next 3.0 miles. If you are a fisherman with an intent to spend the night along the river this section of the trail would be your best choice.

    An hour and twenty minutes after leaving Weminuche Creek the trail crosses the third major side drainage on this hike, and this time there is no footbridge to assist your crossing. This tributary is called Sand Creek, and it is the only place along the trail where you must get your feet wet to get across. The water is only a foot deep and 15 feet wide, but there seems to be no easy way to cross it.

    Sand Creek represents the beginning of a narrow part of the Piedra River Canyon called the Second Box, and 0.6 mile beyond the confluence the trail begins climbing up the north side of the canyon to get around the steep cliffs below. This part of the trail is, for me, a disappointment. River runners attest that the scenery inside the Second Box is dramatic, with the river rushing through the confines of the inner canyon, roaring through class IV rapids and pounding against the cliffs that line the shore. But, alas, from 500 feet above the canyon floor where the trail is located the river is seldom visible, and there is scarcely a hint of the spectacle that exists within the gorge. I suppose it would be impractical to construct a trail closer to the water at this point, but what a hike it would be if the route could follow the river through the Second Box!

    After 2.0 miles the Second Box ends, and the trail returns to the bottom of the canyon again. This easily accessible stretch of river is a prime fishing area and you are likely to see fishermen as you approach the end of the hike. The trail stays close to the water for the next 1.5 miles, then climbs 100 feet above the shore for the last 0.5 mile before arriving at the First Fork Trailhead.

     

     
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