Top of the Pines: Get up there and enjoy majestic San Juans

Geoff Tischbein from Montrose stretches out across a meadow at Top of the Pines with the majestic San Juan Mountains looming in the background. Photo by Bill Haggerty.

Geoff Tischbein of Montrose enjoys the spectacular views of both the Mount Sneffels and the Cimarron mountain ranges that permeate the property. By Bill Haggerty.


Top of the Pines Cross Country Ski Trail

Drive time and distance: 2 hours, 93.2 miles.

Length: 8 kilometers of trails (4.97 miles).

Elevation: 8,580 feet (2,615 meters).

Ski time: 1 to 2 hours on the groomed stuff.

Difficulty: Easy on groomed trails, but a little slick right now.

top of the Pines
Cross COuntry Ski Trail

Breathe deep. 

No, not here. Get out of town. Then, breathe deep. 

Fresh air does so much for our health and vitality. It clears the head, clears the lungs and invigorates body, mind and spirit. 

Hopefully a little storm action this weekend will blow the haze out of our happy valley, so we can enjoy some fresh air here. In the meantime, get out of Dodge.

I met a friend in Montrose this past week, and we headed south to Top of the Pines, a Ouray County open-space preserve and retreat just outside Ridgway. It’s where the Girl Scout Camp used to be located.

It was partly cloudy the day we went, but still the air was much cleaner than here. You know it’s a weird weather year when temperatures in the Grand Valley range between minus-5 and 20 degrees, and it’s 46 degrees at 9,000-feet elevation above Ridgway in the middle of winter.

Because of high temperatures and lack of snow in the San Juan Mountains this winter, the skiing was a little tricky. Bare spots were exposed, and the track was slick. It was a good place for nonwaxable skis. Otherwise, you were using purple wax. Yuck.

Nonetheless, it’s drop-dead beautiful here. And did I mention the air is clean?

From Grand Junction, head south on U.S. Highway 50 to Montrose. At Main Street in Montrose, head forward (south) on U.S. Highway 550 and go to Ridgway. Turn right (west) at the traffic light in Ridgway onto Colorado Highway 62, also called Sherman Street. Travel all the way through town, approximately three-fourths of a mile, and take the last left (before heading up the hill out of town) onto Amelia Street.

Travel south two-tenths of a mile on Amelia to County Road 5. Turn right onto the unpaved county road and travel 4.4 miles to Highland Drive. Turn right on Highland Drive. It appears as if you’re traveling into the long drive of a large gray museum/mini-mansion, but you’ll continue past that for about three-tenths of a mile to the entrance gate at Top of the Pines. A parking area will appear on your right in another one-tenth of a mile.

The Top of the Pines property contains 175 mountain acres at an elevation of 8,580 feet. Spectacular views of the Mount Sneffels and Cimarron mountain ranges permeate the property.

Top of the Pines (TOP) is a unique open-space preserve that “provides a public portal into the wilderness,” according to the TOP website at It was acquired by Ouray County as a rustic “living-classroom retreat” for use by preregistered and supervised groups, including families, organizations and private or corporate groups.

Use is dedicated to outdoor educational programs, leadership and team-building initiatives, and the enhancement of conservation of our local natural resources through managed public exposure and education. Groups and organizations interested in utilizing Top of the Pines can call 970-626-9788 or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

In the meantime, you can ski there for free, although donations are encouraged, and there’s a donation (tool) box at the trail head. It’s well worth a few bucks to help this fine nonprofit group, Top of the Pines Inc., who took over management of the area for Ouray County in 2002. That’s when the Grand Junction Chapter of the Girl Scouts decided to divest of the camp, which had been held under a BLM special-use permit. 

With tremendous public support, TOP Inc. raised the funds, purchased the preserve from the Girl Scouts, gifted it to Ouray County and continues to manage the property today.

The group provides eight kilometers (about five miles) of winter trails groomed for Nordic skating and classic flat-track skiing. A snowshoe trail also exists from the parking area to the meadow.

The group notes donations are essential to its operation. Tax-deductible season passes ($50 individual/$100 family donation) are available by calling 
970-626-9788. No pets are allowed. The only tracks on the trails are skiers and wild animals. Also, the area is surrounded by private property. Stay on the designated trails.

Vehicle access and parking are allowed only within the designated parking area at the trail head. Do not drive up the Highland Drive roadway past the trail head parking lot. Skiers and snowshoers only; no mechanized vehicles of any kind — ATVs, snowmobiles, etc. — are allowed.

A rustic warming hut is available, located upslope of the main pavilion building in the campground area. Please stay off and away from all structures other than the warming hut. Only use the stove and fireplace for fires. Kindling and cut firewood is located outside the hut. No campfires or firearms are allowed. A stove is available for warming water, tea or coffee. And you can breathe deeply here — at least for a few hours.


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