Exploring Colorado’s Backyards

San Juan Mountains Association’s SnowSchool program connects kids to their local snowscapes.
By Emma Renly

Students enjoy their day out with SJMA’s SnowSchool program on San Juan National Forest. Unceded Ute, Pueblos, and Diné Bikéyah lands.
Photos by Emma Renly @emesre

This write-up was originally featured in our Spring 2024 Trail Break issue.

Just outside the city limits of Durango, Colorado, rise the San Juan Mountains. On this winter morning in January, the snowy landscape provides an opportunity for young kids to connect with the surrounding environment through a day out with San Juan Mountains Association’s (SJMA) local SnowSchool program.

Since 2002, WWA has partnered with SJMA to help introduce the next generation of land stewards to Southwest Colorado’s ecology. This includes field trips with local schools, a weekly homeschool program, after school programs, and interpretive programs for the community.

A focus of SnowSchool is to help kids understand the snow’s impact on the local watershed, along with snow science, winter survival, and animal ecology. The curriculum was created in collaboration with NASA researchers and other snow scientists for preschool to high school level grades.

On this specific snow day, Gannon, age 9, said it best while building a snow fort: “The whole reason I’m here is to learn and play.”

SJMA’s outdoor education programs run year-round, with the winter months focused on SnowSchool curriculum and supported by WWA through resources such as snowshoes and snow study tools. Each week, students from different schools, communities, and age groups pile into school buses, meet at trailheads and in their classrooms to learn more about snow and their local backyards.

“I love hanging out with my friends and playing in the snow,” said Elliot, age 10. “I like the teachers and everything we learn.”

Instructors even noted that SnowSchool days are their favorite each week. Understanding that having fun is key to learning, these teachers, volunteers, and community members skillfully combine play and education to further the students’ learning about the importance of conservation and protection of public lands

Today’s break-time snowball fights are coupled with conversations about land use, a huge focus of SJMA’s education outreach.

Students enjoy their day out with SJMA’s SnowSchool program on San Juan National Forest. Unceded Ute, Pueblos, and Diné Bikéyah lands.
Photos by Emma Renly @emesre

“You would think fires don’t start in the winter, but you’re wrong, they do, ”explained Josephine, age 10. “Sometimes people don’t put their fire out completely, and it can start burning underground and catch the trees on fire, even in the snow.”

With low snowpack this winter and as spring snowmelt creeps across the mountains, connecting the students’ interest in the snowscape to the local watersheds remains at the heart of the winter programming. This includes digging a snow pit to observe the different layers and ice crystals of the snowpack while connecting what it means for the amount of water that will be stored in the watersheds for consumption.

Throughout the day, students were eager to share pieces of information they had retained as they snowshoed around and discovered different pieces of their watershed landscape.

“I learned you can make natural sunscreen by rubbing your hand on aspen trees,” said Savannah, age 10. “I tried it and it actually works! Some daily skin care advice for you.”

Many animals, such as the lynx, beaver, mountain lion, and fox survive and thrive throughout the winter months; however, as Gus, age 7, quickly learned, there are no polar bears in the San Juan Mountains. He understood, however, how animals such as the mole live underground to stay safe in the winter months.

“And warm, since the snow is insulation,”added his older brother Amus, age 10.

With 72 SnowSchool sites across the country, the goal remains consistent: introduce the next generation to the magic of winter, to snow’s impact on our lives, and how to play on our winter public lands.