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Into the Outer Banks

By James T. Yenckel
updated September 29, 2021
ocracoke, beach, outer, banks, north, carolina
Jill Lang / Dreamstime.com
There's no shortage of things to do on the North Carolina Barrier Islands, which jut into the Atlantic like stepping-stones.

Living not far from the Outer Banks, my wife, Sandy, and I have visited there often--and each time, as we glided farther and farther into the Atlantic Ocean, I was stirred by the strange sensation that I was navigating a boat rather than a car. Maybe not so strange, actually, when windswept waves stretch for miles on either side.

July and August are peak season for surf and sun. A family playground, the islands hawk all the expected beach amusements: parasailing, waterskiing, Jet Skiing, canoeing, kayaking, sailboarding, deep-sea fishing, and horseback riding. But any time of year is fulfilling. I've gone in midwinter to hike miles of empty beaches, watching the spindle-legged shorebirds probing the sand for lunch.

Day one: Norfolk to Kill Devil Hills

The drive from Norfolk, Va., passes through mostly flat coastal farm country, and in mid-summer roadside stands sell fresh corn and other produce. After the flatlands, the lofty sand dunes of the Outer Banks seem almost like mountains. At their widest, between Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, the Outer Banks expand to about a mile. This is where you find the most popular beaches--the ones that draw the summer throngs. In the heart of the bustle, little Kill Devil Hills, a family resort town, provides the beach time you crave plus a look at one of America's most historical spots.

Check into the tidy 54-room Cavalier Motel, which nudges right up to the beach dunes. Soak up some sunshine at the pool or the beach, but save time for a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, just a few minutes away.

On a sand-covered site at Kill Devil Hills a century ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the first manned heavier-than-air craft to leave the ground by its own power. The flight lasted all of 12 seconds, and the plane, with Orville at the helm, covered less distance than the length of a modern airliner. But air travel was born. Markers indicate the takeoff and landing spots--so close together that it seems the brothers might more easily have jumped. The visitors center displays a replica of their aircraft; atop Big Kill Devil Hill, an impressive granite monument pays tribute to their achievement. Rising to 90 feet, the hill is one of the highest spots in the Outer Banks--make the climb for a 360-degree view.

Afterward, join the crowds at Pigman's Bar-B-Que, a no-frills joint. You can't go wrong with the messy pork ribs, which are served with coleslaw, baked beans, and plump hush puppies.

Day two: Kill Devil Hills to Manteo

Today's drive temporarily leaves the Atlantic shore for 13-mile-long Roanoke Island, behind the Outer Banks in Roanoke Sound.

Start the morning by testing your courage. See that line of folks on the high dune in the distance? They're waiting for their Wright moment. Hang-gliding lessons are a major activity at Jockey's Ridge State Park. The fragile aircraft are launched from 80-foot-high sand dunes. Kitty Hawk Kites, the world's largest hang-gliding school, has a three-hour introductory course (including five solo flights). You can expect to cover up to 75 yards. Some gliders, maneuvered by confident, well-coordinated students, float gracefully back to earth. Others plummet with a seemingly painful thud into the not-so-yielding sand. Too scared? Stop by anyway to watch the often comical antics of the first-timers. You'll want to hike the dunes to the launch area for a close-up look. An exhibit in the park visitors center notes that the surface of the sand here can exceed the air temperature by 30 degrees. Take heed: Wear shoes.

On to the waterside village of Manteo, where Sandy and I check into the Dare Haven Motel, about 10 minutes from the beach. We head first for the harbor on Shallowbag Bay. Sailboats drift over the sound, and just across an inlet rests the 69-foot Elizabeth II. The featured attraction at Roanoke Island Festival Park, this replica of a 16th-century sailboat represents the type of ship that carried English colonists to the New World during the reign of Elizabeth I. Onboard, costumed interpreters answer our questions, speaking with Old English accents. Questions, naturally, tend to be about the Roanoke mystery. In May 1587, three British ships carried 117 settlers to Roanoke.

A week later, the colony's governor sailed back to England for supplies. The threat of the Spanish Armada delayed his return for three years. When the governor finally made it back in 1590, the colony had vanished. Historians can only speculate on what happened.

There are re-creations of the first settlement site (talk to the "colonists") and an Algonquin village, and at the Roanoke Adventure Museum youngsters can don Elizabethan garb or learn about Blackbeard's visits to the Outer Banks. Nearby, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site marks the location of the ill-fated colony. The formal Elizabethan Gardens memorialize the colonists.

Adjacent to the fort, the mystery is dramatized in an outdoor theatrical spectacle, The Lost Colony, with clashing swords and fireworks; it's presented nightly (except Sunday) in the summer (May 31-August 20). Kids might find it tedious, but I, a history major, was interested.

Grab some dinner at Big Al's Soda Fountain and Grill, a '50s-era café with an all-American menu; fresh seafood dinners with fries and slaw cost about $14.

Or ditch The Lost Colony and go howling with the wolves. It's one of the offbeat nature programs sponsored by the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, west of Manteo. Until the 18th century, red wolves roamed the area, but then they disappeared. Eight wolves were reintroduced onto the 152,000-acre refuge in the late 1980s; the population has since grown to more than 95 and has spread throughout the refuge and beyond. Children love to howl, and parents aren't shy about joining in. If everybody gets the sounds right, the wolves usually howl in reply. Two-hour "safaris" begin at 8 p.m. on summer Wednesdays.

Day three: Manteo to Buxton

This is the Outer Banks I like best, the quiet southern end. The islands narrow considerably here; at their skinniest, only a few hundred yards separate the rough Atlantic from calm Pamlico Sound. Much of the seashore is protected, either as Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge or Cape Hatteras National Seashore. You'll find miles of nearly desolate beaches, their wild beauty mostly untouched except by wind and sea. Towering dunes topped by wind-stunted trees frequently block sight of the ocean. But there are stairways at the many pullouts along the way. Keep your swim trunks handy.

The 156-foot-high Bodie Island Lighthouse serves as a visitors center for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Exhibits illustrate the early seafaring dangers in the area. As many as 600 ships have wrecked on the shifting coastline since 1526, earning it the unhappy nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic.

South of the lighthouse, the road hops from Bodie Island to Hatteras Island over an arched bridge and long causeway. At the end, stop at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Nearly 400 species of birds have been identified here, including odd migrants blown off course by fierce Atlantic storms. Learn also about the Oriental, a Civil War steamer that struck a sandbar and sunk. The ship's boiler is visible in the surf.

At either visitors center, be sure to check out the ranger-led activities, which are free or minimally priced. Canoe on the sound, take a bird-watching walk, learn how to catch crabs, build a kite, or go snorkeling or fishing.

South of Avon, a small day-use park called Canadian Hole draws windsurfing throngs, who flit like butterflies across the flat waters of Pamlico Sound. The steady winds and shallow water are said to be ideal for novices.

At Cape Hatteras, test your leg muscles by climbing the 268 steps to the top of the still-operating Cape Hatteras Lighthouse--at 210 feet, it's the tallest brick lighthouse in the U.S. Built in 1870, it was threatened by erosion for many years--until 1999, when it was moved a half mile inland.

Spend the night in the sound-side village of Buxton, a mile from the lighthouse, Dine across the highway at the Diamond Shoals Restaurant, named for a bank of shifting sand ridges hidden in the treacherous waters off Cape Hatteras. On the family-friendly menu, try the catch of the day, usually sea trout ($13.95). And then return next morning for one of the famous hearty breakfasts.

Day four: Ocracoke and Back to Norfolk

In the morning, we catch the free car ferry to Ocracoke Island. The road to the landing passes through one of the areas hit hardest by the hurricane, and you're still likely to see some damage. Waves briefly washed out the road between Frisco and Hatteras, creating a temporary inlet between the Atlantic and the sound. But the road has since been reopened.

The ferry takes 40 minutes. On Ocracoke, Highway 12 continues for another 13 miles through the mostly untouched seascapes of Cape Hatteras National Seashore to the village of Ocracoke and the Ocracoke Lighthouse. (The highway is sometimes closed during bad weather, so check with the highway department.) En route, stop at the Pony Pasture, a 100-acre field nurturing a small herd of the island's unique ponies, possibly descendants of Spanish ponies that survived a shipwreck. Unlike other horses, Ocracoke ponies have one fewer rib--17 instead of 18.

Then ferry back to Hatteras, Buxton, and the beach. After the history lessons, you've earned more playtime.

Finding your way

The closest major airport to the Outer Banks is in Norfolk, Va., about 70 miles to the north. Southwest Airlines provides service from most of the country. A car is essential; at summer's peak, expect to pay $130 to $140 for a week's rental of a compact with unlimited mileage. The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau (877/629-4386, outerbanks.org) distributes a 112-page travel guide. Call for a copy, or pick one up at the visitors bureau. It's a mile past the Currituck Sound Bridge (U.S. 158), in Kitty Hawk.

1. Norfolk to Kill Devil Hills

From the Norfolk airport, take I-64 south to Virginia State Route 168 south. In Barco, N.C., pick up U.S. 158 south via Kitty Hawk to Kill Devil Hills. U.S. 158 is the speedier bypass to Kill Devil Hills, ending a few miles beyond the town. Along here you'll find many restaurants, service stations, and other tourist facilities. Paralleling it is Highway 12, the old beach road, which runs the length of the Outer Banks from Corolla in the north to the southern tip (via ferry) of Ocracoke Island. On Highway 12, the slow road, you're finally at the beach.

2. Kill Devil Hills to Manteo

Continue south on U.S. 158 to U.S. 64/264 west across Roanoke Sound to Roanoke Island and Manteo.

3. Manteo to Buxton

Double back to U.S. 158/Highway 12, continuing south on Highway 12 to Buxton.

4. Ocracoke and back to Norfolk

From Buxton, follow Highway 12 to the end of the pavement and the dock for the Ocracoke ferry. The 30-car ferries operate year-round; in summer, they depart to and from Ocracoke every 30 to 60 minutes. On Ocracoke, pick up Highway 12 and follow it to its end in the village of Ocracoke. Then retrace your route back to the mainland and Norfolk.

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Road Trips

Hudson Valley Revisited

The Hudson River, once America's central transportation artery, tends to be overlooked nowadays. Weekenders from New York City and upstate residents choose the efficiency of the New York State Thruway and the Taconic Parkway over the Nines (as I like to call the various branches of Route 9 that ramble along both sides of the Hudson River Valley). This just means less traffic for the rest of us. Day one: New York to Fishkill Trying a new route out of New York City, I actually get lost in Yonkers. The mini-detour allows me to enjoy the back roads that hug the Hudson, which I can see through the trees, flowing on my left. Back on Route 9 proper, I decide to stop at Sunnyside, the home of writer Washington Irving. (The town of Sleepy Hollow is up the road.) Guides in period costume offer tours of the house, a quaint cottage on the riverbank; it's where the well-traveled author spent his final days. A quarter mile north I also pop in to see Lyndhurst, the grand Gothic Revival mansion of Wall Street tycoon Jay Gould, who traveled by yacht from his waterfront property to New York City. The railroad would have been quicker, but it was owned by his archenemy, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Highlights of the daily tour are Gould's Renaissance-art collection and the fine stained-glass windows. I stop in Tarrytown for lunch: a Portuguese feast at Caravela. Grilled octopus melts in the mouth, just as it should, and the codfish croquettes are rich yet fluffy. Heading north up 9, I decide to keep Kykuit, John D. Rockefeller's expansive family home, for another trip and move on to Croton Gorge Park, a favorite local picnic spot. The park sits at the base of the Croton Dam, which holds most of New York City's drinking water. It was built in 1842; until 1955, the water was transported to the city via the Croton Aqueduct. Just past Peekskill, Route 9 splits into two parts. I take 9D, which runs along the river, rather than 9 proper, which takes a faster inland path north. Where's that Beatles CD when I need it? I'm on a long and winding road, beside granite cliffs. With a bit of imagination, this could be the Italian Alps. The tricky part ends at Bear Mountain Bridge, which crosses the Hudson at the place where American Revolutionary forces blocked the path of the British fleet with a giant iron chain. From here it's only a half-hour drive to Cold Spring. I putter in and out of the knickknack shops of a Main Street that runs steeply toward the river - it really should be turned into a giant skateboarding park--and I take stock of the Lower Hudson's east side over farfalle al limone and a glass of Cabernet at Cathryn's Tuscan Grill. Cold Spring has a number of B&Bs, but the Courtyard by Marriott, a few miles north in Fishkill, puts me closer to Beacon, the next day's first destination. Day two: Fishkill to Rhinebeck "This place is changing overnight," says the teenager in the Chthonic Clash Coffeehouse as he fixes me a latte. "Some locals don't like it, but I say the quicker the better." Named after Mount Beacon, where colonists lit fires to warn of British troops during the Revolutionary War, the town of Beacon has been reborn thanks to the opening last year of Dia:Beacon, one of the most impressive art galleries in the country. Inhabiting a sprawling 1929 Nabisco factory, the airy 240,000-square-foot space (much of it lit by skylights) is perfect for viewing large art installations. The museum is home to pieces by 22 artists, including Andy Warhol, whose 1978 Shadows is a single work on 72 canvases, and Richard Serra, represented by seven gorgeous sculptures. You do a lot of walking at Dia, and by the end I'm hungry. I head into town for a taste of the old Beacon--bacon and eggs at the wonderfully gaudy Yankee Clipper Diner, a recently renovated downtown institution. Browsing the galleries and antiques shops that are contributing to the town's renaissance, I have no luck in my perpetual search for vintage gas station signs. But there's consolation in the excellent apple pie at the Upper Crust Café and Bakery. Up next is Hyde Park. The town is dominated by the 290-acre National Historic Site built around Franklin Delano Roosevelt's family house and the separate house built for Eleanor Roosevelt a few miles east of Route 9. FDR's father bought the family home, Springwood, in 1867. Visitors can view the house, FDR's grave site, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, which includes some 44,000 books along with his White House desk and chair. The late-afternoon light is fading slightly as I drive out of the Roosevelt site, so I put my foot to the floor. There's a piece of Hudson Valley history that I really want to catch - the ostentatious estate of Frederick William Vanderbilt, also in Hyde Park. Built in 1899, the 54-room Vanderbilt Mansion was meant to evoke European nobility, and the approach certainly feels like you've entered a royal estate. I'm too late for the house tour, but the grounds are lovely. As the sun begins to set over the western banks of the Hudson, the light casts an orange glow all around. After so much local history, a motel really won't cut it. Nearby Rhinebeck, a sophisticated town in its own right, is home to the Beekman Arms, a favorite resting place and watering hole for the weary traveler since 1766. The smell of cooking food and a roaring open fire greet you on arrival. Day three: Rhinebeck to New Paltz It's time to cross the river. The Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge offers clear views both north and south-this far upstream, the river is still over half a mile wide. Saugerties is another of those cute antiquing towns that seem to pop up every 30 miles along this part of the valley. It also has an excellent little café and deli called Ann Marie's. But Saugerties' most extraordinary attraction, Opus 40, is a few miles outside the town limits, in the foothills of the Catskills. Harvey Fite, a devotee of Mayan architecture, spent 37 years working with hand-powered tools to create a six-and-a-half-acre composition of bluestone ramps, terraces, pools, and fountains, with a nine-ton monolith as its centerpiece. He died in 1976, but the sculpture and a museum dedicated to his work are open from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. The road down from Opus 40 is narrow and winding, so it comes as some relief to get back on 9W, on the western side of the Hudson. At Kingston, I cut inland on Route 32. I'm headed to New Paltz and one of the region's most impressive landmarks. A 251-room Victorian castle on Lake Mohonk in the Shawangunk Mountains, the Mohonk Mountain House was a getaway destination for Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie, among others. Today it's an exclusive retreat far beyond my budget. But you can buy a day pass to the grounds for $15 ($11 for kids) and spend the afternoon wandering. Day four: New Paltz to New York It takes about 25 minutes to get back to 9W from New Paltz, but from that point on, the road is right by the river. This part of the valley is wine country - at least six vineyards lie between New Paltz and Newburgh, and most offer tours and tastings. I turn right off Route 9 just south of Marlboro and head up a steep hill to Benmarl Winery, site of America's oldest vineyard. A rugged driveway leads to the main house, also the home of owner Mark Miller, who in the '50s and '60s was an illustrator for romance magazines and novels. Miller offers a lively narrative as he guides you through the cellars and a gallery devoted to his former profession. He might even join in a tasting of his trademark Chardonnay and Zinfandel. Leaving Benmarl, I drive into Newburgh, toward the newly renovated waterfront. Newburgh Landing is part of a $1.8 million state-funded scheme to tidy up the Hudson River. It's home to a number of cool cafés and restaurants. I choose Café Pitti, a brick-oven pizza joint with outdoor seating and a fine view of Dia:Beacon across the river. An espresso and some raspberry gelato make the afternoon even more enjoyable and prepare me nicely for the final drive back into New York City. I make quick time through West Point, hop on to the Palisades Parkway, and zip back down to the George Washington Bridge and New York City, stopping just once more to marvel at the tall, sheer vertical drop of the ancient Palisades cliffs that tower over the Hudson below. Finding your way From JFK airport, head north on the Van Wyck Expressway to the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge. After crossing, take 678 north to the Cross Bronx Expressway west; exit at Route 9 north. From LaGuardia, take the Grand Central Parkway to the Triborough Bridge. Go north on the Major Deegan (I-87), then west on the Cross Bronx Expressway to Route 9 north. From Newark, drive north on the New Jersey Turnpike (I-95). Cross the George Washington Bridge and exit at Route 9 north. 1. New York to Fishkill, 64 miles If you're driving from Manhattan, take the Henry Hudson Parkway to Route 9 north. Continue through Yonkers, Tarrytown, and Sleepy Hollow. At Peekskill, switch to 9D north, which leads to Cold Spring. Continue north on 9D. At Beacon get on 82 north to Fishkill. 2. Fishkill to Rhinebeck, 28 miles From Fishkill, get on I-84 north and take it to Beacon. After Dia:Beacon, continue north on 9D, which rejoins 9 just north of Wappingers Falls, then skirts Poughkeepsie, before winding up at Hyde Park and Rhinebeck. 3. Rhinebeck to New Paltz, 50 miles In Rhinebeck, take 9 north to 9G north. Go west on Route 199 over the Kingston-Rhinecliff bridge; 9W north leads to Saugerties. For Opus 40, from the New York State Thruway at Saugerties, get on Route 212 west toward Woodstock. From the light at the Hess gas station, go 1.6 miles to a fork; turn left onto Fishcreek Road. After 2.4 miles, turn right at the stop sign onto Highwoods Road. After a half mile, turn right onto Fite Road; it ends at Opus 40's entrance. Leaving, take Glasco Turnpike east to 9W south. At Kingston, go south on Route 32 to New Paltz. Stay at the Econo Lodge. 4. New Paltz to New York, 95 miles From New Paltz, take 299 east to 9W south. It goes through Marlboro to Newburgh, and eventually to the Palisades Parkway south to the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan.

Road Trips

Colorado's San Juan Skyway

Fasten your seat belts, folks. We're headed into southwestern Colorado's "skyway" country. If you like roller coasters, this is the drive for you. Edging potentially perilous drop-offs, the roads we'll navigate soar, plunge, and twist in tight curves mile after mile. Many of you are apt to get a bit rattled (I always do). But the reward is some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in America. Fortunately, you don't have to pay theme park prices for the scenic thrills. This roller-coaster adventure-a four-day, 1,000-mile excursion into the massive San Juan Mountains-definitely rates as budget travel. Expect to pay from $50 to $80 a night in a good chain motel. And dine cheaply on the local ranch-house staples: juicy prime rib and sizzling grilled steaks. A range of the Rocky Mountains, the San Juans boast more than a dozen peaks that rise to above 14,000 feet. Sprawling across 10,000 square miles, they make a majestic but sometimes intimidating realm best seen on a 233-mile loop called the San Juan Skyway. An officially designated U.S.D.A. Forest Service Scenic Byway, it climbs in dizzying switchbacks over 11,008-foot Red Mountain Pass-the high point on the loop. In late spring when I last tackled the ascent, the summits around me were still cloaked with snow. Break up the drive with plenty of outdoor action. Hike, bicycle, go white-water rafting or kayaking, fish, ride a horse, try rock climbing. This is the place for it. Getting started Denver's low airfares are not surprising. It is served by several discount airlines: America West, ATA (American Trans Air), Frontier, JetBlue, and Spirit Airlines. Another incentive to book into Denver is that car-rental rates there tend to be cheaper. Using the Internet, the least expensive rental I could find in Montrose cost about $40 more a week than a similar rental in the Colorado capital. Many of the rental agencies in Montrose impose a mileage limit, which also might have added to my cost. For a one-week, midsummer rental of an economy-class car out of Denver, the various national car-rental brands quoted between $150 and $200 (with unlimited mileage). (Lodging rates below are for two people for one night during the peak summer season.) On the road Day one Denver via Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction, 265 miles. As your plane descends into Denver, take a look at the peaks rising west of the city-in about an hour, that's where you'll be! Usually I try to avoid interstates, but I-70 treats you to a dazzling introduction to the Rockies. About 60 miles west of Denver, the highway climbs to above 11,000 feet as it passes through the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel, reputedly the highest auto tunnel in the world. Beyond is the famous ski resort of Vail; stretch your legs as you stroll along its ersatz alpine streets. I-70 snakes alongside a number of tumbling streams, but it's the Colorado River that puts on the best show as it races for a dozen miles through the steep rock walls of Glenwood Canyon. A thrilling drive; you can almost imagine you're bouncing down the river on a white-water raft. Take another break at the giant hot-spring pool (adults, $13) in the center of Glenwood Springs, a bustling resort town. Flat-topped mesas line I-70 as it follows the Colorado River down the western slope of the Rockies to Grand Junction. Details From the Denver airport, take I-70 west to Grand Junction. Stay in Grand Junction at the 100-room Motel 6 (970/243-2628), $50 weekdays/$60 weekends; 132-room Super 8 (970/248-8080), $69; or the 107-room Days Inn (970/245-7200), $71 weekdays/$77 weekends. Dine at W.W. Peppers, offering an upscale look and budget prices. Information: 800/962-2547, www.visitgrandjunction.com. Ancient paths Day two Grand Junction via Montrose, Telluride, and Cortez to Mesa Verde National Park, 270 miles. A 2,000-foot-high mesa, cut by deep canyons, towers above Grand Junction. This is Colorado National Monument ($5 per car), a landscape of sculpted red rock. Rim Rock Drive edges the mesa, yielding panoramic views. Cold Shivers Point is aptly named, you will agree, when you peer into the canyon depths below. Give yourself an hour at the park before heading south to the San Juans. On the southern outskirts of Montrose, stop briefly at the excellent Ute Indian Museum (adults, $3). Much of Colorado was once the homeland of the Ute tribe, many of whose members now reside on a pair of reservations near Mesa Verde. You will cross Ute paths often on this drive. The early life of these deer and buffalo hunters is illustrated with a first-class display of artifacts, including an eagle-feather headdress, a buckskin dress, and beautiful beadwork. The museum is located on what was the farm of Chief Ouray, who headed the Ute Nation from 1868 until his death in 1880. To the Utes, the San Juans were "the Shining Mountains." You can see them directly ahead as you leave the museum, an intimidating wall of jagged peaks that seem impenetrable. The San Juan Skyway officially begins in Ridgway. You can make the loop in either direction; I prefer counterclockwise because this way you ease more gently into the sky-high country. Counterclockwise, then, the approach to Telluride, a popular winter ski resort, traces the San Miguel River through the deep red walls of a winding canyon. The town itself is tucked near the end of the canyon. Actually, there are two towns here: Telluride, the attractively preserved historic mining town in the valley, and Mountain Village, a cluster of luxury hotels and homes high above town on the resort's ski slopes. They are linked by a free gondola that makes the climb from old to new in 13 minutes. Board one of the eight-passenger cars for a terrific view from the top. The gondola operates daily from 7 a.m. to midnight. In Telluride browse the offbeat shops housed in ornate Victorian-era brick and wood structures. Hike the easy River Corridor Trail, which meanders through town to a beaver preserve. And then continue for a mile or so to the canyon's end, where Bridal Veil Falls cascades down the cliff into town. Afterward, enjoy a reasonably priced sandwich at funky Baked in Telluride. Out of Telluride, Colorado Route 145 climbs through a chilly, tundra-like landscape over 10,222-foot Lizard Head Pass, named for an odd-shaped pinnacle. And then it drops slowly from the summit, following the splashing Dolores River through rolling green meadows to the desert-like country of Dolores and Cortez. Stop just south of Dolores at the Anasazi Heritage Center ($3), a museum operated by the Bureau of Land Management. It preserves hundreds of clay pots, yucca-fiber sandals, and other artifacts collected from Anasazi villages. Now on to Mesa Verde National Park ($10 per car). Steep switchbacks climb from the Montezuma Valley to the top of the green mesa at about 8,500 feet. This was home to many Ancestral Puebloans from about a.d. 550 to a.d. 1300. Surely they were as awed by the distant views from this elevated perch as I always am. The two most impressive ruins are Cliff Palace and Balcony House. To see them, you have to join a ranger-led tour. Tickets for each cost $2.50 at the Far View Visitor Center. Getting in and out of both requires some agility and no fear of heights. The Ancestral Puebloans built their lodgings in nearly inaccessible cave-like ledges on the sides of high cliffs for protection from their enemies. To reach them, tourists do as the Ancestral Puebloans did. Stone steps cut into the side of a canyon wall descend through a narrow crevice to the floor of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Once it housed 200 people in more than 100 rooms but was vacated in the fourteenth century, perhaps because of prolonged drought. Exiting is a similar scramble. You edge up stone steps through another tight crevice, and then you climb a series of two 10-foot-tall ladders placed one atop the other up the canyon wall. Don't look down. No tickets are required for a look at Spruce Tree House, which is considered the park's best-preserved cliff dwelling. But you do have to negotiate a steep path down and up. The third largest of Mesa Verde's cliff dwellings, it contains about 100 rooms and eight ceremonial chambers called kivas-a sort of cylindrical pit. You can descend by ladder into one of the kivas. I like to stay at the park's mesa-top Far View Lodge, which is well named. From my balcony, I watch the lights pop on at scattered ranch houses in the valley far below. On one visit, deer browsed outside my balcony. This time, a pair of wild horses meandered past. Details From Grand Junction, take U.S. 50 southeast via Delta to Montrose. Continue south on U.S. 550 to Ridgway, connecting to Colorado Route 62 west to Placerville. Head southeast on Colorado 145 to Telluride. Pick up Colorado 145 again and angle southwest to Cortez. Take U.S. 160 east to Mesa Verde. For a scenic splurge, stay in Mesa Verde at the 115-room Far View Lodge (800/449-2288), $102 to $134. Dine at the Far View Terrace Food Court, a cafeteria. If Far View is out of your price range, stay in Cortez at the 85-room Days Inn (970/565-8577), $60 to $70; or the 58-room Super 8 (970/565-8888), $75. Information: 800/253-1616, www.mesaverdecountry.com. Boomtown days Day three Mesa Verde via Durango, Silverton, and Ouray to Montrose, 160 miles. Spend the morning exploring more of Mesa Verde before heading back into the San Juans. From Durango, the road climbs quickly to Coal Bank Pass at 10,660 feet. Even in midsummer, the air can be chilly. Ahead the cliff's-edge road crests 10,899-foot Molas Pass. On the descent, you can see Silverton far below, set in a small, bowl-like valley. Once a rowdy boomtown of bars and brothels, the old silver-mining town of Silverton (elevation 9,318 feet) seems rather sedate these days, although it still retains a rough frontier look. Swirls of dust, kicked up by frosty breezes, whip across the unpaved side streets, and Victorian-era wood and brick buildings-housing shops and caf,s-possess a properly weathered look. Overhead, the treeless summits of craggy peaks snag passing clouds. Silverton is the terminus of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (adults, $60), a tourist train that (depending on the season) makes one or more slow but spectacular ascents daily from Durango. Tooting its whistles, the steam engine pulls a string of bright-yellow coach cars. It rolls into the center of town delivering a flood of chattering families who liven things up temporarily. Steady your nerves now, because the next 23 miles over 11,008-foot Red Mountain Pass to Ouray can make your heart race. Carved out of the side of the mountain, the road carries you in more tight switchbacks from one precipice to the next. Around curves, the speed limit drops to 15 mph; believe me, I am never tempted to exceed this reasonable pace. Recover in Ouray's giant hot-spring pool ($8). Complete the San Juan Skyway loop in Ridgway and double back to Montrose. If it's still daylight, head for nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park ($7 per car). The park is named for a deep, dark, and narrow gorge cut by the Gunnison River. Because it is so deep-a drop of 2,000 feet from rim to river-and so narrow, it is wrapped in heavy shadows for much of the day. From the visitor center, South Rim Road skirts the edge of the manzanita- and sagebrush-lined canyon for seven miles. Sixteen overlooks provide splendid views into the depths, where the pale-green Gunnison splashes in white-water frenzy. Details From Mesa Verde, take U.S. 160 east to Durango, connecting to U.S. 550 north to Montrose. Stay in Montrose at the 42-room Super 8 (970/249-9294), $67; the 51-room San Juan Inn (888/681-4159), $69; or the 46-room Days Inn (970/249-3411), $69 weekdays/$79 weekends. Feast on a $9 top-sirloin steak at Starvin' Arvin's. Information: 800/873-0244, www.visitmontrose.net. Winter wilderness Day four Montrose to Denver, 315 miles. Lots of miles today, but plenty of great scenery makes them pass quickly. Outside Montrose, U.S. 50 passes through Curecanti National Recreation Area, which encompasses three sparkling blue reservoirs formed when the Gunnison River was dammed. Fishing, boating, and windsurfing are top sports here. In summer, the National Park Service offers 90-minute boat rides ($10) from Morrow Point Reservoir into the Black Canyon. For details: 970/641-2337. Ahead lies one more climb into the Rockies. In yet more cliff's-edge switchbacks, the road crests Monarch Pass at 11,312 feet. Snowy peaks march into the distance, a year-round winter-like wilderness that is as beautiful as any landscape on this drive. Back down the mountain, U.S. 50 enters Bighorn Sheep Canyon. Here the road runs for about 50 miles alongside the Arkansas River as it weaves through the narrow rock chasm. A part of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, this is prime white-water rafting and kayaking country. You will find picnic tables at several key spots ($2), where you can watch the watercraft splash past. Now head back to Denver, skirting the edge of the Rampart Range. In Colorado Springs, that lofty mountain over-shadowing the city to the west is Pikes Peak. If you've got time, drive to the top for a final sky-high view. Details From Montrose, take U.S. 50 east to Penrose, connecting to Colorado 115 north to Colorado Springs. On the city's outskirts, jog east on Colorado 83 to I-25 north. At exit 194 take E-470 ($5 toll) to the Denver airport. Catch a late-afternoon flight home, or spend the night at the airport's 101-room Super 8 Motel (303/371-8300, $55). Dine at the Moonlight Diner; the T-bone steak plate, $13.25.