Visitors to Southwestern Colorado fill their lungs with the refreshing mountain air—and their cameras' memory cards with tons of scenic photos.
Day 1: Grand Junction to Rico
"It looks just like a museum diorama," I say, pointing at the grasslands we pass while heading south on Highway 50. Sitting in the passenger seat with my finger in front of her nose is Lisa; we've been friends since high school, so she's accustomed to my odd observations. "All that's missing are the little men on horses," she says, playing along.
Born and bred New Englanders, Lisa and I both have somewhat romanticized views of the Rockies. Our arrival in Telluride, with its postcard-perfect brick and wooden storefronts framed by the San Juan Mountains, only reinforces our assumption that we're in God's country. Nothing's perfect, however: It's impossible to find a parking spot, so we drive partway up the ski mountain and leave the car in a garage. As dusk approaches, we take the free Telluride gondola on a peaceful, 13-minute descent back into town, which now glows with streetlights.
The wooden walls inside Smuggler's Brewpub are tattooed with crayon and marker scribbling, beer steins line shelves above our heads, and conversations compete with the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young playing in the background. The combination of hefty burgers and homemade beer hits the spot.
Stepping into the Last Dollar Saloon, we're convinced Telluride hasn't betrayed its scruffy ski-bum roots, even if Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes do own property in the area. Poorly lit, with a smell of stale beer and an eclectic decor of neon signs and chandeliers, the Buck, as locals call it, is the kind of place where people know the bartender--and each other--by name. I look on in wonder as a woman pulls out her checkbook to settle her tab. Spotting my stare, she raises an eyebrow and says, "Honey, when you've been coming here as long as I have . . . ."
It's late June, and the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival is underway. We can hear Béla Fleck's banjo as we wander toward the giant stage set over a baseball field. A crowd of over 9,000 people sprawls on blankets. Neither Lisa nor I started the evening as a particularly big fan of the main act, Bonnie Raitt, but by the time she croons "Angel from Montgomery," we're converts.
Vacancies in Telluride during the festival are hard to come by, so Lisa drives us 30 minutes in total darkness--screeching to a halt twice for deer--to the Rico Hotel. Exhausted, we're grateful to find our room key taped to the hotel door. We wander through the lounge, where there's a deer head on the wall, rough-hewn wood beams overhead, and a huge fireplace. Our room is cute, with pink walls and rustic furniture. At that point, all we care about is the bed.
- Rico Hotel124 S. Hwy. 145, Rico, 800/365-1971, ricohotel.com, from $75
- Smuggler's Brewpub225 S. Pine St., Telluride, 970/728-0919, burger $6
- Telluride Gondola970/728-0588, visittelluride.com, free
- Telluride Bluegrass Festival800/624-2422, bluegrass.com, June 21--24, day pass $60
- Last Dollar Saloon100 E. Colorado Ave., Telluride, 970/728-4800
Day 2: Rico to Durango
Hotel guests sip coffee and eat scrambled eggs and bacon around wooden tables in the brightly painted breakfast room. The food is excellent, even if Eamonn O'Hara, the hotel's manager and chef of its acclaimed Argentine Grill, doesn't handle breakfast. Eamonn, a native of Ireland, and his wife, Linda Hackleton, an English expat, lived in Los Angeles--Eamonn worked for nine years at the Hotel Bel-Air--before moving to Colorado. "We didn't want to raise our daughter in L.A.," Linda explains, referring to 17-year-old Jorden.
We regretfully leave without sampling Eamonn's cooking, but soon enough stumble on the Silver Bean, a 1969 Airstream trailer converted into a coffee shop. A white picket fence surrounds an Astroturf patio where people sip lattes next to plastic flamingos. Inside, postcards and snapshots from the travels of "Uncle Fred" and "Aunt Betty" line the walls; owner Gigi Schwartz invented Fred and Betty as a lark. Gigi and her friend Wendy Mimiaga have been working in the tight quarters since the shop opened in 1998. "We haven't killed each other yet," says Wendy, laughing.
We drive 20 miles in the wrong direction, but it turns out that we're just 18 miles from the Four Corners Monument, so we keep going until we reach the spot where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. Sure, the marker is sort of arbitrary. We pay $3 admission and have fun in the hot desert air anyway. I snap photos of Lisa doing "the crab" on the four corners plaque, so that each limb is in a different state.
The narrow roads carved into the steep canyon walls of Mesa Verde National Park have particularly beautiful views: valleys dotted with juniper trees and sagebrush in between giant mesas. Around one turn, we spot wild horses.
The park's cliff dwellings are the real show. At Spruce Tree House, a 13th-century sandstone dwelling once home to the Ancestral Puebloan people, a ranger points out several kivas--underground rooms used for various ceremonies. We join a group tour of Cliff Palace, which has 150 rooms and 23 kivas. Our guide explains that an average Ancestral Puebloan man was 5'4", which helps us imagine how 125 people once lived here--and how residents managed doorways less than four feet tall and two feet wide. We climb a series of ladders to the top of Cliff Palace, passing three-inch wide grooves worn into the sandstone by human fingertips. I'm grateful for the ladders.
In Durango, we check in to the Rochester Hotel, a red-brick Victorian building dating to 1892. A lounge area offers homemade oatmeal-raisin and chocolate chip cookies and a jug of iced tea--all with a help-yourself policy for guests. I'm thrilled with our room's little private patio, which opens into the side courtyard.
At The Palace restaurant, where we're serenaded by a barbershop quartet over dinner. I can't manage to finish my mozzarella, tomato, and basil sandwich, and Lisa hardly makes a dent in her plate of penne--because the portions are so big and because we stuffed ourselves with cookies back at the hotel.
Waitresses at the Diamond Belle Saloon dress in 1800s period costumes, complete with peacock feathers in their hair, and more often than not there's someone playing ragtime on the piano. While we have drinks, I half expect brawling cowboys to fall from the balcony.
- Rochester Hotel726 E. Second Ave., Durango, 800/664-1920, rochesterhotel.com, from $109
- Silver Bean410 W. Main St., Cortez, 970/946-4404
- The Palace505 Main Ave., Durango, 970/247-2018, penne $9
- Four Corners Monumentnavajonationparks.org, $3
- Mesa Verde National ParkHwy. 160, 970/529-4465, nps.gov/meve, $15 per car
- Diamond Belle Saloon699 Main Ave., Durango, 970/247-4431
Day 3: Durango to Ouray
Durango attracts outdoorsy types who make the most of their days, and at 7:15 a.m., nearly every chair in our hotel's breakfast area is filled. After eggs, fresh fruit, and tea, we drive to Mild to Wild Rafting for a trip down the Lower Animas River. A family from Chicago with three boys shares our boat. The water level is fairly low--meaning the rapids are mild--so our guide, Roy Igo, a Harrison Ford doppelgänger, makes the ride more exciting by extending the initial lesson into a paddling clinic. Not to be shown up by the boys, Lisa and I furiously obey his commands of "Forward two, back one!"
For lunch, we return to town, where the chicken wings at Carver Brewing Co. are messy and scrumptious. Then we stop at Honeyville, specializing in all things to do with bees; there's even a see-through hive stocked with live bees in the middle of the store. Lisa, who loves whipped honey, is delighted that the store sells it in flavors such as cinnamon and peach.
We drive into the mountains on Route 550, a.k.a. the Million Dollar Highway. Just before Coal Bank Pass at 10,640 feet, we see the impressive Pigeon and Turret peaks, both well over 13,000 feet high. Soon after, we look down at the old mining town of Silverton, which is 9,318 feet above sea level.
A man at Silverton's visitors center gives us a map to a nearby ghost town, Animas Forks, and assures us that our rental--a white PT Cruiser we've nicknamed Stay Puft--will do just fine. Half an hour later, as we bounce along a rocky dirt road with a sheer drop-off, we're not so sure. Still, we arrive unscathed to see rickety buildings and crumbling foundations in what 120 years ago was a town of 450 people.
Silverton itself looks like a ghost town, as it's low season--in between the summer tourists and the winter skiers. We struggle to find a single store open. One window sign reads: we are not open, never, never, never. There could not be a more appropriate moment for a tumbleweed to roll by.
Continuing on Route 550, we fight the urge to pull over every few minutes to take photos. One stop we can't resist is Red Mountain, a collapsed volcano with sides that are burnt orange and red, thanks to the rich iron deposits. Eventually we arrive in Ouray, dubbed the Switzerland of America for its position beneath snowcapped peaks.
The area was populated after gold was discovered in 1875. Long before its mining days, however, Ouray--named for a Ute chief--was the summer home of nomadic tribes who came to soak in the mineral hot springs.
After paddling the morning away, Lisa and I have the same idea. We check in at Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs and change into bathing suits. The lodge has four 6-person redwood tubs that are continuously replenished with geothermally heated spring water. As the sun sets, we soak and enjoy the mountain views.
We get seated next to the outdoor fireplace at Buen Tiempo, a cute Mexican restaurant. While digging into a vegetarian quesadilla, I notice that the 15-foot-high ceilings inside are papered in dollar bills. Our waiter explains that they're donated by customers and taken down once a year to be given to charities. After we offer a dollar, our waiter shoves a tack through the bill, which he wraps around a roll of quarters; then he wings the package upward. The tack sticks the dollar into the ceiling, and our waiter catches the quarters and goes back to his job.
- Mild to Wild Rafting50 Animas View Dr., Durango, 800/567-6745, mild2wildrafting.com, half-day rafting $43
- Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs 45 Third Ave., Ouray, 800/327-5080, boxcanyonouray.com, from $75
- Carver Brewing Co.1022 Main Ave., Durango, 970/259-2545, wings $9
- Buen Tiempo515 Main St., Ouray, 970/325-4544, quesadilla $12
- Honeyville33633 Hwy. 550, Durango, 800/676-7690
Day 4: Ouray to Grand Junction
Two blocks from our hotel at Box Cañon Falls & Park, we follow a walkway next to the falls, which fill the canyon with mist. We hike a steep half-mile to the bridge suspended over the cascade. A placard explains that the rock face in front of us is known as the Great Unconformity: For some reason, a stripe of rock representing 30 million years of geologic time is missing. I quickly give up trying to wrap my head around that and instead just admire the contrasting reds, oranges, and whites in the rock.
In between ogling Ouray's adorable Victorian-era buildings and the surrounding mountains, we come upon Ouray Silversmiths. Opened in 1994, the shop sells silver and gold jewelry handmade by owner Melanie Kline and her son, Josh. Lisa buys her mother a ring with a golden horse in a silver paddock for her birthday, even though it's more than six months away. "When you see something this perfect, you just have to get it," she says.
With a flight to catch in the afternoon, we reluctantly climb into the car and speed northward, leaving the mountains behind.
Descending into the plains, we find that the sky opens up wider and wider, and fields dotted with split-rail fences seem to go on forever. We drive nearly an hour in silence, happy simply to watch the landscapes slowly roll by.
- Box Cañon Falls & ParkOuray, 970/325-7080, ouraycolorado.com, $3
- Ouray Silversmiths722 Main St., Ouray, 970/325-0097
Finding Your Way
Southwestern Colorado has some of the prettiest drives in the state, which is saying a lot. The mountain views north of Durango on the Million Dollar Highway (Rte. 550) are particularly gorgeous. Though it's easy to get distracted, be sure to keep your eyes on the road--it's often very windy, with steep drop-offs and not as many safety barriers as you might hope. If you're going to Animas Forks or anywhere else off the main roads, consider a four-wheel drive vehicle--and no matter what, take it slow.