The Spirit of Southwestern Colorado
Southwest Colorado is a place where canyons, deserts and mesas take center stage, the past comes shrouded in mystery and the spirit of the Old West endures. A haven for nature lovers and history buffs, this rugged slice of the Centennial State has all the makings of an unforgettable vacation. From desolate landscapes rich in outdoor recreation and spellbinding byways, to abandoned mining towns and the largest archaeological preservation site in the country, there’s no limit to what you can experience here. Come visit this enthralling part of America’s West and see what adventurers have been gushing about.
Black Canyon Adventures
Discover one of the continent’s deepest chasms and some of its oldest rock in Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Located 14 miles from Montrose and 63 miles from Gunnison, this national park is named after the plunging cliff walls that are blanketed in black shadow. The most dramatic cliff of them all is the Painted Wall, the highest in Colorado, standing 2,250 feet from the rim to the Gunnison River below.
Hiking Near the Canyon
See the Painted Wall in all its glory by traversing the Cedar Point Nature Trail. This easy 0.6-mile path found in the South Rim of the park weaves through plenty of local flora and ends with two overlooks offering marvelous views of the Painted Wall and river below. Hikers looking for more of a challenge can take on the North Rim’s Chasm View Nature Trail, a moderate 0.3-mile journey through pinyon and juniper forest that eventually leads to a lookout with the Painted Wall and Serpent Point as its backdrop. Don’t forget to look up during your trek as raptors, swifts and swallows are often spotted. Only the most seasoned hikers should tackle the inner canyon as maintained and marked trails are nonexistent.
World-class hiking isn’t the only draw here—the Gunnison River has been awarded the title of Gold Medal Water and Wild Trout Water. Drop a line anywhere between Crystal Dam to the river’s North Fork to bag some monster trout. On land, a diverse array of wildlife calls Black Canyon home. Bring binoculars and keep your eyes open for yellow-bellied marmots, mule deer, elk, badgers and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of the “ghost of the Rockies,” also known as the mountain lion. Other popular activities in the park include camping, kayaking, rock climbing and stargazing.
Ride into Black Canyon’s past
Situated just 20 miles east of Montrose is Cimarron, which originally served as a link to transport ore from the San Juan Mountains’ mines and later functioned as a livestock shipping hub. Visit the area today and you’ll stumble upon an outdoor exhibit featuring original railroad stock cars and loading corrals. The National Park Service also runs a campground and picnic space here.
Colorado’s Best-Kept Secret
Authentic Western heritage, award-winning wineries and plenty of green spaces converge in Durango. Run, walk or cycle on the scenic Animas River Trail, a paved 7-mile trail that connects parks, natural surface trails and downtown Durango. Along the way, enjoy fly-fishing on the river’s current or feeding kokanee salmon and four species of trout at the Durango State Fish Hatchery and Wildlife Museum.
While visiting the area, many visitors take a side trip to scenic Bayfield, a small town just east of Durango. Sitting at an altitude of about 6,900 feet, Bayfield is close to the Four Corners of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Basking in sunshine for 300 days of the year and enjoying moderate temperatures, Bayfield is a popular destination for hikers, bikers, hunters, anglers and boaters. The town of 2,300 residents sits astride Route 160 just downstream from Lake Vallecito, making it an ideal base for fly fishermen to make the big catch. Cast a line in the Los Pinos River and reel in a variety of trout, including rainbows, brookies, browns, and cutthroats.
Sky High Fun
Ten minutes south of Bayfield, the town of Ignacio serves up a menu of outdoor recreation, casino fun and high-speed water recreation. Located near the headquarters of the Southern Ute Tribe, the town features the modern Sky Ute Casino Resort, which boasts poker, slot machines and table gaming. Because of the town’s location close to the southern border with New Mexico, Tex-Mex restaurants are prominent entice visitors with spicy cuisine.
Many more adventurous trails can be found in the hills and valleys surrounding Durango. Pick your desired level of difficulty and head to the hills. Hike up Smelter Mountain for expansive views of the city below. The Cascade Creek Trail takes you through a forest of pine trees to a spectacular view of a tumbling waterfall. After a day of hiking and adventuring, sink into the Pinkerton Hot Springs or Trimble Spa and Natural Hot Springs to relax your cares away in one of Mother Nature’s hot tubs.
Riding the Rails
Harken back to the days of the Old West by boarding the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a steam-powered locomotive that dates back to 1882. The 45-mile ride snakes through stark canyons, jagged peaks, the historic mining town of Silverton and parts of the Weminuche Wilderness that can only be reached by train. The glass-topped Silver Vista car gives you immersive views of the spectacular landscapes along the route.
When it’s time to unwind, grab a local craft beer at Durango’s many microbreweries or savor a glass of wine in a beautiful setting at Fox Fire Farms, Four Leaves Winery, Guy Drew Vineyards and Sutcliffe Vineyards. Don’t leave town without snapping a photo of Pinkerton Hot Springs. Located north off of Highway 550, this unusual, vibrant-colored rock pile spews out steamy water that was once believed to have healing powers.
Hit the Road on the San Juan Skyway
Road trippers won’t want to miss cruising along the San Juan Skyway. Spanning 236 miles, this jaw-dropping scenic byway loops through the majestic San Juan Mountains and plenty of charming communities. Popular stops include Ouray for its perfectly preserved buildings from the mining era, Telluride for its artifact-filled Historical Museum and Silverton’s Old Hundred Gold Mine. Those with a fear of heights should beware of the stretch from Ouray to Silverton known as the “Million Dollar Highway.” Boasting sharp drop-offs with few guardrails, the highway will keep you on the edge of your seat, but it’s all worth it for the priceless views you’ll encounter.
Red Mountain Pass
At Red Mountain Pass, drivers reach the pinnacle at 11,000 feet. If you have time for a daytrip, indulge in exploring several charming towns, including Ridgway and Cortez. Like the miners who traversed the countryside a century ago, modern visitors can strike gold in this region when aspen tree leaves take on a stunning hue in the autumn, bathing the hillsides in an amber glow.
The Treasures of Mesa Verde
Drive 35 miles west of Durango and you’ll wind up in Mesa Verde National Park, America’s biggest archaeological preservation site. Mesa Verde was inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans for over 700 years and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with more than 4,700 archaeological sites. Boasting 600 cliff dwellings and countless mesa top sites consisting of pueblos and towers, this park offers incredible insight into an intriguing Native American culture.
Palace of the Past
Take a guided tour to see Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling, with about 150 rooms. You can also tour the park from the comfort of your car by driving on the 6-mile Mesa Top Loop Road, famed for its amazing views of the Sun Temple, Square Tower, Cliff Palace and Sun Point. Stop by the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum for artifacts and dioramas shedding light on what life was like here centuries ago.
While you’re here, why not take advantage of Mesa Verde’s natural playground? Follow Petroglyph Point Trail to reach prehistoric rock carvings and stay until the evening to see the sky shimmer with seemingly infinite stars. In the winter, trade your hiking boots for cross-country skis or snowshoes and set off on the groomed Cliff Palace Loop Trail or Point Lookout Trail.
Make a Splash
If you have a thirst for water fun, visit the Lake Capote Recreation Area for fishing, boating and other water sports about 43 miles east of Durango. Self permitting stations make it easy to get ready for a day catching rainbow trout, brown trout and channel catfish. Don’t leave without taking a spin on Colorado’s newest scenic byway, Tracks Across the Borders. More watery fun awaits at Navajo State Park, just 19 miles to the south, where the vast Navajo Reservoir has been called Colorado’s answer to Lake Powell.
While the name may be a little off-putting, Purgatory Resort is one of Colorado’s most affable and affordable ski resorts. Just 25 miles north of Durango’s vibrant downtown, in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, Purgatory is renowned for its consistent powdery snow and sunny skies. In addition to 91 ski/snowboard runs, 10 chair lifts, spectacular vistas and relatively few crowds compared to Colorado’s glitzier ski resorts, this family-friendly resort offers snowshoeing, dog sledding, Nordic skiing, snowmobiling and horse-drawn sleigh rides.
For More Information
Colorado Tourism Office