The Spirit of Southwestern Colorado
In Southwest Colorado, the mystique of the American West comes alive in a big way. This rugged slice of the Centennial State encompasses highways with jaw-dropping views of surrounding mountains. Travelers will discover mining towns with storied histories preserved in the structures that still stand. There are deep canyons whose sheer walls enthrall even the most seasoned explorers. Explorers can tour Native American ruins that shed light on an often-overlooked chapter of North American history. Bring a sense of adventure to the trails and byways that traverse rough terrain.
Black Canyon Blast
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.
Walls of Wonder
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.
Star Gazing at Gunnison
After the sun goes down, the elegant and breathtaking beauty of the night sky is revealed. Gather with other stargazers and hear an evening talk by a park ranger or local astronomer, or marvel at the eye-popping display of thousands of stars on your own as you pick out the myriad constellations one by one.
Black Canyon Winter
When winter arrives at Black Canyon, don’t let a little (or a lot of) snowfall keep you away. If skiing and snowshoe treks are on your bucket list, check them off here. The South Rim Drive remains unplowed in winter, allowing it to morph into a ski trail. Snowshoe outings are offered at the upper part of the Oak Flat Loop and Rim Rock Trail. The snow-capped outcroppings of the canyon are visible from both points.
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.
Shadows of the 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 picnic space here.
Authentic Western atmosphere 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 or feeding kokanee salmon and four species of trout at the Durango State Fish Hatchery and Wildlife Museum. Outdoorsy folk with a penchant for hiking can embark on the 10.8 mile Cascade Creek Trail. Trekkers will be rewarded with waterfalls and meadows carpeted with wildflowers.
Delightful Western Town
Elegant historic buildings rise high above the streets, dwarfed only by the snowcapped mountain peaks in the distance, giving downtown Durango a stunning beauty not found in many other cities. Foodies will love sampling the menu of restaurants found here. Relax and soak in the atmosphere at one of the microbreweries pouring local craft beers. Vineyards and wineries are growing in popularity in Durango and the surrounding area, with charming tasting rooms welcoming guests to experience new flavors. Sit on a patio and enjoy some amazing views while sipping local vintages. Shops, galleries and more round out the experience.
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 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. Look deep in the mountainous ravines formed by the Animas River. Hop off to explore the historic mining town of Silverton, which sits above 9,000 feet in elevation and welcomes visitors with a main street lined with colorful buildings. Meander through the eclectic shops and charming restaurants before returning to Durango.
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.
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.
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’s scenery makes it worth the trip.
Mesa Verde: Window to the Past
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 the intriguing Pueblo culture. 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.
Plenty of Petroglyphs
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 the night 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.
Deep Into the Pueblo History
To fully understand and appreciate what life was like for this region’s early inhabitants, plan a visit to the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, and the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Films, artifacts and dioramas help to tell the story of the Ancestral Puebloans.
More Like ‘Heavenly’
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