Our Trip to Southwest Colorado
Well 2020 is an interesting year to say the least, but Beth and I had a chance to escape some of the chaos with a road trip to Southwest Colorado. Visiting Ouray, Telluride, Durango, Mesa Verde, and the Black Canyon has been on our bucket list since moving to Colorado over three years ago. While Beth and I usually do some grand trip out of the country in the summer, COVID provided a very valid excuse to stay close to home. It also let us bring our dog, Spruce, on the adventure!
Our ten day trip started in late July as we blasted down I-70 towards Grand Junction. We visited the Colorado National Monument and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks on the way to our first stop in Ridgway, Colorado where we stayed for four nights. From Ridgway we did plenty of hiking and explored the surrounding area including Telluride and Ouray. After Ridgway we ventured further south passing through Silverton and Durango to stay close to Vallecito Lake for three nights. The idea here was to relax at the lake and drive to Mesa Verde National Park. Our final stop was in South Fork for two nights to relax along the Rio Grande River and get a final hike in at nearby Creede. The entire trip encompassed over 1,000 miles of driving just in Colorado!
All of our major stops are shown in the map below.
Keep in mind this trip was planned and done with COVID still raging. The entire trip we did our best to avoid people and wore masks while out. Overall, everyone was doing a good job at social distancing and mask wearing when applicable. The smaller towns of Ridgway, Telluride, and Ouray were extremely impressive with their town setups to mitigate COVID. Mask wearing was high, extra outdoor seating was setup, sanitizer made available, and many restaurants even had indoor seating completely closed. As we went further south mask compliance went down. Durango and Mancos (near Mesa Verde) had really low mask wearing. Durango had an initiative advertising free masks but the tourists didn’t seem to really care.
Colorado National Monument
Our original plan did not include a stop at the Colorado National Monument but we are glad we did! It was only a minor detour to our original driving route to Ridgway which required us taking I-70 rather than 285. The Colorado National Monument is not as well known as the other National Parks in Colorado but provides great views of desert canyons that you would expect in Utah rather than in Colorado.
We drove through the park in about two hours stopping at most of the major pullouts. The park is essentially one road that weaves in and out of the canyons and vistas making it really easy to get a lot of great views in without effort. Thankfully it was a cool and cloudy day as it can get extremely hot in the summer time. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to hike and all of the trails do not allow dogs (like most national parks). I am glad we made the visit.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Continuing on from Grand Junction towards Ridgway we made another detour to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Wow, this park was incredible and was like nothing we had ever been to! The 2,000 foot drop from the top of the canyon to the river is truly breathtaking. Pictures do not truly capture how immense it really is.
On top of that, the park was also very easy with one road and multiple vista points. Many of the vista points required a short walk but were also dog friendly so Spruce even got to enjoy the views! It only took us a couple of hours to stop at the major viewpoints and it was well worth it.
I had high expectations for Ridgway and it did not disappoint. Ridgway may be my favorite mountain town (at least in the summer) with it’s laid back atmosphere, amazing views, and access to some of the best hiking in Colorado. Don’t expect any night life, even without COVID, as there are only a couple of restaurants. We stayed just a block off from downtown which gave us literally a four minute walk to everything. Being able to walk to grab food from a restaurant and bring it back to our Airbnb’s patio was great. We also enjoyed relaxing at the nearby Ridgway State Park which has great views of the mountains and a swimming beach which we took advantage of after our hikes. Monsoon season was upon us but it did not damper our spirits or ruin any of our hiking. Ridgway is a great base to explore the San Juans and nearby towns. It is an easy 15 minute drive to Ouray and only 50 minutes to Telluride.
Our favorite hike of the trip was just outside of Ridgway. The Blue Lakes trail is absolutely stunning while also moderately challenging. The hike starts at the end of a county dirt road. Once at the trailhead the hike starts off with decent incline and was somewhat muddy thanks to the rain. From there it becomes a quintessential Colorado hike with a stream crossing, mountain vistas, a river, waterfall, and of course the lakes.
There is a lower and upper Blue Lake which sit underneath the imposing 14er Mt. Sneffels (yes, that is the name). On our day of hiking, the weather was somewhat iffy so we started early and made it the lower lake just before the storm clouds started rolling in. The color of the lower lake is truly remarkable and we spent a while just relaxing and walking around it. I heard the upper lake is well worth the effort but requires a very steep ascent. We did not make it to the upper lake but would like to do this trail again!
The San Juans are truly incredible and every town, pass, and mountain in the area provides amazing views and Telluride is no exception. The town sits in a box canyon. For those with a serious four wheel drive car you can make it over the pass and drive through the mountains between Telluride and Ouray.
We were not up for the four weel adventure but we enjoyed walking the town and taking the gondola up to the peak and to the ski resort side. Telluride is the only place in North America that uses gondolas as a free form of public transportation regardless of the season or reason. Many multi-millionaire and billionaires have a mountain home in Telluride and you could see many of the from the top of the gondola. It would be amazing to come back to Telluride to ski in the winter.
Just 15 minutes south of Ridgway is another one of our favorite towns Ouray, Colorado. Ouray sits in a box canyon and is known as the Switzerland of America. It truly is, when we visited for the first time it was rainy and cloudy which added to the vibe despite the sunny not peaking out. We hiked part of the Perimeter Trail which goes around the whole entire town while weaving in and out of the mountains and several creeks. This hike can be done from several spots and is easily accessible from the town.
Ouray is also the start of the Million Dollar Highway that goes through the scenic San Juan Mountains. It may be one of the most scenic dives we have ever done. The weather broke as we started our road trip to the next stop and had a beautiful sunny drive to Silverton.
Driving south from Ouray and on the Million Dollar Highway is truly breathtaking. The only real town within this part of the San Juans is the old mining town of Silverton. The old mining feel is still very much alive. Silverton is known as a great spot for off-roading and some of the most extreme skiing in the state. We did a quick jaunt around the historic town on our way to one of the many passes along the highway.
Going up Molas Pass provides for a scenic view of Silverton and the surrounding mountains. We planned on doing a hike and the weather panned out as there was no afternoon thunderstorm. Near the top of the pass we parked at Little Molas Lake and hiked part of the Colorado Trail. If you are looking for a relatively easy hike with a great reward look no further. The hike starts at an alpine lake and then heads up a ridge. There is a perfect vantage point right as the trail bends up. This view alone is worthy of the minimal effort but we kept going.
We continued up the ridge until a tall dead tree which provided a view of another valley. From here we took our last photo of the day and headed back down but you can continue along this trail forever. The Colorado Trail goes from Durango all the way to Denver!
Durango and Vallecito Lake
We finished up our Million Dollar Highway drive with a late lunch in Durango which is the only decent sized town in Southwest Colorado. The town was bustling with tourist and not many people were wearing masks. Grabbing lunch was more difficult than expected as many places were not dog friendly in downtown. This was surprising as we had gotten used to the many dog options in the smaller mountain towns.
After lunch we stopped at a grocery store to pick up food for our three night stay near Vallecito. Our Airbnb was 20 minutes outside of town and about 10 minutes from the lake. We really loved this spot for the seclusion, hot tub, and access to the lake. The place backed up to the forest and had a fenced yard for Spruce to go chipmunk hunting. There were warnings of wildlife and we saw several deer and black bear from the backyard!
After being really adventurous in Ridgway our goal was to relax at Vallecito. The lake did not disappoint and we even used the kayaks provided by the Airbnb. It was quite the experience strapping two kayaks to the top of our Hyundai Tuscon but we got there!
Of course we had to do some hiking and we followed the Vallecito Creek Trail for a couple of miles to a picturesque river spot. It wasn’t a difficult hike but it is known for providing great access to some of Colorado’s best wilderness areas if you continue further than we did.
After completing many of the other National Parks in Colorado we only had Mesa Verde left on our to-do list. From our Vallecito spot we spent one of the days driving through Mesa Verde. While the history is extremely fascinating we were somewhat disappointed with the park. It was hot (which is usual) but all the famous cliff dwellings were closed because of COVID or fire danger. We could still see many of the dwellings from the overlooks but walking through the larger ones were not an option.
Pagosa Springs and South Fork
Along the way to our final Airbnb in South Fork we stopped in Pagosa Springs and did a quick tour of the town. Like Durango, the town wasn’t as dog friendly as we thought. However, the hot springs were way more interesting than we imagined. A river bisects the town and the hot springs. There were many people tubing down the river and hopping in the free hot springs along the river. The nicer hot springs do require payment but they look awesome. It would be nice to come back to try the Pagosa hot springs once COVID calms down.
One of our more random ideas was to spend two nights in South Fork, because why not! The way our accommodations worked out we had two extra days to play with and we found a wonderful Airbnb along the Rio Grande. While there isn’t much to do South Fork it did provide a great spot to relax.
Our final stop was to Creede, Colorado which was just a short 30 minute drive from South Fork. We were surprised by how scenic the town was as it is not as well known as many of our other stops. Creede, like many of the other towns in the Colorado mountains is an old mining place which is evident by many of the structures.
We did manage to get another hike in but it did require more research. Just outside of Creede we did a five mile hike along Shallow Creek 897. Typically we rely upon AllTrails to find hikes but nothing really showed up in this part of Colorado. We found the hike on forest service website and it was a good find! Here is our recording of the hike. The hike follows a creek and then up into several aspen groves. From there it continues to some old cabins and then a yurt. This is a great hike to get away from everyone as we barely saw a soul. It would also be great in the fall once the aspens start changing colors.
Our bucket list Colorado trip was wonderful! COVID was the perfect excuse to have us explore our own state. The San Juans and Southwest Colorado may be our favorite part of Colorado. Getting there is a little more difficult than other areas but it also keeps the hordes of tourist away. Ten days away was long but also gave us a much needed vacation and plenty of time to explore. We would like to go back to the San Juans and explore even more!