Surrounded by historic mineral mines, freckled with pristine high alpine lakes, under the gaze of towering Gothic-like steeples of rock and stone, lies the San Juan mountain range in Southwest Colorado. Southwest Colorado may be off the beaten path, but it’s also one of Colorado’s richest secrets. Pack your backpack, hiking gear, and plenty of water for this Colorado road trip featuring national parks, historic mining towns, mineral hot springs, and pristine campsites. Whether you fly into Denver and rent a car, or hit America’s highways from your front door, this adventure is one for the bucket list.
Hit the road
From Denver, hit 285 South through Buena Vista through high mountain plains, crossing multiple mountain passes before switching to Highway 50 for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The Gunnison River has been carving out steep cliffs and dramatic drop-offs for the past two million years in this jaw-dropping gorge. For the hiker, consider Rim Rock Nature Trail or Oak Flat Loop Trail to explore the canyon from above and below the rim. Or take South Rim Drive for the best scenic views without the strenuous legwork. Either way, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is sure to astound you. Camp onsite at the South Rim Campground, or consider staying outside of Gunnison, Montrose, or the Curecanti National Recreation Area.
Small town, big charm
After picking up your jaw from the trail at this national park, refresh your car snacks in Montrose, fill the tank up with gas, put on your favorite Taylor Swift album (obvi), and head further south on highway 550 to the “The Switzerland of America”, Ouray, Colorado. While the crowds head to Telluride, the wise make the turn for Ouray. With a population just reaching 1,000, Ouray is the perfect mountain getaway. Whether you’re looking to wander Main Street to experience the Old American West, relax in natural mineral hot springs, or push yourself to the limits with the rock climbing or 14er hiking scene, Ouray has it all.
For the best burger in town, hit up Maggie’s Kitchen. For the most unique experience in town, follow it up with a beer from Mr. Grumpy Pants Brewing Co. Don’t be surprised when the service lives up to the name. Looking for a place to stay? Ouray is surrounded by campsites. Follow Camp Bird road to take your pick or Amphitheatre Road for easy access. In town, consider Twin Peaks Lodge and Hot Spring or Ouray Hostel. Still not your vibe? The town is full of AirBnBs, Chateaus, and Historic Inn’s to boot. Take your pick and enjoy the journey.
Million Dollar Highway
From Ouray, hop on the Million Dollar Highway for one of the most scenic drives on any Colorado road trip. Connecting Ouray, Silverton, and Durango, the dramatic Million Dollar Highway got its name because it reportedly cost $1,000,000 per mile to construct. Featuring hairpin turns, towering mountain views, and historic mines from the original exploration of the West, the Million Dollar Highway truly earned its turns. Take in Bear Creek Falls, tour Yankee Girl Mine, Adrenaline Falls, or camp at one of the many backcountry reservoirs such as Haviland Lake or Molas Lake. Hiking trails abound as well, which offer pristine lakes and breath-taking passes. Pack more water than you think you’ll need and start early.
Time to head south
As you meander South, check out Silverton and Durango to experience the heart of the West. These old mining towns are full of grit, charm, and old west Adventure. For an afternoon coffee in Silverton, hit up The Grand Spur Coffee. For a quirky cafe with great food, Kendall’s Mountain Cafe. For an afternoon bear to take a load off, Avalanche Brewing Company. Spend the day wandering Durango’s main street, meandering into local places like The Bookcase and Barber, Four Leaves Winery, or Old Tymers Cafe. Plan a flexible timeline for this portion of the trip. Though the length of the highway is just 25 miles, there are days worth of adventure waiting to be found. Give yourself at least two-three days to see the best of it. To further extend your stay, consider hitting up Mesa Verde National Park 35 miles outside of Durango.
Back to Denver
To begin your circle back up to Denver, from Durango head East to highway 160 leading through Pagosa Springs, past the stunning Wolf Creek Ski Area, and ending in Alamosa. Should you choose to stop in Pagosa, make sure to hit up one of the many hot springs, including: The Springs Resort and Spa, Overlook, or Healing Waters. Once arriving in Alamosa, Great Sand Dunes National Park is just a short drive away, featuring the tallest sand dunes in North America. Rent a sandboard and spend the day living your best mini desert life.
The drive home will take you back through Buena Vista’s mountain passes. Stretch your legs by wandering through downtown Buena Vista and ease the driving tension by relaxing in Mount Princeton Hot Springs. Finish your pit stop off at the classic roadside coffee spot Brown Dog Coffee Company. From there, it’s scenic views all the way to the city. Be sure to roll your windows down and breathe in the crisp mountain air one more time.
Colorado is a place never lacking in adventure. But some of the best spots, you’ve got to work a little harder for. But, I think that’s the way it should be. No adventure worth having comes easy. Shielded by windy highways, towering peaks, and high mountain passes are the Colorado road trip you’ve been waiting to take.