The Colorado Scenic Points of Interest Section of the Canyonlands & Four Corners Travel Guide features the famous Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the Million Dollar Highway, part of the renowned San Juan Skyway. Also covered is the Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway. Towns covered include Silverton, Ouray, and the popular ski resort of Telluride. National sites include Colorado National Monument and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
This guide offers descriptions of many points of interest, links to many references, travel itineraries, and suggested visit times.
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Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
One of the west's most scenic and historic tourist rides is on the famed Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Using refurbished early equipment including huge, coal-fired steam locomotives, the railroad ferries thousands of visitors every year from Durango (elevation 6,500 feet), up the spectacular gorge of the Animas River to the "old west" town of Silverton, Colorado, nestled at 9,300 feet beneath 13,000 foot peaks in the spectacular San Juan Range, the western slope of Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
The ride takes several hours each way. The best option is to ride the train from Durango to Silverton, then take the bus back to Durange, which takes only about an hour. To avoid the locomotive smoke, try to obtain a seat near the rear of the train. The train sells out during vacation months, so advanced ticket reservations are strongly advised. Visit time: most of the day. You'll probably spend an hour or more touring Silverton.
Million Dollar Highway - Part of the San Juan Skyway
The Million Dollar Highway, US-550 from Durango to Ridgway, Colorado, is perhaps the choicest section of the famed San Juan Skyway, one of America's great scenic drives. The Skyway covers the best of the San Juan Range, the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, teeming with 14,000 foot peaks. The region offers great scenic driving, hiking in wilderness areas, old west towns, great ski resorts, four wheel driving, and even a hot springs. The route can be driven in a couple of hours but can take a few days to take in the attractions. Some of the attractions include:
- The Town of Durango is the gateway to the San Jaun Mountains, the southern terminus of the Million Dollar Highway and the Durango and Silverton Railroad. Full tourist services are available, including many guide services for white water rafting and jeep tours. Activities in town include chuckwagon dinners, museums, theater, shopping, and art galleries.
- Purgatory Ski Resort. The popular ski resort is on US-550 about mid-way between Durango and Silverton.
- Molas Divide. The highway crosses the divide at 10,910 feet elevation about five miles south of Silverton. Molas Lake (photo, left) and its scenic campground is just north of the pass. The campground, though primitive (no on-site hookups, central water pump, vault toilets, pay showers), is gorgeous with private wooded sites and great views. The Grenadier Range to the east features a vista of 13,000+ foot peaks. A nearby trail leads east into the Weminuche Wilderness, great for a short walk or a backpack.
- The Town of Silverton. The old west town features old architecture, rock shops, mine tours, and more. (See below).
- Red Mountain Pass. The highway crosses the pass at 11,018 feet elevation. Just north of the pass is a parking area and roadside display interpreting the remains of the Red Mountain Mining District.
- Alpine Loop. Colorado-110 is an alternate route between Silverton and Ouray which gets into the the spectacular world of 14,000+ foot peaks (photo, top right). The route requires four wheel drive. Inquire about guided jeep tours in Silverton or Ouray.
- Ouray. Western town noted for Box Canyon, great scenery, and its hot springs. (See below).
The western part of the San Juan Skyway, Colorado-145 also offers extraordinary mountain scenery and features the town of Telluride (see below) and its world-famous ski resort. The entire Skyway loop (US-550, Co-62, Co-145, and US-160) is highly worthwhile but may be too time consuming if you are on a larger road trip or seeking a variety of scenery.
One of the American West's finest old west towns, Silverton, Colorado, offers a blend of "tourist" old west and "real" old west. The town is nestled in a deep valley at 9,300 feet beneath 13,000 foot peaks in the spectacular San Juan Range. It was a prosperus center for gold and silver mining in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Silverton maintains many of its original buildings, and offers a variety of shopping, ranging from restaurants to rock shops. Aside from the history, the town is also the gateway to miles of four wheel drive roads and hiking trails in the awe inspiring high country. You can tour gold mines, visit ghost towns, or just enjoy the scenery. Visit time: an hour or two, more if you go on a tour.
Like Silverton, scenic Ouray got its start as a silver and gold mining town. Today, the town still maintains many of its Victorian buildings. The Ouray Hot Springs is open to the public for a nominal fee; it also includes a locker room, weight room, and showers. It is actually a series of outdoor pools fed by the hot springs, and extremely pleasant with an awesome scenic backdrop (photo, right). Mine tours and jeep trips are available in Ouray. Local attractions include Cascade Falls and Box Canon Park which features Canyon Creek running through a perpendicular granite gorge. There is a short but quite interesting hike into the gorge. Visit time: an hour or two, more if you go on a tour. The popular hot springs are a great break from driving.
Telluride, separated from Silverton and Ouray by the Umcompahgre Range, also starting as a booming mining town. The Sheridan Hotel and Opera House constructed in 1891 still stand today, contributing to the town's Victorian atmosphere, and its sophistication. While Telluride is known for its ski resort and year-round recreation, numerous major cultural festivals are held there each year. During the winter, recreation includes skiing and snowmobiling. In summer, hiking, white water rafting, four wheel driving, biking, and golf are available. An old mine road leads to 365-foot Bridal Veil Falls (photo, right). A free gondola ride gives visitors a spectacular view of the area. The western part of the San Juan Skyway, Colorado-145, is most scenic in the section just south of Telluride. Visit time: half a day or more.
Ridgway State Park
Ridgway State Park is a few miles north of the town of Ridgway, the northern end of the San Juan Skyway. The park offers an excellent full-service campground and is good stopping point for those headed north. The park offers a lake and streams, good for fishing and other water sports. Boat rentals are available. Supplies and services are available in Ridgway.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison's spectacular landscape combines a narrow opening, sheer walls, and startling depths that is unique. At its deepest, the canyon drops 2,722 feet. The narrowest width at the rim is 1,100 feet, and 40 feet at the bottom. By comparison, the Grand Canyon's maximum depth is 6,000 feet but the width at the rim is generally over a mile. The black rock walls which give the canyon its name - and strange, gloomy appearance - are composed of hard, crystalline rock. Despite the hard rock, the immense canyon was scoured out by the raging Gunnison River which drops through the canyon at an amazing average of 95 feet per mile! The Colorado River drops through Grand Canyon at an average 7.5 feet per mile.
The primary activities here are scenic driving, nature hikes along the rim to vista points, and wildlife viewing. There are no formal trails into the canyon, and it is the province of climbers and very experienced outdoor persons. There are campgrounds on both rims. The park is about 10 miles from Montrose. Take US-50 east for eight miles, then north on Co-347. The remote north rim is accessed via Co-92. It is out of the way but a rather interesting drive. Visit time: a couple of hours, good lunch stop. Hot in the summer.
Immense Grand Mesa comprises the western end of Grand Mesa National Forest, east of Grand Junction, Colorado. It is considered the largest "flat top" mountain in the world. Averaging over 10,000 feet in elevation, vista points provide spectacular views of Grand River Valley, nearly 6,000 feet below. The mountain is dotted with over 300 lakes and reservoirs. The area offers year-round recreation. Summer brings fishing, hiking, and camping. Also, spectacular wildflowers at times. There are rustic lodges with restaurants. In fall, there is outstanding foliage color. Winter brings outstanding skiing at the Powderhorn Resort, snowboarding, and snowmobiling. The Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway provides a wonderful scenic drive, running from Cedaredge in the valley to the south, across the mesa, and down to I-70 north of the mesa.
This is a less well-known area with opportunities for uncrowded and outstanding recreation. A very beautiful area. Visit time: a few hours to drive the scenic byway, or you can spend days in the area.
Colorado National Monuent
West of Grand Junction, Colorado, the Rocky Mountains are left behind, and the start of canyon country can be found at little-known Colorado National Monument. The monument offers a landscape of colorful, deep sandstone canyons, towering monliths, and soaring cliffs. The park's excellent scenic road winds through the entire park and forms a loop with local roads just outside the park. There are numerous turnouts and vista points. Bicycling is popular on the road, but challenging as there are numerous ups and downs. There are numerous hiking trails in the park, ranging from short and easy nature trails to longer backcountry routes.
There is a very nice campground. The park can be accessed from US-50 or I-70. Visit time: the park road is rather slow going, so expect to be here several hours. It's much nicer to stay overnight. Beautiful view of the city lights at night from an overlook near the campground. Hot in the summer.
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