Southwest Colorado National Park Driving Tour: Great Sand Dunes, Black Canyon, and Mesa Verde
Why Southwest Colorado?
The area south and west of Denver is less heavily promoted and traveled compared to areas in the Front Range like Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, or Vail. What most people don't realize is that the area south and west has some of the most varied and scenic sites in Colorado. There, you can experience 14,000 foot peaks, canyons that rival the Grand Canyon, and several National Parks. Take this eight day driving tour to experience all that Southwest Colorado has to offer.
Day 1: Denver to Montrose
Begin your trip fairly early in the morning by driving south on I-25 from Denver. Just south of Colorado Springs, take Highway 50 West towards Canon City. Your first stop will be the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park near Canon City. Although somewhat touristy, this is a must-see. Here is the country's highest suspension bridge, built over the Arkansas River. There are also plenty of other attractions, including an Incline Railway and an Aerial Tram. Walk across the bridge, take the tram ride back, and then go down to the river on the Incline Railway. Spend a few hours here before continuing to Montrose.
On the drive from Canon City to Montrose, you'll pass through the Curecanti National Recreation Area just west of Gunnison. Curecanti is a system of three reservoirs formed by dams. You can pull over at a scenic point and take in the unusual surroundings. Finally, continue to Montrose where you'll stay for the night.
Day 2: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Today you'll be visiting the first of three National Parks, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, just northeast of Montrose. You can access the South Rim road via Route 347 which heads north from Route 50. The South Rim road offers a visitors center, refreshments, and a multitude of look-out points where you can take in the narrow canyon with its sheer walls and the Gunnison River below. Stop at as many of the lookout points as possible and if you're inclined, do some hiking on the trails. Once you've taken that in, head down the East Portal Road, which winds it's way down into the canyon. Take a break at the edge of the river before heading back up. Gorgeous!
Finish the day by driving back to Montrose and then heading south on Highway 550 to Ouray, where you'll spend the night. Driving into Ouray, also known as the Switzerland of America, is a sight to see so make sure you still have some daylight left when you get there.
Days 3 and 4: Ouray and Telluride
For the next two days, I would recommend staying in Ouray and taking a side trip to Telluride. Ouray is less expensive and more down-to-earth than Telluride. It's also home to the Hot Springs that bubble up naturally from underground. You can go to the Hot Springs Pool or stay at one of many hotels that have hot springs hot tubs on their premises. Spend the first full day exploring Ouray. There are numerous hiking paths, including Box Canyon Falls, an easy hike that starts in the Southwest corner of the town and ends in an amazing box canyon with a waterfall rushing through it. You can explore the trails on a Jeep tour, go horseback riding, or spend time in the quaint shops on Main Street.
The next day, drive to Telluride. Again, there are many, many hiking trails to explore once you get there. One of the most popular is the Bridal Veil Falls trail. A series of switchbacks will take you up the mountainside until you arrive at the base of a rushing waterfall. No matter how hot it is, the waterfall will offer a cool respite from the heat. You can continue up to the house at the top of the falls if you still have the energy, or head back down for a bite to eat and something cool to drink in town. On the way down, stop to dip your feet in an ice cold mountain stream to cool off.
After lunch, hop a ride on the free Gondola to Telluride's Mountain Village. Once at the top, you can do some more hiking. Or, take in a free concert, held weekly in the Mountain Village.
Head back to Ouray and get some rest for an exciting drive the next day.
Ouray and Telluride
Day 5: Ouray to Mancos
Leave early in the morning and head south on Highway 550 out of Ouray. This twenty-five mile stretch of road, from Ouray to Silverton, is called The Million Dollar Highway, and it is one of the most scenic drives in America. You'll wind through the mountains, hugging the side of steep cliffs, sometimes without guard rails, culminating in the hairpin turns of Red Mountain Pass. If this sounds frightening, just take it slow and enjoy the amazing views of red mountains and abandoned mines. This stretch of highway got it's name from the old mining days when the area produced millions of dollars worth of gold.
Silverton is an old west town and is a great place to stop, stretch your legs, and have a bite to eat. The town is the starting point for the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway so it has a touristy feel. You'll see an old jail house and plenty of souvenirs. When you leave Silverton, continue heading south through Durango. Then take Highway 160 West towards Mancos where you'll stay overnight.
Day 6: Mesa Verde National Park
Arrive early to Mesa Verde National Park to avoid the heat. You'll notice that the area has a much different feel than the mountains you just came from. It's hotter and dustier, with fewer mountains and trees. But it's worth putting up with to see the Cliff Dwellings of the Pueblo people. There are several cliff dwellings to see but Spruce Tree House and Cliff Palace are two of the best tours. You'll hear the history of the region and get to walk through their ancient dwellings. Try getting both in before heading back to Mancos and east to Alamosa. Taking Highway 160 East, drive 3 1/2 hours to Alamosa, where you'll stay overnight.
Day 7: Great Sand Dunes National Park
There are two sites worth seeing in the Alamosa area. One is the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the other is Zapata Falls. They couldn't be more different, although they are very close together. Leave Alamosa by heading east on Highway 160. Then, head north on 150 until you get to Lake of the Falls Parkway. Turn right and head up to the trail head for Zapata Falls. Warning: The road is gravel and it's bumpy. Once you get to the parking area, hike to the falls. You'll be amazed at the oasis in the midst of a desert. For the best view of the falls, ford the creek and head into the rocky cavern.
When you leave Zapata Falls, turn right onto Highway 150 and drive until you reach the entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Explore the visitor's center to learn about the sand dunes, how they were formed, and to pick up a souvenir. Then head out to the dunes for a hike. It may look easy, but the shifting sand makes walking difficult and despite your best intentions, you may not be able to go very far. Being here makes you feel like you're on another planet.
When you leave the Sand Dunes, drive back to Alamosa to spend the night.
Day 8: Return to Denver
On the last day of your trip, you'll be driving back to Denver. If you have a flight to catch, you may want to take the fast route. Drive east on 160 to the junction of 1-25 and then drive north to Denver. If you have more time, you can take the scenic route. Drive north on Highway 285 until you reach Highway I-70. Now you can simply drive east on 1-70 to Denver. This route takes you through Leadville, Colorado, America's highest incorporated city at 10,430 feet. Enjoy the views!
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