Sometimes I complain about living in a small town. There aren’t big events, huge shopping selections or cultural experiences. What we lack in modern amenities, though, we make up for in scenery and outdoor activities. If your idea of a fun vacation is swishing down the slopes or hiking above treeline, southwest Colorado would be nirvana. Here are a few hidden and not so hidden gems from my backyard.
How Do You Get To Southwest Colorado?
Southwest Colorado is a hard place to get to, but well worth it if you make the effort. The best option, in my opinion, is to fly into Durango, Colorado if at all possible. Durango is a small regional airport, but offers daily flights on American/US Airways to Phoenix and Dallas or United to Denver. If you collect miles for free travel, it’s pretty easy to score awards by using Chase Ultimate Reward points, or one of the United or American Airlines cards. If you can’t make it into Durango, Albuquerque, NM is the closest major airport and is about a 4 hour drive. Let’s say you have 5 days and you are coming in the summer. A winter trip would certainly have to include skiing, but since we are already at the end of March, I’ll save the winter trip for next season. You will also need to rent a car because there is almost no public transportation.
Day 1 Durango
I would suggest arriving into Durango and staying the night in town. There are a number of chain options if you want to use your points. Hilton has a Homewood Suites, Hampton Inn, and Doubletree. IHG has a Holiday Inn Express. Choice offers a Comfort Inn, and there are a couple of Best Westerns. If you really want to stay somewhere historic and get a real feel of old time Durango, I would suggest the General Palmer, which is right down town. Basic rooms start around $150 per night during peak season, but the ambiance is pretty cool and you can walk around down town. This would be a great way to use points from the Barclay Arrival card.
There are tons of great restaurants, but our favorites include Gazpacho for Mexican, Fired Up for Pizza, or Carver’s for American fare. Jim and I met at Lady Falconburgh’s, which boasts the largest beer selection in the Four Corners. If you need to wet your whistle or get pub food, that’s the place.
I would spend the first day just walking around Durango. There is a trail that runs all along the Animas River that is really fun for kids because it intersects several parks. If you are really feeling adventurous, there is a great hike along the Colorado Trail at Junction Creek. Drive out of town on Hwy 550 like you are going to Silverton and turn west on 25th Street. You could hike this trail for many miles. There is a great view at just over 2 miles, called Gudy’s Rest, which also makes a good turn around point. Remember that all trails will start at at least 7000 feet of elevation, so keep hydrated and don’t over do it if you are coming from sea level.
Day 2 Million Dollar Highway
This 236 mile stretch of road on Hwy 550, also know as the San Juan Skyway, starts in Durango, winds through Coal Bank and Molas passes to old mining town, Silverton, continues over Red Mountain pass to Ouray (mostly without guard rails!), swings around the Dallas Divide into Telluride and then over Lizard Head Pass back to Durango.
I have driven the entire stretch in one day, starting and ending in Durango. It does take all day because the roads are incredibly steep and windy, plus you’ll want to stop in all the little towns along the way. I would recommend staying overnight, preferably in Ouray. It’s less expensive than Telluride and has a wonderful geothermal hot springs. It really feels like a small European town in the Alps. You can soak in the water while looking up into the mountains.
There are also some wonderful hikes in the area. Easy ones include Lower Cascade Falls and Box Canyon. More experienced hikers would enjoy Bear Creek. For non-hikers, you could take a mine tour or rent a jeep to travel the four wheel drive roads further up in the mountains for spectacular views.
We usually camp if we visit this area, but I hear the Box Canyon Lodge is a good place to stay in Ouray. They have their own hot springs tubs, so no need to visit the public facility.
Day 3 Telluride
Telluride is kind of like Aspen with about 1/8 of the glitz and pretension. Yes, there are several celebrities who have vacation homes there. Yes, you can pay $300 for a dinner for two and get driven around in a mountain limousine. However, there is something to do and see for those of us who generally don’t party like rock stars.
One of the coolest things you can do in Telluride is take the free gondola up from town into Mountain Village or vice versa. It takes only 13 minutes one way, but the views are amazing. Walking around downtown Telluride or the Mountain Village core would be enjoyed by the shoppers in your party. Hikers can take the Jud Wiebe trail right off Aspen Street for a strenuous, short hike.
If you decide to stay in Telluride, it can be expensive. The Hotel Telluride is nice, but pricey. The Victorian Inn is probably one of your few budget options, starting at $124 for a basic room.
Day 4 Mesa Verde
A trip to southwest would not be complete without a visit to Mesa Verde National Park. The drive up to most of the ancient Puebloan ruins is pretty spectacular. You need to be a somewhat mobile to really be able to visit most of the highlights of the park, like Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, or Cliff Palace. Some of these are guided tours only, so buy your ticket at the visitor’s center before you go up the hill.
Day 5 Grab Bag
Day 5 really depends on how tired you are and whether you want to keep moving or not. You also might need two days in Mesa Verde, but if not, there is still much to do. There are some amazing mountain bike trails, including Phil’s World in my home town of Cortez or Boggy Draw near Dolores that might be better for novice or intermediate bikers instead of some of the expert trails in Durango. If you do stop in Dolores, the Dolores River Brewery is excellent.
The other really, really popular thing to do in southwest Colorado is the Durango/Silverton Narrow Gage Railroad. It’s very slow, touristy, and something I’ve never actually done. We have done the seasonal train rides, like the Polar Express at Christmas, but that is only a brief portion of the whole route. It takes all day and is a great way to see the mountains if you aren’t active. We are way to antsy too sit on a train full of people all day if we don’t have to.
When I meet people from various cities, they often tell me how lucky I am to live in southwest Colorado. When I think about all the amazing things to do, I have to smile and agree. Who really needs a mall anyway?
Do You Like Outdoor Vacations? Feel Free to Email Me or Leave a Comment If You’d Like Other Area Suggestions