Highway of Legends Scenic Byway

Walsenburg – Trinidad

Today we drove the 82-mile scenic byway from Walsenburg to Trinidad, Colorado via US160 and CO12 – the Highway of Legends.

Highway of Legends - B

Very little fall color appeared until we reached Cuchara. Along the ascent of 9,941’ Cucharas Pass, random aspen gave a preview of the coming golden glory. Across the valley, near the top of the pass, one grove gleamed in rich yellow/orange hues encircled by large stands of green aspen awaiting transformation.

Golden Aspen Grove - Highway of Legends - B

Aspen are prolific along the section of CO12 between Cuchara and Monument Park. Many hillsides support dense stands. The tall thin trunks seem to form a while fence across the slopes.

Green Aspen - Highway of Legends - BWhile color changes enhanced the scenic byway route today the best is yet to come along the Highway of Legends. I would guess that within a week to ten days the area will be at its peak seasonal display.

Aspen Leaves - Highway of Legends - B

Scenery, History and Recreation Galore

Along Colorado’s San Juan Scenic Skyway

 

Any season of the year, but especially in the fall, the San Juan Scenic Byway circling much of southwestern Colorado amazes visitors with natural beauty, remains of ancient civilizations, Western history and outdoor recreation. In four parts I’ll share an overview of the route first published in a suburban Denver lifestyle magazine, Buzz in the ‘burb.

View San Juan Scenic Skyway

Introduction

Like curly ribbon around a festively wrapped gift the San Juan Skyway circles spectacular southwestern Colorado. Plunging waterfalls, rumbling rivers, jagged mountain peaks, hot springs, deserted mining camps, rich western heritage, trendy resorts, and ancient cliff dwellings dot the map along the 236-mile loop designated an All American Road and Scenic Byway.

07-Waterfalls Weaving over five mountain passes, the paved two-lane route links two National Forests, a National Park, major communities and remote ghost towns. In theory one can drive the Skyway in six hours. While the windshield-framed vistas would still be stunning I can’t imagine making the drive non-stop, missing the many opportunities for exploration, recreation and a deep breathe of fresh alpine air.

Two or three days provides a more realistic time frame while the leisure traveler with a week to spare can easily fill the days and still leave with a to-do list for the next visit. Whether we complete the entire loop or drive just a segment we always vow to return – with more time.

A September visit promises the added attraction of golden aspen groves. The view of Mt. Sneffels from Dallas Divide is a classic Colorado autumn photograph.28-Aspen near Telluride

Ouray – Durango

04-Animas Forks Heading south towards Silverton the San Juan Scenic Skyway dramatically clings to canyon walls of the Uncompahgre River. This is the white-knuckle portion of the drive for flatlanders and those unfamiliar with mountain driving. Tunnels, snow shed, waterfalls, rugged red peaks and rusty-orange mine tailings hold our interest as we wind our way to the top of Red Mountain Pass.

Silverton

One of the richest mining districts in the world around the turn of the 20th century, Silverton was known as a wild town, notorious 11- Silverton Arrivalfor gambling, drinking and the Blair Street red-light district. Today, excitement peaks with the arrival of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in a mighty puff of black smoke. Hundreds of passengers descend on shops, restaurants and bars for two hours of modern day carousing.

During mid-day when the town teems with train passengers, we head to the Old Hundred Mine for an underground tour considered one of the best in the state.15-Mine Tour

Everyone dons hard hats and yellow slickers before boarding the electric mine train. Journeying 1/3 mile into Galena Mountain the one-hour tour is guided by an experienced miner. While he demonstrates the use of jack-leg drills, mucking machines and slusher the reverberating sounds give a harsh reality to the quest for ore.

Durango

16-Molas Lake Progress southward to Durango is slowed for photographers wanting shots of Molas Lake, Engineer Mountain, Coal Bank Pass, and Durango Mountain Resort. Could it be time for another soak, this time at Trimble Hot Springs, six miles north of town? Surrounded by landscaped gardens and shady lawns the soaking pools invite total relaxation. Active youngsters and those seeking real exercise gravitate to the Olympic-sized swimming pool. Massage and spa treatments can extend the stay for an indulgent day in the shadow of red sandstone mesas.

Durango serves as commercial, educational and tourism hub for Southwestern Colorado and the entire Four Corners region. Rich in history yet vibrant with youthful energy, the city offers options for all. Kayaking, rafting, mountain biking, fishing, golf – outdoor recreation is a way of life.

20-Strater Hotel Dining choices demonstrate the community’s diversity. One evening we choose Bar D Chuckwagon with barbeque dinner and Western entertainment by the Bar D Wranglers. The next night we’re downtown on the quiet patio of Seasons Grill savoring Alaskan halibut with saffron aioli and risotto cake. After dinner shopping includes stops in outdoor outfitters and art galleries. And, who can resist the ragtime tunes and honky-tonk piano at the Diamond Belle Saloon in the Strater Hotel – distinctively Durango.

Heading south towards Silverton the highway dramatically clings to canyon walls of the Uncompahgre River. This is the white-knuckle portion of the drive for flatlanders and those unfamiliar with mountain driving. Tunnels, snow shed, waterfalls, rugged red peaks and rusty-orange mine tailings hold our interest as we wind our way to the top of Red Mountain Pass.

02-Red Mountain

  • This post is a portion of an article by Nancy Yackel first published in Buzz in the ‘burbs, a suburban Denver monthly.

Ridgway – Ouray

Ridgway

Driving from Denver we usually join the San Juan Skyway at Ridgway on US550, 26 miles south of Montrose. The Ridgway Chamber of Commerce proclaims, “Fresh Air… Wrap Around Views!” In this case it’s not just hype. The surrounding country often serves as Hollywood backdrop and many local ranches are now owned by celebrities. The town successfully maintains its laid-back, friendly atmosphere – a place where we may find a horse tied-up outside the True Grit Café but can also buy a fine morning espresso at the local coffeehouse.

01-San Juan Autumn Ridgway State Park, north of town, offers camping, boating, fishing and even a sandy swim beach, somewhat a rarity in Colorado. South of town Orvis Hot Springs is the first we encounter along the route. Facilities at Orvis include indoor and outdoor pools, massage, lodging and camping. Be aware, soaking and other designated areas of the resort are clothing optional.

Ouray

Labeled the Switzerland of America, Ouray lies in a tiny valley ringed by 14,000-foot peaks. Settled after gold and silver deposits were discovered in 1875, the town reflects the wealth from those mines in its many ornate Victorian buildings. Restoration and preservation efforts have once again opened these architectural treasures as hotels, restaurants and bed and breakfasts.

 06-Jeep Road The year-round population of 800 swells in summer when visitors arrive to bask in the scenery and outdoor recreation. Perhaps, no where else in Colorado are we so enticed by 4-wheel jeep roads. Some of these steep, narrow “roads” were originally pack-mule trails to the mines. Tour and rental operators open the possibilities for everyone, even if they arrived in the family van. Engineer, Ophir, Black Bear, and Imogene Passes, Yankee Boy Basin, Last Dollar Road, Alpine Loop – destinations seem limitless.

Ouray Hot Springs Pool soaks away the aftershocks of a bone-jarring jeep tour or a day of alpine hiking or rock climbing. Over a million gallons of natural hot springs water at temperatures between 96 – 106 degrees soothes and relaxes.

  • This post is a portion of an article by Nancy Yackel first published in Buzz in the ‘burbs, a suburban Denver monthly.

Durango – Telluride

Mancos25-Mancos Valley Stage Line

Heading west from Durango the Skyway follows US160 across high desert plains with the La Plata Mountains marching northward. A stop in Mancos for a ride on the Mancos Valley Stage Line harkens back to travel in the 1800s. Riding shotgun atop the horse-drawn stagecoach provides thrills but we’re happy to continue our trip in air-conditioned SUV comfort.

02 - Mesa Verde Sign Ten miles east of Cortez the road to Mesa Verde National Park turns south.

[Click here for a post on Mesa Verde National Park]

Cortez Indian Dancer Cortez

Cortez serves as a gateway to additional Native American and Ancient Puebloan cultural sites. Visits to the Cortez Cultural Center, a day-long tour at Ute Mountain Tribal Park, Notah Dineh Trading Company & Museum, Hovenweep National Monument, and the Anasazi Heritage Center keeps us busy for several days.

North to Telluride26-Lizard Head Pass

From Cortez the Skyway heads north, northeast on CO145. Soon we’re following the Dolores River back into the San Juan National Forest along the most remote section of the route. The unique spire of Lizard Head Peak appears to balance afternoon storm clouds as we cross Lizard Head Pass before descending into the narrow valley that is home to Telluride.

  • This post is a portion of an article by Nancy Yackel first published in Buzz in the ‘burbs, a suburban Denver monthly.

Telluride – Ridgway

TellurideBarns Near Telluride

The one time boom town almost became a ghost town before its latest boom as a trendy resort and second home to celebrities. Spa treatments and fine dining or a hike to the brink of Bridal Veil Falls and a microbrew – we can do it all in Telluride. With a reputation as the Festival Capital of Colorado special events continue into autumn as aspens turn gold and cold nights precede the season’s first snowfall.Gondola View of Telluride

Vermillion cliffs cast shadows on the highway and the San Miguel River between Telluride and Placerville. The final segment of the Skyway loop heads back to Ridgway along CO62 with the not to be missed views of Mt. Sneffels. The peak was named after a fictional mountain in Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

The San Juan Skyway doesn’t take us to the center of the earth but gives us an incredible journey through southwestern Colorado.

Mountains from Wilson Plateau

  • This post is a portion of an article by Nancy Yackel first published in Buzz in the ‘burbs, a suburban Denver monthly.

Road Trip to the Pacific Northwest

After a week long visit with family in Spokane and an expensive new clutch in the car we set off for a few days in Portland and Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast.

  • A long but interesting drive from Spokane to Portland via I-90 to Ellensburg, south to Yakima then, US97 down to Goldendale and the Columbia River. We cross the river to I-84 on the Oregon side at Rufus.
  • Just when I was wondering what was growing in the field ahead a sign said that for the next 14 miles crops would be identified in the fence lines. In those few miles east of Moses Lake we saw alfalfa, timothy, wheat, sweet corn, peas, potatoes and peppermint.
  • Columbia River - The Dallas Driving down the Columbia we realize what a major transportation route we’re following. Large barges of grain head downriver. Trains haul freight across the country along railroad tracks on both sides of the river. Car and truck traffic hums along I-84; on the Washington side a scenic two-lane highway threads down the gorge.
  • A late lunch at the Windseeker Restaurant in The Dallas, Oregon. Off the beaten path, the Windseeker sits amidst beautiful gardens above the Columbia River. Seafood chowder and halibut sandwiches fuel our afternoon adventures.
  • The Columbia River Gorge is a must-do American road trip. The geography changes from high dessert and lava fields to thundering waterfalls and towering forests, all with views of Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens.
  • A quick check-in and bag drop at the Staybridge Suites-Portland Airport.
  • Totem at Lelooska Cultural Center Afternoon treat of a triple-berry smoothie and late night halibut sandwich at Burgerville in Woodland, Washington.
  • Visit to the museum and gallery at the Lelooska Cultural Center in Ariel, Washington plus the privilege of attending an evening living history program. The Lelooska family shares the traditional masks, stories, songs and dances of the Sewide lineage of the Kwakwaka’wakw. The evening in the cedar ceremonial house  lit with flickering firelight never ceases to educate, entertain and inspire.
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