As the highway curlicues down to Ouray, it noses through a tunnel blasted through solid rock, skirts the spectral remains of old mines, and breezes past waterfalls crashing down from invisible heights.
Nestled in a narrow, steeply walled valley, Ouray and its environs have been called the “Switzerland of America.” Its steep streets are lined with Victorian hotels and shops—even a public pool fed by hot springs that sends billows of steam into the air as guests who have come to “take the cure” gaze up at snowcapped peaks.
At Box Canyon Falls and Park, the turbulent waters of Clear Creek thunder 285 feet down a narrow gorge. A steel suspension bridge and well-marked trails offer glorious vistas.
From Ouray, the Skyway leaves the San Juan Mountains behind and coils into a broad valley where elk and deer graze in verdant meadows. Turning west on Rte. 62, the drive eases into Ridgway, which may look vaguely familiar, for this former Wild West town was used to film scenes in a number of Hollywood westerns, including True Grit and How the West Was Won.
If time permits, follow Rte. 550 north to Montrose and turn east on Rte. 50 to the road (Rte. 347) that leads to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Here a menacingly deep gorge was carved over 2 million years by the erosive power of the Gunnison River. Its charcoal-gray walls are shrouded in shadow for most of the day, hence the name Black Canyon. One of its prominent features, the 2,200-foot behemoth called the Painted Wall, is the highest cliff face in Colorado.
7. Dallas Divide
From Ridgway, Rte. 62 rolls west past broad ranchlands dotted with cattle, climbs to scrub oaks and aspen, and finally enters the spruce-covered hills of the Dallas Divide. It overlooks the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness Area—an array of jagged, snowcapped peaks whose centerpiece is 14,150-foot Mt. Sneffels (named for a mountain in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth). From the Dallas Divide, the highway descends to cottonwood country and into the tiny town of Placerville, where it turns south on Rte. 145. After several miles the route veers east to Telluride.
Its fanciful setting and gingerbread architecture give Telluride the kind of ambience you’d expect from a fairy tale come to life. The quaint streets of this turn-of-the-century town are crowded with a mixture of colorful clapboard houses and brick buildings. Mountains rise a mile above the valley floor, their flanks adorned in spring with tumbling waterfalls.
Some locals claim Telluride is a contraction of “To hell you ride,” a reference to the town’s rowdy past. (Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank here in 1889.) Actually, the town was named after a mineral compound often found with gold and silver that, ironically, is extremely rare in Telluride.
Because of its remote location, Telluride was once “hell” to get to as well—especially in winter when snowdrifts blocked the winding roads. But thanks in part to a new airport that accommodates small jets, the town has become a popular destination. This may explain why the price of real estate around Telluride has soared higher than the peaks, and why part-time residents include a bevy of high-profile celebrities. The town is shared as well by a new breed of buckaroos: kamikaze skiers and mountain bikers who hurtle themselves down the surrounding slopes. On some days it seems all roads lead to Telluride: the burgeoning ski town is also the Festival Capital of the Rockies, hosting throughout the year a number of world-famous film, arts, music, and even hang-gliding festivals.
A must for Telluride visitors with some time on their hands is the relatively easy two-hour round-trip hike to Bridal Veil Falls. Accented by rainbows as it plunges off a 425-foot-high cliff, Bridal Veil has the longest freefall of any waterfall in Colorado.
9. Lizard Head Pass
After retracing the spur from Telluride to continue south on Rte. 145, the drive heads across a high plateau of grasslands and dense aspen groves, with Wilson Peak and Sunshine Mountain towering to the southwest. In spring (mid-June in these parts), lilies bloom from snowfields—vast canvases that also bear the tracks of passing animals in search of food. Put an ear to the snow and you may hear the soft tinkling of hidden streams.
Farther on, the road passes the defunct town of Ophir, glistening Trout Lake, and a campground with the ambitiously alpine name of Matterhorn. It then climbs to 10,222-foot Lizard Head Pass (named for a reptilelike monolith near the road). Indians used the pass for thousands of years, and highway markers note that the Rio Grande Southern Railway passed through here until 1952.
Several miles ahead, the road twists through a glaciated valley dotted with beaver dams before easing into the town of Rico.