Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Southern Colorado's Varied Landscape

I’ve heard it said that if you don’t want to see anything interesting along the road, then take the interstate.  On this trip thru Colorado, we avoided the interstates and instead traversed southern Colorado taking the “blue highways” – the scenic back roads.  While we didn’t linger long at any one place, we got to see some of the beautiful scenery that makes Colorado so spectacular.

On our westerly trek, we traveled on Routes 50, 10, and 160 crossing the most southern parts of Colorado.  From the Kansas border to Walsenburg, it’s gently rolling treeless grass land.  It’s cattle country, much like southwest Kansas.  Passing thru Lamar to La Junta, we saw several small feed lots. It’s also a very Hispanic area.

From, Lajunta to Walsenburg, Route 10 was a lonely flat 60 mile stretch of road with no houses, businesses, or even telephone poles.  It’s just open plains with what seems like stray cattle here and there.

Scene from Route 60 to Walsenburg

The Rocky Mountains start to show themselves after Walsenburg with a climb up to our first mountain pass on Route 160.  La Vista Pass peaks at 9,700 ft. and then descends to the flat San Luis Valley.  We travel across this valley for about 50 miles and then the jagged San Juan Mountains show themselves.  

A long climb takes us up to Wolf Creek Pass at 10,900 ft. where we cross the Continental Divide. And then it’s a spectacular multi-mile downhill that takes you into a valley that’s brings us to Durango.

Descending Wolf Creek Pass
We spent three days in Durango and really enjoyed out stay (see my Durango blog article).  Of all the towns we visited in southern Colorado, it’s by far the best.  My dentist told me it’s his most favorite place to vacation.  It’s a place that tempts you with wanting to live there.  Upon spending a day in Durango, my son Cavin said he wanted to move to Colorado.  

Route 160 continues west of Durango and the landscape changes again going from evergreen peaked mountains to green topped scrub mesas.  It also becomes more arid.  Within 65 miles of Durango, it changes again and becomes almost desert like at the Four Corners with dry gullies and washes.

Mesa Verde
At Four Corners
On our easterly trek home, we took I-70 into Grand Junction but then got off and took Route 50 down to Montrose.  This road is relatively flat and follows a winding river valley bordered by some hills.  You can see the snowcapped San Juans off in the distance.  As you proceed west, you pass the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  The West Elk Mountains spring up on your left shoulder as you climb up to the Blue Mesa Reservoir.  This is a huge man-made lake that is part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area.  The road shoulders the sides of the lake and crosses it about mid-way.  There are several camping and picnicking areas along the lake managed by the Recreation Area.

We spent the night at Mesa Campground right outside of Gunnison.  It’s a very nice RV park full of retirees enjoying the cool summer weather in the Rockies.  The Gunnison and Crested Butte areas are very popular for outdoor sports.  Fishing, hiking, rafting, and ATV’s are very popular in this mountain setting.   Gunnison is another nice small western town (pop 5,900).  It doesn’t have the sprawl and size of Durango, the crowds of Estes Park, or upscale like Aspen.  It’s just a nice out of the way small town set in a flat valley.  This is an area that I’d come back to for an extended stay to explore the Crested Butte area.

From Gunnison, we continued east on Route 50 and climbed up to Monarch Pass (11,312 ft.).  There was still some snow up at the pass.  This is the second time we cross the Continental Divide.  From there it’s a long downhill towards Salida.  We took the scenic route up Route 285 and then jumped on Route 24 across the South Park.  It’s another high plains valley with lovely views and just a few small cattle ranches along the route. 

We do another short climb up to Williams Pass (9,300 ft.) and do a gradual descent towards Woodland Park, another nice cozy town about 15 miles outside of Colorado Springs.  It becomes a little more upscale as we start to see nice vacation home on the mountain sides.  We pass Pikes Peak and proceed on towards Colorado Springs. 

We make a stop at the Garden of the Gods park.  It’s a small park with some very different geological outcroppings.  There’s a nice scenic drive thru the park but it also has hiking and biking trails.  It was busy while we were there with no parking spots for RV’s.

Once at Colorado Springs, we got on Route 24 east towards Limon.  Here’s where we left the Rockies in our rear view mirror and migrated back onto the rolling short grass high plains.

I'm glad I took the road less traveled and got to experience a little bit to southern Colorado.  It doesn't have the traffic and sprawl of the Fort Collins-Denver-Colorado Springs corridor.  It's a place of two lane winding roads, small towns, open valleys, tall mountains, and big views.  There's a lot we didn't see and its a place worth spending more time.

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