When people think of coming to Colorado, they generally dream about visiting one of the iconic mountain towns like Breckenridge, Aspen, or Vail or plan a trip to Denver purely for the convenience factor. Even when locals think about day trips or weekend getaways, they instinctively tend to head west towards the mountains as it’s the quickest way to escape the city for a nature fix.
It can be hard to fathom, but this state is huge and has many different landscapes. Unlike Illinois and some other places in the Midwest where you can get to six states in under two hours, in Colorado, you could still be in the same state after driving 6-8 hours in one direction. But that just means there’s that much more to explore. And after living here for eight years, I finally decided to check some of those places off my Rocky Mountain bucket list and head south.
You don’t hear much about southern Colorado, which is weird because it’s GOR-GEOUS (said in my best singsong Taylor Swift tone). Home to three of the four national parks, much fewer tourists, and the breathtaking San Juan’s (the iconic peaks you might recognize from the Coors cans), people know Telluride but not much else below Colorado Springs. But there is SO much to do down there from hot springs and ice parks to nature porn and adventures aplenty. So, pack up the car and make it a long weekend because here’s everywhere to explore on a Southern Colorado road trip.
Great Sand Dunes National Park (4 hours from Denver)
You may be surprised to learn that the tallest sand dunes in North America are smack dab in the middle of the country, but many people don’t realize Colorado is actually a desert (although I still get weirded out seeing tumbleweed). Created by San Luis’s unique wind patterns that trap the sand in this weird little valley, they still seemingly rise out of nowhere like a crazy phoenix. You can work up a sweat hiking up them or sand boarding down them, a favorite pastime if you plan ahead and rent a board from the neighboring town. Either way, to reach the mountain of sand, you have to cross the Medano Creek aka. ford the river, Oregon Trail style. It’s really not that bad (and actually feels quite good on a hot day) but plan accordingly with footwear and such. The water does make for an epic mirror photo reflecting the dunes and mountain peaks in the background.
Pagosa Springs (2 hours from Great Sand Dunes NP)
One of Colorado’s most sought-after hot springs towns, Pagosa was named after the native word “Pagosah” which translates to, “healing waters.” The main attraction here is rest and relaxation with three hot springs resorts. All are fed by the Mother Spring, certified by Guinness World Records as the World’s Deepest Geothermal Hot Spring Aquifer. If you want the true Shangri-La experience, The Springs Resort & Spa is by far the nicest, with 23 pools of varying sizes, shapes, and temperatures, along with an adults-only section that’s pretty private and romantical once the sun goes down. Not saying, just saying.
Durango and Silverton (1 hour from Pagosa Springs)
Durango is the largest city in Southern Colorado and the last major hub before New Mexico but it still has a distinct mountain town vibe. Wander the boutiques of Main Street, sample a few local microbrews, and stretch your legs. Animas Chocolate & Coffee Company is a personal favorite (with free samples!), along with the Diamond Belle Saloon for live music and period girls.
One of the major attractions in this part of the state is the classic coal-powered steam train, leftover from the mining days. If you have extra time to explore or would prefer not to drive the harrowing mountain pass to the neighboring old mining town of Silverton, a National Historic Landmark, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a really cool and retro way to see high country and one of Colorado’s prettiest views. You can pair the half-day train ride with a classic backcountry adventure like whitewater rafting, horseback riding, ATVing, or ziplining. There are also seasonal train experiences throughout the year like the Brew Train, Wine & Rails, and the Polar Express so be sure to check if they have anything special going on when you plan your visit.
From Durango, you can also make a slight detour (1.5 hours) to Four Corners National Monument if you want that iconic photo standing in four states (New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado) at once.
Mesa Verde National Park (40 minutes from Durango)
Just outside Durango, the drive to the top of the “green table” offers one of the best panoramas in Colorado, but it’s not the landscape most are interested in. Once a hotbed of Native American culture, Mesa Verde is a prime example of their ancient civilization with a well-preserved loop drive full of Ancestral Puebloan dwellings, petroglyphs, and archeological sites built right into the cliffside. You can look down into the buildings from above, tour them with a park ranger, or view them from across the canyon. Even for the non-history buffs (guilty), it’s definitely worth a look-see.
Ouray and the Million Dollar Highway (2 hours from Durango)
Called the “Switzerland of America,” Ouray is Telluride’s lesser-known, but no less impressive neighbor. A river valley surrounded by the snow-capped San Juan Mountains; Ouray is another leftover boom-bust Wild West mining town where you can tour the mines or ghost hunt. There’s another classic Main Street to explore but it’s the backcountry views that most people are interested in.
Island Lake is one of the most popular hikes in Colorado for its shockingly turquoise waters, while Box Canyon Falls is another gem with waterfalls everywhere you turn. In winter, the Ouray Ice Park is one of the premier ice climbing destinations in the country. You could spend days hiking, biking, rafting, and getting lost in that landscape because it really is the best in Colorado.
To get in and out of town, you have to drive the harrowing Million Dollar Highway, which many say is the best scenic drive in the country. It’s believed to be named after the early settlers were so overcome by vertigo on the steep and winding mountain passes, they swore they’d never drive it again, even if paid a million dollars. The canyons, waterfalls, and changing colors near Red Mountain are worth it if you can handle the hairpin turns and lack of guardrails, of course.
Plan: Where to Stay Near Ouray
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (1 hour from Ouray, 5 hours back to Denver)
Did you know Colorado had its own version of the Grand Canyon? Neither did I until recently. Shrouded in shadow, the deep walled-gorge has about 75% fewer tourists and is home to the world’s oldest exposed rock along with some of the steepest cliffs in North America. You can hike or rock climb to your heart’s content or simply take in the views from the many overlooks on the loop drive around the perimeter.
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