Southwest Colorado Outdoors

GORP Favorites in the Land of the San Juans and the Anasazi
Page 1 of 5   |  

Southwest Colorado is a land of extremes. From the snow atop the fourteener Mount Sneffels to the dry desert of the Four Corners. From schussing down Telluride ski runs to hiking in Mesa Verde canyons. From a Class VI plunge down the Upper Animas River, experts only, to a slow float exploring Anasazi ruins along the San Juan.

With so much going on in the Colorado Outdoors, coming up with GORP's top picks for the Southwest challenges the imagination. I can't vouch that we have uncovered every hidden gem the state's southwest quadrant has to offer, but I can tell you my personal favorites have never left me disappointed. So here goes—an eclectic view of outdoor favorites in this land of mountains, canyons, and the Anasazi.

Top Attraction – Mesa Verde and the Anasazi

As a World Heritage Site and one of the best-known archaeological treasures in the world, Mesa Verde National Park would make the list of top attractions just about anywhere. A land of high mesas and deep canyons, Mesa Verde preserves a thousand year old culture of Anasazi cliff dwellers. Cliff House, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House are all major complexes which visitors can descend the cliff face to tour. Many more ancient communities are scattered across the mesa tops, and a museum houses artifacts and exhibits on Anasazi culture.

For a national park, Mesa Verde has only a handful of trails. My favorite for stretching the legs is the Petroglyph Point hike, a relatively easy three-mile loop to a large panel of rock art. This good family trail has been designated a National Recreation Trail. If you hit the park right after a snowfall, you may find the park’s roads and trails open for cross-country skiing, but don't expect adequate snow throughout the winter.

Mesa Verde is of course not the only place to learn about the Anasazi. Hovenweep National Monument straddles the Colorado/Utah border in desert canyon country. And I spent one of my most memorable afternoons at Chimney Rock, an Anasazi astronomical observatory southwest of Pagosa Springs. Don't miss it if you're an archaeological fanatic. And if you don't mind driving a few hours, Chaco Canyon across the New Mexico border rivals Mesa Verde. If you want to explore the world of the Anasazi further, check out Treasures of the Four Corners .

Base Camps - The Towns

The mountains of southwest Colorado are mining country. The result—many towns of the region are Victorian jewels, developed when massive amounts of precious metals were being pulled from the ground.

Ouray is my personal favorite. Nestled in a beautiful steep-walled canyon, the entire town is listed on the National Register of Historic Districts. Founded in 1876, Ouray enjoyed a building boom in the 1880s & 90s, and most of the structures are still standing. But the town's real highlight is its hot springs. The municipal pool is a huge complex, ranging from a steaming hot area for soaking to cool lanes for laps. An afternoon enveloped in the springs, watching massive thunderheads roll over purple cliffs, is one way to reach nirvana. A couple of miles south of town is the outstanding Bear Creek National Recreation Trail. Ouray hosts a wide range of festivals and events for jeepers, mountain bikers, ice climbers, cross-country skiers and more.

Telluride, Silverton, and Lake City also retain much of their Victorian character. Telluride of course attracts the jet-set to its ski mountain, but it has nonetheless done a remarkable job of preservation. Off-season, it is a haven for mountain bikers, and the hiking includes the exceptional Sneffels Highline trail, a 13-mile loop leaving from the end of a city street. Silverton is dominated by the tourist trade that arrives daily on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Lake City, a bit more off the beaten path, is the least affected by tourism and development.

Durango of course is the big metropolis of Colorado's southwest. Nestled between Mesa Verde and canyon country to the west and mountains to the north and east, and with the Animas River flowing through the center, it is a gateway for just about any outdoor pursuit. People from around the country often mention Durango as the spot they dream of moving—with good reason, I say.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

Best Hotels in Ouray


Ouray Chalet Inn


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »