The Ultimate Southwest Road Trip

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Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado  (Comstock/Thinkstock)

The land between southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah is a huge swath of white-capped peaks, red rocks, and archaeological treasures. It’s just the place to lose yourself for a week—or longer. You can follow our Southwest road trip itinerary in a week or 10 days, depending on how much time you can spare for the open road.

Day One: San Luis Valley, Colorado
About three hours southwest of Denver or four hours north of Albuquerque, the San Luis Valley has long agitated conspiracy theorists with tales of black helicopters, crystal skulls, and vortexes. If you’re like most visitors, however, you’ll set your sights on conquering High Dune, roughly 750 feet above the valley floor in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. It's more difficult to climb than you might think, thanks to the sand's shifting ways. But it's worth the reward of a view into the center of the otherworldly dune field.

After the dunes, consider a stop at Colorado Gators, the state's only alligator farm. (The gators bask in the sun on the snow in winter, returning to the heat of a natural hot spring when it gets too cold.) After sunset in this mysterious valley, you might visit the UFO Watchtower and see if there's any extraterrestrial activity in the night sky—but keep in mind the tower is more of a platform. Your options for eating and sleeping around the dunes are limited: there’s a campground and a few motels in the vicinity. Or you could double back to Joyful Journey Hot Springs or the tiny new-age town of Crestone, which has a Hindu temple, a Zen center, a co-ed Carmelite monastery, and several Tibetan centers, all in a town with a population of less than 150 people.

Days Two and Three: Durango, Colorado
Drive 150 miles west to Durango, a rollicking college/Western/tourist town that has something for everyone. In the city limits, I like the historic Rochester Hotel and the mom-and-pop Siesta Motel. For a casual dinner, head to Steamworks Brewing; if you're in the mood for something more upscale, try Randy's Restaurant. Vallecito Lake, northeast of town, is a great starting point for day hikes as well as multiday expeditions into the rugged Weminuche Wilderness. There's also plenty of whitewater on the Animas River. Or you can take the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to Silverton—perhaps getting off halfway at Soaring Tree Top Adventures, the West’s best zipline course and the world's longest (27 spans total 1.5 miles).

Published: 9 May 2012 | Last Updated: 11 May 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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