The Colorado Rockies are what mountain dreams are made of. They stretch 611km across the entire length of the state and filled with jagged peaks (58 of them over 14,000 feet (4,267m) - or ‘fourteeners’ as the locals call them), ice blue alpine lakes and wildflower meadows roamed by elk, coyote and black bears. There is perhaps nowhere in the country where the USA’s rugged wilderness, that raw untampered spirit of the once-wild west, is more keenly felt than the San Juan Mountains. Considered by many to be the most beautiful and varied of the entire range, this south-western portion of the Rockies nonetheless only receives a fraction of the visitors that better-known, and easier-accessed, regions to the north get.
Better still, one single road will take you to all the key parts: the San Juan Skyway. Topping out at over 3,000 metres, it truly is a drive in the sky. Although it’s only 380km long and technically possible to cover in a day, if you spread it out over a week, the Skyway is one of the best, yet-rarely travelled, road trips in America, passing through frontier history, remote mountain towns, natural hot springs and some of the most dazzling scenery in the state.
Nestled deep into a box canyon in the heart of the San Juans, Telluride is arguably the most beautiful mountain town in Colorado, with snow-dusted summits – including several fourteeners – framing the village. The options for outdoor adventure in its outskirts are vast, as you’d expect.
The real surprise is the cultural side of town: art galleries line the streets, the dining is on par with a city many times its size and some of the best festivals in the state happen throughout the summer: bluegrass, jazz, there’s even a hot air balloon festival where dozens soar above the aspen groves in a rainbow of colour.
Most loved, however, is the Telluride Blues and Brews festival, which happens every September. The three-day event brings together two of Colorado’s most famous exports: craft beer and the most spectacular concert backdrop that you’ll ever see.
Known locally as the ‘Switzerland of America’ for its fairytale-esque scenery, Ouray, a former mining town, is deserving of another title too: the ‘Hot Springs Capital of Colorado’. Natural thermal springs flow abundantly throughout the Rockies (many of them linked by an excellent 1,150km road-trip called The Historic Hot Springs Loop). But of all the hot spring towns of Colorado, Ouray (pronounced ‘your-ay’) is the most unique. It’s named after Chief Ouray, of the Ute Indian Tribe, whose ancestors came to this valley for thousands of years to soak in what they called ‘sacred miracle waters’, often travelling many days to reach here.
The journey was worth it then and it still is today. Dozens of naturally heated thermal pools bubble up from the ground throughout town, from underground vapour caves to a huge outdoor hot springs complex. Perhaps best of all, and rare for the region, all of it is sulphur-free, and therefore odour-free too. Hike to waterfalls, get lost on some of the most-exciting 4x4 off-roading in the state... but it doesn’t matter: adventure on its own is one thing, adventure followed by a soak in miracle waters is something else altogether.
In the centre of downtown Durango, at the Diamond Belle Saloon, there is a bullet hole in the bar left over from a gunfight that took place here more than 100-years ago. It’s that kind of town.
Founded in 1880 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad as a basecamp for mining operations that went deeper in the silver and gold rich San Juans, this was about as wild as the West got. Miners would come down from months of hard work and isolation in the mountains and drink hard; more than one outlaw made his name on these streets.
“Back then there were 57 places to buy liquor,” Victoria Day, a local historian explains, “and one church. You do the math.”
Today, aside from the bullet holes and gunslingers, not much has changed from that point of view. Larger and more modern than the other stops on the Skyway, Durango’s wide array of restaurants and bars (it’s a college town too) mean that it’s still a place to have fun, and it doesn’t stop when the sun goes down either.
Its location, too, is second-to-none. Mesa Verde, one of America’s most treasured national parks, is a short drive away; the steam-powered Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway, one of the most beautiful train rides in the world, departs from here too.