One of the countless sweet views along the drive.
6 days. 1,150 miles. 5 National Park Service Areas. 1 Narrow-gauge railroad trip. 4 Happy Campers. Countless memories and never-ending views — all within the state lines of our home state. Check off another item on my Bucket List. I apologize in advance — as primarily a travel journal, this post is a bit long (no offense taken if you skim or skip any of it – hope my family likes reading it someday).
Southwest Colorado is god’s country. 6 days cannot even come close to doing this land justice. Towering peaks, sand dunes bigger than any of their seaside peers, spiritually powerful ancient ancestral ruins, crazy gator farms, and roaring mountain rivers were around every corner of our trip. The only thing it left us longing to do was to return again and again.
I couldn’t stop saying — “Look at that!” or “That’s awesome!” — and I live here (or at least in the same state).
If you are looking for a road trip that your family will remember, you can’t go wrong exploring the majestic lands of Southwest Colorado. Take the lesser traveled state highways and enjoy the views as you climb over one mountain pass after another. I was amused at how many Texas license plates I saw. Texans get it – they may live in the biggest of the lower 48 states – but when it comes to true massive impressiveness, Texas pales in comparison to Colorado.
For many reasons, our family enjoys visiting National Park Service Areas, so we hit five of Colorado’s finest during our tour. We rented a 32 foot RV, which allowed us to travel in significant comfort. For some in the family, this is their idea of roughing it, and the accommodations were perfect for our journey — comfortable, but mobile enough to let us camp in some awesome campgrounds.
Day 1 – I got comfortable with handling the big rig during a nice drive from Denver, down to Colorado Springs, and up to Florissant to see the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. We were surprised to learn that Colorado was once home to giant redwoods like those found in Northern California. Like an explorer’s flag, their petrified stumps remain firmly planted in the soil to prove that they were here (oh yeah — there are also cool fossil beds here – the visitor’s center has some nice samples).
Petrified Redwood Stump at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument ... and Zoe.
From Florissant, we cruised into Salida, Colorado for a dinner stop at one of our two favorite mountain pizza and brewpub joints, Amicas. I was disappointed that they didn’t have their green chile beer, but still enjoyed a pint of their Headwaters IPA. For the first night we settled in at San Luis State Park just outside of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. While not your typical “Mountain” site with lots of trees and flowing rivers, the park had it’s own natural appeal. In what is essentially a desert, we were welcomed in the morning to nice (but slightly hazy) views of the sand dunes and the surrounding mountains. The site was perfect for our first night of RV camping — we had a pull through site that was level (no leveling block needed), had electrical hookups (so we could sleep with the AC on), and provided plenty of space from our neighbors.
View from San Luis State Park Campground
Day 2 – After packing up (which is much easier when RV Camping than it is when tent camping), we took the short drive to the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The Great Sand Dunes - glad we had some cloud cover in that heat!
We spent a good part of the day here, touring the visitors center, completing the Junior Ranger program and exploring the dunes. It was a bit hot, so the longer-than-expected hike to the dunes required a bit of patience (and water). A number of our friends have visited this park before, and from their stories we knew what to do. We wrote our names in the sand, rolled down the dunes, made sand angels, and accepted the fact that we were going to end up with sand in all our nooks and crannies.
Zac at the Dunes.
Being that it was the middle of July, Medano Creek was not easily accessible, so we all decided we need to come back again in May or early June when it is flowing at its peak. The backdrop of the dunes against the mountains was beautiful — made me wish I was a better photographer and that I had a camera that was better than the one on my phone.
After the sand dunes, we got on the road to Durango. A roadside sign “Colorado Gators” got our attention. A few folks had mentioned to us that we should check out the gator farm and we suspected that this was the place.
After a little convincing, Denise agreed to cough-up the hefty admission price ($45 for our group) and we headed on in. It turned out to be a very interesting experience. ZQ and I each held one of their gators. Zoe fed bunnies, and we saw all sorts of gators, snakes, lizards, tortoises, and other reptiles (as well as a few ostriches). It was definitely “rustic”, but the unplanned side-stop was memorable and fun.
After a scenic drive over Wolf Creek Pass and through Pagosa Springs, we rolled into Durango a little after 7:30 PM and set up camp at an RV Park (we all decided that except for clean showers, RV Parks are not great places to camp). Even so, we were able to grill up some burgers, make s’mores, and get some sleep for our early morning train ride.
Day 3 - Straight out of Harry Potter, we missed our trolley, were running late, and couldn’t find Platform 9 3/4. We managed to just make it on the Hogwarts’ Express (I mean the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad) and enjoyed a three plus hour train ride along the river. Every bend brought an amazing view and the train was fun to ride (pick the right hand side on the way up if you have the opportunity to take a trip on this rail and wear sunglasses to keep the soot out of your eyes).
Just another ho-hum view along the rail.
We arrived in Silverton (an old mining town) and enjoyed an excellent lunch at Grumpy’s Saloon – an old west saloon, with a great piano player (Lacey Black). After a little shopping (cowboy hat & dragon for the boys), we boarded the bus for a quicker ride back down to Durango. It gave the adults some time to catch a few zees. Our illegally parked RV survived without incident, and we loaded up and headed off for Mesa Verde National Park. I decided I need to come back to Durango and spend some time touring the breweries that make some of my favorite ales (Ska and Steamworks). Also, the downtown area, with its river walk, looked like it had some cool shops and restaurants to explore.
Arriving in Mesa Verde, we secured an excellent camp spot in Morefield Village Campground – on the Hopi loop. We stopped counting the deer we saw because there were so many. Taking the advice of our good friends, we headed up for a nice dinner at the Metate Room at Fair View Lodge in Mesa Verde. The adults split a bottle of Pinot Noir (if you count one glass for me and the rest for Denise as splitting). The view from the restaurant was worth the fairly expensive price of the fare (which was very tasty). We watched a killer thunderstorm roll-in and light up the sky just as the sun was setting (long and threatening bolts blanketed the mesa). Heading back to the campsite, we were all glad that we did not have to set up and stay in tents during the storm. A quick game of Sorry and we were all ready to crash.
Cliff Palace - Mesa Verde National Park
Day 4 - A well scheduled 11:00 tour of Cliff Palace allowed a tired group of Huts to sleep-in. The cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park were very cool. We all enjoyed learning about how the Ancestral Pueblo Indians lived and thrived on the mesas and then in the cliffs for nearly 700 years. As one ranger noted, Cliff Palace is the reason people come, but Balcony House is the one they remember.
Balcony House - Like the New Cowboy Hat?
We enjoyed them both. The Balcony house tour had more ladders and a cool tunnel, and some very well built dwellings, so I understand his point, but the shear magnitude of Cliff Palace was very impressive in its own right.
We wore ourselves out visiting the dwellings, and touring the museum and visitors centers (and tracking down the answers to the Jr. Ranger questions).
One of my favorite pics from the trip. At Mesa Verde.
After filling up and a little ice cream at the Far View Cafe (and filling up our RV tank again — fueling an RV ain’t cheap), we headed for Telluride.
The drive to Telluride over Lizard’s Head Pass, was unbelievable. We passed small mining towns, and a number of campsites that looked very inviting. The hills were green and the wildlife along the road was plentiful. At one point we saw a herd of what must have been 15-20 deer. Our preferred campground for the night in the Telluride Town Park was booked solid, so we grabbed a quick and tasty dinner at Brown Dog Pizza and headed out to find another site. The next campground was full too, so we ended up at a National Forest Service campground (Matterhorn) about 12 miles out of town — at this point it was after 10 PM – so we quickly and quietly set up camp (pretty easy to do in an RV) and settled in for the night.
Day 5 – Another chance to sleep-in for some tired campers. When we woke, we were surprised at how beautiful our campsite was. Nestled in the pines with the subtle sound of a nearby river, we really enjoyed our morning here. The only two negatives were the muffled auto sounds from the highway, and the high concentration of mosquitos. Nonetheless, it was certainly a spot we would stay at again.
Downtown -- Telluride, Colorado
Our Telluride day was pretty lazy in general, a chance to recharge for the final leg of our journey. We shopped, lunched at The Butcher and the Baker, rode the free Gondola, and explored the very walkable town on foot. Telluride is ridiculously beautiful. Located in a box canyon with historic Victorian homes, a main street lined with old brick buildings, and a cascading long waterfall (Bridal Veil Falls) at the end of the canyon standing guard over the town, it is hard to imagine that a town can be any more appealing to the senses. While our stay here was brief, we all recognized that we will be back, maybe soon (Willie Nelson, #74 on my Bucket List, is there in September).
From Telluride, we made the very manageable drive to The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park near Montrose, Colorado. Upon arriving, we made a quick stop to the visitors center and took a brief peak at the canyon — it was awesome. We learned that there would be an astronomy ranger talk that night near the campground and decided to check it out. We headed to the campgrounds and five baby deer guided us to our site (B-20). Probably our favorite campsite of the trip — nice to have on our last night. We played a little campground Bocci (Mom was on the winning team both times, so Dad and the kids had to clean up dinner). We had an awesome taco dinner, wrapped up around sunset, and headed to the amphitheater for the Ranger Talk. The astronomy lesson was educational for kids and adults alike. At the end we all got to look through a few telescopes — we saw Saturn and its rings and a wicked star cluster (M13). Heading to bed on our final night we still had 4 really happy campers.
Day 6 – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a hidden gem. One of the newer National Parks, it is well deserving of the classification.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Christmas Card Potential?
The canyon walls, particularly along the North Rim, are a rock climber’s dream at 2,000 feet straight up and down. The Gunnison River makes a thundering sound through the canyon, and each overlook provides an opportunity for those afraid of heights to scare themselves silly. We loved it!
We drove the Rim Drive on the South Rim and went to a number of the overlooks. We saw a young buck deer at one, falcons at another, and a soaring golden eagle at yet another — oh yeah — the canyon was impressive too.
The kids wrapped up their Jr. Ranger programs, including the night explorer program and got some cool patches and pins for their efforts.
Heading out in the afternoon, we decided to stop by Curecanti National Recreation Area and take the long way to Carbondale (a Blue Highway special).
Curecanti National Recreation Area
The drive was the perfect way to end the trip. From the mountain top vistas, to the river valleys near Redstone, Colorado, we saw some of the best Colorado has to offer. Cruising into Carbondale, Colorado for our sunset dinner at White House Pizza (our other favorite mountain pizza joint) – the trip ended perfectly.
Cheers to you Colorado!
I finished up the three hour drive home while the kids dosed off and Denise complimented me on a trip well planned. Settling in safely at Midnight, I was a combination of whipped and satisfied. If it’s anything like this one, I can’t wait for the next adventure.