10 Best Summer Experiences in Southwest Colorado
There's so much more to Southwest Colorado than the exclusive ski resort of Telluride. Even as snow covers some mountain passes, the region is paradise for outdoor enthusiasts in warm weather too. My recent road-trip through the San Juan Mountains and along the Gunnison River included stops along the way to hike, bike, and fish. I even visited the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings and washed it all down with some regional wine.
1. Jeep touring
The town of Ouray—aptly nicknamed The Switzerland of America—is nestled in a steep valley between the peaks of the San Juan Mountains. More than 500 miles of four-wheel-drive roads criss-cross the area, making expansive views accessible just minutes from town. On a jeep tour to Yankee Boy Basin, I rode to the dramatic alpine views surrounded by jagged peaks, old mining equipment, and even the first wildflowers.
Tip: You can rent four-wheel drive vehicles for the many public access roads, but going on a jeep tour allows you to enjoy the views while someone else focuses on the driving. "You look, we drive" is the motto of San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours.
2. Riding the train from Durango to Silverton.
The real excitement here is the journey, as the Durango–Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway winds 45 picturesque miles through the San Juan National Forest. I got a small taste of the experience watching the train coming into the Durango station and the riders strolling through the old mining town of Silverton. It's on my must-do list for my next trip.
Tip: Allow a full day for the train, which leaves at 8:15–9:45 am daily in summer. Package options include returning by bus or a stop at a zip-line course on the way.
3. Exploring Mesa Verde cliff dwellings
As the first national park to "preserve the works of man," Mesa Verde's Ancestral Puebloan sites are in a dramatic natural setting. I came for the archeological significance but the landscape was also very impressive. Cliffs hang above winding canyons, protecting some of the best preserved sites. People lived here and cultivated the land from about 600 to 1300.
Tip: You'll have to get tickets at Far View Visitor Center for a ranger-led tour of the most popular sites: Cliff Palace and Balcony House.
4. Fly-fishing for trout
My first time fly-fishing was a huge success—five cutthroat trout between 15 and 20 inches. I fished the private Gurley Reservoir and practiced catch-and-release. Colorado also has rainbow, brook, and brown trout, almost always in picturesque mountain streams.
Tip: Even if you have fishing experience, consider hiring a guide. You'll save time trying to find the best local spots and spend more time reeling in fish. And remember that anyone over 16 needs a state fishing license.
5. Fruit and wine tasting in Delta County
Colorado is better known for it's microbrews than fine wine, but the abundant rain on the western slope of the Rockies is perfect for produce. Fruit stands and wineries dot the roadsides and the town of Paonia is growing into a foodie heaven. I tasted some fresh fruit, Cabernet, and even corn whiskey. The famous Colorado peaches are available starting mid-July.
Tip: For a guide to the best local tastes, get a map from the tourism board.
6. Mountain biking in Crested Butte
After a visit to the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame, I felt inspired—what better place to try mountain biking than its birthplace? Set in the Elk Mountains, the Lower Loop trail is accessible from Crested Butte and perfect for novices. The lupines and columbines were just starting to bloom but they'll peak around mid-July's Wildflower Festival.
Tip: The ride from town to the Lower Loop is a great transition for beginners. You start on paved road, then unpaved roads, then wide track, then single track.
7. Riding the Telluride gondola
Telluride's 2.5-mile gondola is a free, beautiful way to get around with multiple stops between Mountain Village and town. Telluride isn't just about winter sports, as the town fills with many summer festivals, including the Bluegrass Festival, the Film Festival, and even a tongue-in-cheek Nothing Festival. It did feel a little weird to be getting on a gondola without my ski gear, but the views are just one reason why this is a popular destination year-round.
Tip: Plan ahead and see what events will be going on during your visit.
8. Driving the Million Dollar Highway
After exploring 4x4 roads, the two-lane road up to Red Mountain Pass seemed relatively mild at first. Driving South from Ouray, the edge of the road dramatically drops down to the Uncompahgre Gorge, often without guardrails. As I reached the pass named for the ore-colored peak, it was actually snowing in June.
Tip: Take advantage of the many roadside stops to enjoy the views and let faster vehicles pass. And don't be suprised by snow in summer!
9. Hiking the San Juan Mountains
If you have the time, try some (or all) of the Colorado Trail. From just north of Durango, the epic trail stretches more than 500 miles, all the way to Denver. The young San Juans Mountains are full of amazing box canyons, peaks about 14,000 feet (fourteeners), and even easily accessible waterfalls. For a short jaunt, I hiked in Ouray to stretch my legs and get used to the high altitude.
Tip: High altitude means less oxygen and drier air so acclimate yourself before intense physical activity. Drink extra water, wear sunscreen, and drink more extra water.
10. Rafting the Gunnison River
After all that action, I was content to peer over the edge of the 2,722-feet deep Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Many viewpoints line the South Rim Road with apt names like Chasm View and Painted Wall. For those of you craving more adventure, you can raft the Gunnison River, in part of the canyon or downstream, or the nearby Animas River in Durango.
Tip: Rafting includes everything from mild float trips (great for families) and wild white-water options. Outfitters will help find the perfect trip for your Colorado river adventure.
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