|Nestled in the heart of the scenic San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, Pagosa Springs is at a veritable crossroads for adventure and sightseeing. Standing in town, one can look to the lofty and rugged peaks of the Continental Divide, or gaze toward flattop mesa country with its rich Spanish and Indian cultures. The adventuresome and motivated day-tripper will find Pagosa Springs perfectly positioned for forays into northern New Mexico, with the stunning archaeological ruins of Chaco Canyon or the art, cuisine and culture of Santa Fe. Or, if Colorado mining towns are your passion, trips to Creede, Lake City, Telluride and Ouray offer stunning alpine scenery mixed with healthy doses of hard-rock history.
With numerous options for auto-borne adventure, the paragraphs below describe routes to popular day-trip destinations. The list also includes two epic-length journeys (for the stalwart road-tripper) worthy of an overnight stay.
All drives and directions begin in Pagosa Springs. Driving distances and travel times are approximate and factor only for good travel conditions, i.e. clear, dry pavement and no winter weather. Many area roads and mountain passes will close during severe winter storms. Plan accordingly, and carry the appropriate equipment, gear, clothing and emergency supplies necessary for winter travel in a remote mountainous region. Cellular phone service can be spotty, depending on topography and weather. Also, check regional weather reports before departing — weather changes quickly in the southern Rockies.
The Eastern Loop
With spectacular crossings over three of the region’s most stunning mountain passes, the Eastern Loop will take travelers from Pagosa Springs into northern New Mexico and through the gorgeous Chama River Valley. From Chama, the route travels northward, up and over Cumbres and La Manga passes and into the heart of the San Luis Valley before returning to Pagosa Springs with a traverse over the San Juan Mountains via Wolf Creek Pass.
Total Mileage : 220
Total Travel Time: Roughly five hours.
Special Features: Fantastic views of a number of the region’s most stunning mountain peaks and river valleys; three ear-popping climbs over three mountain passes noted for their rugged, remote beauty; historic Hispanic villages, hot springs soaking and wildlife viewing.
From Pagosa Springs, drive 50 miles south on U.S. 84 to Chama, N.M., a tiny Hispanic village nestled deep in the Chama River Valley. The route along U.S. 84 crosses numerous elk and deer migratory routes, and provides big views of area peaks and parks. Once in Chama, travelers can stretch their legs with a stroll through Chama’s historic downtown, or visit Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.
From Chama, the route winds northeast along Colo. 17 toward Antonito, steadily gaining elevation as it first climbs La Manga (“The Sleeve” — elev. 10,230 feet), then Cumbres (“The Summit” — elev. 10,022) pass. Breathtaking views abound on this portion of the route. Antonito marks the eastern terminus for the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.
From Antonito, the route shoots due north up U.S. 285 to Alamosa and the southern end of the San Luis Valley. Along the 28-mile route, travelers can view the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range to the east, and the San Juan Mountains to the west. Alamosa is well located for auto tourers intent on a variety of side trips, including visits to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, Colorado Gators (the valley’s only alligator park) and for the pious — the Shrine of the Stations of the Cross located in San Luis, one of Colorado’s oldest towns.
Gandy dancers keen to get their steam-powered kicks will enjoy a visit to the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad.
Although Pagosa Springs is noted for its own hot springs, soaking enthusiasts also have options in the San Luis Valley north of Alamosa at Joyful Journey Hot Springs and Valley View Hot Springs.
From Alamosa, it’s a short 17-mile drive along U.S. 160/U.S. 285 to Monte Vista — the sandhill crane capital of Colorado. Every year in late February, sandhill cranes pass through Monte Vista and the San Luis Valley on their annual migration north. The event is chronicled with the annual crane festival, which draws visitors from around the country. Learn more about the 2010 crane festival at cranefest.com.
Just 14 miles westbound from Monte Vista along U.S. 160/U.S. 285, travelers will find Del Norte — incorporated in 1872. Although the first Spanish families arrived in 1859, the Del Norte area has long been a crossroads of culture, with a deep history of Native American and Ancestral Puebloan settlement.
Continuing west again on U.S. 160, it’s 16 miles to South Fork — a town marking the junction of the Rio Grande River and its south fork. The town of South Fork also marks the junction of U.S. 160 and Colo. 149 — a state route known as the Silver Thread — a National Scenic Byway.
From South Fork, it’s 44 miles back to Pagosa via U.S. 160 and Wolf Creek Pass.
The Western Loop
The Western Loop takes travelers first to historic Durango with its famous narrow gauge railroad, bustling downtown and numerous opportunities for dining and evening entertainment. From Durango, the route meanders through wide-open agricultural valleys into Cortez — gateway to Mesa Verde National Park and the edge of the red rock country of the Four Corners area. While some travelers may be drawn to the canyon country farther west, this loop veers north, traveling a serpentine route through the rugged San Juan Mountains and the historic mining towns of Telluride, Ouray and Silverton. The route can prove challenging even during the summer months, therefore, winter travelers should take extra precautions, check the weather before departing, and pack gear and clothing appropriate for remote mountain winter travel.
Total mileage: 357
Total travel time: Roughly nine hours.
Special features: Opportunities for dining, nightlife, shopping and the narrow gauge railroad in Durango, easy access to Mesa Verde National Park, stunning alpine scenery, historic mining towns with picturesque main streets, Victorian architecture, world class telemark and alpine skiing, ice climbing, hot springs and easy access to overnight lodging — all along the San Juan Skyway, one of Colorado’s most scenic drives.
From Pagosa Springs, it’s a quick 60-mile drive westbound on U.S. 160 to Durango — a popular tourist destination with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a vibrant downtown, and numerous dining and shopping opportunities.
From Durango, it’s just 46 miles on U.S. 160 through Hesperus and the Mancos Valley to Cortez, located near the Four Corners junction of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Although Cortez provides a launching point for trips into Mesa Verde National Park with its extraordinary Ancestral Puebloan ruins or the canyon country of southern Utah, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is located northwest of Cortez and includes several smaller Anasazi ruin sites.
From Cortez, follow Colo. 145 northbound for 12 miles to Dolores. The town of Dolores lies on the San Juan Skyway, a state and federally designated scenic highway, so awe-inspiring, it has been called “America’s Most Beautiful Drive.” The 236-mile loop takes travelers over and around the spectacular San Juan Mountains and through the historic mining towns of Telluride, Ouray, Silverton and Durango.
Thirty-six miles farther along Colo. 145, travelers will encounter the tiny mining and railroad town of Rico — winter population barely 200 people. Rico’s downtown is dotted with many historic buildings, some remaining from the mining boom of the 1880s.
Traveling another 28 miles northbound on Colo. 145, the next stop is Telluride. Nestled in a box canyon surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks, the Town of Telluride is filled with colorful legends and more than a century of history. At just six blocks wide and twelve blocks long, the National Historic District provides a window into the town’s past, and provides opportunities for shopping and dining.
The route from Telluride to Ouray along U.S. 550 takes travelers along the San Juan Skyway and deep into some of the most stunning alpine scenery in the United States. Ouray is set at the narrow head of a valley and surrounded on three sides with 13,000-foot snowcapped peaks. The town has been nicknamed the “Switzerland of America,” and two-thirds of its original Victorian structures, both private and commercial, are still occupied and have been lovingly restored. With soothing outdoor hot springs, world-class ice climbing and rugged mountain beauty, Ouray, like Telluride, may warrant an overnight stay.
Leaving Ouray, travelers will climb Red Mountain Pass (11,018 feet) and travel south for 24 miles on U.S. 550, ultimately landing in the gritty mining town of Silverton, Colo. — northern terminus of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad; home to extreme telemark and alpine skiing and natural ice climbing — all at 9,300 feet. Silverton also provides a prime opportunity for travelers to stretch their legs with a stroll through Silverton’s compact, but historic downtown.
From Silverton to Durango, it’s just 48 miles south on U.S. 550, then another 60 miles eastbound on U.S. 160 back to Pagosa Springs.