Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.
We escaped the prospect of an entire hot and sultry summer in steamy Florida and headed for the hills for some fresher Coloradan mountain air. This was to be a bucket list trip courtesy of COVID-19’s travel restrictions outside of the USA – hunting for wild flowers in southwest Colorado!
We started our 2½ week road trip in Crested Butte – a former coal mining town, now known not only as “the last great Colorado ski town” but also as the “Wildflower Capital of Colorado”. After 4 amazing wildflower, river, gulch and lake-filled mountain hikes we were in awe of its loveliness. Crested Butte’s pretty Victorian town centre is laidback, friendly and understated. Its myriad hiking trails are legendary and afforded us slightly more mishaps and adventures than anticipated …
Perhaps we should have started our hiking vacation with a greater degree of caution given our tragically inadequate Floridian lung capacities. But no … we left home at an elevation of 16 feet above sea level; caught an early morning flight from Tampa at 26 feet above sea level; landed in Denver at 5,430 feet above sea level; drove to Crested Butte and checked into our apartment at an elevation of 8,909 feet; grabbed our hiking boots, camera and a couple of bottles of water and attempted our first (albeit entirely flat) hike at 10,200 feet around Lake Irwin.
One bottle of water already down and barely half way around the lake I nearly fainted into a marsh. Unsurprisingly, the altitude difference of 10,184 feet and the dehydration of a cross-country flight finally got to me when I carelessly bent down to photograph some tiny purple flowers against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. I stood up too quickly, completely out of oxygen and with a pounding head watched glittering stars float in front of my eyes for the remainder of the hike.
Almost three-quarters of the way around the lake we reached a fast-flowing stream blocking our path. Turning around wasn’t an option due to the ongoing visual starbursts and the depleted water supplies. Geoff doesn’t like getting wet unless the water is a balmy 85°F minimum – much less with his boots off and his trousers rolled up to his thighs. Coloradan Rocky Mountain stream water is probably closer to 35°F than 85°F. Given my lightheadedness, Geoff (uncharacteristically) courageously offered to cross the stream twice … once to drop off our possessions and then to return for me should I keel over in the water and head off downstream over the waterfall.
Three steps and about one third of the way across the stream, he narrowly avoided slipping over and swimming off over the edge of the falls taking my brand new camera, 2 iPhones, 2 sets of boots and the backpack with the car keys with him. As I watched him teetering about in slow motion I hurled myself in, grabbed his shoulders and dragged him back to dry land. All in all not the gentle start to our hiking holiday which we had anticipated 😉
It only takes a couple of days of hiking to start to acclimatize so that every uphill step doesn’t feel like you’re dragging a dead elephant behind you … the nights are another matter … for at least 4 nights we were still waking up in the early hours gasping for oxygen and fearing that we were taking our last ragged breaths!
Our next 2 hikes – Woods Walk and Brush Creek Trail (surrounded by open views across the river valley and knee-deep in Aspen Sunflowers, Swamp Sunflowers, Mule Ears, Fleabane, Scarlet Paintbrush, Fairy Trumpets and the famed Coloradan state flower Blue Columbine) were almost perfect and would have been sublimely uneventful were it not for the fact that Geoff’s brand new replacement hiking boots had a previously undetected flaw resulting in 2 large and very unhappy heel blisters barely 48 hours into our hiking vacation. Two packets of Moleskin for Blisters later and a new pair of emergency hiking boots purchased in town and he was up and hobbling again. Disaster pretty much averted.
The highlight of our 4 days in Crested Butte was hiking at Rustler’s Gulch just outside of Gothic. A tough hike for us sea-level dwellers a return trip of either 8 or 10 miles depending on how close you could park to the trailhead. The trailhead itself starts at 10,250 feet and there is an elevation gain during the hike of 1850 feet. With Geoff’s blisters weighing heavily on my mind I suggested we might follow the advice of previous hikers, get up very early (because there is only parking for 5 or 6 SUV’s at the trailhead) and attempt the off-roading section uphill past the more accessible lower level dirt car park at the bottom of the mountain. Parking at the bottom would have added a steep extra mile and back of hiking which I thought best avoided. It was only a mile up and down in the car … what could possibly go wrong?
We soon discovered that the information I had read online wasn’t entirely accurate. In a high wheel base 4-wheel drive Jeep it would have been a breeze navigating the track, I’m sure. In an SUV AWD Ford Escape – even with Geoff’s honed off-road driving skills – there were several moments where the car was tipped at 40 degrees and the wheels were spinning in fresh air when a spare pair of underwear each was looking to be more and more essential 😉
We should probably have turned around shortly after the initial river crossing at the base by the main parking area but there was another SUV ahead of us barreling uphill and we decided (safety being in numbers) to follow it in the blind hope not only that they knew where they were going (GPS having long since failed us) but also that they were going to the same trailhead as us.
Wrong on both counts.
We’ve done some hairy off-roading in the past – even in far less suitable vehicles than our trusty Ford Escape – but what followed was the steepest, uphill drag traversing yet more streams and the worst craggy, deep pitted, collapsed dirt track we have ever driven. Eventually we ran out of track and, together with the occupants of the other SUV, we discovered that we were studying an entirely different trailhead map to that of Rustler’s Gulch. We realized that we’d driven a mile straight past the Rustler’s Gulch trailhead parking area in our effort to keep up with our fellow off-roaders. I did wonder why it felt like the longest mile of my life – it was, in fact, the longest two miles of my life. Our off-road companions were similarly lost (albeit that they were looking for a different trailhead) so we both had to turn around and retrace the treacherous route back down far sooner than our bowels would have liked 😉 Given the early hour of our arrival, and despite the unexpected adrenalin-fuelled detour, we were still the only car to yet arrive at the Rustler’s Gulch trailhead!
A picnic breakfast in the back of the Escape and we were off on one of the most spectacular hikes we’ve ever done in the USA. With Gothic mountain looming behind us, when we emerged from the aspen grove into the valley in the early morning light with Mount Bellview to the left and Belleview Mountain ahead, the view literally took away what was left of our breath. It was simply awe-inspiring.
As if we hadn’t had enough excitement for one day there were at least 3 or 4 streams and waterfalls to cross for most of which I removed my boots and socks and waded through the icy waters. It was quite tiresome. It was also far too easy for Geoff, of course! He preferred to take the slippery log route on the very first crossing and hiked the rest of the day with a soggy hiking boot 😉 I’m sure it was far more fun balancing on logs and clinging onto the undergrowth trying not to topple in but I don’t like freezing, wet hiking boots at any stage during a long hike, let alone within the first half mile.
During the course of the 1,800 foot elevation gain we saw an abundance of wildflowers which became more and more alpine as we passed the snow line. Facing Precarious Peak we sat on rocks amongst the tiny yellow Glacier Lilies with our lunch as humming birds flitted around looking for nectar even at such a high altitude.
The storm clouds were gathering overhead, however, and we were aware that by 2pm a summer storm was forecast. In theory, we should have been safely back at the car before then. Time to pack up and head back down at a considerably faster pace than we had ascended. Thunder was rumbling around us and we spotted the occasional bolt of lightning in the distance. Large drops of rain started to fall just as we got back to the car. We were desperate to make it back down the remaining one mile of still hairy vertical off-roading before the dry dirt track became a muddy slick swamp. Neither of us took a breath or uttered a single word until we’d made it back down the mountain – the track already beginning to pool with muddy rainwater. When we had arrived back at the car, there were 3 or 4 others parked up alongside at the trailhead. I can’t imagine how they fared making their way out of the monsoon-drenched track back to safety.
Despite the excitement of the off-roading and the soggy boot, it was worth all of the trauma and effort for one of the most beautiful hikes we’ve ever done.
Due to our conscious attempts to maintain as much social distance from other humans as possible we only ate out a couple of times – Django’s for dinner (OK); Pitas in Paradise (great for lunch); excellent cocktails at Montanya (albeit that we had to sit outside shivering and damp in a brief evening rain storm because bar interiors were closed); and a fabulous dinner at Sunflower where a family of cowboys/girls and ranchers were sitting at the socially distanced neighboring table. They were discussing how fortuitous it was that they’d decided not to ride the horses into town for dinner because they’d have got drenched in the summer downpour. Gotta love the Wild West 😁
Time to leave Crested Butte and head to the San Juan Mountains – first stop Telluride. En route we stopped in the quaint gateway town of Ridgway for a surprisingly good coffee and carrot muffin at Cimarron. The scenery started to change as we approached the famous red rocks and spruce and aspen-lined canyons of Telluride. The town of Telluride is located at the end of a box canyon and the trees of the Uncompahgre National Forest line the mountainsides. Telluride is also a former Victorian mining town – restored historic houses, restaurants and boutique stores abound along West Colorado Avenue from which, if you look towards the box canyon you can see the ribbon thin Ingram waterfall glinting in the sunlight.
Not wasting a moment upon arrival, we grabbed our boots, poles and camera and started the steep ascent to the Bear Creek Falls – only 2½ miles from ground level in town (8750 feet) but gaining 1050 feet in a relatively short distance, we were wheezing like pit donkeys by the time we made it to the top. The locals jogged past as usual leaving us in the literal dust of the rocky track. Taking an extended breather we waited for a gap in the gathering clouds at the top of the falls to take a few snaps and only just made it back to the bottom before the heavens opened … again …
Checking into the Visitor Centre for a map and a few suggestions for easy hikes (given the steepness of the surrounding terrain), the lady recommended a late afternoon jaunt along Keystone Gorge. Sounded pleasant … a 2½ mile round trip through the gorge with an elevation of only 500 feet … warm pine and wild rosemary scenting the air and the sound of rushing water crashing over the boulders. Child’s play!
It turned out to be the shortest, hardest hike of any so far involving sliding up and down scree, steep, impossibly narrow pathways plunging off on one side straight into the river. We clambered over rocks, through aspen and pine trees, past disused mining equipment and – to top it off – we had to scramble alongside a defunct mine shaft with a sheer drop to the river with nothing but slippery gravel and sand for grip underfoot. What the lady at Tourist Information also failed to mention was that once you had clambered 500 feet up you then had to slip and slide 500 feet straight down … followed by another 500 foot clamber up … and down … and up and down … By the time we finished we’d hiked at least 2,500/3,000 feet in elevation and descent 😉 Not really for the faint-hearted and a very long way from a leisurely riverside stroll!
Another (allegedly) easy hike from the town centre was to Cornet Creek Falls. A mere ¼ mile from the trailhead with a 300 foot elevation – effectively a vertical scramble up more shale and gravel on a steep, narrow gorge track. It was a spectacular (if energetic) hike alongside the rushing waters of the Cornet Creek until we emerged into a red rock amphitheater with the waterfalls pouring over the rocks ahead and pooling at the base. Standing behind the falls there were views over the ski slopes and valley of Telluride. It was absolutely worth the physical investment and effort!
There were also less energetic activities in town … one of these was an entirely horizontal walk along the San Miguel Riverside Trail and another was to take the free gondola ride from Oak Street up to San Sophia Station and then on to Mountain Village. The expansive views over the town, the valley and the surrounding 13,000 and 14,000 foot mountain peaks were conversely absolutely worth the almost total lack of physical effort and zero monetary investment! With COVID-19 regulations in full force I also had the luxury of a gondola all to myself. The Ridge Trail is a short lookout trail accessed from the San Sophia Station with white daisies, fabulous views over Telluride and aspens shimmering in the cool breeze. Continuing on the second leg of the free gondola to Mountain Village was worth a short side trip. It is a new town oozing luxury accommodations and vacation homes.
Geoff and I took the gondola from Telluride one early evening to San Sophia to hike the 2 mile trail along the edge of the canyon and through the aspen woods down to Mountain Village. Towards sunset the hike along the Ridge above Telluride down to Mountain Village was fabulous … purple Fleabane flowers lined the pathways … amazing canyon views and, after our 1,000 foot easy descent we stopped for canapés and drinks in Mountain Village. We would have hiked back up to the San Sophia gondola station to return to Telluride but it transpired that the 2 Mojito “mocktails” I had ordered weren’t mock at all and as I could no longer stand upright, hiking back uphill wasn’t really a viable option 😉
Being COVID-19 conscious we only ate out once at 221 Oak Street which was as excellent as the reviews suggested. We also visited Telluride Truffles once or twice 😁 Aside from that we managed to keep a low profile with the exception of an entirely necessary massage (courtesy of Ambrosia Brown Massage) to try to straighten out my buckled knees and twitching thighs before we moved on to the next destination.
Back via Ridgway (all roads conveniently pass through Ridgway 😉) and Cimarron coffee shop it was a scenic 1 hour drive from Telluride to Secret Garden Bed and Breakfast in Ouray – home for the next 5 nights.
I received no brownie points whatsoever for our first stop at Box Canyon Falls – a hugely over-visited tourist trap. Our $10 entry fee entirely wasted, I imagine the appeal to the majority of visitors is that the view of the canyon and the waterfalls requires little to no physical effort in comparison to literally every other viewpoint in Ouray. Lower Canyon Falls is a very short uphill hike from town with some rock and scree scrambling to get to the top. The highlight hike the town was the Ouray Perimeter Trail – a 7 mile hike which circumnavigates the small town and starts and ends at the Visitor Centre. It is relatively strenuous courtesy of the immediate steep uphill scramble up steps and over scree and rock up to 8,500 feet. It was worth every single puff of effort during the 1,600 foot elevation gain. We found ourselves clinging to a canyon face on a narrow path with a sheer vertical drop to the right … clambering around 4 waterfalls … crossing 5 bridges … passing through meadows of flowers and aspen groves and via the Box Canyon Falls before eventually descending into town again. All the while we were surrounded by views of the town, spruce forests and, at the highest point, impressive views of the 12,800 foot Mount Abram, Hayden Mountain and the Uncompahgre Gorge. Pretty spectacular for a hike around a town!
Quality accommodations are reasonably hard to find in Ouray. Thankfully, Secret Garden was an oasis of tranquility and charm – its only downside being the heated toilet seat in the middle of July in an unprecedented heatwave. No doubt this is a considerable bonus at any other time of year but not in 90°F 😉. The options for quality food in town were rather limited to Brickhouse 737 which was thankfully excellent. Where else can you sit on a balcony sipping a cocktail as a family of deer stroll down the street grazing upon planters full of flowers? Daddy deer stopped at the pedestrian crossing across Main Street, waited for mommy deer and – checking that all of the traffic had stopped beforehand – led the wife and kids safely across the street and headed off down to the river for the evening.
On the matter of food – generally better dining options than are available in Ouray are only a scenic 15 minute drive away back in Ridgway – specifically at Provisions Cafe at the Barber Shop.
The day of my wildflower-filled dreams had finally arrived. As sunrise broke over iconic Yankee Boy Basin we sat at the foot of an alpine stream surrounded by wildflowers drinking coffee and eating picnic breakfasts. And so started one of the bucket list day trips of our lives. We had rented a Jeep Rubicon from Switzerland of America Jeep Rentals the evening beforehand to get an early start and ascended the rough track up into the basin in the early morning light to see the famous “Switzerland of America”. Breathtakingly beautiful pristine meadows filled with flowers in a kaleidoscope of colors … waterfalls … and all surrounded by craggy snow-capped mountains. It was hard to tear ourselves away from the abundance of white and blue Columbines, purple Larkspur, Chiming Bluebells and white Cow Parsnips but we had a full day of serious off-roading ahead and the terrain we would cross was going to get far more interesting! As we crossed the valley passing working mines and continued our ascent into Governor Basin we drove through rushing rivers and waterfalls and traversed large boulders. We had lunch sitting on a rock surrounded by a carpet of red and cream Paintbrush flowers with the snow-capped mountains tops now literally within arms reach.
Ahead of us on Imogene Pass lay some of the most challenging and exhausting off-road driving Geoff has ever done. To say a 4-wheel high clearance vehicle is required to drive the famous Imogene Pass is somewhat of an understatement. The dirt track is rocky, narrow and steep with inevitable plummets to death if you lose concentration. Several sections are difficult to pass especially when there’s a traffic jam. This might be Colorado’s most dangerous off-road route but it is also very popular – particularly for drivers of Polaris ATV’s which seemed to be driven for the most part at reckless speed by suicidal lunatics. By the time we reached the summit in the snow at 13,114 feet we were battered, bruised and beaten by the dirt track, relentless banging over craters and the nerve-racking gigantic slippery boulder obstacle course.
It was an absolutely epic day crossing the passes and meandering through the basins but one which you would really only want to attempt with someone who has passed their off-roading extreme driving course … thank goodness Geoff did his years ago or we’d probably still be stuck up there suspended between 2 dusty boulders 😉
Whilst Yankee Boy Basin/Governor Basin and Imogene Pass are impossible to beat for scenery and adrenalin-rush, we took one more hike before leaving Ouray to a surprisingly stunning luminous green alpine lake in the Mount Sneffels wilderness outside Ridgway. At a starting elevation of 11,000 feet (with an elevation gain of 1,600 feet and apparently even less oxygen than we had become accustomed to) the hike was absolutely worth the effort and the lung-burn. We hiked through meadows and pine forest and shimmering lime-green aspens before emerging into a watery wonderland with more wildflowers than we had ever seen. Knee-high Columbines, waist-high purple Lupins and tiny alpine flowers abounded. For reasons unknown this stunningly beautiful teal green alpine lake is called the Blue Lake. There are higher elevation Blue Lakes in the group but Ouray and its surrounding canyon hikes and dusty rocky trails had all but killed us by the time we reached the lower level!
On our final day in Ouray we were looking for something singularly lazy to keep us occupied. Since the Ouray Hot Springs geothermal pool was running at a very much reduced entrance capacity that wasn’t an option so we headed off on the Million Dollar Highway (highway 550) through the mountains to Silverton to search for gold. Built in the 1880’s the Million Dollar Highway (which is part of the scenic San Juan Skyway) runs from Ridgway through Ouray and Silverton to Durango and is considered to be one of the most scenic and dangerous roads in the USA. Rest assured if you can drive Imogene Pass in a Jeep then these long sweeping switchbacks are a walk in the park!
Silverton is an old mining town wedged between the Red Mountain Pass and the Molas Pass and is distinctly more rustic and unsophisticated than its neighboring towns in the playground of the San Juan Mountains. Lots of rufty-tufty backpacking, fishing, off-roading and lots and lots of dust. It is famous for the Durango to Silverton narrow gauge railroad – currently closed due to COVID-19.
We drove a dirt track running alongside the Animas River to Animas Forks – a ghost town and restored mining village in the relative wilderness originally settled in 1873. Difficult to imagine a harsher life in winter and when the profits from gold mining started to dry up, the once bustling township was dismantled almost as quickly as it grew. The dirt tracks to the ghost town were filled with rising dust and were very busy with speeding Polaris ATV’s. In fact, we’ve never seen so many ATV’s … nor dungarees … nor Stars’n’Stripes bandanas … neither have we ever seen two white-haired elderly ladies revving up an ATV and leaving us behind in the dust… Returning back to Silverton from the ghost town the traffic on the trail was slowing up and came to an unexpected stop. Ahead of us, a farmer and his single very excited sheepdog were herding nothing short of 10’s of 1,000’s of sheep up the mountain track. It was quite a sight!
With heavy hearts (but the certain knowledge that we would one day return to Ouray), we finally left Ouray and all of her various charms to head south to Durango. En route we stopped at very possibly the US’s least stop-worthy roadside attraction. I’m sure it’s an improvement upon the world’s largest ball of twine roadside stop in Kansas but Pinkerton Hot Spring (discovered in the 1880’s and revered for its healing powers) was not only quite chilly to the touch but also brought to mind a giant stripy red, black and orange alien poop.
Onwards to Durango – not our favorite town of the vacation – but certainly the first sizable place in the San Juan Mountain region which appeared to be somewhere you could actually live year around. We were staying in Blue Lake Ranch Bed and Breakfast 20 minutes outside of town in the boonies. The bed and breakfast is a lovely flower-filled property with cute cottages and a small lake (which is also not particularly blue); a resident beaver which scared the life out of us ahead on the overgrown trail around the lake; and Colorado’s entire resident swarm of large and voracious horseflies. One late afternoon lakeside stroll swatting at the flies was quite enough. The view from the rocking chairs on our terrace was tranquil and thankfully free of horseflies.
To be honest, the trip to Durango looked like it was going to go wrong shortly after we left Florida. The purpose of our 2 night stay was to spend the intervening day white-water rafting on the Needleton Section of the Animas River – an activity which required us getting into better shape over the weeks before our departure – press-ups and upper-body strength work. All to no avail, however, when the Silverton railway decided that it would not open for the season due to COVID-19 leaving no way for rafters to get to the head of the river where the raft should put in. So, we were moved to a less challenging section for the day instead which caused some consternation in the ranks but I insisted that it would be worth it. Only a few days before we arrived in Durango I received yet another email saying that the river level was so low that they could only offer inflatable kayaks in the stretch of river through the town. Hmm … no … definitely not …
Good decision as it turned out! The river was about 2″ deep and considerably more brown and pond-like than white and rapid. So … what to do with our 1 day in Durango? When in doubt visit the Visitor Centre … pick up a badly hand-drawn map and a hand-written photocopied sheet of paper describing various hiking options in the San Juan Mountains … and head out with a picnic on an unexpectedly spectacular final hike amongst the wildflowers.
It was our last meander through the waist-high Lupins … the last walk through the spruce forest fragrant with warm pine … the last day spotting the bright yellow Old Man of the Mountains sunflowers … the last hike spotting the rare dark blue Columbines … and the first hike where we bumped into a llama out for his daily constitutional. We followed the Pass Creek Trail up to the basin at the base of Engineer Mountain. Probably the easiest hike of the vacation with the biggest bang for our buck. The basin was glowing with colors – blue, pink, red, purple, yellow and white. As the thunder rumbled around us and lightning was striking over the distant peaks we hurried through our picnic lunch and made it all the way back to the car and to the ranch before the summer storm waters deluged the area.
Restaurants in Durango – Eolus in town was excellent – Kennebec Cafe with its attractive European-style patio (also out in the boonies and a mere 5 minute drive from the ranch) was good.
The penultimate day took us 90 minutes down the road to Pagosa Springs and, specifically, to the Springs Resort and Spa where we spent the rest of the day luxuriating in the hot bubbling waters of the various pools. We moved only when the water was too hot or too cold … or when Geoff felt it necessary to have his hiking-weary limbs straightened by the lady at Heart to Heart Mobile Massage operating out of a shiny silver Airstream trailer in a supermarket parking lot in town. Another first!
Much to our surprise, Pagosa Springs has 2 culinary delights – Pagosa Baking Company (so good we went there for take-out lunch and breakfast) and Alley House Grille for dinner.
To be fair the hot springs resort itself and the hotel are very touristy but if you’ve been hiking for the best part of 2½ weeks it was supremely relaxing … so much so that we jumped back in for another hour or so early the following morning before anyone else arrived and before we made our final journey full circle back to Denver.
The 5 to 6 hour route took us via our final jaw-dropping pass – Wolf Creek Pass – which crosses the Continental Divide at 10,857 feet. En route I had scoped out another possible stop to break up the journey. Creede, a historic mining town, is a peculiar little place literally wedged into sheer cliffsides. Unless you need to buy fudge, check out the odd art gallery or have a distinctly unimpressive lunch at Kip’s Grill served by a surly waiter, you can enjoy most of what Creede has to offer in an hour or so – and that includes the 17-mile Bachelor Loop Historic Tour through the surrounding canyons and old mines. The first mile into the hills was by far the most engaging with a hugely impressive restored mine on a mind-boggling scale. Thereafter, it was all downhill and we should have abandoned it and turned around to buy fudge 😉
Lunch in Creede was dreadful – but back at Denver we stopped in Aurora at Athenian Restaurant – a family-run Greek restaurant where Greek Momma had literally just taken homemade dessert out of the oven. So all’s well that ends well!
Is there anywhere more glorious in the continental USA in the summer months than southwest Colorado? When we re-visit (which we surely will) we will split our time between Ouray in the San Juan Mountains and Crested Butte in the Elk Mountain Range of the Rockies – both breathtakingly beautiful. We miss them already …