Scouting the Southwest

04 Jun 2021

Tired of crowded tourist spots? You’ll find these Colorado adventures off the beaten path.

By Julie Kailus

From mountains to deserts, alpine lakes to hot springs, ranches to mines, there’s something magical about the end of the road. Southwest Colorado boasts some of the most serene spots in the state, so pick a summer adventure that strikes your fancy and go scratch that travel itch.

RIDGWAY: Hiking & Hot Springs

Occasionally overlooked and sorely underestimated, Ridgway sits at the crossroads between the magical mountain towns of Ouray and Telluride. Also called the “gateway to the San Juans,” Ridgway more than holds its own as an adventure outpost, and the town’s underdog status makes it ideal for our first off-the-beaten-path southwest Colorado destination.

Unwind in the solar-heated thermal pool at Chipeta Solar Springs Resort & Spa.

Hiking and hot springs are the ultimate mix to fill long summer days in the stunning San Juan Mountains. It’s impossible to pinpoint the top hiking spots near Ridgway because trail types and topography are endless; it’s up to the traveler to decide what fits the bill. But among the hidden gems are view-heavy trails to old mines in the Uncompahgre National Forest. These are especially popular with youngsters, who tend to prefer a little treasure at the end of a trudge.

The best mine trails are just down the road from Ridgway in Ouray. Try the trail up to Sutton Overlook and Neosho Mine, which is short and steep at first but then mellows out to overlook town and some remarkably intact ruins. Or combine two—Chief Ouray and Portland mines—on one hike. Ouray is also home to some unmatched seasonal waterfall hikes: Catch the rated-easy Lower Cascade Falls Trail or Upper Box Falls right from downtown, or walk the whole Perimeter Loop. For longer excursions, explore loops along the Dallas or Blue Lakes trails between Ridgway and Telluride.

At the end of a day on the move, falling into a hot spring right next to your bed is the way to go. At Ridgway’s Chipeta Solar Springs Resort & Spa, you can reserve a fully appointed suite with your own private hot tub on the patio right outside your living room door. In addition to the private tubs, they have two solar thermal hot pools, cedar sauna, steam room and full spa at this quaint, adobe-style abode. Chipeta Resort is famous for its spa services, offering a wide variety of healing modalities to leave you refreshed and rejuvenated.

The folks at Chipeta can also recommend plenty of other nearby hot springs that will soothe sore muscles and match up with any day-hike destinations. Options range from a giant, family-friendly outdoor hot springs pool in the center of Ouray to the intimate vapor caves at the historic Wiesbaden hot springs.

But let us not forget the food! Several delicious restaurants are walkable from Chipeta, and you’ll quickly discover why Ridgway is becoming a find for foodies. Don’t miss Kate’s Place—a favorite with locals for scratch-made biscuits and all things breakfast. Provisions is also perfect for loading up before a hike or for a power brunch afterwards; the restaurant serves into the night as well. For an upscale sit-down, wander over yonder to Bon Ton in Ouray, where the mussels vino bianchi are out of this world.

If you’ve become too liquid after spa and hot tubs to venture beyond the Chipeta Resort, the onsite Four Corners Restaurant offers healthy and delicious dinners, and the rooftop Sky Bar offers stunning views of the San Juans, along with libations and live music.

Photo by Lisa Kral

MANCOS: Dude Ranching

Minuscule Mancos is a gem. Its far-flung location ensures few people, but plenty of outdoor adventures. Because the small town is full of charm but shy on amenities, check out the nearby Majestic Dude Ranch for an all-inclusive experience that you don’t have to patch together yourself.

You’ll stay in rustic cabins, eat family-style meals, and sign up for whatever activities interest you most, from horseback riding, archery and skeet shooting to ATVing, rafting and mountain biking. The latter is what has put this corner of Colorado on the map most recently; a trail network called “Phil’s World” has been gradually expanding into a world-class biking destination with more than 26 miles of flow-style singletrack with some difficult slickrock sections (non-motorized bikes only). Access the trail right from Majestic Dude Ranch.

Majestic Dude Ranch isn’t just for riding horses. (Photo courtesy Majestic Dude Ranch)

When you’re ready to leave the dude ranching fun behind, head to town for a beer at Mancos Brewing Company. There’s also a new cidery—Fenceline—and some cute coffee houses to fuel any a.m. excursion. For an adventure add-on, just a few miles away is Mesa Verde National Park, a World Heritage Site, where you can explore the jaw-dropping Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.

And did we mention that getting to Mancos is half the fun? Coming from the east, hop on the San Juan Skyway, an amazing driving tour of old mining towns, canyons and valleys—all in the shadow of arguably Colorado’s most dramatic mountain range. From the west, be sure to follow the Trail of the Ancients, the only National Scenic Byway solely dedicated to archeology.

There’s beautiful scenery throughout Southwest Colorado. (Photo by Hilary-Lewkowitz)

LAKE CITY: Fishing

The name gives it away: Lake City is a watersports destination, especially for fishing. Raging high-country rivers, quiet creeks, wide open lakes, and protected reservoirs for cast and fly fishing galore surround this remote enclave. Lake Fork of the Gunnison River is the quintessential local fishery, featuring more than 28 miles of public waters and pull-offs right along Highway 149. You can try your luck for brown and rainbow trout 10 feet from your car.

Summer is also prime fishing time at Deer Lakes and Big Blue Creek, both of which are solid beginner waters and promise plenty of brook trout hooks. More advanced anglers can hunt wild browns along Cebolla or Henson creeks. And fishing from a boat is best at Lake San Cristobal. But that’s just a glimpse of the angling adventures to be had in and around Lake City.

For the ultimate insider knowledge, stop by Dan’s Fly Shop, where local legend Dan Hall holds more than five decades’ worth of secrets about what to catch and when. The shop also runs guided trips for those who prefer more direction and the right gear to ensure an awesome experience on the water. Hall’s parents opened nearby Pleasant View Resort in 1959, where he first started tying flies. The lodging facility is still open today for cabin and vehicle rental and offers just one of many rustic sleep spots around Lake City.

In town, expect the charm of an old-school fork in the road, with a classic cafe, bakery and saloon. Breakfast Hangout will get you going in the morning before a long day of fishing. For a post-angling nosh, clean up a bit and head to Climb Elevated Eatery, where you’ll get a cool combination of upscale comfort food, creative cocktails and house-made desserts.

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