A Colorado Road Trip (Part 3) – In Search of Aspen Gold in the San Juan Mountains

Looking toward the Sneffels Range of the San Juan mountains from the Last Dollar Road

 

In Part 3 of the series about our nine day Colorado autumn road trip, we visit the San Juan Mountain region with a home base near Ridgway, CO.

We started our Colorado road trip exploring the Rocky Mountain National Park area (read the part 1 post here ). From there we traveled to Aspen, CO where we found wonderful hikes, mountain lake reflections and lots of golden aspens (read the part 2 post here ). We finished up the nine day trip experiencing the scenery of the San Juan mountains and the Grand Mesa.

Day 6 – Driving the diverse scenery from Aspen to Ridgway

From Aspen we continued northwest on Rt. 82, and then south on Rt. 133. We decided to try a little detour to the town of Marble, CO. I had seen pictures of the Crystal Mill nearby and wanted to try to also get some photos of it. The posts I had read were correct – the road to the mill is very rough and you need a high clearance 4×4 vehicle to get to it, or hike in. Our rental was all wheel drive, but the clearance was not nearly high enough, and we did not have enough time to hike. So instead we had a great lunch in this sleepy little town and moved on. (Note, the town is called Marble because of the high quality white marble that is quarried nearby. The marble from here has been used in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as the in Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.).

Classic Colorado mountain views on Rt.133

We specifically wanted to drive through Kebler Pass, so we turned off on Rt. 12 toward Crested Butte. Kebler Pass is said to have one of the largest aspen groves in the world, all growing from one root system. The colors were not yet at their peak across the whole mountainside, but the view was still pretty spectacular. I imagine it is amazing when the whole mountainside is blazing yellow.

Miles of aspens across Kebler Pass
Aspens shade the road on the way to Crested Butte

Rt. 12 is a gravel road and is also closed in winter. It was well maintained and was an easy and extremely pleasant drive, with plenty of aspen scenery along the way.

In the town of Crested Butte, we turned south on Rt. 135 toward Gunnison.  It was amazing how quickly the scenery changed once we started heading south of Crested Butte.  Gone were the large mountain peaks with green wooded slopes. We had clearly passed into the mountains’ rain shadow – the scenery was now dryer, more rocky, and covered mostly in sagebrush and not too exciting to look at after a while. 

In Gunnison, we turned west onto Rt. 50 toward Montrose, which took us through the Currecanti National Recreation Area. Now at least there was a large body of water and some interesting rock formations to break up the monotonous scenery.

The Pinnacles rock formations overlook the Gunnyson River in the Curecanti National Recreation Area

Unfortunately, it was getting late in the day, or we would have detoured to the north rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We had visited the south rim of the park a few years ago when we were in the area, but did not get to the north rim then either. From Montrose it was only about another half hour to Ridgway. Our accommodations for the next three nights were an Airbnb “Tiny House” (ie. a cabin) in an RV park between Ridgway and Ouray that came with fantastic views of the San Juan Mountain.

Looking toward the San Juan Mountains from our cabin outside of Ridgway, CO. – great views for the morning coffee

Day 7 – Exploring the scenic drives around Ouray, CO

The most famous drive in the area, the Million Dollar Highway, goes from Ouray to Silverton, CO and is part of the San Juan Skyway that loops around this mountain range. This is one of the most scenic roads in the US, but it is also another white-knuckle-hold-your-breath-and-don’t-look-over-the-edge drive with steep switchbacks on a narrow road that clings to the mountainside.  We drove this road the last time we were in the area, so this time we opted to explore other scenic drives nearby (and save our nerves).

We started off the morning climbing up Camp Bird Rd. (Rt. 361) from Ouray. On Google Maps it looked like this was a possible route to Telluride, CO.  As the road climbed, it took us through some beautiful mountain scenery, but the road also became more and more difficult to drive. Eventually, after about an hour or so, we reached a point where it was clear that we needed a higher clearance vehicle, so we turned around and headed back down toward Ouray.

Views along Camp Bird Rd.

For the rest of the afternoon, we drove back toward Ridgway and decided to explore one of the movie filming locations for the original 1969 western, True Grit with John Wayne. My husband is a big John Wayne fan, and that is one of his favorite movies (it is also the only movie for which John Wayne won an academy award). Much of the movie was filmed on location in the area around Ridgway. The final climactic shootout scene was filmed in Deb’s meadow near Owl Creek Pass. To get there, we took County Road 10 just north of Ridgeway and followed signs to the pass.  Just before reaching the actual pass, there is a large open meadow with a split rail fence, and great views of the very distinctive Chimney Peak mountain, which can be clearly seen in the final scenes of the movie. If you are interested in other True Grit movie location, stop by the Ridgway Chamber of Commerce for more information and directions. 

Deb’s meadow where the final shoot took place in the original John Wayne True Grit movie

Day 8 – The Last Dollar Road and the San Juan Skyway

This morning started out misty, but eventually, the rising sun started burning through the clouds and the San Juan Mountains peaked out over the fog.

The San Juan mountains peek out above the morning fog

The day started by driving west out of Ridgway on Rt.62. After about 12 miles, we reached the overlook for the Dallas Divide, another one of those classic Colorado Rocky Mountain views and photogenic spots.

At the Dallas Divide, looking toward the Sneffels Range of the San Juan Mountains

Just a little further on Rt. 62 we turned south on to Last Dollar Road toward Telluride. This is another dirt road that was a little rough to drive in a few places, but overall, it was not too bad. And the scenery was definitely worth it.  We ended up taking a good part of the day to do this 18 mile drive, not because it was hard, but because we stopped frequently to enjoy the views and take pictures. We passed through aspen groves that were at their golden peak and over passes with stunning views as we drove through the mountains to Telluride.

The Last Dollar Ranch – iconic Colorado 
Who would not want to stay in a cabin with this kind of a view

At one point, we passed through an aspen grove that made us feel as if we were driving through a golden cathedral.

A golden tunnel of aspens on Last Dollar Road
The much dryer lowlands peek through the aspen grove

As we climbed through the mountains, the views just got better and better with each bend in the road.

Why wouldn’t you want to drive a road with views like this

I had always heard that mountains made their own weather, but this was the first time I witnessed it in person.

Rain clouds form over one small portion of the mountains in the distance

When we reached Telluride, we chose to continue south on Rt. 145, which is also part of the scenic San Juan Skyway loop.  The scenery on this road did not disappoint either.

A perfect reflection on Cushman Lake along Rt. 145 of the San Juan Skywy
The San Juan Mountain views along Rt. 145 south of Telluride
Trout Lake scenic recreation area

We drove south for about an hour or so, until we were clearly starting to come out of the mountains. Then we turned around, and drove the scenic routes 145 and 62 back to Ridgway and our bed.

Day 9 – Grand Mesa Scenic Byway

On this last day of our trip, the focus was about taking the scenic road-less-traveled back to the Denver Airport.  If you can get a very early start, you can do a detour to see the south rim of the Black Canyon of The Gunnison National Park. Since we had visited that last time we were in this area, we opted to just head straight toward the Grand Mesa and explore that area in more detail this time.

From Ridgway we drove north on Rt. 550 toward Montrose and then continued north on Rt. 50. In Delta we took Rt. 65 north to the top of the Grand Mesa, and then eventually, continued on  Rt. 65 to I 70  back toward the Denver Airport. Once we reached the top of the Grand Mesa, we just drove along on the various roads and explored the scenery.

With an area of about 500 square miles and rising about 6000 feet above the valleys surrounding it, the Grand Mesa in Colorado is the world’s largest flat topped mountain. The top of the mesa is covered with over 300 lakes and reservoirs of various sizes which are popular with fishermen.  And because the top of the mesa is at an altitude of almost two miles above sea level, it has an alpine like climate, which we experienced first hand.

On top of the Grand Mesa, in the clouds, looking down into one of the valleys

As we drove the road to the Lands End Observatory area, the mesa was making its own weather. Clouds rolled in and it started raining and hailing, even though a mile away, the sun had been shining.  The road that we were driving on was also a historic one – it had been built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.

On top of the mesa, most of the trees were already pretty bare, and because of the wind and weather, many of the aspens had interesting corkscrew twisted trunks. But as we headed down the north side of the mesa. the hillsides were covered in aspens at their peak golden color – what a dramatic contrast.

As we headed back to the Denver Airport from the Grand Mesa, we had one final memorable view – a beautiful rainbow to send us off.

A great view to end our trip

Meals

Ridgway, CO – Ridgway has maintained its western town look, and plays up it’s Tue Grit movie connection.  On a previous trip, we ate at the True Grit Cafe.  If you are a John Wayne fan, you will really enjoy all the John Wayne decor and memorabilia.  The warming comfort food was really good too. This trip we had a great breakfast one morning of lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberries at Kate’s Place. This is clearly a popular restaurant because even though it was early, the place was full and there was a waiting line outside.

Ouray, CO – Ouray is a cute tourist town on the Million Dollar Highway, with what I like to describe as “gingerbread western” ambiance. We had dinner at the Ouray Brewery where my husband tried a few of their craft beers and we both enjoyed their pub food. From there we went across the street to Mouse’s Chocolates and Coffee where we had cups of hot chocolate and cookies for desert. We also picked up a selection of their hand made truffles to enjoy over the subsequent days (each of the flavors we got were delicious).

Accommodations

  • Ridgway – When my husband and I stay in one place for more than two nights, I like to look for an apartment that gives us a little more room to spread out. This time I used Airbnb to find this Tiny Home located in an RV park in between Ridgway and Ouray, CO.  The view of the San Juan Mountains from the deck was fantastic.  The cabin was very clean and neat, had all the amenities and room that we needed, and the location was very central to our activities.
  • Denver Airport –  We stayed at the Westin Denver International Airport hotel which I booked through Hotels.com.  The hotel is directly connected to the airport which made catching the early morning flight back to the east coast very easy.  Our room was huge, very modern, and vert clean.  I will definitely be using this hotel again on future trips.

What I Would have Done Different

  • Rented an SUV with a higher clearance so we could drive the rougher back roads in the area. We had a Hyundai Santa Fe Sport which was fine in general, but it was a little small for my tall husband.
  • Had a few extra days so that we could stay on top of the Grand Mesa and do some of the hikes and explore the many lakes.
  • We did a lot of driving in this area – it would have been nice to have some extra time for some hikes as well.
  • Had the time to explore the town of Crested Butte – it looked like a really cute western town as we drove through it
  • Had the time to explore more of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. For up to date info on the park visit https://www.nps.gov/blca/index.htm

Do you have thoughts or comments about this post? I would love to hear from you on my facebook  page.

Thanks for visiting.

Rose

 

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Colorado road trip through Kebler Pass