Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Rocky Mountain high (clearance)

Originally published in the Post Register.
We saw the boulder shortly after it began to tumble end over end down the rain-slick mountainside.

Perhaps 10 feet in diameter, the huge rock picked up speed as it headed toward a series of switchbacks on a well-traveled dirt back road just below Colorado's Imogene Pass.

There was a Suburban slowly coming up the road (we had stopped at a switchback to make room for it to pass), and the driver was oblivious to the boulder. Fortunately, the rock crashed harmlessly on the road maybe a hundred feet behind the Suburban before tumbling several hundred more feet down the slope and settling in a flat.

As it turned out, it wasn't really a close call, but it did remind my son, Jeremy, and I that expensive SUVs and graded roads don't guarantee safety in Colorado's backcountry. Indeed, the drive up to the Imogene Pass had been a tad hairy in spots, and our SUV conked out and wouldn't start for a time at the top. Eventually, despite the thin air, the engine fired up and we made our way down the other side safe and sound.

Colorado has 56 "fourteeners," peaks of more than 14,000 feet elevation. Weaving around these peaks are highways and backroads that are some of the best scenic driving in the country. And dotting those routes are some great small towns, ranging from hoity toity (Aspen and Vail) to a sort of refined nouveau West (Telluride) to downright gritty (Leadville).

For four-wheel drive owners, the season in the Colorado Rockies is short, spanning July through September in the higher peaks. Hiking in the higher peaks has the same short season.

Imogene Pass, photo borrowed from the Telluride Daily Photo blog.
If you plan to stick to paved roads or lower elevations, however, the season is much longer. Many of the major passes are plowed right through the winter, and all are open from early spring through mid-autumn. The perfect time to tour Colorado is fall, when the leaves are turning and the crowds and lodging prices are down.

So, let's say you have a couple of weeks, your SUV is ready to roll, you want to do a little hiking and sightseeing, and you want to check out the best of Colorado's mountain towns, maybe with a round or two of golf thrown in. Consider yourself lucky and check out one or all of the following three loop drives.

The Estes Park loop

This loop combines sections of U.S. Highways 34, 36 and 40, plus Interstate 70. Its return leg is a narrow stretch of state highway. We start in Estes Park, just up Big Thompson Canyon from Loveland and the beginning of the Great Plains. From here, you enter Rocky Mountain National Park and the road climbs to more than 12,000 feet. In addition to the views, there are wonderful hiking trails inside the park.

As it leaves the park, U.S. 34 turns south into the Kewuneeche Valley past three large lakes: Grand, Shadow Mountain and Granby. At a mile wide, 1.2 miles long and 400 feet deep, Grand Lake is Colorado's largest glacial lake. The highway curves around Granby Mesa and into the town of Granby, where it becomes U.S. 40.

The highway continues through high mountain valleys and over Berthoud Pass (11,316 feet) before heading east and connecting with Interstate 70 as the highway descends toward Denver. Rather than staying on the interstate and returning to civilization the easy way, we're getting off at Idaho Springs onto Oh My God Highway. Folks used to mountain driving will find that the name overstates the case - there are probably 25 routes in Colorado scarier than this one. Stay on this road all the way to Central City, where you'll hook up with the Peak to Peak Highway, a 65-mile paved road that returns circuitously to Estes Park.

Also out of Idaho Springs is America's highest paved road, the Mt. Evans Highway, on which you can drive to the 14,264-foot peak of Mt. Evans.

The loop drive through Rocky Mountain National Park with Estes Park as the starting and ending point is best done in two days. Idaho Springs makes a good overnight destination.

The Aspen loop

With Aspen as the starting point, head east on state Road 82 over Independence Pass (12,095 feet) and down to Twin Lakes, where the road intersects with U.S. Highway 24. Go north on 24 along the headwaters of the Arkansas River to Leadville, home to the National Mining Hall of Fame. Leadville has a rough-and-tumble feel, even in the summer months when it is over-run with tourists.

Just north of town, leave U.S. 24 and take state Road 91 northeast to Frisco and the Dillon Reservoir. Here, you can back track just a bit south on state Road 9 to Breckenridge, full of great shops and restaurants, an alpine slide, plenty of hiking, mountain biking trails and expensive lodging. To return to our loop drive, head back to Frisco and pick up Interstate 70 westbound.

I-70 climbs over Vail Pass (10,666 feet) and down into Vail Valley, with more fine restaurants, hiking and mountain biking, and expensive lodging. As is the case with almost any Colorado mountain town, the Vail area also has a number of golf courses.

Drive westbound through beautiful mountain scenery and into the Glenwood Canyon, carved by the Colorado River. On the other side of the canyon is Glenwood Springs, home of the Glenwood Hot Springs. There's a hotel and spa at the springs and more restaurants, hiking, mountain biking and some more moderately priced lodging options.

After your soak, take state Road 82 northeast back to Aspen, which is Colorado's capital of great shops, restaurants and very expensive lodging. Surrounding Aspen are opportunities for hiking, mountain biking and four-wheel drive exploring that could fill a vacation. A must-do is a drive up Maroon Creek Road to the Maroon Bells Wilderness. A sunrise view of the Maroon Bells is one of Colorado's more familiar picture postcards.

This loop also is best done in two days, with the Frisco region as a good place for an overnight stay.

San Juan Skyway

The granddaddy of all Colorado scenic loops is the 236-mile San Juan Skyway in southwestern Colorado. This loop starts in Durango, which features - you guessed it - great shopping, fine restaurants and expensive lodging. Actually, prices in Durango are more reasonable than in Aspen, Breckenridge or Vail, perhaps because of its relative remoteness.

From Durango, head north on U.S. Highway 550 to Silverton. The Silverton area was once an enormous mining operation that was served by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The railroad today carries passengers between the two locations (www.durangorailway.com).

From Silverton, 550 climbs to Red Mountain Pass (11,018 feet) and down to Ouray, home of a hot spring and Box Canyon Falls. Ouray is worth a good, long stop. From here, you can take the back road to Telluride, or you can stay on U.S. 550 and the San Juan Skyway. If you choose the latter, the highway takes you to Ridgeway, where you turn west on state Road 62. Road 62 intersects with state Road 145 near Placerville; here, take 145 south.

When you get to the turnoff to Telluride, take it. The town is at the end of a long valley, enhanced by the spectacular 350-foot Bridal Veil Falls in the distance. A dirt road takes you to the base of the falls, but it's more spectacular when seen from a few miles back.

After your visit to Telluride, get back on 145 south, which empties out of the San Juans and into the small town of Dolores. From there, take state Road 184 to U.S. Highway 160, which takes you back to Durango. If you have time, take a half-day and visit Mesa Verde National Park, about 15 minutes west of the junction of 184 and 160. Mesa Verde contains some of North America's most spectacular Anasazi cliff dwellings, dating back to 1,200 A.D.

On this loop drive, either Ouray or Telluride is your best bet for overnight destinations.

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