The Back Road to Telluride

Telluride, Colorado has been on my radar for quite sometime.  Although I’ve called Colorado’s Front Range home for nearly eighteen years, between work and children there never seemed to be enough time to explore Colorado’s Western Slope until now.

Lost Dollar
Last Dollar Road on the way to Telluride, CO

Al and I review the atlas and peruse all the info we picked up at the Ridgway State Park Visitor center.  From Ridgway State Park to the mountain ski town of Telluride should be about an hours drive if we stick to the main roads.  Hmm, we have all day.  What’s the hurry?

TellurideThis southwest part of the state of Colorado was a buzz of mining activity in the 1800’s.  Even Telluride’s logo is that of a miner’s pick.   This mining activity created a multitude of back roads throughout the picturesque San Juan Mountains.  Today these back roads are available for jeeps and OHV (off highway vehicles).

Some of these back roads are assessable by regular automobiles, but most require high clearance, and others demand 4 wheel drive capabilities.  The roads might be gravel, dirt, rock or any combination of the three.

Last Dollar Road
Last Dollar Road – this road is classified as “easy”

My little red 4 wheel drive Toyota Tacoma should be able to handle most of the roads we researched.  However, Al and I err on the side of caution and pick a couple of “easy” roads to explore this week.  One of which is called the “Last Dollar Road”.  As far as mileage goes, this should be a shorter traveling distance to Telluride than taking the main roads.  However, time wise…..double.  Obviously, I won’t be taking this puppy at 60 miles per hour.

Last Dollar Road
some ruts were a little deep, but no problem for us.

For the most part, it was an easy drive even though we veered to the left at a fork in the road.  The publication informed us a left at the fork would be a little more challenging.  Some of the ruts, mud, and water would definitely present a problem for a vehicle without a high clearance.  For us, it wasn’t a problem and the drive presented some amazing scenery complete with wildflowers.Telluride



It’s the end of July and the wildflowers are starting to wane, but I’m still thrilled with the tuffs of color here and there.  All the more reason for us to return to this area next July during the peak of wildflower season.Telluride

The drive from Ridgway State Park to Telluride took us about two hours and that included all the stops for photo ops.  Not bad, and it sure was pretty.

TellurideOnce in Telluride, we stop at the visitor center.  Al always likes to ask locals where they enjoy eating.  We find ourselves at a kind of sports bar  housed in an old house off a side street.  It appears to be a favorite among locals.  Lunch was delish!

After lunch we head over to the Gondola station for a free Gondola ride up and over the summit to Mountain Village.  On our walk to the Gondola, we encountered a farmer’s market and quickly took notes as to some potential purchases on our return to the vehicle.  No sense in carrying stuff for the next hour.

GondolaThe Gondola operates year round free of charge and is a common form of transportation for workers, school children, mountain bikers, and hikers….and then of course there’s folks like Al and me – tourists.  Oh, and it’s pooch friendly as well.

The Telluride side of the mountain is pretty darn steep.  The Mountain Village side appears to be more moderate.  That’s where these two young boys are headed.  They’ll disembark at the summit and ride their bikes back down toward the town of Mountain Village.  We also saw quite a few hikers doing this as well.  We saw very few heading down on the Telluride side of the mountain.Telluride


With our ‘tourist’ day coming to an end, we pick up some goodies at the farmer’s market and promise each other a return trip to this beautiful mountain town.  We take the highway back to Ridgway State Park and arrive in about an hour.  I’ll admit, even the scenery via the highway was lovely……not quite as beautiful as the Last Dollar Road but lovely just the same.  It’ll be tough to top this awesome day!Telluride

Time for a Break

As the looming snow-capped mountains come into view, I feel a sense of excitement.  It feels good to be back on the road, especially after the past few weeks.  Weeks of cleaning and preparing the house for sale has gotten old real quick.  I need a break.  I need to get away.  It’s Friday, May 17th the weekend before Memorial Weekend; the official kick off to summer fun in Colorado.  A perfect time to hit the road.

Highway 50 west of Canon City meanders along the Arkansas River

I leave Al and Bear behind and hop in my little red Toyota Tacoma bound for Grand Junction, Colorado.  Within a mere thirty minutes from home, the road begins to twist and turn as Highway 50 meanders along the Arkansas River.  This particular stretch of Highway 50 can be stressful when there is a considerable amount of traffic.  This morning I practically have the road to myself and thus drive at a relaxing pace allowing myself to take in the scenery.

Arkansas River
Arkansas River east of Salida, Colorado; known for white water rafting

The Arkansas River between the towns of Canon City and Salida, Colorado, is a popular tourist destination for white water rafting.  The rafting season hasn’t begun just yet, therefore no rubber rafts in sight, but that will change in the next week or so as the snow melts in the high country making for some fast moving water.  Canon City and Salida both offer plenty of rafting outfitters to accommodate the various levels of adventure seekers.

Salida Colorado
The Continental Divide looms in the distance

As I get closer to the town of Salida, I sense a rise in elevation.  Perhaps seeing the Continental Divide in the distance is a reminder of the change in elevation necessary to cross the Rocky Mountains.  My journey started in Pueblo West at an elevation of 4,900 feet and I have been gradually climbing as I approach the town of Salida at 7,000 feet.

Just west of Salida, the road climbs more aggressively toward Monarch Pass and the Continental Divide. Monarch Pass sits at an elevation of 11,312 feet and is the high point of Highway 50.  I’ve been on the road a couple of hours now and could use a break ….. photo-op.  There is still plenty of snow but it’s a sunny, warm 60 degrees at 11,312 feet.

Monarch Pass
My little red truck and I stop for a break at Monarch Pass 11,312 feet in elevation

What goes up, must come down.  Once on the other side of Monarch Pass, it’s all down hill, as evidenced by the “runaway truck ramp”.  I often wonder how the driver of a semi-truck feels racing down a twisty, curvy mountain road with brakes not functioning.  It’s not as if a guard rail, when there is a guard rail, would stop a semi from tumbling over the edge.  That kind of excitement, I assure you, I do not need to experience first hand.

Continental Divide
surrounded by beautiful scenery
Continental Divide
I’ve crossed the Continental Divide; it’s all down hill from here

I’ll stick with my little truck.  I coast down the western slope of the Rocky Mountains with the help of my brakes here and there.  Traffic is light.  I’m really enjoying the drive.  I stop for lunch in Gunnison before stopping at the Blue Mesa Reservoir.  I can’t believe how low the water level is at Blue Mesa Reservoir.  The past few years of drought have taken a toll on Colorado’s reservoirs.  However, it should fill considerably as the snow melts in the high country…..I hope.

Blue Mesa Reservoir
Highway 50 crosses Blue Mesa Reservoir
Blue Mesa Reservoir
Blue Mesa Reservoir; the water level is low due to drought
Rocky Mountains
Blue Mesa Reservoir
Montrose Colorado
A perfect day; Highway 50 east of Montrose, Colorado

I continue on the journey enjoying a perfect day…..oops….spoke too soon.  I come to a screeching halt about fifteen minutes east of the town of Montrose.  Construction!  Did you know Colorado only has two seasons?  Winter and construction.  I knew this day was too perfect.  Oh well, with no place to go we all shut off our engines and enjoy the perfect weather and scenery.

Rocky Mountains
Construction has us stopped east of Montrose
Rocky Mountains
My view to the left as traffic is halted for construction

With plenty of time to day dream, I glance out the rolled down window and wonder about the folks living on this ranch in the above photo.  They are probably cattle ranchers.  Pretty common in this area of Colorado….cattle country.  Could I live here?  Would I want to live here?  Probably not….. most likely not.  The winters are long and hard in this neck of the woods.  Come on, it’s the end of May and there’s still snow on the ground.  You should see this part of Colorado in the winter…..beautifully white in all directions covered deep in snow AND it’s cold….the air and the snow 😉

Highway 50
After thirty minutes of sitting, we’re finally moving again
Highway 50 just east of Montrose, Colorado

After thirty minutes of waiting, traffic finally starts to move and it is once again smooth sailing the rest of the way.  6 1/2 hours and 383 miles later I pull into my brothers driveway in Grand Junction…..right behind his new travel trailer.

Brother’s new travel trailer

My brother and his wife camped in Moab the previous weekend.  Knowing I was coming for a visit, brother postponed stowing the trailer so I could see his new toy.  We spend the evening swapping RV stories over cocktails and catching up with life in general.  Tomorrow we’ll visit The Monument.

A Scenic Loop

It’s three o’clock in the morning and the dog is shaking.  He’s sleeping on a blanket near my side of the air mattress.  I grab my hoody and cover him.  He falls back asleep.  I’m sure glad one of us can fall asleep so quickly.  Hmmm, nature calls.  I reluctantly throw off the two layers of sleeping bags and scurry to the foot of the air mattress to put on my tennies.  No need to throw on clothes, since I’ve been sleeping fully clothed, i.e. sweatpants and sweatshirt.  It’s cold at three in the morning camped at 10,000 feet.

I quietly unzip the tent and crawl out.  I’m awestruck with the most incredible vision.  The stars and crescent moon are so vivid and bright.  I have no trouble seeing around the campsite.  I stand there and just take in the beauty before I’m reminded as to why I’m standing outside the tent at three in the morning shivering.  This is serious Bear and Mountain Lion country.  I take care of “business” just three feet from the tent.  I have no intention of being someone’s midnight snack, and I’m sorry, but that trumps someone seeing my crescent moon!  I once again stand there admiring the sky before crawling back into a nice warm bed.

It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’ve renamed Bear…..”damn dog”.  (ya know I love him and wouldn’t trade him for the world, but he wants a walk at 5:30 in the morning in the frickn cold)  Damn dog and I go for a stroll, not venturing too far from our campsite.  I’m the only two-legged creature out and about.  Did I already mention we’re in serious Bear, as in Black, Brown country?  The garbage containers are heavily locked and Bear proofed.  It reminds me of the safety lids on medications.  In other words, it’s a royal pain in the a*s to get open just to throw your garbage away.  I’m on alert.  “Hurry up, damn dog”.  Finally “business” complete, we return to the warmth of sleeping bags.

It’s seven o’clock and the sun is rising.  We hear other campers in the distance.  Al awakes and informs me how great he slept (damn husband).  Sleep deprived wife informs damn husband and damn dog, “We’re going into town for breakfast.  I need a cup of  strong, black coffee”.

I drive around Crested Butte looking for a place for breakfast.  Finally Al has me stop, he jumps out of the truck and walks over to a pretty blond lady watering flowers.  He and the blond chuckle (do I really care?).  He proceeds to tell me to drive up Elk Street three blocks.  Blond says McGills serves a good breakfast.  Good breakfast yes, but amazingly good coffee.

Two cups of coffee later, we’re back to “dear husband” and “cute, adorable dog”.  Al and I discuss exploration options, but first it’s time for a little retail therapy.  It’s still a little early and shops aren’t open yet.  That’s ok, I’m on the hunt and need to survey my prey.

We enter a T-shirt shop.  I’m on a mission.  Al and Bear head over to the counter, yes this is dog friendly country and dogs are welcome everywhere except inside restaurants.  Al strikes up a conversation with the young man behind the counter.  We’re the only ones in the store and when the young man realizes I drive a Toyota Tacoma and we’re there to explore the back country, he excitedly shares his knowledge and passion of the area.  He drives a Toyota 4-Runner (sister to the Tacoma…lol) and recommends a scenic loop drive.  He gives us a couple of heads up warnings and what we might encounter.  He gives us a complimentary map and points out everything on the map for us.  Two T-shirts later, that’s enough retail therapy for me.  I’m ready to explore.

We head up Slate River Road, just north of the town of Crested Butte.  As usual, the pavement ends quickly.  We pass some beautiful homes early in the journey.  As we start to climb in elevation and the road starts to narrow, we encounter campers and ATVer’s.


BUT most importantly, I finally start seeing some wildflowers.  Up to this point I begin to wonder, “Wildflower capital of Colorado”?  Say what?  Still not impressed, but I have an open mind.  The scenery is spectacular.  I drive so I don’t drive Al crazy with my many photo-op stops.  “Stop here, no I meant there.  Why don’t you listen to me?”  I think you get the picture.  Besides Al says, “I like being chauffeured around by a pretty lady”.  Ah, ain’t that sweet!

Slate River Road, two way traffic allowed

We continue up Slate River Road.  It’s narrow but in pretty good condition.  Geez, I hope no one comes down this road.  Yes, it’s a two-way road.  This, my friends, is why we drove the Tacoma in lieu of the F-250.  As a former flatlander, this kind of road would’ve scared the sh*t out of me years ago.  Now it just scares the p*ss out of me.

Mt. Baldy on right

We pass the turn for Washington Gulch Road and continue toward Schofield Pass.  “Boy, could this road get even narrower?” I comment to Al.  We come around a blind switch back and encounter a truck loaded with people.  Kind of like an open air safari get up.  Hmmmm, I back up and get us as close to the side of the mountain as possible (haha, I got the inside).  The driver comments, “thanks, we got’er”, and passes by me.  He’s the one on the outer edge.  One slip, and down they go.  Tourists all clap once we’ve successfully passed, and we’re all on our way again.  This is the Wildflower Festival after all and there’s all kinds of tours and activities planned throughout the week.

We’re on the other side of Mt. Baldy now and we stop for a much-needed break.  The scenery is breathtaking.  Al checks his phone and is shocked.  “It works!”  No cell reception at the campground, but up here it works.  He snaps a couple of quick pictures and sends to his sisters.

11,250 feet

I decide I’ve had enough thrill for the day and have concern about venturing any further.  After all, the guy at the T-shirt shop said it’ll get rougher from this point.  “But your truck can handle it”.  It’s not the truck I’m worried about.  Al’s having such a good time, he leaves the decision up to me.

This stretch of road is tame and a piece of cake. Wish it had all been like this.

We head back to the Washington Gulch turn, all the while I pray I won’t have to pass anyone.  That would put me on the outside edge…yikes!  Fortunately my prayers are answered, we don’t meet another vehicle for quite some time.  Washington Gulch Road does present its own challenges………….