Southwest Colorado Roadtrip

Southwest Colorado roadtrip Cliff dwellings

A three week Southwest Colorado roadtrip beckoned us! Maybe you’re planning your own trip and want a few fun ideas. Well, here they are!

After leaving Santa Fe last Spring, we went back to Colorado Springs and Steve’s parents. While there, we also managed to snag our first Covid vaccination. That was kind of unexpected, but a good surprise! It also meant that we’d need to return to The Springs for our second shot three weeks later. No worries, since it also coincided with a neurology appointment for Steve’s Dad. So let’s go on a road trip! Noelle here, by the way.

Then, for the first time in a long time, we sat down with a map and made a detailed plan. Three weeks, hmm, what could we fit in? Here’s the route we chose for our three week Southwest Colorado roadtrip.

Although we started in The Springs, you could easily start in Denver. I’d still suggest stopping in Colorado Springs to visit the Garden of the Gods, maybe even attempt the Manitou Incline if you’re acclimated to the altitude and in good physical shape!

  • Drive South from on I25 to 50 west, spend a night in the Pueblo area at Penrose Commons OHV park. It’s our go-to boondocking spot near the Springs. (It’s only about 40 minutes from Colorado Springs, so this is a good spot if you’re coming from Denver but stopped in the Springs for a visit.)
  • Drive South on I25, then West on US-160 towards Alamaso (about 2.5 hours from Colorado Springs)
  • Boondock at Sacred White Shell Mountain, BLM, near Alamaso, CO
  • Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
  • Drive West on US-160 towards Durango
  • Stop in Pagosa Springs for lunch & shopping or overnight at one of the many hot spring hotels
  • RV Park at Oasis RV Park, Durango, CO (about 3.5 hours from Alamaso)
  • Explore Durango’s free Train Museum and take a ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
  • Eat at Diamond Belle Saloon, 11th Street Station food trucks or one of the many restaurants along the historic Main Street
  • Drive to Mesa Verde National Park (under an hour from Durango)
  • Camp at Mesa Verde’s Moorefield Campground
  • Explore the Cave dwellings and hike the trails of Mesa Verde
  • Drive up Hwy 145 (or go back to Durango then up Hwy 550) towards Montrose and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (about 3 to 3.5 hours depending on your drive)
  • Stop along the way in Telluride for lunch if on Hwy 145 or in Silverton or Ouray if on Hwy 550
  • Boondock at Black Gunnison National Park, BLM one mile before Park entrance AND / OR
  • Camp at Black Canyon Gunnison Campground
  • Explore and hike in Black Canyon of the the Gunnison National Park
  • Drive East on Hwy 50 towards Poncha Springs (about 2.5 hours from Gunnison)
  • Boondock at Shavano Mountain, BLM: the views are spectacular!
  • Bag a peak! Mt Shavano is one of Colorado’s 14,000 footers
  • Drive North on Hwy 24 / Hwy 285 back up to Denver going through the Pike-San Isabel National Forest (about 3 hours back to Denver International Airport) OR
  • Drive North on Hwy 24 to head back to Colorado Springs (about 2 hours)

Sacred White Shell Mountain & Great Sand Dunes

At this boondocking location, we started our workout plan! Campers are spread out over the road, so there’s a lot of privacy, blue skies and great views. Above our camp is a rugged 4WD road, which is supposed to be one of the best in the US. This location is within ten miles to Great Sand Dunes National Park, providing easy access to the park without added camping costs. We visited at the end of Winter, so our weather was chilly but sunny! However, cooler weather means fewer tourists, so it’s a trade-off.

Check out our post about the Great Sand Dunes.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Welcome to the Sand!

Pagosa Springs

We stopped here for a little shopping and sight-seeing but did not stay the night. This town could easily be a highlight of your trip and there are even some reports of a free hot springs experience right in town under a bridge. We really wanted to see the train museum in Durango, so we continued on, but here’s a link to the Official Visitor Information for Pagosa Springs in case you’d like to check the town out for yourselves.

The downtown area is super cute, with quite a few resorts and spas taking advantage of the area’s hot springs. In another life, we definitely would have taken advantage of a spa for a relaxing soak and massage. However, these days, since we live on the road, we’re opting for less expensive entertainment options. Once in a while I miss our incomes and the ability to splurge a little more, but generally I’d say we’ve got pretty good lives going! Yep, pretty good lives!

Southwest Colorado roadtrip must include Durango!

Durango, Colorado is such a cute and, yes, touristy town! The town was founded in 1880 by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway. The railway is still a huge portion of town’s allure. This Old West town boasts every kind of outdoor adventure you can possibly imagine from “skiing to dogsledding, hiking and biking to horseback riding, historic steam train adventures to hot springs and everything in between. Our historic downtown is filled with arts, culture, and an eclectic foodie
scene highlighting craft beverages and local culinary delights.” (from the Durango Travel Planner).

Train museum

We spent a couple hours in the free train museum. It was huge with so much to look at. We both highly recommend a stop here. My favorite part was the actual old train cars themselves. We couldn’t go in them (thanks Covid) but we could see into them. There are train engines as well as the cars.

One display talks about how they used to capture mail bags from poles. The train slowed to about 40 mph, a man hung out the car with a long hook. He then hooked the out-going mailbag from the pole. Someone else was also throwing the town’s incoming mailbag out of the train car and hopefully getting it close to the platform. Mail was then sorted right there on the train and bagged for delivery to upcoming towns. Pretty cool!

We also learned that our current system of time zones (Pacific, Mountain, Central and Eastern) came about as a result of trains needing an easier way to schedule stops. Apparently local time in each community was established locally up until the mid-18th century. For example, the Union Pacific had six zones and travelers from Maine to California needed to adjust their watches 20 times.

In 1883, the railroads got Congress to adopt “Standard Railway Time” which established our four current time zones. All across America, people gathered on November 18th to reset their watches to standard time.

See what cool stuff you can learn while traveling?! Who knew?

Visitors can also ride in a steam engine powered train on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. While we opted not to take the time to do so, riders travel through the ruggedly beautiful San Juan National Forest on their way to a stop in Silverton. They even offer a Polar Express ride at Christmas time.

Explore Durango’s Downtown & Restaurant scene

We walked through the downtown area, stopping in an amazing bead shop and other shops. With over 500 shops, you’ll find everything from beads (like us) to books, clothing, home & gift stores. We popped into the outdoor gear store and even saw a large bike shop.

Several local breweries enticed us to pop right on in. And the Animas Chocolate Company has enough sweets to tempt even the strictest of diets. We selected lunches from the 11st Street Station, a collection of food carts. The Station offers plenty of outdoor seats and even covered areas that kept us dry from the crazy thunderstorm that rolled in while we ate. We watched as the steam train rolled into town right next to us!

Durango’s Bar D Chuck Wagon Diner offers a western show while you eat. It’s a big hit with children and grown ups alike. From fine dining to casual eats, you’ll find whatever you’re looking for. The Diamond Belle Saloon also has a live show and the servers are dressed in period outfits. Gunslingers, bar tenders and girls in flapper dresses, it’s all here!

Oasis RV Park & Places to Lay your head

Durango offers plenty of options for staying nearby. Durango Hot Springs and Resort is the ultimate relaxation spot. Up on the mountain, Purgatory Resort keeps you close to winter’s skiing, snowboarding, dog sledding and snow mobile action. You can even go ice climbing in the San Juan National Forest.

In addition to a long list of hotels and motels, there are bed & breakfasts, rental cabins and even a dude ranch. There are plenty of nearby campgrounds and quite a few RV Parks. We stayed at Oasis RV Park and recommend it. It’s close to downtown. There’s a big playground for kids, along with a train engine shaped BBQ in the picnic pavilion. They have a heated swimming pool, café for breakfast and a good-sized gift/RV needs shop. On Saturday evenings in the summer, there are rubber duck races in the creek which runs through the park. This is a great place for kids and parents too!

Mesa Verde National Park

What’s not to love about this park. You can read my full post about it by clicking the link below, but let me just say this park is an all-time highlight for us. We loved exploring the ruins, hiking the trails and staying cheaply in an almost empty campground. I’m sure that’s not the case later in the year once the weather warmed up. But we sure loved our time here. We planned to stay just a couple nights but stayed a week. Off season is cash-pay only. Since the general store was closed, we got cash from the ATM at the visitor center near the Park’s main entrance.

Mesa Verde gave us a look into the lives of the Ancient Puebloan peoples, who lived in the area from A.D. 600 to 1300. There are about 600 cliff dwellings and nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites. We loved it here and I probably can’t say that enough. The cliff dwellings blew us away! This Park is an essential stop on any Southwest Colorado roadtrip.

Check out everything we love about Mesa Verde National Park.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Even though this is one of the smaller National Parks we’ve visited, no Southwest Colorado roadtrip is complete without exploring Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Maybe along the same lines as the Great Sand Dunes. It could certainly be seen in a day drive, but why not stay a couple days? Then you can hike the trails. We read somewhere that 95% of people only see 5% of National Parks. We try to fit into that five percent and head down a trail so see the less-popular sites.

Read all the details of our visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park here.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Gunnison Point Lookout

Mt Shavano & Pagosa Springs on our Southwest Colorado roadtrip

We’ve boondocked on BLM land at Mt Shavano on two different occasions, once during our Southwest Colorado roadtrip and once coming back from New Mexico. It’s beautiful, with so many huge views! Mountains galore!

Directions from the Forest Service: From Poncha Springs, travel west on Highway 50 for 2 miles to the junction of County Road 250 located on the right side of the highway. Turn right onto CR 250 and travel west for 4.5 miles to the boundary of Forest and BLM lands. At this point, the road forks. Take the left fork which continues at Forest Road 252. Stay on this road for approximately 3 miles to the trailhead. A restroom and parking area are provided.

SW Colorado roadtrip
Mt Shavano

We sure hope you take time to explore Southwest Colorado on your own sometime too. We had such a great trip and know that you will as well.

Southwest Colorado roadtrip
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4 Comments

  1. Karen

    I loved the train ride from Durango to Silverton.

    Reply
    • mcgarveysan

      It seemed like a great thing to do but cost a little more than we were willing to spend. It’s the difference in our vacations and now simply traveling. We have a much stricter budget now. 🤣

      Reply
  2. Anonymous

    Brought back some great memories. We loved the train ride in Durango to Silverton. Amazing and a bit scary. Continue to be safe and enjoy your journey. Liz from FresnoRetro.

    Reply
    • mcgarveysan

      Hi Liz. Good to hear from you! The path for that train ride did look a little hairy! Glad you guys enjoyed riding it.

      Reply

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