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Published: September 7th 2012
The entirety of Rico, CO, the last frontier town in the west
This morning, I had breakfast at the inn.
Afterward, I walked outside and had to scrape my jaw off the ground.
Nothing can beat Yosemite in the scenery department (see The Lazy Hikers’ Scenic Viewfest
), but the San Juan Mountains come close.
I saw a narrow valley with some old Victorian buildings surrounded by high mountains covered in green pine trees and yellow aspens.
Many people visit the area in summer to hike or winter to ski, but autumn
may be the best season of all.
San Juan Skyway
Some tourist promoters call Rico
“the last frontier town in Colorado”.
It certainly looks like a Victorian mining town, small brick buildings in a narrow valley.
Unlike some towns in the area, this one looks the way it does because it never grew, leaving it locked in the look of its heyday.
Amazingly, few tourists have discovered the place, giving it the feel of a genuine relic rather than a recreation.
Driving north, the road
passes through endless mountain scenery, the type people dream about.
Mountains covered in yellow trees reach above the Dolores River and road.
Rocky peaks covered in patches of
Lizard Head Pass
Glorious view of the San Juan Mountains from Lizard Head Pass
snow rise in the distance beyond.
Meadows appear next to the water.
This is a drive that a convertible was made for.
Yes, it’s a little cold, but that’s why cars contain heaters.
As the road climbs, the trees thin out.
The road ultimately reaches an area of open mountain meadows with clumps of pine trees in the distance.
Behind them are narrow rocky peaks.
Soon afterward, the road crests Lizard Head Pass
at just over ten thousand feet, where a wall of snow covered spiky peaks appears in the distance.
These are the main San Juan Range, the mountains I saw from Mesa Verde yesterday.
Now heading down, the aspen trees reappear in force.
A sea of glorious yellow now covers the mountainsides.
The road passes a high mountain lake, Trout Lake.
This lake is straight from every Colorado tourist brochure, an expanse of blue surrounded by yellow hillsides, with bare snow covered peaks beyond.
Past the lake, the road slowly descends into another valley, with view after glorious view along the way.
Like Big Sur, every viewpoint looks like
This view is average for the San Juans!
the best of the drive, until another one just as good comes by minutes later.
The road finally reaches the floor of the valley, the San Miguel River.
A broad river plain flows between yet more hillsides absolutely covered in pines and yellow aspens.
It leads to a wall of rocky peaks in the distance.
This valley has little sign of human civilization.
Unlike some parts of Colorado, here it’s quite deliberate.
Driving upstream, the view turns into something that makes what I’ve seen so far look average.
A wall of steep peaks appears, creating a rocky bowl.
A tall waterfall runs down the wall on the upper right side.
This, of course, is a classic glacial cirque.
Soon afterwards, I entered Telluride
Telluride started life as a mining town.
That went bust in the 1940s.
A decade later, city leaders decided to cash in on the ski resorts then appearing in Colorado by promoting one for their area.
It worked beautifully, and Telluride now has scene
ranking among the most expensive in the country.
Surprisingly, very little of it shows downtown
San Miguel River
The San Miguel River, heading for Telluride. The back wall of the cirque is in the distance
without looking closely.
Instead, the place has the feel of a hippy college town without the college.
Downtown Telluride contains dozens of restored Victorian buildings.
The area has some fantastic organic coffee shops, where I had lunch.
Parking, incidentally, is a real hassle.
Bridal Veil Falls
After lunch, I decided to seek out that waterfall I saw on the way in.
It’s yet another Bridal Veil Falls
(see A Symphony in Granite
), and the tallest single drop falls in Colorado.
The road to the trailhead continues past downtown Telluride to a parking lot next to an old ore mill.
The mill was abandoned for decades, but a group is trying to reopen it.
The view at this point is just fantastic, the cirque I saw earlier close up.
A wall of glorious peaks surrounds slopes covered in uncountable yellow trees.
A rutted and rocky dirt road heads uphill from the parking lot.
This road is the tail end of the Black Bear Pass road
, one of Colorado’s toughest wilderness dirt tracks.
Despite (or likely because of) the difficulty, it’s one of the most popular jeep trails in Colorado.
Telluride, one of Colorado's most expensive and good looking towns
had to dodge a constant stream of 4X4s while climbing it.
The road is rocky with a constant uphill grade.
Since it’s a jeep track, it does not require any rock scrambling.
It passes through big patches of aspen trees alternating with open hillside.
The open areas have some pretty special views.
The first has an incredible view of Telluride straight from a tourist brochure.
About halfway up, the track reaches a stream crossing which must be done hopping rock to rock.
Looking up soon afterward shows that same stream cascading down the rock slopes, a long waterfall.
The road reaches an area of large rocks in pine trees.
A big bulldozer sits just beyond this stretch.
The county is rebuilding the trail.
The surface gets rougher, with deep ruts and lots of rocks.
Soon afterward, the jeep trail enters the first of many switchbacks.
These climb the side of the cirque until they reach the top of the waterfall.
One stretch requires going over slippery slanted rocks right next to a cliff!
Thankfully, the waterfall base
Close up look at the cirque containing Telluride. Note the cascading waterfall on the upper right
appears before this.
I found the switchbacks disheartening to hike.
Each one is very long and rough, and the view looks very similar to what I saw earlier.
At least it’s a nice view.
After two of them, a rough dirt path branches off to the right.
It quickly leads to the bottom of the waterfall.
The waterfall looks just as advertised from Telluride, a long single drop down a tall cliff.
Thanks to the time of year the water level is pretty low.
It looks very similar to other waterfalls I’ve seen by this point (see Grand Gorge
), although the setting is pretty special.
On the top left of the waterfall sits a red and white building, one of Colorado’s most unusual historic sites.
It’s the first AC (alternating current) power plant ever built
At the time, most power plants were direct current.
DC at the time lost power over long distances
due to low voltage, the reason nearly all current power lines are AC.
The mine owners who built the plant believed the loss would be too large over the distances to
Bridal Veil Falls
Bridal Veil Falls, from the trailhead. Note the building at the top, the powerplant
their mines, so they used then new AC technology instead.
The plant, which has been rebuilt several times, now supplies electricity to Telluride.
Roads in the Rocky Mountains are well known for going everywhere but a straight line.
The northern San Juan’s presents one of the more extreme cases.
The direct distance from Telluride to where I’m going next is less than ten miles, but in a regular car it takes quadruple that!
The road first follows the broad river valley I saw earlier, heading northwest.
That lasts until the town of Placerville at the northern end of the range, where a highway finally branches east.
This road enters another river valley with views as good as the first, and then starts to climb.
It climbs a long way, finally reaching nine thousand feet at Dallas Divide
Like the last pass, the one contains wide open fields with beautiful golden mountains beyond.
A saw tooth ridge of snow covered peaks appears to the south, the San Juans.
Afterwards, it reaches the top of of another valley with notably fewer trees.
The San Juan Mountains from Dallas Divide
road drops down the side through a series of long switchbacks.
Although the views are different from earlier, they are still wonderful.
The road hits the bottom of the valley at the town of Ridgway
Although it is located in a wide valley, it has a glorious view to the south of a narrow canyon between steep mountain peaks, the Uncompahgre River.
The road now turns south and heads directly for it.
The drive takes a while, but the mountains finally start to close in.
The sides close until they form a classic mountain canyon, nearly vertical rock walls next to a river.
Cliffs appear on the side of the road showing different rock layers.
Aspen trees, still golden, grow wherever they can fit.
The higher slopes are covered in pines.
The scenery continues until the canyon widens out just a little, and I found myself in the town of Ouray. Ouray
is another old mining town now surviving on outdoorsmen and tourists.
They promote themselves as Colorado’s ultimate mountain town, and as “the Switzerland of North America”.
Glorious Uncompahgre Canyon on the way to Ouray
The setting justifies the hype.
Ouray sits in a canyon less than a mile wide, and incredible glacial cliffs of bare rock tower above.
Ouray barely has enough space to fit the Victorian buildings of downtown, the mountains are so close.
Ouray has something that people not used to rural Colorado will find odd.
All roads in town, except for the main highway, are dirt.
The town has never paved them.
The tourist authorities claim this makes the place feel more atmospheric.
The main reason, though, is that town residents don’t want to pay the necessary taxes.
Since anyone who lives here year round owns a vehicle that can handle bad snowy roads, why bother?
I handled them, but it may freak out other visitors.
Ouray has some specific sites beyond the views.
A one way dirt road branches west to the head of a narrow canyon.
It’s so narrow it almost qualifies as a slot.
A city park
protects the canyon, which requires an admission fee.
Beyond the gate, an iron walkway heads into the canyon high above
Box Canon Falls
The central portion of Box Canon Falls in Ouray
The creek fills the canyon bottom even in low water.
The walkway ends at a dark narrow grotto, where a waterfall drops down an even narrower crack, Box Canon Falls
The setting is pretty amazing.
The waterfall itself is a little frustrating to watch though, because the crack blocks some of it.
Downtown Ouray has a view of a tall rocky ledge on the east, with a narrow waterfall sliding down it, Cascade Falls
Like many waterfalls in the region, the water level is low.
Another dirt road gets close to the falls.
Unlike Box Canon Falls, parking at this trailhead is free.
The trail follows the creek to the cliff at the base of the falls.
The cliff is composed of different layers of rock, which eroded at different rates to create a series of narrow shelves.
The water cascades from shelf to shelf to form the falls.
The water spread out on each shelf into a series of lacy flows.
I liked this waterfall more because I could actually see most of it.
In Ouray, I stayed
Cascade Falls outside Ouray, in very low water
at the Black Bear Manor
It’s located down a side street near the river, which means dealing with the dirt.
The inn has a reputation for gourmet breakfasts, which are included in the room rates.
I chose it due to its great reviews.
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