This is Colorado at its best. There are mesas and vineyards out west, and massive snowcapped mountain ranges and wide open alpine meadows filled with wildflowers in the summer as you move up to higher ground in the central part of the state.
By foot, by mountain bike, by raft, by ski and by train, this region offers adventures large and small. Two crown jewels perfect for family vacations are the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, with its vertigo-inducing drops, and Mesa Verde National Park, which preserves cliff-dwellings from the Ancestral Pueblo people. There are a number of ski areas worth visiting here; Crested Butte is one of the state's best expert resorts while Telluride appeals to the 'in' crowd.
The real draw, however, might be the area's sheer remoteness. This is cowboy country, and the open vistas and independent spirit that brought frontiers people here a hundred years ago still rings true today.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Southwest Colorado.
The only way to see the superb Cliff Palace is to take the hour-long ranger-led tour. The tour retraces the steps taken by the Ancestral Puebloans – visitors must climb down a stone stairway and four 10ft ladders. This grand engineering achievement, with 217 rooms and 23 kivas, provided shelter for 250 to 300 people. Reserve in person. They allow up to two days advance purchase.
A fascinating, if slightly eerie, national park. Anthropologists will love it here; Mesa Verde is unique among American national parks in its focus on maintaining this civilization's cultural relics rather than its natural treasures. About 20 miles from the park entrance, the Chapin Mesa Museum has diorama of Ancestral Pueblo life, a few artifacts and good history lessons. The park also offers plenty of hiking, skiing, snowshoeing and mountain-biking options. Visitors can camp out or stay in luxury at the lodge.
Tickets are required for the one-hour guided tours of Balcony House, on the east side of the Cliff Palace Loop. A visit is an adventure that will challenge anyone’s fear of heights or small places. You’ll be rewarded with outstanding views of Soda Canyon, 600ft below the sandstone overhang that once served as the ceiling for 35 to 40 rooms.
Named for a band of the Ute tribe, the Weminuche Wilderness Area is the most extensive wilderness in Colorado, with an area of more than 700 sq miles. The Weminuche extends west along the Continental Divide from Wolf Creek Pass to the Animas River near Silverton. Along the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (USFS Trail 813), you will find many secluded hiking opportunities as the trail travels 80 miles of the Weminuche Wilderness between Wolf Creek Pass and Stony Pass.
Ute people once inhabited this entire region, from the San Luis Valley west into Utah, and, after a series of forced relocations and treaties from the 1860s to 1930s, control only this small strip of land in the dry high plains of the Colorado Plateau. The tribal land encompasses several archaeological sites, including petroglyphs and cliff dwellings, but can only be accessed through half- and full-day guided tours (arranged through the tribal park), which include lots of rough and dusty driving over back roads.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the Anasazi Heritage Center, a good stop for anyone touring the area’s archaeological sites. It’s 3 miles west of town, with hands-on exhibits such as weaving, corn grinding, tree-ring analysis and an introduction to the way in which archaeologists examine potsherds. Entrance is free with an America the Beautiful national parks pass.
Within the borders of the Uncompahgre National Forest, this bone-rich area yielded one of the most diverse Jurassic vertebrate collections in the world. Over a dozen different dinosaurs have been unearthed here since the first dig in 1971, including the terrifying Torvosaurus and various birds, crocodiles and mammals.
Part of the La Garita Wilderness, the dramatic stone formations of the Wheeler Geologic Area were carved by wind and rain into volcanic tuff framed by evergreen forest. Rocks resemble rows of sharp animal teeth, and bear names like City of Gnomes, White-Shrouded Ghosts and Dante’s Lost Souls. It's a spectacular and fairly strenuous full-day hike in a remote setting at 11,000ft near the Continental Divide.
On Wetherill Mesa, the magnificent Long House is the second-largest cliff dwelling in the park. A strenuous place to visit, it is only reached as part of a ranger-led guided tour (organized from the visitor center). Access involves climbing three ladders – two at 15ft and one at 4ft. The 0.75-mile round-trip hike has a 130ft elevation change. You have to book your tickets in person, with up to two days advance purchase allowed.