|Trails atop Wolf Creek Pass|
The threats to travel in southwest Colorado showed up early. On the far side of the San Luis Valley, a forest fire raged several mountain ranges to the north, a dense of smoke rising behind the ridges. We wondered if it might impede our trip on its first day. But at South Fork our road swung south to climb Wolf Creek Pass, leaving the San Luis Valley and carrying us to even wilder country in southwest Colorado.
This was new territory for me. For Nancy, my old friend and traveling companion, she had not visited this part of Colorado since she was a kid (Mesa Verde) and on a trip with her folks 10 years ago.
Driving up Wolf Creek Pass westbound did not offer many driving challenges. At the top of the Pass, mountain bikers traversed trails buried in deep grasses that ran off into the pine-covered hills. The pass descended slowly with one hairpin turn and a few runaway truck ramps. It was not as technical as some mountain passes, but the west side required a slow descent.
Only state and federal routes cut through Southwest
Colorado, no interstates for hundreds of miles. Roads dropped lanes and speeds
and cities approached and disappeared.
Pagosa Springs hummed with life, a town on amphetamines, unlike any of the sleepier ranch towns on the pass’s eastern flank. Whitewater, tubing and hot springs brought people across the region. Pagosa had just one main street, U.S. 160, and it showed little signs of pandemic impact. The restaurants were a different story, sticking to 25 percent occupancy with wait times for
Too early for a brewery, Kip’s Bar and Grill had a few empty indoor tables. The Pagosa institution served some refreshing spicy tacos that filled us up for the final stretch of the day. While Pagosa could have been explored a little more deeply, it would have taken hours of walking its main drag and the June daylight would run out.
Pagosa’s business district wasted little time in reverting to wilderness. Most of southwest Colorado is covered in national forest and wilderness areas, roadless places that forbid motorized traffic.
The state’s only Indian reservations, the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute tribes, lie south of the towns along U.S. 160, running to the New Mexican border. The Ute Mountain reservation surrounds Mesa Verde National Park.
The road provided a series of impressive mountain views. The jagged San Juan Mountains emerged to the north, sheltering mountain towns like Telluride, Ouray and Ridgway below their rough peaks.
Chimney Rock looms large over the highway, a prominent needle on top of a mountain named for a similarly shaped landmark in the Nebraska Panhandle. Now a national monument that also protects Native American ruins at its base, the column glowed in the golden hour light. There’s a future trip where I get out here to hike to the top in the early morning.
Bayfield has 2,000 people but barely registers from the road. Like most small Colorado towns, it is large enough to host a brewery.
After running through town after town of a few blocks, Durango sprouted into a true metropolis of 18,000 people. It’s still a railroad town, and the regional economic center. New development rose below the soaring buttes and mesas, with the Animas River cutting through town.
On Main Avenue, we ran into the streak of old-school hotels we needed. Occupancies seemed low due to the pandemic and the shorter driving trips Americans were taking. Then again, after the swarms of rafters and visitors in Pagosa, Durango felt sedate.
Looking at the mountains and creeks in the setting sun, Durango did not feel large at all. Only the landscape did out here. The colors of sunset and twilight cast over the mountains.
With such immense wilderness around us and the wear of eight hours on the road, there was no desire to explore Durango. The town would have demanded a day to itself, and the calendar did not allow. But greater exploration across this wild region was just a morning away.