Sampling the San Juan Mountains

Between our visit with Nancy’s family and our arrival in Las Cruces we had three days in which to get a taste of the San Juan Mountains. Because we wanted to see as much as we could in order to plan for a future trip we didn’t schedule much in the way of hikes (though we did a few short ones) but we did a lot of driving between towns and destinations– or to be fair, Tom did a lot of driving so I could gawk and take pictures – along some of the many scenic byways.

We arrived just after midday in Ouray, one of the many old mining towns nestled in the mountains. The drive in from the north was spectacular and I could feel myself getting excited, but the views from town of the colorfully striped peaks wildly exceeded my expectations and I couldn’t wait to get out and walk some of the Perimeter Trail which circles the basin above town.

The trail did not disappoint us. Fir trees, splashes of fall color, and beautiful beautiful rock were everywhere, causing us to take many a stop along our route. And the vistas were mind-blowing. We walked for a little over a mile before crossing above a small waterfall and then followed the trail as it ascended a steep set up steps etched into the cliff, ducked through a tunnel, and emerged overlooking a deep gorge, slashed into the rock. Signs informed us this was Box Canyon Falls, an 85-foot drop through the quartzite canyon. Because it was almost dinner time by then and we’d been planning to visit the falls (accessing it from the bottom) the next day anyway we decided this would be a good turn around point on our walk. Also, we still needed to check out the Ouray Brewery, which kindly supplied me with a pint of the excellent Bluegrass Pale Ale and a second pint of the even better Box Canyon Brown Ale while Tom had a burger and a couple Browns. It was official: I was in definitely in love with the town of Ouray.

Our second morning we ventured out early in order to drive as much of the Million Dollar Highway before the forecasted afternoon thunderstorms. Despite numerous photo stops and a short walk we reached the town of Silverton before 9am and were pleasantly surprised by the blue skies still overhead as we explored the dirt streets lined with rainbow-hued buildings. Very shortly after we left however, continuing south, the clouds thickened and turned gray so we knew we needed to take the opportunity to do another walk before the storm closed in. There are probably a hundred different pulloffs along the road; we selected one randomly and walked a worn path for awhile through high meadows with views to the southeast.

Returning to our base camp in Ouray we waited for the storms to pass during the early afternoon and then made good on our intent to see Box Canyon Falls from below. A small fee and a short walk later we found ourselves traversing metal walkways into the gap between the smoothed walls of the gorge. Standing under the falling water between such a narrow walls was almost deafening and certainly exhilarating as we watched the water rush past. Also most definitely beautiful – much like everything else we’d seen in the past 24 hours.

The following morning we drove out to Telluride where we spent a couple hours in the morning walking a trail – the name of which I can’t remember – up the mountain on the south side of town. The switchback portion offered some pretty views but after reaching elevation we found ourselves walking in the still, mature forest and crossing streams which was unexpected but nice. By the time we’d been in forest for about a mile we realized it was nearly midday so we turned around and made our way back to the trailhead and across town to catch a free gondola ride up the ski mountain.

The vistas from the ascending gondola car were phenomenal and we joked that we should probably stop working so hard to achieve our views when it was clear that all we needed to do was use such conveniently located motorized transport. If she could have understood us Abby would have vehemently disagreed however; she spent the ride nervously looking around and shooting us worried looks whenever the cars jolted.

We disembarked at the top (Abby bolting out first) to walk around the ski resort for a bit but eventually our hunger got the better of us and we decided on descending for a late lunch, and ya know maybe a beer. Smugglers Brewpub was happy to accommodate us and we had an almost-perfect Oktoberfest-style lager on their patio along with our food.

Our last day in the mountains we drove the length of Highway 550 to Durango and crossed over to Pagosa Springs for a brief exploration of the forest surrounding town. Tom had built in the town some years earlier and was convinced I’d really enjoy it – and as usual he was correct. Though less rugged and less colorful than the peaks surrounding Ouray, the mountains north of the small town of Pagosa Springs were really lovely. That afternoon we made it to an overlook over Wolf Creek Pass, cruised around the ski resort in search of a lake (which we then decided not to walk around), and stopped at the Treasure Falls on the way back down the mountain. The last excursion we stretched into a mini-hike but we still wanted to do more walking so we then headed out to hike a few miles of the West Fork Trail. It was a busy day to say the least.