For our next adventure, we decided to explore the rugged southwest corner of Colorado. From Salida we drove west on HWY 50 towards Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Almost immediately, we found ourselves in the mountains again driving over Monarch Pass. At times, it's a 7% grade but the scenery and panoramic views were amazing. (I made a mental note to make sure we returned before sunset. It's not a drive we wanted to attempt in the dark.)
When we got to the town of Gunnison, we literally followed the Gunnison River the rest of the way. The river is dammed in three places to create the Blue Mesa Reservoir, Morrow Point Reservoir and Crystal Reservoir. The area is called the Curecanti National Recreation Area and is a popular destination for boating and fishing. We stopped at the Blue Mesa Reservoir to explore a bit where I made an interesting discovery.
Just before Montrose, we exited onto HWY 347 and drove north 7 miles to the South Rim entrance of the park. There's really no evidence of a canyon as you are driving up, until you park the car and then BAM! We couldn't believe what we were looking at. I was expecting to look down into an arid and lifeless landscape. Instead, the steep canyon walls were full off bright green trees and brush and varigated colors of rock. At the very bottom is the Gunnison River. Even though it was over 2,000 feet away we could still hear the sounds of the rushing water. We were very impressed.
There are 12 overlooks, most reached by walking a short trail. Make sure you stop at the South Rim Visitor's Center. The view is fantastic there!
A few of the trails are steep and rocky, some without guardrails. If you have small children, do NOT let them run ahead of you. Remember, there is a canyon at the end of the path.
Next on our itinerary, would bring us to all of the places where True Grit, starring John Wayne, was filmed.
Leaving Montrose, we followed US HWY 550 along the Uncompahgre River towards the town of Ouray, aka "Switzerland of America".
The drive started off pretty flat but the closer we got to Ouray, the tighter the landscape became. It felt like the mountains were closing in on us on either side as we drove the slender ribbon of road.
I promise you the first words out of your mouth when you get to town will be "Oh wow!" This very historical and picturesque town is nestled in a bowl surrounded by the San Juan Mountains. Historical buildings, many from the late 19th century, line the street as reminders of its mining past.
We explored the town and got a bite to eat. We had lunch on the top of Ouray brewery with a great view of the mountains and Main Street. Their drink selection is much more extensive than the food choices. But really, who cares? It's not about the food, it's totally about the view!
A local recommended we return to Cotopaxi via Owl Creek Pass. This was the single best decision we made on the entire trip! It was definitely the most memorable.
Owl Creek Pass is an old cattle drive trail from 1885 that travels through the Uncompahgre National Forest, where it crests at 10,114 feet. It's a gravel road that's well maintained but very slippery. The travel guides I read said it was passable without 4WD. I suppose if you don't mind driving ten miles an hour you could do it. We were in a Jeep Wrangler and really struggled to grab the road until we engaged the 4WD.
The entire drive is lined with mature aspens. We were there in the spring and the leaves were a beautiful vibrant green. I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to see them in the Fall. The road is narrow in places, especially around curves as you climb up the mountain. There is very little traffic to worry about, however. We drove it for over two hours and only saw about three cars.
There are many places to get out and explore or hike. Prepare yourself for Alpine lakes, flower-filled meadows, stunning peaks of Chimney Rock and profound serenity.
The rest of the way back to HWY 50 was a beautiful and pastoral drive. I am always amazed how far you can drive in Colorado and not see another human being.
The sun was getting low and I was ever aware of how much daylight we had left. Driving back over Monarch Pass in the dark might not be that bad, but then again, it might. We drove with purpose and crossed the continental divide well before dark. By the time we got to our campground, we were very happy to see our cozy little tent. We were asleep before our heads hit our blow up pillows.