Off the main road in Mancos, Colo. — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
There are three routes to take from Northern Colorado to the far southwestern corner, home of the historic and ancient Mesa Verde National Park. But the most scenic – and quickest – is U.S. 287 and U.S. 160.
Although you may be tempted to take the interstate to avoid the mountain driving, it’s the worst route to Mesa Verde, in terms of traffic jams and a lack of scenery. Just take the winding highways slowly, take time to stop in the small mountain towns along the way, and soon you'll come out in the valley with some of the state’s most impressive views.
Here are 10 things to see and do from Boulder, Colo., to Mesa Verde.
1. See the "good views" in Buena Vista
The Buena Vista area in the clouds — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
U.S. 287 will bring you right through Buena Vista, which is known as the whitewater rafting capital of Colorado. With a recent expansion on the South Main River Park, Buena Vista now boasts the longest whitewater park of its kind in the United States.
Even if you don’t like the rapids, there’s a reason why this town is named after the Spanish words for “good view.” It’s surrounded by 14,000-foot mountains and boasts stunning, impossibly beautiful scenery.
2. Stop for a bite in Saguache
It would be easy (and tempting) to blast through the teeny town of Saguache, but stop to smell the cinnamon rolls. Tucked in Saguache is the 4th Street Diner, with its surprisingly delicious bakery. Fill up on massive and delicious breakfast burritos in this cozy restaurant adorned with 1950s posters and oversized booths.
It feels like time-traveling and epitomizes all that is wonderful about a small-town diner. It’s inexpensive, has friendly service and serves generous portions of home-cooked meals.
3. Unwind in Pagosa Springs
One of the many hot springs in Pagosa Springs — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
Pagosa Springs is one of our favorite hot springs destinations in Colorado, and the Springs Resort here is a destination in and of itself.
Here, you can hop between 23 different mineral springs of varying sizes, temperatures and styles, from riverside to waterfall-bedecked to a private hot springs island on the other side of a bridge. The water here is known for its natural health benefits and comes from the “mother pool,” the deepest geothermal pool in the world, at more than 1,000 feet deep. (Don't try to swim in there!)
After a day in the pools, visit the nearby Wolfe Brewing, where you can enjoy pizza and beer on the new outdoor patio.
4. See where Santa’s reindeer go in the summer
Reindeer at ElkUSA in Del Norte — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
A hidden gem on the side of the highway in Del Norte is the ElkUSA ranch, America’s largest elk and deer retailer. You’ll know you’re there when you see the reindeer wandering through the fields. Score all kinds of decorative antlers (or snacks for your dogs) in the back room of horns.
In the main store, you can find every kind of meat and jerky imaginable: elk, rabbit, wild boar, bear, deer, buffalo, bison, goat and even smoked salmon and trout.
5. Cool off at a massive waterfall
The 100-foot Treasure Falls — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
The 100-foot Treasure Falls waterfall near Wolf Creek Pass is a natural wonder that locals love and many visitors don’t know about. The waterfall is visible from the highway, and a quick pull-off will bring you to the trailhead. There are several trails to choose from. The bridge provides a great photo op.
Brave hikers can head to the top lookout, where you can see eye-to-eye with the head of the waterfall. Beware: the air is frigid any time of year and the splashes are so cold they hurt. The railings here are perpetually covered in icicles, which is beautiful, but will get you headed back down quickly.
6. Browse downtown Durango
There's so much to do in Durango that it warrants its own special trip, but if you only have an afternoon, explore the lengthy and bustling downtown. You can find excellent shops and restaurants here, as well as two popular breweries.
Grab a brew at Carver Brewing Company and enjoy it in the hidden back patio, on a hammock below an oversized decorative bicycle. Steamworks’ patio is hoppin’ in the evenings, and the food is excellent, too.
7. See forgotten ghost towns
A must-do in Durango: go on a four-wheeling excursion with the Durango Rivertrippers and Adventure Tours. A guide will take you up dirt roads deep into the mountains (where you’d most likely never venture on your own).
Look for bear tracks along the river, spot wildflowers and drive through eerie former mining communities that are now rickety, dusty ghost towns. The remaining structures are a reminder of the area's history – and how things change.
8. Stay off the grid in a yurt
A yurt in Mancos in the distance — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
A yurt provides all of the joys of camping, but without the inconveniences. Colorado Parks and Wildlife rents out two yurts in Mancos State Park.
There’s no heat (other than the wood-burning stove) or plumbing here (you use a vault-type toilet), and the electricity is limited. But this will be the best part of your trip; it's one step above camping, yet still centered around nature and solitude.
9. See Colorado from above
The view from Wetherill Mesa — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
Once you reach Mesa Verde National Park, take time to steer away from the busiest path and explore the less popular Wetherill Mesa Road. This mini road trip westward brings you 12 miles deep into the park along a winding and steep road, past breathtaking and dramatic overlooks and through an unusual fire trail.
At the top: the historic Long House site, a covered picnic area and the opportunity to rent bikes to take along the five-mile Long House Loop. See various ancient archaeological sites along the way, while you avoid the busiest crowds.
10. Climb into an ancient kiva
The Spruce Tree House — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
If you only have time to do one thing at Mesa Verde National Park, visit the ancient Spruce Tree House. Prepare your legs and lungs for the steep hike down (and remember that what goes down must also come back up).
The huffing and puffing is worth it when you see this cliff dwelling designed by Puebloans in the 1200s. Although Spruce Tree is not the largest site in the park, people of all ages enjoy climbing down into the underground kiva, a circular ceremonial chamber accessible via a wooden ladder.
Plus, Spruce Tree House is conveniently located near the museum and cafes. It's self-guided and free to visit.