Even though I grew up in the Denver area, there’s a lot of Colorado I’ve still never seen. So recently we took a quick little trip to Southwestern Colorado. The entire trip was planned around taking a ride on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, but we squeezed in as many other activities as possible!
The one and only thing we actually had scheduled for this trip was the train ride. With Covid (and kids), it was hard to tell what each experience would be like, and how much time we really wanted to spend on each. Instead, we just had a list of things I thought we might like to do. Then when we were ready for something new, we just picked from there. We spent a good amount of time playing in the snow, but it wasn’t technically ski season yet. If you plan to base a trip on our activities, I would also check out the ski resorts if they are open.
Best way to get there
There are several airports in Colorado. There’s even a small one in Durango, where we spent the bulk of our time, but there aren’t many flight options. The best (and cheapest) way to get there is to fly into Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then rent a car the rest of the way.
The best way to make it fun was to rent a Jeep. Obviously. In all honesty, a Jeep was also the most practical choice for our little family of four. It had plenty of room for us and a large trunk for our bags, but it also had 4-wheel drive. That way we were able to push through those places where the snow was just a little too deep for other vehicles.
Mesa Verde National Park
One of my top priorities (aside from the train) was to visit Mesa Verde. I have wanted to go ever since I was about 7 or 8 when we learned about the cliff dwellings in school. Since then, I have been fascinated. Except I didn’t ever get to visit until now. Clearly, I had a very deprived childhood. Woe is me.
Alas, I would finally visit during Covid, in the off-season, when a portion of the park is closed, and tours (the only way to see some of the dwellings up close) are on hold. That’s just my luck. But we still saw the majority of the dwellings from overlooks, and my fascination has been renewed.
My children, however, were less than impressed. Hudson, our 3-year-old, slept nearly the entire visit, meaning Dustin and I had to take turns at each stop. Our 8-year-old Harper’s fear of missing out meant she was more than willing to see each sight. Still, she kept making it clear she was ready to go to the playground back in Durango and counted down the sites we had left to see.
When Hudson finally woke up, as if he had been subjected to enough of my shenanigans, he said in his most assertive tone, “One more thing, Mommy, and we are going back to the hotel.” He even furrowed his brow and pointed his finger as if he’s the one that makes the rules around here. Had we been able to go into the dwellings I’m sure they would have had different opinions about the park.
One day I’ll return to Mesa Verde and I’ll write all about it. But for now, I’ll just say that if you’re in the area, even in the off-season in the middle of a pandemic, it is still worth a visit. To see the cliff dwellings is a phenomenal experience. Hundreds of people built their homes in the naturally carved alcoves in the cliffs of Mesa Verde. How they were even able to climb down (or up?) into them is a wonder in itself! To view their homes and imagine their lives, and then wonder why they left is an experience you can study from home, but you can only truly experience in person. Even in a pandemic.
Polar Express on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
We booked this whole trip based on our long-time desire to take the Polar Express ride on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Of course, the year we decided to do it was 2020 with all of its Covid restrictions, but that’s just our luck. Still, it was a magical experience. You can READ ALL ABOUT IT HERE where I shared our favorite tips and tricks. Some apply only to Covid, some were pretty clever for any time. Wink, wink.
Pinkterton Hot Springs
Pinkerton Hot Springs is a natural roadside attraction. I had it on my list, and then we literally passed this thing on the side of the road. I wouldn’t say it’s worth making a special trip, but if you’re driving by it is definitely worth a pit stop.
When I think of hot springs I think of big fancy pools with piping hot water. And spas. I think of spas. Pinkerton Hot Springs is a big multicolored rock… thing… with hot (warm) water trickling over it. If I’m honest, most of the hot spring pools I have visited are piped in, probably from something like this. So I have to admit that seeing this one in its all-natural state is actually pretty cool.
Santa Rita Park
Santa Rita Park in Durango is almost as much of a tourist draw as the railroad. It should be anyway. At the very least, it’s a great pit stop, especially if you’re traveling with kids. They have the biggest outdoor playground my kids have ever seen, making it their highlight of the whole trip. Locals and tourists alike frequent the park with their children. You can tell them apart by whose kids were wearing T-shirt’s and shorts in 50-degree weather, and whose were wearing parkas (mine).
The setting couldn’t be better either. Settled right along the Animas River with a walking trail along its edge, families and joggers were entertained as much by the water rushing over the rocks, as by the fishermen scooping their nets of fish up out of the freezing water. My favorite part of the park was not the playground or even the river, though those were fantastic, but the different size xylophones permanently situated alongside the playground. It was so fun to watch the kids run back and forth from the playground to make a little music, and sometimes Dustin and I would join in the band ourselves.
Telluride is a new favorite mountain town for me. After seeing it in person, I think the town is even more beautiful than I’d imagined. It’s like walking straight into a Hallmark Christmas movie. Except the big city girl is now a mom of 2 feral children and the country boy she fights and then falls in love with is already her husband and they drove into town together… with the savages in the back seat. But the scenery is the same!
There’s probably lots to do and see in Telluride. But we visited in the shoulder season, with kids, during a pandemic, so the options were somewhat limited. Still, we made the most of it and loved every second of our time there.
When we pulled into town we drove down Colorado Avenue (Main Street), the site of all those iconic Telluride photos of the idyllic little town with the mountains towering above. We passed the bulk of “downtown” and ended at Telluride Town Park. We planned to just turn around, but then we saw a sign for restrooms, a playground, and a sledding hill. They had everything we ever needed! Except for food and sleds. After researching online and asking around, we finally found a large variety of sleds for sale at the local ACE. They really are the helpful place.
I feel like I should mention that parking in Telluride seems to be ALL paid unless you are at a private residence, and even those spots are limited. We couldn’t find a single free public spot available during daylight hours. That’s a first for me in such a small town.
We were all getting hangry so we ordered a pizza from Baked in Telluride. It’s a cute little bakery with other hot meal options as well. We went in for a pizza. We came out with a couple of extra donuts, a slice of key lime pie, and 2 slices of banana bread. All of it was divine. Our only complaint was the lack of seating, though that wasn’t their fault. Due to Covid they only had 3 outdoor tables on the front patio, but they were all taken. So we took our pizza back to the park and ate at a park bench.
Anyway, once we had full bellies and a couple of sleds, we headed to Firecracker Hill. This local sledding hill is set at the back of Telluride Town Park. Though it is a fairly small area, it was perfect for us. There were only 2 other families there but after a while we had the whole place to ourselves.
We’ve been to some sledding hills that are downright dangerous and others that are perfectly groomed. This one was somewhere in between. The slope was just steep enough to send you fast and far, but not so much as to be dangerous. Though the trees are cleared, the hill seems otherwise to be groomed by nature alone (even though I can’t confirm that). My favorite part about this spot was the snowcapped peak overlooking the hill below. A little scenery, a little snow, and a lot of fun.
Added mom bonus: Telluride Town Park has clean public restrooms with a big changing area, and a great playground where we spent some quality time. They also have multiple other sports fields, a stage, a skate park, and some of the best scenery I’ve seen. I’m definitely planning a trip back to Telluride, and including more time spent at this park, no matter the season.
After sledding, I still wasn’t quite ready to leave. I mean, I wanted to live in Telluride but if I could just stay a liiittle longer I might agree to leave eventually. So we hopped on the “G.”
Telluride has a free gondola used for public transportation from there to nearby Mountain Village (the actual name of the next town over the mountain). We got on just after sunset and the views were phenomenal. We got off on the other end, but it was cold and dark by then so we jumped back on the gondola and took the reverse route.
One characteristic of Telluride worth mentioning if you’re traveling with kids is that there are no chain businesses at all. No McDonald’s, no Holiday Inn, no Walmart. I love how it keeps the town quaint and ALL the businesses are local. But sometimes with kids who are used to certain things, it makes travel a little more complicated. Also expensive. We wanted to use Dustin’s hotel points, but the closest chain hotel was the Holiday Inn in Montrose, an hour and a half away. Apparently I’m too cheap for Telluride (at least when the kids were with us). But staying in Montrose was a great way to see the town while keeping costs low.
This little town in southwestern Colorado is known as the “Switzerland of America.” They even have the sign to prove it! Having spent a short amount of time in Switzerland, I’d have to agree it is close. Though it’s not quite on the same tourism scale as Telluride (or Switzerland), there is still so much to see and do here. Looking back, I wish we had planned to spend more time exploring this little town.
One of the big draws to this little town is the Ouray Hot Springs Pool. Unfortunately, we were there before the pool opened and I’d failed to bring swimming attire anyway. But I really think we all would have loved it! It looks at first like any other large, city-owned swimming pool with water slides and lap pool. But here, each section is a different spring-fed pool of mineral water ranging in temperature from about 75 to 106 degrees (not to mention the gorgeous snow-caped mountains towering above). From the nearby Box Canyon Trail, you can see the point where the clean water is continually piped in from. This hot springs pool is now high on my priority list for our next visit!
Box Canyon Falls
As we were driving through Ouray, I happened to see a sign for Box Canyon Falls. I remembered that being on my list of potential sights to see, so we stopped. Parking isn’t exactly plentiful so I’m sure in the busy season it’s a bit difficult. But we found the perfect open area to park just up the hill before you enter the ice park.
- Falls Trail
The main trail to see the falls is only about 500 feet in length (depending on where you parked). It’s mostly flat making it an easy hike. There are stairs down to the river once you reach the falls, but footing once you’re down there could be a little tricky.
This isn’t the most impressive falls I’ve ever seen as far as the view, because as the name suggests, the waterfall is inside a box canyon. Without wading through the river below you can really only see the bottom of the falls as it flows out into the opening. But even in a season when many waterfalls are just a trickle, this one is still raging!
- High Bridge Trail
Once you’ve seen the falls, there’s even more to explore. The High Bridge Trail was actually the highlight of this stop. At about half a mile, this trail takes you above the canyon, over a suspension bridge, and through a tunnel, then rewards you with yet another stunning view of the mountains with the town of Ouray below. Though there was an elevation gain of 200 feet, this trail was still easy for even our 3-year-old. On the other side of the tunnel, the High Bridge Trail connects to the Ouray Perimeter Trail which is a few miles long. The portion we hiked is definitely more narrow, but still completely safe so long as you watch your footing (and your children). We didn’t continue much further, but I’m sure the perimeter trail would have been a fantastic way to get even more views of the area.
- Ice climbing
As you head toward the Box Canyon trail you pass the Ouray Ice Park located inside the Uncompahgre Gorge. Once again, we were there in the shoulder season; A day late and a dollar short is the story of my life. But it was still neat to see them starting the preparations. Along both sides of the gorge, trickling water faucets slowly “grow” a wall of ice from the top down. There were some spots starting to show signs of freezing, but the weather wasn’t quite cold enough yet. Still, I could imagine what the gorge would look like covered in ice, and I pictured myself climbing what would eventually be giant icicles. Would it be easier or harder than rock climbing? Guess I’ll just have to go back to find out!
Million Dollar Highway
Driving the Million Dollar Highway was high on my list of things to do, but after our Route 66 experience in Arizona (you can catch that crazy story HERE on my Instagram page) Dustin wasn’t exactly thrilled with my idea. Luckily we didn’t have a trailer this time so the experience was so much better, and equally (perhaps more) awe-inspiring.
The most popular section of the San Juan Scenic Byway (Highway 550), between Ouray and Silverton is what’s known as the Million Dollar Highway. With hairpin curves, steep drop-offs, and an almost complete lack of guardrails, I can see why people say this drive is so frightening. I definitely recommend the driver keep their eyes on the road, but I’d argue that it isn’t nearly as sketchy as it is absolutely beautiful. There’s a new view around every bend, each more amazing than the last. And with the snow gently falling on the mountains towering above, the experience was something we won’t soon forget.
If you plan to make this portion of the trip, be sure to tank up before you leave Ouray or Silverton (depending on which direction you’re headed). Factor in twice the amount of time your GPS says it’ll take, and simply enjoy your time. For this trip, it’s not the destination, it’s the drive that makes it worthwhile. If you have a day or so to kill, I also highly recommend the entire San Juan Scenic Byway loop. Though we didn’t make the whole drive at once, each portion was beautiful in its own right.
Sledding on the side of the road
The very best day of our trip was literally spent on the side of the road. Headed north out of Durango on Highway 550, we found a good pull-off spot that happened to have a couple of hills and some good snow, so we made the most of it.
We spent hours sledding down the mountain, had a good snowball fight, and built an epic snowman. When the snow started to fall it was pure magic. Of course, after a while, the kids got tired of being cold in their wet gloves and boots. But months later they’re still talking about the day we went sledding. Just goes to show, once again, that the best things in life are free.