In an earlier blog post, we introduced the eight regions of Colorado. This time we’ll visit the area known as Mountains & Mesas region (shown in darker green in the southwest portion on the map).
The region borders Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, which meet at the historic Four Corners. It blends into four other regions in Colorado: The Great West to the north, clockwise to the Rockies Playground, and on into Pikes Peak Wonders and into the Mystic San Luis Valley.
Your travels in the Mountains & Mesas region will take your eyes from around 4,500′ above sea level to elevations of approximately 14,000′ above sea level. The high desert plateau in the utmost southwestern spot in our state (at Four Corners) is at 5,000′, and the highest elevation is at the peaks of some of the majestic Rocky Mountains.
You’ll travel up and down and around, often meandering through canyons which began being carved by forces of nature some 55 million years ago. This land has evidence of prehistoric history!
Communities are of mixed sizes. The Fruita / Grand Junction areas serve over 76,000 residents. Montrose and Durango are each home to approximately 19,000 people. Olathe and Pagosa Springs each have about 2,000 fine folks, while Silverton has only about 700 residents.
Other communities include:
- Bayfield (head north to beautiful Vallecito Lake)
- Dolores (along the Dolores River, east of McPhee Reservoir)
- Lake City (south of Gunnison, east of Ouray)
- Olathe (on the Uncompahgre River)
- Palisade (think Colorado River and land of fruits)
- Gunnison (near the stunning Blue Mesa Reservoir)
- Powderhorn (ski haven)
- Paonia/Somerset (cherries, wine)
- and world-renowned Telluride and Silverton (history, along with stunning scenery for an amazing drive).
The Mountains & Mesas Region overflows with scenery for everyone, especially photographers! Hikers have countless opportunities. Bird lovers could spend a lifetime here and never tire of it. Those who appreciate wildlife will likely find a variety of oohs and aahs. History buffs will be enthralled with the mining, old west, railroad and even some outlaws.
You might hear the phrase Western Slope. Coloradans use this term freely when referring to the portion of the state that’s west of the Continental Divide.
MILLION DOLLAR HIGHWAY
The region is home to the highly acclaimed Million Dollar Highway, a stunning stretch of mountain passes that leads you between Silverton and Ouray. This 25 mile stretch of US-550 is a two-lane drive with some sections having a speed limit of 25 mph. Your drive will take you through the San Juan Mountains, a segment of the Rocky Mountains.
Lucky travelers will also catch glimpses of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Like the Million Dollar Highway, we’re giving the Grand Mesa its own mention. This mesa is the largest flat-topped mountain in the world. Covering about 500 square miles, it runs for about 40 miles east of Grand Junction between the Colorado River and the Gunnison River. The rise up is nearly vertical, starting at approximately 4,500′ above sea level and rising to about 11,000′. It’s impossible to miss it as you travel on I-70, and you’ll likely take an exit (or several) just to marvel at it.
The area isn’t all barren hard volcanic basalt! As Wikipedia states, “The route over the mesa provides a dramatic contrast in landscape, climate and vegetation. On the north side, the road climbs the steep terrain near the Powderhorn Resort ski area. The forested top of the mesa remains snowbound much later in the spring than the surrounding valleys, and is a popular location for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.”
Here you can read about options for hikers, cyclists, and drivers. Prepare your eyes for everything from rock to the lush setting surrounding alpine lakes!
The region includes at least portions of these scenic byways:
- Alpine Loop
- Grand Mesa Scenic Byway
- San Juan Skyway * All-American Road (part of this is also the Million Dollar Hwy)
- Silver Thread
- Tracks Across Borders Byway
- Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway
- Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway
- West Elk Loop
* All-American Road: This designation means a road possesses multiple intrinsic qualities of national significance and have unique features. It must be considered a destination unto itself . In other words, traveling the byway is worthy of being the primary reason for their trip.
[NOTE: Please read our Words of Wisdom section down below because it’s best to be prepared!]
ATTRACTIONS FOR OUTDOOR ENTHUSIASTS & HISTORY BUFFS
Outdoors enthusiasts won’t be bored! You can find nearly every variety of sports, and the region is bustling in all four seasons. We can’t list them all but perhaps this will whet your appetite: salmon and trout fishing, boating, kayaking, hiking, biking, whitewater rafting, water skiing, paddle boarding, golfing, horseback riding, rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, powder-cat riding, heli-skiing, gun and archery shooting ranges, cross-country skiing, ice skating, off-roading … we’re out of breath but not out of sports!
Technically, attractions listed under Nature and History could appear on both lists, but we chose to not duplicate. If we could make any single recommendation to you, it would be try to see them all!
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (where I first laid eyes upon a bighorn sheep)
- Colorado National Monument (astonishing; a truly under-known area; ok, we’ll save the commentaries for you to discover)
- Curecanti National Recreation Area
- Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area
- Continental Divide National Scenic Trail
- Chimney Rock National Monument (there are restrictions so plan accordingly!)
- Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
- Hovenweep National Monument
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Old Spanish National Historic Trail
- San Miguel River Recreation Area
- Wheeler Geologic Area
- Yucca House National Monument
- Crested Butte National Historic District
- Durango Historic District
- Silverton National Historic District
- Telluride National Historic Landmark District
- Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum
- Bachelor Syracuse Mine
- Old Hundred Gold Mine
- Gunnison Pioneer & Train Museum
- Ridgway Railroad Museum
- Ute Indian Museum
- Four Corners Monument
- Ute Mountain Tribal Park (requires a Ute guide, so plan accordingly
WILDLIFE, FISHING, BIRDS, AND MORE
You might see wild horses, Gunnison prairie dogs, black bears, mountain lions, lynxes, bobcats, coyotes, mule deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep (the Colorado state animal), mountain goats, numerous birds, and butterflies.
These resources will provide much more insight:
- Travel guide to wildlife in Colorado
- Observing wildlife near Durango CO
- Wildlife near Marble CO
- Birding and Hiking
When it comes to fishing, perhaps your catch will include salmon, cutthroat, brook, brown, or rainbow trout. (Be sure to have your fishing license!) Consider the Animas River, Colorado River, Dolores River, Gunnison River, Uncompahgre River, or the reservoirs such as Vallecito Reservoir, Blue Mesa Reservoir (the largest Colorado body of water), and McPhee Reservoir. This list is merely a sampling! Click here for one option for fishing reports, and click here for another.
COLORADO FRUITS & WINES
It might come as a surprise to visitors but it’s no surprise to Coloradans: Colorado has a wine and fruit region that tops the charts! Actually, Wine Enthusiast magazine named the Grand Valley as one of its Top 10 wine travel getaways in 2018 (and we’re biased just enough to feel that’s true every single year!).
Visit Grand Junction says, “Visitors may enjoy the local wineries all year round.” The very popular Colorado Mountain Winefest is held in September. Find out more about the wineries by clicking here and more wineries are listing here.
Visit Grand Junction also says, “Palisade also is home to some of the best peaches in the world. The local bounty is celebrated during the city’s annual Peach Festival, in mid-August, with more than 100 vendors, a peach-eating competition, an ice cream social and more.”
As for our opinion? Well, we do our best to eat as many Palisade peaches as possible! (That’s actually an understatement!)
There’s one more trail to mention, and it fits well with this section: Fruitgrowers Trail
MUSIC & FILM
We’d be remiss if we didn’t toot the horn for the Telluride’s festivals! As Telluride.com says, “From music to mushrooms, there is something that will appeal to everyone in the Telluride summer festival lineup. Some of the most popular festivals include the world-renowned Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Jazz Festival, Wine Festival, Yoga Festival, Telluride Blues & Brews, and the Oscar predicting Telluride Film Festival.”
WORDS OF WISDOM
- We encourage you to be aware of your driving skills, especially when taking a Big Rig on some of these passes. The RV parks in Silverton, as an example, are a testament that thousands achieve the trek! Just take it slowly. We’ve heard that some travelers have driven the passes in cars before taking the RV. That’s something to consider if you have concerns.
- Altitude sickness is REAL and it’s PREVENTABLE! Before you book your campsite, please consider our suggestions (click here). Let your body adapt! Even one day can make the difference in the quality of your Colorado vacation.
- If you click on each link provided in this blog post, you will find much more historical and entertaining information!
- Those who book early have the best chance of finding campsite availability, especially for summer weekends and holidays.
- There are limited roadways compared to the eastern USA, so plan for this. Congestion can be an issue (especially Friday and Sunday evenings).
- Colorado’s elevation, combined with winter weather possibilities in all four seasons, can cause road closures any time of year or for entire seasons. Regardless of the timing of your trip, be sure to monitor conditions on COtrip for the current road conditions. Construction, avalanche control, snow, ice, rain … Colorado can see all of it even in one day!
- Know and obey the CO-DOT regulations for the height, length and weight of vehicles on each road you plan to take.
So, where should you camp in colorful Colorado? It depends on the month of your trip and your camping preferences from what amenities you desire to your means of lodging (tent, RV, cabin, yurt, lodge, tepee, covered wagon, glamping safari tent, or any other means of enjoying the outdoors). Since there are many other factors to consider, we created our CampColorado to help you find a campground that suits your desires. The search page offers a range of options, and many listings provide in-depth descriptions.
The Colorado Tourism Office provides additional travel ideas in the regions in this post.
This publication is supported by funding from the Colorado Tourism Office, a state agency. Turn to Colorado.com for a comprehensive list of festivals, events, historic areas, itineraries, and community insight.