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7 Charming Small Towns To Visit In Southwestern Colorado


Special Thanks JANIE H. PACE

The writer on a stagecoach.

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It’s easy to spend a week exploring the San Juan Skyway. It takes you through some of the most majestic scenery and charming towns in southwestern Colorado.

A Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway, the 236-mile loop starts in Durango and leads you to scenic Silverton, through Ouray and Ridgway, then on to Telluride, Dolores, and Manco, all through the heart of the majestic San Juan Mountains.

Let’s explore ranch B&Bs, secluded lakes, old gold mines, ghost towns, hot springs resorts, top-notch ski hotels, Puebloan ruins, and archeological sites in southwestern Colorado.

Durango to Silverton railroad.

1. Durango

We usually stay at the historic Strater Hotel in downtown Durango, within walking distance to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. At the Strater, you’ll find waitresses dressed as saloon girls at the Diamond Belle Saloon. You can ride a stagecoach or an old horse-drawn wagon along a historic homes tour.

For some Durango hidden jewels, enjoy the romantic Blue Lake Ranch B&B in Hesperus, south of Durango, with casitas, cabins, or cottages spread throughout the 200 acres. Start your day with a chef-served southwestern breakfast delivered to your accommodation each morning with freshly roasted coffee. Or order a picnic lunch or an afternoon wine and cheese platter.

The James Ranch Grill is a “table on the farm,” sourcing the main ingredients from the ranch, including grass-fed cattle, pasture-raised chickens, and vegetables from ranch gardens using sustainable practices. Eat burgers, sandwiches, soup, or salads on picnic tables on lawn terraces or inside by the fireplace framed by large picture windows.

Sheltered in a secluded mountain valley at 8,000 feet, Vallecito Lake is located 18 miles from Durango. Spanish for “Little Valley,” the lake is one of Colorado’s most beautiful lakes. Years ago, as newlyweds, my husband and I camped along the lake and fished the waters and surrounding streams for trout. Today, you’ll find lots of cabin options here.

The Honeyville Factory Store, ten miles north of Durango, features gift packs of wildflower mountain honey, sauces, jams, and jellies. Sample honey wine and distilled spirits made nearby on the western slope.

Historic downtown Silverton, CO.

2. Silverton

Silverton, a former silver mining camp along the Million Dollar Highway, is a National Historic Landmark and part of the San Juan Skyway.

Visit the 14,000 square foot Mining Heritage Center, one of the best mining museums in the country. The tour starts in the old jail and leads you through an underground mine tunnel, then on to the museum center, where you learn about gold and silver mining. 

Pan for gold, silver, and copper, and keep what you find free with your ticket purchase. Located just minutes from historic Silverton, the Old Hundred Gold Mine Tour takes you on a vintage electric-powered mine train. Travel a third of a mile into Galena Mountain, where you can follow the gold vein and see the old mining equipment in action.

For hiking, the Cunningham Gulch offers many backcountry camping spots with old mining sites to explore. The gulch loop includes the Highland Mary Lakes Trail to alpine views above the tree line and the surrounding peaks. Explore the Old Hundred Boarding House built by German prospectors in 1904. You’ll find tramways and old bunkhouses still standing.

Explore Eureka, a mining ghost town on the Animas River with remnants of the old ore mill. By 1875, Eureka had a post office, and a year later, a railroad connected the town. At one point, Eureka was best known for the “finest saloons anywhere.” When the Sunnyside Mill closed in 1939, the settlement rapidly declined.

Howardville is a community at the mouth of Cunningham Creek along the Animas River. It was laid out as Bullion City in 1874, then renamed for Lieutenant Howard, a once-prominent local figure. You can still see old wooden cabin structures around the area.

An aerial view of Ouray, CO.

3. Ouray

Welcome to scenic Ouray, the Switzerland of America and the Outdoor Recreational Capital of Colorado. The Million Dollar Highway connects Silverton to Ouray.

Spend an afternoon at the Ouray Hot Springs Mineral Pool. Family-friendly and swimsuit required, the geothermal hot springs have operated since 1927. You’ll enjoy the quiet adult areas with massages at the spa. The grandkids will love the slides, climbing wall, and water float rentals. 

The East Fort Trail follows the East Fork of Powderhorn Creek, dotted with beaver-dammed ponds. The streamside willows may bushwhack you occasionally, and you’ll get wet feet as you cross the creek several times. The trail opens to meadows and ends at Robbers Roost, the site of an old cabin.

The 20-mile Galloping Goose Trail for hiking or biking follows along an old narrow-gauge rail line. The Uncompahgre RiverWay Trail is 12.6 miles and eventually links Delta with Ouray, ultimately a 65-mile route.

The remote Opus Hut is a full-service European-style backcountry hut with dinner and breakfast plus beer, wine, spirits, and snacks. The cabin, housing up to 20 people, has solar-powered lighting, electronic charging devices, and filtered drinking water. While the communal sleeping rooms have comforters and pillows, guests should bring their sleeping bags and liner. Two communal bathrooms are available with a sink, hot water, and a composting toilet. Drive to within a quarter-mile of the hut in the summer. In the winter (November–April), the road closes, and you hike in 3.5 miles.

Historic fire department in Ridgway, Colorado.

4. Ridgway

The gateway to the San Juan Mountains, Ridgway is a Certified IDA International Dark Sky community, taking steps to minimize light pollution for starry nights.

Don’t miss Chipeta Solar Springs Resort & Spa, named in honor of Chipeta, the wife of the great Ute Native American leader Chief Ouray. Choose from 33 guest rooms with amenities like a gas fireplace, a wet bar, a refrigerator, or a private deck with a hot tub. We loved the luxury spa treatments, cedar sauna, steam room, and two outdoor solar-heated pools, plus a complimentary yoga class. Fine dining is available at the award-winning Four Corners Restaurant and Rooftop Sky Bar. 

Downtown revitalization and beautification make Ridgway a state-certified Creative District and a Designated Main Street Community. Arts and crafts shows, live theater, movies, concerts, and music festivals abound.

At Ridgway State Park, four miles north of Ridgway, find 258 campsites for RVs and trailers, as well as walk-in sites or yurt camping. The five-mile-long reservoir, Lake Ridgway, offers a no bag limit for smallmouth bass. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife encourage you to fish and catch all you want since they threaten native fish.

A street view in Telluride.

5. Telluride And Mountain Village

Telluride is a National Historic Landmark District filled with Victorian homes, boutiques, art galleries, gourmet restaurants, and historic buildings. Butch Cassidy walked these streets when he robbed his first bank here on June 24, 1889.

Imagine being tucked in a box canyon surrounded by 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks. If you ask any local in Telluride, they’ll tell you they came for the skiing and stayed for the summers. Enjoy summer fun like fly fishing, hiking, biking, ziplining, horseback riding, or rafting and river sports. That’s not all. Partake in off-roading, golfing, camping, rock climbing, stand-up paddleboarding, paragliding, or festivals.

Getting To Telluride

Guests can fly to Montrose, 65 miles away, nonstop from five major U.S. cities, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Chicago, and Denver. Or fly direct to Telluride from Denver. Take ground transportation from Montrose to Telluride. Rental cars are not necessary to get around. 

Ride the free 13-minute scenic gondola that connects Telluride to Mountain Village, situated at 9,545 feet, providing access to Telluride Ski Resort and Uncompahgre National Forest.

Pro Tip: Recently rated one of the top 50 ski hotels in North America by Conde Nast readers, located in the heart of Mountain Village, The Fairmont Heritage Place Franz Klammer Lodge is steps from the Village Gondola Station and the ski slopes. Each residence features a fully equipped kitchen, living and dining area, luxurious oversized bathrooms, a private balcony, and a washer and dryer.

6. Dolores

With less than a thousand population, Dolores is close to several recreational areas. 

Located nine miles west of Pleasant View in southwestern Colorado, the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument covers 176,056 acres of Ancestral Puebloan ruins, with more than 6,000 archeological sites.

The Canyons of the Ancient museum houses more than three million Ancestral Puebloan curated artifacts plus a public research library, educational resources, and a museum shop.

The Hovenweep National Monument includes six prehistoric villages constructed between 1200 and 1300. Their multi-story towers are perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders.

With 50 miles of shoreline in pinon, juniper, and sagebrush, McPhee Reservoir is the largest lake in the San Juan National Forest and the second-largest in Colorado. The picturesque campground, situated on a mesa 500 feet above the reservoir, offers 71 campsites, 24 with electric hookups. Find a boat launch, potable water, vault toilets, picnic tables, and fire grates.

7. Mancos

Mancos boasts historic buildings, art galleries, a cidery, coffee houses, and one of the oldest bars in Colorado. You’ll find quaint inns, B&Bs, and western outfitters.

Only ten minutes from Manco, Mesa Verde National Park is famous for its well-preserved ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, including the giant Cliff Palace. See panoramic canyon views of archaeological sites and several rock carvings along Petroglyph Point Trail.

The lake at Manco State Park offers boating, kayaking, canoeing, water skiing, and jet skiing. You’ll enjoy camping, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing.

Pro Tips: Stay at Majestic Dude Ranch near Mancos. Enjoy breathtaking scenery, exhilarating horseback rides, whitewater rafting, kid’s programs, and all-inclusive experiences you’ll never forget. And while you’re in the area, consider:

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