No matter how carsick I get, long, winding, mountainous drives at high altitude are still my favorite types of road trips. I love the feeling of being the only one on the road, the fresh air and foliage, the random little towns you pass that seem to be stuck in time. I love having no real plans for the day, able to pull off the side of the road and take in the views that many people simply breeze by. And the climber and snowboarder in me is always looking out the window, picking impossible lines up and down the mountains and wondering “What if?”
After our week in Pagosa Springs, we took the extra long way home through the Rockies — looping counterclockwise from Pagosa to the Great Sand Dunes to Penitente Canyon across the Continental Divide…
… Up and around Gunnison past verdant farmland and dramatic cliffs…
… Through the Uncompahgre Valley and finally into Telluride for the night.
I’m not sure what we were thinking when we pulled into Telluride at dusk. Not only was it Labor Day weekend and a gorgeous weekend at that — but the Telluride Film Festival was in town. We had a campground in mind next to a lake, but the camp host told us the last spot had just been taken a few minutes earlier. We decided to try another camp down the road next to the river. And then another camp down the road even further.
More than two hours later, we had exhausted all our campground options within a 20-mile radius and started looking for primitive sites near the road. But with no rake, no water, no trowel, and all the stores closed, setting up a primitive campsite in the dark was a very last resort.
We sat in the car, pulled over on a lone highway in between Telluride and nowhere, and tried to call nearby hotels with what little signal we had in the mountains. All booked. We debated staying in Montrose, the closest major suburbia, but decided against the long, long drive out of the way.
Finally, a search on my phone brought up a random motel called the Back Narrows Inn in a random Old West town called Norwood, and they had one vacant room left. We were already halfway to Norwood (a town so sleepy that locals call it “Snorewood”) and the historic inn was only 20 minutes away. It was the lone lit-up sign on a dark, empty street, the only accommodation in town apparently, and the innkeeper was a kind lady who greeted us in her robe.
We settled into our room, which had all the charm of a restored 1800s-era guesthouse. The floors creaked loudly, the walls were covered in decades of peeling paint, and the furniture looked like it all came from an antiques store, except it’s probably been there since before it was considered antique.
Since we had been driving around for almost four hours without a restaurant in sight, we broke out the camping gear and made dinner on top of our sink with our trusty Pocket Rocket stove. It wasn’t quite the atmospheric night we’d envisioned with a pine-scented campfire under the stars, but at midnight I was curled up in a warm bed, full and falling asleep to the hum of the TV. And that was the best damn ramen ever.
The next morning we made coffee (from the in-room coffeemaker — we almost considered this a luxury) and poked around the Back Narrows Inn. Though fully booked, it was quiet and we saw only one other guest milling about. If you like bygone eras and some character to your lodging, the Back Narrows Inn is a hidden gem in the Colorado boonies.
We took off for Telluride after a leisurely morning. The highway followed the San Miguel River, which flows along the Uncompahgre Plateau through beautiful sandstone and shale canyons.
I had always seen Telluride in pictures in the middle of winter, so to finally see its alpine peaks in person, in all their bare summer splendor, is really something.
The slopes were lush and green, and a short hike up a ridge gave us a panoramic view of the picture-perfect village below.
The Telluride Film Festival was in full swing, but no movie star sightings on the street. What is it about film festivals invading small mountain towns and turning them trendy, anyway?
Since we had left my FJ Cruiser at home (why, why?? — it would’ve been so fun!), we had to skip Imogene Pass, the highest mountain pass in the San Juans at over 13,000 feet elevation. This gnarly one-lane 4WD road crosses a ridge connecting Telluride and Ouray with spectacular views that earned this area the nickname of the “Switzerland of America.”
But with our low-clearance Subaru thanking us, we took Deep Creek Road out of town, stopping for a picnic on the side of the road. It’s hard to leave town when everywhere you go, it feels like you’re in a perpetual postcard.
We looped around north through Ridgway, the gateway to the San Juan Mountains and the stunning San Juan Skyway. Designated as both a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road (meaning it has features that don’t exist elsewhere in the country), the San Juan Skyway is a 233-mile loop in Southwestern Colorado that traverses the heart of the San Juans.
A stretch of the eastern loop is known as the Million Dollar Highway and runs from Ouray to Silverton through the Uncompahgre Gorge. It offers million-dollar views up the summit of Red Mountain Pass with steep cliffs and dramatic canyons at every S-curve — the kind of road that motorcyclists dream about.
It’s also the kind of road where the drive itself is a destination. You could go for miles and miles, hours and hours — and there’s no shortage of sights to sigh over.
We passed the old silver mining town of Silverton, whose main street was dotted with colorful restored buildings reminiscent of its glory days. It’s best known for the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Train, a vintage steam locomotive that still operates today, and Silverton Mountain, an exclusively backcountry ski resort with nearly 24,000 acres of advanced to expert heli and hike-to terrain. It’s fascinating how the old world and new world come together in this quiet, unassuming village.
I also came across one of my dream cars, a vehicle I have always loved but never actually seen in person, until now — a vintage Aistream 345LE. This thing was a monster. It was beautiful. I could fit a family of six and still have room for a garden and a hot tub somewhere. I could just see myself traversing the U.S. in my Airstream with all my toys, parking up on a cliff with surfboard in tow, watching the waves. Ahhh… one day.
At the end of the Million Dollar Highway, Molas Lake came into view. It was just before sunset, and the lake was glassing off as fellow campers fished for dinner.
We hadn’t thought about where to spend the night, and discovering Molas Lake was pure luck. Since we’d been shut out of camping in Telluride, we were looking forward to camping around Silverton and grilling over a fire.
Molas Lake was a shimmering jewel right off the highway, sitting in the dramatic center of the San Juans and bordering the Weminuche Wilderness. Our lakeside camp was spacious and private with an open view of the sky.
There’s no feeling quite like falling asleep to critters chirping in the night and waking up to a crisp, quiet morning with the lingering scent of firewood in the air.
The sky was clear and blue as can be, casting the most magnificent reflection on the lake.
There are a lot of things I love about road trips, but perhaps my favorite thing of all is leaving these kinds of amazing “How did I get here?” experiences to chance. It has never disappointed me.
get every Garden Betty update delivered straight to your inbox!