Adventure without getting your shoes dirty (but you’ll probably want to)
There’s something about a road trip and the endless possibility. You can sit and think while staring out the windows daydreaming, as long as you’re not the driver. There’s nowhere to go and nowhere to be because the act of traveling is what you’re there for. And then there’s the Million Dollar Highway, a stretch of road so beautiful that your daydreams look bland.
While my family’s favorite adventures involve getting lost in the wilderness and escaping from daily life, sometimes the schedule gets in the way. There’s simply not enough time to do everything we want to do and see everything we want to see. My husband and I tried out backcountry skiing and trail running as a way to be able to move faster in the mountains and see more of the beauty that nature has to offer. Even so, it’s a tall order to hike all the trails and climb all the mountains.
Colorado has an impressive network of scenic highways that give car-bound or tight-scheduled adventurers impressive access to rugged views with minimal effort. If you’re looking for ways to adventure without getting your shoes dirty, this is it. Of course, even being in a car won’t save you from vertigo from the steep cliffs of the Million Dollar Highway. Highway 550 runs from New Mexico to southern Colorado and the section from Durango to Ouray has the million-dollar views, or it cost a million dollars to build, or was a location where miners found millions of dollars of gold.
We started from Ouray, a little town nestled in the San Juan Mountains known for ice climbing and hot springs. After camping at Angel Creek Campground and before heading south towards Durango, we drove up towards Mount Sneffels. We didn’t have a purpose, destination or plans to climb any mountains; we just love cool roads. Camp Bird Road is stunning as it winds up toward Mount Sneffels and Camp Bird Mine, named after the birds that tried to steal the miners’ food. Little did we know we would meet those birds later on our trip.
From there, we continued the sunrise drive along Red Mountain Pass. As hard as we looked, we didn’t see any guardrails. Instead, the thin road built into the side of a mountain, hovering delicately over the Uncompahgre Gorge, was our precarious passage to Silverton. I appreciated the low speed limit both for survival and the opportunity to appreciate the views of the sheer cliffs and rugged peaks.
When we weren’t hugging the side of the mountain, we were climbing hairpin switchbacks that seemed nearly tight enough to be able to high-five the car passing by in the other lane. Our next stop was the Ice Lakes Basin trailhead, just west of Silverton. I’d say a big hike was the main purpose for our early morning start, but we just like the sunrise. We’re also fans of breaking up a big drive by moving our bodies.
The plan was to hike to Island Lake, a destination we chose despite knowing it would be popular and heavily trafficked. Regardless, things are popular for a reason; so we couldn’t resist the desire to see the lake in person. After hiking 3,000 feet of vertical elevation over 7 miles in order to see Island Lake, we made a note of all the other equally beautiful lakes for future trips. This is a place worth returning to.
After a long day of hiking, we camped near Molas Pass and enjoyed a stunning sunset over the mountains. The stars lit up the sky and we slept peacefully in our campsite. In the morning, we drove the rest of the way to Durango. Officially deciding to make it a loop, we drove up the San Juan Skyway toward Telluride stopping at Trout Lake to soak our feet.
That night, we backtracked a short distance in order to camp in some beautiful National Forest land off Lizard Head Pass only to quickly learn we weren’t the only ones with that idea. Snagging one of the last remaining campsites, we fought off giant birds for our dinner as they swooped in to steal from our portable grill. The next morning we drove past Telluride to Ridgway, and made notes of future places to explore. We would later return to explore the Last Dollar Road, a scenic bypass from Telluride to Ridgway that cuts through big aspen groves, perfect for fall leaf peeping.
Stunning roads like the Million Dollar Highway that snake through the Colorado mountains provide access to epic views. Instead of feeling like I got to see it all, I was simply inspired to find more time to see even more. We drove past countless trailheads, aspen groves and adorable mining towns. Not to mention all of the mountains we now dream of climbing. The more I am outside, the more I get to explore — and the more I want to see and do and experience.
Give me a highway or a byway or any method of traveling from one place to another, and eventually it will steal my heart. It will teach me that it’s not just about this place or that, but every destination in between and the journey along the way.
BRENDA BERGREEN is a storyteller and photographer living in Evergreen, Colorado, with her family. When she’s not writing or taking photos, you might find her exploring beautiful roads and trails.