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Three for the Road

Eric McNatt The sun shining down on a long stretch of road.

Photo: Eric McNatt

I'm an unapologetic city person, a creature of comfort who defines a hike as something you tell an annoying person to take. My sisters couldn't be more different. They're full-on outdoorsy types, the kind who think hiking is a fun activity for a Saturday afternoon—sometimes even a whole weekend. Marie spends her summers working as a white-water rafting guide; Millie worked the slopes of Utah one winter.

My love is driving: of all the things I left behind when I moved from Tennessee to New York City six years ago, I miss my car the most. (Sorry, Mom.) So when my siblings and I decided to extend our annual sister trip (each June we meet at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for some female bonding and banjo pickin'), four days cruising the San Juan Skyway seemed perfect. Sometimes treacherous but always beautiful, the 236-mile Skyway cuts through 5 million acres of national parks, forests, and wilderness areas in southwestern Colorado, crisscrossing the snowcapped San Juan Mountains and passing old mining towns that are now home to pampering spas and posh restaurants.

OUR CHARIOT WAS A BRAND-NEW granite-green metallic Acura MDX, the company's first-ever SUV. The literature promises that it seats seven adults comfortably. And it does—though in our case "seven adults" translated as three tall women with an inherent tendency to overpack. (Conventional Callaway wisdom insists one needs at least three outfits for each day on the road.) Not merely roomy, the MDX also has unusually low emissions: it's the first SUV with a vapor-recovery system, which minimizes the fumes that normally escape when fuel evaporates.

After throwing our bulging bags in the way, way back, we hopped in, with me in the driver's seat, and caught the Skyway west out of Telluride. (We traveled clockwise, which allowed us to descend the route's steepest inclines as opposed to climbing them.) On the brief but gorgeous drive to Ouray, we passed acres and acres of impossibly green ranchland. One of the farms in the area belongs to Ralph Lauren, and the setting makes absolute sense for the most "all-American" of American designers.

He's also the richest. Colorado is full of wealthy folks like Lauren—who, despite the country sensibility of his ads, is a city boy and, I suspect, feels just as I do about the great outdoors. We appreciate nature (really!), we just don't want to sleep in it. And you certainly don't have to in the millionaire's backyard that is southern Colorado: as you cruise through forests and mountain passes in your luxury car, there's always the promise of a warm bed ahead.

IN THE LATE 1800'S, OURAY BECAME FAMOUS for its gold and silver mines. Then, in the 1940's, the town's Victorian architecture and location among some of the region's highest mountains made it popular with directors of Hollywood westerns. The locals—all 800 of them—boast that John Wayne spent many a night playing cards in Ouray's saloons while filming True Grit.

But gold-digging and silver-screen stars were only of vague interest to us. We decided to put off all exploring and luxuriate in Ouray's hot springs, underground sources warmed by intense geothermal pressure to about 140 degrees (the water is cooled slightly for bathing). We immediately set our sights on the private hot tubs just two yards from our room at the Box Canyon Lodge, whose four springs spout from a grassy embankment. The clear, bubbling water was just the thing for our travel-tired muscles. The next day, we headed over to the nearby Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa for massages and a sweaty session in the "vapor cave," a natural stone cellar with a 108-degree wading pool and all the stifling humidity you can handle.

Dried off and relaxed, we cranked up the MDX and headed out to catch the sunset from Yankee Boy Basin. A plateau flush with tundra flora and small, fuzzy fauna (marmots are the San Juans' trademark varmint), Yankee Boy sits near the top of Mount Sneffels, at 14,150 feet the third tallest in the range. Along the seven-mile climb, we could see why Ouray earned the nickname "the Little Switzerland of America." The craggy mountains pop out so vividly against the clear, blue sky that they don't seem real.

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