A trio of sisters hop into an eco-friendly SUV to sample the rugged (and sophisticated) pleasures of Colorado's San Juan Skyway
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.
Because I'd volunteered to drive this stretch, I missed a lot of the scenery on the way up. Indeed, it's not an option to take your eyes off the ever-changing road, a former mule trail still as iffy in some spots as it must have been 100 years ago. At its widest, it was only a little broader than the MDX. That would have been fine if we'd been cruising on flat ground, but considering that the left side of the road was a sharp ledge that dropped several hundred feet into a narrow canyon, size suddenly mattered.
Maybe it was because I hadn't driven in a while, or maybe it was the New Yorker in me, but I was fearless behind the wheel. I expected my sisters to embrace the danger of the ride as gleefully as I did, to enjoy speeding up, up, up the trail, past white-trunked aspens, fields of wildflowers, and icy runoff from melting snow. Instead, they begged me to slow down.
But it was too late. The rocky trail took revenge on my audacity, grabbing a front tire and holding it tight in a deep rut too close to the ledge for anyone's liking. That's when we thanked God for the VTM-4—short for Variable Torque Management FourWheel Drive System—a supercharged feature of the Acura activated by what we christened the "magic button."
FORGET THE TRIP COMPUTER AND BOSE STEREO: the magic button was our pick for the MDX's most impressive feature. The VTM-4 judges the severity of the mess you're in and, if it's sufficiently dangerous, orders the vehicle to kick into a special overdrive that spins the rear wheels in proportion to the rate of slippage. Or something like that; we didn't care. We just wanted to get away from the ledge. In what must have been less than a second, the system deemed our pickle sour enough, and freed the wheel just before Marie lost her wits.
Happily, we never needed to use the VTM-4 the next day as we drove the well-paved Million Dollar Highway. There are several explanations for why the 23-mile portion of the Skyway between Ouray and Silverton got this name—from the weight in gold tailing used to build the original road, from the amount the government shelled out to make the narrow cliffside drive more auto-friendly, and (our favorite) from the "million-dollar" views of the San Juan Mountains.
Of course, that million the government splurged on the highway in the twenties is beans compared to the sums that bigwigs such as Oprah Winfrey pay for their ski chalets in the area today. We mused on inflation as we sat inside the window jambs of the abandoned hundred-year-old cabins in the decomposing ghost town Animas Forks. In 1875, "the Forks" advertised itself as the "largest town in the world"—at its altitude (ba-dum-bum). But, as in many towns of its vintage, the population shrank to naught when the miners left near the turn of the century.
THIS BLEAK SCENE WAS A STRIKING CONTRAST to Silverton, a touristy town to the west. With its pastel buildings and pseudo—general stores full of cheap souvenirs at high prices, Silverton looks less like the mining community it was during the gold rush than a working prototype for one of those Wild West setups at Disney World.
Depressed, we barely blinked as we sped back onto the Skyway. The topography changes dramatically from Silverton south to Durango, the stretch that Marie got to drive. Steep mountain peaks become rolling, tree-covered hills before morphing into a high-desert landscape of cacti and mangled trees. It's a beautiful transformation.
With a permanent population of about 17,000, Durango was the largest city on our route, and, ironically, the one I was most eager to leave. I think it's because this is where some of my trust-fund hippie friends from college moved after graduation to "find themselves." There are places in Durango to buy $400 hiking boots, clubs where groovy bands jam nightly, and upscale restaurants where trustafarians nosh after a long day of mountain biking. But we were looking for somewhere with a bit more soul.
Although we had planned to take the Skyway from start to finish, at the suggestion of an adventure-guide friend of Marie's, we made a side trip to Navajo Lake, about 45 miles to the south over the New Mexico border. We took the MDX off-road to a secret inlet he'd told us about on the northwestern side of the lake, where we spent the afternoon floating in the cerulean water and sunning on smooth terra-cotta—colored boulders.
It was almost dark by the time we got back into Colorado and reached our final stop, Dolores. The town is one of those blink-and-you-miss-it places, and everything was closed. We woke at our inn the next morning to sunshine, a big breakfast, and the promise of a day of fly-fishing on the town's namesake river. We ate lunch at a roadside diner and hit an antiques store, and by the end of the day we felt that we really did know everyone.
Driving out of town back to Telluride, Millie noted that Dolores had none of the inauthentic kitsch that makes Silverton a bust, and none of the amenities that make Durango a must-stop. Instead, it had soul. And soul beats luxury every time.
DAY 1 From Telluride, head west to Placerville on Highway 145, northeast on Highway 62, then south on Highway 550 to Ouray. Order the spinach enchiladas at Buen Tiempo Restaurant & Cantina (426 Main St., Ouray; 970/325-4951 or 866/243-1502), and get an Aveda massage at the Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa & Lodgings (625 Fifth Ave., Ouray; 970/325-4347 or 888/846-5191; www.wiesbadenhotsprings.com; $89, including access to swimming pool and vapor cave). Stay at the Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs (45 Third Ave., Ouray; 800/327-5080 or 970/325-4981; www.boxcanyonouray.com; doubles from $100).
DAY 2 Take the Million Dollar Highway (Highway 550) south to Silverton, and follow Route 110 east to Animas Forks. Backtrack through Silverton, heading south to Durango. Sleep at the Lightner Creek Inn (999 County Rd. 207, Durango; 800/268-9804 or 970/259-1226; www.lightnercreekinn.com; doubles from $95, including breakfast).
DAY 3 Drive southeast from Durango on Highway 172 (511 in New Mexico) for a swim in Navajo Lake (505/632-2278 for information). Take Highway 64 west to Shiprock, and Highway 666 north (160 in Colorado) to Cortez. Follow Highway 145 to Dolores, and stay at the Rio Grande Southern Hotel (101 S. Fifth St., Dolores; 800/258-0434 or 970/882-7527; www.riograndesouthernhotel.com; doubles from $75, including breakfast).
DAY 4 Head back to Telluride via Highway 145.