Colorado’s Western Slope: Land of Valleys and Canyons

Colorado’s Western Slope: Land of Valleys and Canyons 1Colorado’s Western Slope offers a terrain of bold beauty and ageless history. In this realm of bluffs and buttes dinosaurs once roamed, cliff-dwellers farmed and miners sluiced streams in an elusive search for wealth.

For the summer visitor, the ground between mountains and desert typically features brilliant days and balmy nights. Adventurers have trails to hike, paths to bike and rivers to run. Motorists find byways to drive and cliff-edges to overlook. History buffs can survey dwellings, train buffs can ride rails, and auto buffs can ogle vintage cars. When night finally falls, campers roast s’mores beneath unfettered skies glowing with starry luminescence.

Grand Valley

For most Coloradans, the Grand Valley serves as the West Slope’s prime gateway. Around Grand Junction, visitors can savor settings that range from bare-naked cliffs to fruit-clad orchards and grape-draped vineyards.

The valley’s warm summer days provide an ideal habitat for fruit trees. The locale has become famous for its apples, apricots, cherries, pears, peaches and plums, and, in season, roadside markets vend harvest-fresh produce. Many consider it a travesty not to bring home a box or bushel after a visit.

With the climate and soil resembling the Upper Rhone region in France, vintners realized the valley would also be good for growing grapes. The area now hosts 16 wineries and meaderies, most of which tempt travelers with tasting rooms. A case of cabernet fits nicely in the trunk beside the peaches.

For the shopper, Grand Junction’s pedestrian-friendly Main Street dates to the early 1900s. Boutique shops and sidewalk restaurants occupy buildings that once held department stores. There’s nary a Starbucks in sight. Downtown java junkies quaff caffeine at independents like Coffee Muggers, where a 20-ounce cup is simply called a “large.”

Duffers have five sets of links in the area to choose from, including the award-winning Golf Club at Redlands Mesa. The course offers a championship layout with verdant greens flanked by ruddy rock.

Beyond lies Colorado National Monument, an enclave of canyons, cliffs and vertigo-inducing overlooks west of the city. Motorists and cyclists can enjoy lofty views from Rim Rock Drive, while hikers have 11 different drainage systems to explore. Nearby, the expansive McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area features mixed-use trails and a 24-mile stretch of the Colorado River ideal for fishing, canoeing, kayaking and rafting.

When temperatures become too torrid for desert activities, locals head for Grand Mesa on the southeast side of the valley. This 10,000-foot-high, flat-topped mountain offers picnicking and camping under the conifers, as well as the lure of fish-rich lakes and streams.

For kids who think T-Rex is neater than trout, the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita, Colorado, provides a chance to learn about the overgrown lizards that once roamed the area. The center features hands-on exhibits and skeletal displays. To enhance the Jurassic experience, they even offer robotic representations of the giant reptiles.

Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau

Canyons of the Yampa and Green

Another site devoted to Barney’s brethren is Dinosaur National Monument, which overlaps the Utah border in northwestern Colorado. In the early 1900s, Professor Earl Douglass discovered a dinosaur bone outcrop, and his ensuing quarry yielded skeletons of a dozen different species. In 1915, the area became a national monument. Two decades later, it was enlarged to include the canyons of the Green and Yampa Rivers.

Today, rim-top overlooks provide views of the river explorer Maj. John Wesley Powell floated on his way to the Grand Canyon in 1869. The expedition entered the present-day monument through the Gates of Lodore, a river-carved notch in billion-year-old quartzite. The next day, his party crashed through a cataract where they lost one of their four boats and a third of their total provisions. Appropriately, Powell named the obstacle “Disaster Falls.”

Dinosaur National Monument

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison is quite a sight.

Canyon of the Gunnison

Downstream lies Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, one of the deepest and narrowest clefts in the country. The view from trails above is spectacular, but hikers itching to scamper down should realize there are no maintained trails to the bottom and poison ivy along the river can reach five-foot heights.

After flowing through the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, the river passes Delta, Colorado. Eleven murals celebrate the town’s agricultural heritage, and a downtown walking tour passes buildings dating to the 1800s. Visitors craving a nostalgic evening can still catch films at the 1954-vintage Tru-Vu Drive-In Theater.

Curecanti National Recreation Area

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Delta Area Chamber of Commerce

San Miguel, Dolores and Unaweep Canyons

The nostalgia of a twisty, two-lane roadway can be found on the Unaweep/Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway. Starting as Colorado Highway 145 near Telluride, the route parallels the San Miguel River past old placer mining sites. Meadows and farm land dominate as the route shifts to Colorado Highway 141 near Naturita. Down the highway stand the uranium/vanadium-mining remains of Uravan.

The canyon deepens as the San Miguel River meets the Dolores. Here, bolted to towering sandstone cliffs, run the remains of Hanging Flume. Built in the late 1800s, the seven-mile aqueduct delivered water to power mining operations.

The road and river descend to Gateway, a community revitalized by Discovery Channel founder John Hendricks. There, he built the Gateway Canyons Resort and opened the Gateway Colorado Auto Museum. The prize of his 40-vehicle car collection is a 1954 Olds F-88 concept car, which Hendricks purchased for $3 million.

The route continues northeast through Unaweep Canyon, passing a habitat for rare butterflies and a stone mansion constructed in the 1910s by a wealthy New Yorker. The byway ends 15 miles southeast of Grand Junction.

Colorado Scenic Byways

Gateway Canyons Resort

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The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a fun day trip.

Animas River Canyon

Grand Junction may be the West Slope’s prime gateway, but Durango has become its leading resort center. The southwestern Colorado city sports a historic downtown, and the nearby hills offer enticing opportunities for fishing, hiking, biking, rafting, riding and more.

Durango was built as a railroad town, and from here, the coal-fired trains of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway still wend their way up the Animas Canyon to Silverton. The route borders wilderness, bisecting land inaccessible to automobiles.

Three hours from the start, the tracks enter Silverton. Passengers have two hours to wander the town, which once boasted five hotels, 10 restaurants, 34 saloons and 18 lawyers. A National Historical Landmark, Silverton looks much the same today as it did then, albeit now with far fewer attorneys.

Durango Area Tourism Office

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Tributaries of the San Juan

The Animas ultimately flows into the San Juan, one of southwestern Colorado’s major river drainages. Around it and its tributary canyons, Native Americans known as Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloans) flourished before mysteriously disappearing around 1300 AD.

For westbound drivers on U.S. Highway 160, the first encounter with the ancients comes at the Chimney Rock Archeological Area, southwest of Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Experts speculate that the site’s natural twin spires were used for astronomical observations. The summer solstice sun rises centered on a wall of the Great House near the pillars, and from it, the sighting gap between the twin “chimneys” can be used to measure a recurring phenomenon known as lunar standstill.

Down the highway lies Mesa Verde National Park. Ancient farmers lived here for more than 700 years, growing corn, beans and squash. Today the park protects over 4,000 sites, 600 of which are cliff dwellings, some of which are the best preserved and most accessible in the country. Ranger-led walking tours allow visitors to examine the native structures up close.

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Native Americans built cliff dwellings which can be still be seen at Mesa Verde National Park.

The nearby Ute Mountain Tribal Park lies on the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation south of Cortez off U.S. Highway 666. Full-day tours, led by Ute Indian guides, take visitors to four seldom-seen cliff dwellings.

More ancestral sites can be seen in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, an enclave lying between U.S, Highway 666 and the Utah border. Rangers ask visitors to stop at the Anasazi Heritage Center for orientation. Located outside of Dolores on Colorado Highway184, the center offers archaeological, historical and cultural exhibits, many of which are hands-on.

Those who have not had enough should head for Hovenweep National Monument, which offers six sites along the Colorado-Utah border. The largest collection of buildings is the Square Tower Group, named for a three-story structure carefully constructed atop a boulder. Gravel roads lead to five others.

A convenient place to stay when visiting the Ancestral Puebloan lands is Cortez. Its modern-day trading posts sell Navajo and Ute art, and tribal members present dance programs six summer nights a week at the Cortez Cultural Center.

For the traveler, the town offers chain motels and local eateries, but nary a Starbucks. Instead, coffee drinkers drive down Main Street to the Silver Bean, a shop built in a classic, 1969 Airstream travel trailer. Of course, their 20-ounce cup is simply called a “large.”

Chimney Rock Archeological Center

Mesa Verde National Park

Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Anasazi Heritage Center

Hovenweep National Monument

Cortez Chamber of Commerce