Hidden in plain sight

by Amanda Push

With the devastatingly grand mountain peaks, cliff dwellings, luscious rivers, and arid deserts, it’s hard to disagree with Colorado native and South Park creator Trey Parker’s view of our state. “You don’t need missionaries in Colorado. You got Colorado,” Parker said.

Described as everything from an oasis to an adult’s playground, if you have a pulse there’s no arguing that Colorado is one of the most breathtaking and awe-inspiring regions of the country.

So, if you’re living here, you have no excuse not to be living your best life, or whatever the kids are saying these days.

This region of the country, particularly the Southwest, boasts some of the most beautiful spots in what is arguably the outdoor equivalent of Bradley Cooper – and if Brad doesn’t do it for ya, take a freakin’ hike.

Unfortunately, this list doesn’t even begin to cover the hundreds of hiking, biking, fishing, rafting, kayaking, skiing, snowboarding, canoeing, sightseeing, and swimming (you get the point) activities there are to do here.

But don’t just take our word for it. Dig out your nerdy explorer hats, trekking poles, and fishing rods and set out to explore the hidden outdoor gems of the Southwest.


Treasure Falls This gorgeous waterfall comes with a mysterious twist of history. Just a little more than 15 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs, Treasure Falls is a beauty named for the legend of hidden gold that is said to be buried in the mountain – Treasure Mountain – from hence the cataract originates.

According to the tales, during the 18th Century, hundreds of Frenchmen came to the San Juan Mountains to pan for gold – and boy, did they find some. After dealing with harsh winters and attacks from Native Americans and Spaniards, the men hid the gold. However, despite many attempts, it has never been found.

This treasure of an expedition is a pretty easy hike made up of dirt switchbacks and is just off Highway 160. Once there, weary travelers can rest on the “Misty Deck,” where they can not only enjoy the view, but bask in a light spray of water droplets from the falls. Round trip, this hike only takes between 30 to 45 minutes, and has a scenic view of densely populated trees, leaving you with plenty of time to go hunting for gold. Just don’t forget your shovel.


Piedra RiverHot springs. Whitewater rafting. Fishing. No mysterious creatures lurking just beneath the water’s surface. What more could one want from a river?

Just 40 miles east of Durango, the Piedra River is scenery filled with beautiful, lush, and isolated wilderness. The river courses through box canyons and eventually ends up in the San Juan River at Navajo Lake.

Named for the stones that pepper the waterway and the towering granite canyons, the river offers plenty of rapids for those looking for that rafting rush. With a variety of trout that call the water home, the Piedra is both a challenging, and, due to its isolation, ideal spot for fishermen and women.

The hot springs, just a little more than an hour drive east from Durango, are a bit tricky to find, but once you do, it’s a bit of a challenge to convince yourself to leave. Even better? These hot baths are set at just the right price – free dollars.


Blackface MountainAlbeit rather a racist sounding name, this fairly difficult hike is nearly eight miles long round trip, so if you’re the type of person who prefers lounging on a lake dock to climbing uphill, this trip might not be for you.

The trail begins southwest of Telluride along Route 145 at the top of Lizard Head Pass, snakes through Lizard Head Wilderness, and offers a view of Trout Lake and beautiful meadows along the way.


At the end of your more-than-likely breathless summit, you’ll be greeted with the more than 12,000-foot view of an array of mountain heads, including Mt. Wilson, El Diente, Wilson Peak, Gladstone Peak, Vermilion Peak, Sunshine Mountain, Pilot Knob, and Golden Horn. You get to see a lot of other mountains. You get it.

[image:4]Ute Mountain Tribal ParkTasked with preserving the remains of an ancient history in this arid region long forgotten by some, it’s no wonder that National Geographic Traveler chose this spot as one of its “80 World Destinations for Travel in the 21st Century.” If that doesn’t convince you to visit, Ute Mountain Tribal Park is one of only nine places to be chosen from the United States.

All 125,000 acres of the park, located southwest of Cortez near the Mancos River, are part of the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation. The park was maintained as a means of protecting the history of the Ancestral Puebloan – an ancient Native American group that lived in southeastern Utah, northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado – and Ute people.

History buffs can tour the park and experience a small peek into the ancient world of America that includes cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, surface sites, and wall paintings. Though you can’t just wander around the property by yourself like the boys from “The Goonies” while looking for Native American relics, members of the Ute tribe – who can fill visitors in on the history of the area, its people, and their culture and history – provide tours.

During these excursions, guests will get a glimpse at the Ancestral Puebloans’ way of life, a group whose construction methods allowed for them to build everything from pit houses to cliff dwellings. The people were also known for their artistic endeavors: beautiful works of pottery – a variety of their ceramic designs have been found across different sites – and their rock art.

If you have time, many people recommend taking the full-day guided tour. Fair warning though – this tour includes lots of walking (about three miles) and involves some ladder climbing, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes, bring water, and leave your fear of heights at home.


Wheeler Geologic AreaLocated in the Rio Grande National Forest, just northeast of the old mining town of Creede, is the Wheeler Geologic Area. There’s a reason this place is considered a hidden gem, though – it is not easy to reach.

To get to Wheeler, one must either hike seven miles or take a four-wheel drive on 14 miles of rough road. Still, once you arrive, the remarkable views are reward enough to momentarily make you forget your arduous journey, because visitors are met with weird ass geological formations. Castles of jagged rocks grouped together jut out from the earth like rockets aimed toward the sky and ready for take off.


These natural wonders were baked into existence by volcanic ash millions of years ago by a mega volcano in a magnificent display of destruction, all for your viewing pleasure today. This explosion was apparently one of the most significant eruptions in Earth’s history, according to geologists, and it smothered Colorado in volcanic debris.


Ice Lake BasinDescribed by some people as a “must” hike, if you don’t mind a challenge, then perhaps you should consider a trek to Ice Lake Basin, just west of Silverton. This patch of heaven buried in the San Juan National Forest is known for its long winter seasons and short summers, making Ice Lake frozen over for most of the year.

Roughly an eight-mile round trip, this excursion might be difficult, but if you endure, the outstanding scenery is worth it, with plenty of wildflowers, waterfalls, creeks, and, of course, the majestically blue Ice Lake.

If Ice Lake wasn’t enough for you, side trips to Island and Fuller Lakes are also options along this trail.

[image:12]Wetherill MesaDescribed by many visitors as the quieter, less well-traveled option than the Chapin Mesa, Wetherill Mesa lies inside the Mesa Verde National Park, just south of Cortez. The area is named for Richard Wetherill, who explored the ancient Puebloan sites. Guess that earns you a mesa with your namesake.

To access the mesa, visitors must brave a twisting road so narrow it is only accessible to vehicles under 25-feet long. Once travelers reach the parking area, they can visit the information center and seasonal cafe. From there, they can choose to venture out to the five ruins: Badger House, Step House, Long House, Nordenskiold Site 16, and Kodak House.

Long House, the second-largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde Park, and the only one that requires a ticket purchase, can only be experienced via a two-hour guided tour led by park rangers. A little tip – if one looks behind these ruins, they can get a look at a seep spring, which is water that flows from a cliff that may have at one time been used by the dwelling’s tenants.

Badger House can be found on top of the plateau and is made up of four sites – one of the pithouses even dates back to 650 A.D. The four areas are all located within a nearly one-mile long loop, and are protected with metal canopies.

For independent hikers, Step House can be explored on your own. These ruins are probably the most popular to visit of the five. A short hike from the information center, this dwelling has a reconstructed pithouse, petroglyphs, and a ranger available to answer all your questions and make sure you don’t break shit and piss off the ancient spirits.

Nordenskiold Site 16 and Kodak House, however, are inaccessible and can only be admired from afar. Aside from being the only two you can’t actually go up to, they’re also the most non-Native sounding names of the bunch, mainly because they were named after Swedish archaeologist Gustaf Nordenskiold, who studied the ruins during the 1890s, and the other is named after, you guessed it, a camera. Apparently, Nordenskiold would leave his camera at Kodak House a lot while he worked at the other sites.

Wetherill is only open between May and October, so be sure to catch this one before it closes for the year.

Last Dollar RoadThe old saying, “Take the scenic route,” may be mind-numbingly cliche, but sometimes cliches are cliches for a reason – because they’re right. So if you find yourself traveling from Telluride to Ridgway and happen to have a little time, choose Last Dollar Road, located right between Highways 62 and 145.

Back in the day, this road was used to transport mining supplies, but today, this twisted dirt detour offers explorers views of Colorado ranchland, filled with sweeping valleys and luscious foliage set against a serene backdrop of colossal mountain peaks. Eventually, you’ll start to wonder if you wandered into a Bob Ross painting.

A trip down the road during the fall is especially recommended if you have a soul and enjoy the colors of autumn.

Be warned, however, that there’s a reason this bumpy route is not as well-traveled, despite its scenic offerings. Last Dollar Road can be tricky to navigate, so if you’re planning the trek, use a four wheel drive vehicle.


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