The Most Scenic Colorado Road Trip – Part 3 – Southern Colorado

Most Scenic Colorado Road Trip - Part 3
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In a state covered in high peaks and deep gorges, the southern section of Colorado might be the most scenic of all. This post is the 3rd leg in a series covering the most beautiful places in Colorado on an epic summer road trip. This section is arguably the most scenic the Colorado road trip has to offer. It cuts through the most beautiful range in the Rocky Mountains, the San Juan Range. It visits the state’s highest waterfall, ancient pueblo ruins, and North America’s tallest sand dunes. Come along as we cruise along this most scenic Colorado road trip.

The Most Scenic Colorado Road Trip – Southern Colorado

Locations on the Most Scenic Colorado Road Trip

Northern ColoradoWestern Colorado
A) Red Rock Amphitheatre
B) Mount Evans
C) Rocky Mountain National Park
D) Steamboat Springs
E) Dinosaur National Monument
F) Colorado National Monument
G) Glenwood Canyon
H) Leadville & Mount Elbert
I) Maroon Bells
J) Marble & Crystal Mill
K & L) Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP
Southern ColoradoCentral Colorado
M) Telluride & Bridal Veil Falls
N) The Million Dollar Highway
O) Mesa Verde National Park
P) Pagosa Springs
Q) Great Sand Dunes National Park
R) Salida & Bighorn Sheep Canyon
S) Royal Gorge Bridge
T) Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument
U) Pikes Peak
V) Garden of the Gods

M) Telluride & Bridal Veil Falls

Telluride Vista
Looking down on the Telluride Valley from the top of Bridal Veil Falls. The main part of the town is on the center left of the image.

The town of Telluride is arguably the most beautiful mountain town in Colorado. It is nestled in a high-altitude valley at 8,750′ in the gorgeous San Juan Mountains. Just behind the town is the highest waterfall in Colorado, the 365′ Bridal Veil Falls. This gorgeous waterfall sits at the end of a box canyon overlooking the town. Adventurous souls have been known to climb the frozen waterfall during the winter but in the summertime, you will have to settle for hiking to the top.

How Much Time

  • Typical Visit: Half-day

Half an hour of walking through the city streets combined with a few hours to hike the 5-mile trail to the top of the waterfall will be enough for most summer visitors to Telluride. Much of the hike follows a forest road that crosses over Black Bear Pass. This is a jeep road and is only recommended to outfitted vehicles. That being said if you are experienced and equipped it would add even more adventure to the most scenic Colorado road trip. For those without a jeep but looking for adventure, test your nerve on Telluride’s Via Ferretti. A cliff hike that typically takes half a day and is not for the faint of heart. Taking a guide is highly recommended but not required.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison to Telluride

Bridal Veil Falls
Looking up through the trees at Bridal Veil Falls, the tallest waterfall in Colorado.
  • Distance (From the South Rim): 79 miles
  • Drive Time: 2 hours

From the south side of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park return to Highway 50 and head west to the town of Montrose, Colorado. Montrose is a large town with many options to resupply on fuel and food. Head South on Highway 550 for 26 miles and then turn right (west) onto Highway 62. Highway 62 is beautiful as it skirts the gorgeous 14,158′ Mount Sneffels. At the end of Highway 62 (23-miles long) take a left on to Highway 145 and climb up the valley following the San Miguel River. After about 12 miles you will come to a roundabout where you will take the second exit towards Telluride.

N) The Million Dollar Highway

Million Dollar Highway
A stretch of the Million Dollar Highway that links the mountain towns of Ouray and Silverton, Colorado.

The Million Dollar Highway is the common name given to the stretch of Highway 550 that runs between the mountain towns of Ouray and Silverton, Colorado. The name is supposedly given for the fact that in 1920 each mile of the highway cost one million dollars to construct. It is a beautiful drive that cuts across the heart of the San Juan Mountain range. The most scenic Colorado road trip would not be complete without driving this 23-mile stretch of heaven on earth.

How Much Time

  • Typical Visit: Drive-Through

The Million Dollar Highway is a modern well-graded asphalt road that can be traversed in about 45 minutes. Both the towns of Ouray and Silverton are worth a short stop to explore each mountain town. Ouray’s Box Canyon Falls is a nice place to stretch your legs along the way that most people could explore fully in an hour or two. We recommend hiking to the top of the waterfall and going through the old water tunnel. It is a cool and unique stop. However, the real gem of traveling the Million Dollar Highway is found by hiking or backpacking the Ice Lake Basin Trail high in the San Juan Mountains.

Upper Ice Lake Basin
The trail into the Ice Lake Basin is a great hike high into the San Juan Mountains when driving the Million Dollar Highway.

Telluride to The Million Dollar Highway

  • Distance (To Ouray): 50 miles
    • Drive Time: 1 hour & 15 minutes
  • Distance (To Silverton): Add 23 miles
    • Drive Time: Add 45 minutes

To get to the Million Dollar Highway from Telluride backtrack to Highway 550 at Ridgeway, Colorado then turn right onto the highway and take it through Ouray, Colorado. After passing through the mountain town you will be officially on the Million Dollar Highway and on your way to Silverton, Colorado.

O) Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace
The Cliff Palace is the largest pueblo cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park.

The United States doesn’t have a lot of historic places that predate Europeans coming to the continent. We do not have the ancient pyramids found in the Yucatan, the temples of Asia, or the castles of Europe. What we do have are the cliff dwellings of the ancient Pueblo people. Ancient ruins of the native population can be found throughout much of the southwest but in no other place is it as prevalent as at Mesa Verde National Park. This is one of Colorado’s most sacred places and one of the most unique national parks in the country.

How Much Time

Typical Visit: 1 – 2 days

It is best to plan ahead for your time at Mesa Verde National Park. Very few of the sites can be explored without a tour reservation. Check out our guide to Mesa Verde for all the details but in general, we recommend at least a day dedicated to this historic place.

Silverton to Mesa Verde Visitor Center

  • Distance: 84 miles
  • Drive Time: 2 hours

From Silverton, Colorado your journey on the most scenic Colorado road trip continues to follow Highway 550 south into the town of Durango, Colorado. Durango is another larger town that is great for resupplying on food, water, and gas. You will leave Durango heading west on Highway 160 and travel 36 miles through the more arid desert-like terrain. You will find the Mesa Verde entrance on the left side of the road. Once you arrive at the park gate there is still a lot of driving to be done as you can easily drive for 70 miles throughout the park while visiting all the many ruins. Make sure you gas up in Durango.

P) Pagosa Springs & The World’s Deepest Hot Springs

Wolf Creek Pass Road - Most Scenic Colorado Road Trip
Looking down on Pagosa Springs from Wolf Creek Pass.

Colorado is home to an abundance of natural hot springs. According to the Genesis Book of World Records Pagosa Springs, Colorado has the world’s deepest geothermal hot springs. The depths of which have not been fully measured. A lot of the most scenic Colorado road trip locations focus on places that are best experienced by hiking to amazing overlooks. It is a nice change of pace to sit back and soak in the healing waters found in this beautiful rocky mountain town.

How Much Time

Typical Visit: 2 – 4 hours

A few hours soaking in the hot healing waters found at the Springs Resort & Spa will be enough for most travelers. However, as Pagosa Springs is the largest town in this area of Colorado, it has a lot to offer. Including great restaurants, like the Riff Raff Brewing Company, hotel accommodations, grocery stores, and fuel.

Mesa Verde (Visitor Center) to Pagosa Springs

  • Distance: 94 miles
  • Drive Time: 2 hours

From Mesa Verde return to Durango, Colorado on Highway 160. As you pass through Durango make sure you have enough fuel to make the full journey to Pagosa Springs. Continue traveling east on Highway 160 as the road traverses the southern tip of the San Juan Mountains all the way to Pagosa Springs.

Q) Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park
The tallest sand dunes in North America are found on the most scenic Colorado road trip.

Great Sand Dunes National Park is the fourth and final park on the most scenic Colorado road trip. It is a unique place that feels wonderfully odd. It is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America, hidden away by the much higher peaks that reign over them. During the late spring and early summer, the shallow Medano Creek runs along the eastern edge of the dunes and vanishes into the ground as it flows across the basin. The creek is an oasis in the desert that is both enjoyable and mysterious.

How Much Time

Typical Visit: 2 hours to Half-day

Most visitors to Great Sand Dunes National Park are content with simply driving into the park and spending half an hour at the visitor center learning about why the dunes are located here. This pared with a half an hour spent on Medano Creek makes for a great visit. If you are an explorer and wish to hike to the top of the 755′ Star Dune you will need at least half a day as hiking in the shifting sand is very difficult.

Mesa Verde (Visitor Center) to Great Sand Dunes

Treasure Falls
The 105′ Treasure Falls is a beautiful quick stop when taking the most scenic Colorado road trip.
  • Distance: 108 miles
  • Drive Time: 2 hours & 15 minutes

The drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park from Pagosa Springs climbs over the Rocky Mountains via Wolf Creek Pass on Highway 160. The 105′ high Treasure Falls is passed during the climb and is worth a quick stop to take it in. On the eastern side of the pass, the road descends to and follows the Rio Grande River to the small town of Del Norte, Colorado. This is where the terrain will transform into a large flat basin. Just beyond Del Norte you will turn left onto County Road 5 to Mosca. In Mosca, you will head North (left) on Highway 17 for one block and then turn right onto County Road 6. After traveling for about ten more miles you will start to see the massive dunes on the left. Once the road deadends, take a left onto Highway 150 leading into the National Park.

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