Southwest Colorado is home to some of the best scenery in the state as well as being home to Anasazi ruins and historic western towns. The San Juan mountains meet mesa Country in southwest Colorado providing an endless array of outdoor opportunities.
We’ve traveled throughout this area many times over the years and have still only scratched the surface of this unique region of Colorado.
- Mesa Verde
- Million Dollar Highway
- Crested Butte
- Pagosa Springs
- Great Sand Dunes
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The ancient Anasazi picked a great place to build their homes. Mesa Verde’s cliffside cities are over 900 years old, but it’s not difficult to imagine life in Mesa Verde. And you might feel a tad envious, too, as it seems the perfect escape from the crazy modern world.
The trails in Mesa Verde are family-friendly, traveling down from the mesa tops to passages beneath the cliffsides where the Anasazi built their homes. Even if you are unfortunate enough to arrive at a time when there are no tours of the ruins available, you’ll enjoy your time in this serene place.
As a teenager I visited both the Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House ruins on tours and I highly recommend them for really learning about the structures. I’ve taken my family to Mesa Verde but we haven’t been lucky enough to come when the cliff dwelling tours were running (partly thanks to Covid closures).
Regardless my kids enjoyed the trails and alcoves that were open for exploration. We haven’t yet enjoyed a camping trip here, but I have heard the star gazing is amazing. This is a special park and one not to be missed.
Durango is a historic tourist town in southwest Colorado. It is at the southern end of the Million Dollar Highway (US 550). I have been to Durango many times in my life starting in my teens and in all four seasons. The town gets fairly crowded in the summer months and around Christmas time.
Durango & Silverton Railroad
This is probably the most well-known attraction in Durango. The full journey to Silverton is open in the summer months. If you have a train-loving kid like we do you can’t avoid riding it at least once. In the winter they rebrand it as the Polar Express and travel around a lower elevation loop to the ‘North Pole’. It’s good fun for the kids.
The train ride to Silverton is neat, but I have to admit I think the scenery is superior on the Million Dollar Highway (which I’ll discuss later on). Also, the pace can feel quite long after a while at 3 hours 30 minutes each direction.
Durango Hot Springs
We went in late December to Durango Hot Springs to enjoy the pools while it snowed. There are numerous pools and separate sections for adults and families.
The hot springs are backed by a conifer forest and have different temperatures. The crowd here seems unfortunately to get possessive of certain pools so even if you are the first ones there, don’t be surprised if others come to crowd it.
As for winter snowfall in the pools, it’s a great experience, but your head will eventually get pretty cold so keep a towel handy (or wear a hat) and out of the snow. Also keep your sandals out of the snowfall too or you’ll have to endure the feeling of ice on your feet walking back to the changing rooms. Never put your head underwater in a hot spring pool: amoeba’s can survive and thrive in pools suitable for humans.
Best Western Inn & Suites
There is more than one Best Western in Durango, so be sure you know which one you are choosing. This one is just west of the town on Highway 160.
This is our go-to hotel in Durango even though it isn’t directly in town. It’s clean, comfortable and has a great morning breakfast. It’s also quiet and you’ll get a better night of sleep here than in the other Best Western.
Carver Brewing Company
I really liked this brewpub in downtown Durango. It’s the oldest in Durango and didn’t have the long lines of another brewpub a block away. The atmosphere, food, and drinks were all excellent. We ate here before boarding the train and it was a nice chill time.
Lone Spur Cafe
We had breakfast here and it was one of the best french toast plates I’ve had in a while. We had a short wait to be seated (it was the holiday season), but once we were seated everything was relaxed and the food was good. Definitely would return for breakfast again.
The restaurant is set inside the historic Strater Hotel, and for that reason alone it’s worth it. Beyond the historic value, it’s a really good restaurant with great food. It’s a bit pricey, but I was there on Father’s Day so I was willing to spend a little more.
Diamond Bell Saloon
Another establishment in the Strater is the Diamond Belle Saloon. The historic western atmosphere and the saloon attire of the waitresses are the big reasons to come here. After that, you realize the service can be a bit slow in a crowded, popular bar that closes earlier than most tourist bars should. Absolutely worth going to though if you can visit when it is less busy.
Million Dollar Highway
Any list of the top 10 most scenic roads in America has to include US 550 between Durango and Ouray, better known as the Million Dollar Highway. The scenery just doesn’t stop on the entire 60 mile journey with a stop in Silverton in between. There are two mountain passes, Molas Divide and Red Mountain along the route, and if you are fearful of driving high mountain roads, you’ll certainly be tested (but it is worth it). And yes, Red Mountain really is red.
Another favorite town of ours in Colorado is Crested Butte. It’s about 30 miles north of Gunnison in a valley where it remains fairly hidden away from the rest of the world, except for outdoorsy visitors that flock there for fun.
Crested Butte Ski Resort
This is one of our favorite ski areas owing to the fact that 1) It isn’t nearly as well-known as the major resorts long I-70 and 2) It isn’t on I-70 so you don’ have to sit in nearly the traffic to get to and from the ski resort.
It isn’t as large as some of the more famous Colorado resorts but it does get as much or more snow as anywhere else. Also it has a great town to visit outside the ski resort.
Elevation Hotel & Spa
This hotel has everything you can want in a ski-in/ski-out hotel. Nice rooms and they’re even dog friendly. The parking underneath the hotel is very tight if you have a big vehicle.
Nordic Inn Bed and Breakfast
Sometimes I don’t want to tell about the very best places since then I’ll have a harder time booking them when I want. The Nordic Inn is as close to ski-in/ski-out as you can get without being a resort hotel and has great rooms and a great morning breakfast. This is our go to place if we can book it. And they’re dog friendly, with the advantage that you can walk your dog right out the door and not down an elevator.
Iron Horse Tap
This is a fun low-key restaurant/bar right off the slopes. We have had fun eating and drinking and playing board games here on evenings. A lot of ski area bars have a douchy crowd (let’s be honest), but not here. Cool and laid back.
Crested Butte has one of the most picturesque and historically intact downtown areas in Colorado (without being a ghost town). Our favorite restaurant and go to breakfast spot is Paradise Cafe. They have a small dining space and you’ll likely wait in line, but the food and the coffees are top, top notch. Do yourself a favor and eat breakfast here.
Pagosa Springs is best known for the many hot spring resorts throughout the town. The surrounding area is also a great area to enjoy the eastern San Juan Mountains.
Healing Waters Hot Springs
Unfortunately the only hot springs we’ve been to in Pagosa Springs in Healing Waters and it’s been a few years. It was ok, not exactly as impressive as some of the other hot springs resorts in the town. I don’t think I would choose this one again.
You’ll have to drive a little ways out of town to get to the falls trail, but if you’re up for a fun family hike, this is a good one. It’s only a two-mile round trip to a pretty impressive falls.
This is one of the older and better campgrounds in all of Colorado. It’s forested and hidden away a few miles north of Pagosa Springs. The scenery nearby is impressive and you can ride horses and more at the campground. The campground was even the shooting location of a John Wayne film.
My only complaint was that a few of the campsites are occupied by permanent residents who tend to be a bit loud and give you the feeling of moving into their space, rather than a welcome place for everyone.
Break Room Brewing Company
This restaurant has a really fun outdoor eating area with cornhole, jenga, etc. The food was fairly average, and despite being a ‘brewing company’ they don’t brew their own beer. But that aside, it’s a nice place for a relaxing lunch in the summer.
Great Sand Dunes
The Great Sand Dunes are a natural wonder unlike any other in the Rocky Mountain region. A vast area of towering sand dunes formed at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in a scene that looks like a small portion of the Sahara Desert amid the mountain scenery.
The Great Sand Dunes are fun to traverse (just be sure to either walk the dunes when it is overcast, early or late in the day, or with a good pair of shoes). I’ve hiked to the tops of the tallest dunes in my younger years. I have not yet tried sand boarding, but we’ll try it next time we go.
In the early summer Medano Creek provides a great area for kids to play at the base of the dunes. The water is cool and refreshing even on the hottest days.
Pinyon Flats Campground
The location and scenic value of Piñon Flats right inside Great Sand Dunes National Park make it the best place to camp near the dunes. The sites are simple (as expected for national park campgrounds) and there isn’t a lot of room to park travel trailers (even our popup camper barely fit in the space allotted).
As you can see deer and other animals traverse the campground and the sunsets over the dunes from your campsite are magnificent.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The final stop on this journey through southwest Colorado is another of the national parks: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The canyon is impressively deep and narrow, making it one of the great canyons of the western US.
There are precipitous drop-offs along many of the trails, even more so than the Grand Canyon, so be extra careful with the kiddos. Some of the best viewpoints require hiking down short trails so be sure to do more than just pull off at the overlooks. The Painted Wall is a fascinating look at a slice of earth’s geological history in a snapshot.
You can see a great deal of the park in a single day. I am not aware of any trails that lead into the canyon, owing to its steepness, but the rim trails are quite nice. Warner Point Nature Trail is an easy one for the kids at the end of the south rim road.
I’ve actually not visited the north rim yet, but I will next time I visit.