Seeing the Rocky Mountains is as much a part of great American travel as cruising the PCH or complaining about TSA lines. But unlike most American travel experiences, there's no specific way to "do" the Rockies. Sure, you can go skiing in Breckenridge or spend a few days in Rocky Mountain National Park. Even then, what you see is limited, and so is what you learn. To get the real feel for what these mountains are, and how people have lived there, take the drive from Denver to Telluride.
For the geographically ignorant -- aka everyone, including myself -- Telluride is nowhere near Denver or the other Colorado mountain towns you may have heard of (check out our interactive map at the bottom of the article). It’s about seven hours away, in the far southwestern part of the state, a couple of hours from Four Corners. And while driving there via I-70 and US-50 might be faster, the best route is on US-285 through the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. It takes a little longer, but the payoff is in the spectacular scenery, quirky little towns -- including the real South Park -- and an eerie, abandoned motel. After a single day's trip, you'll emerge with intimate knowledge of America's greatest mountain range.
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Lovely city, that Denver. It's also surprisingly flat, and on a hot day the mountains are more like hazy outlines, so the drive really begins once you turn south onto Hwy 470. Your immediate welcome to the Rockies will be winding by Red Rocks Park, home of the world-famous amphitheater. It's not worth a stop unless you're going to a show, but the mesmerizing drive through canyons of red stone is just the beginning of hours of the best road-trip scenery in America.
As you leave the park and descend down Hwy 470, through Alpine forests that cut away to sprawling mesas below, you'll be tempted to take pictures at every possible roadside turnoff. But unless you're willing to spend three days on the road you'll need to resist. Keep moving.
Come on down to South Park
Part of the charm of this trip is coming across historic towns seemingly set in the middle of nowhere. The first you;ll encounter is Jefferson, a town established around an historic railroad depot that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
Continuing down US 285, signs for something called "South Park City" beckon you to turn off at Fairplay. And yes, it is the inspirational name for your favorite foul-mouthed cartoon town. But "South Park City" is more than a Comedy Central tourist attraction. It’s a restored 1880s mining town in Downtown Fairplay, home to a locomotive and relocated 19th-century buildings. The museum is about a 90-minute tour where you'll learn the history of the area. But if that's too long for you, there's still a South Park sign and a wood cutout where you can stick your face on Eric Cartman's body. Because who could resist.
A traveling history lesson along US-285
The rest of US-285 is dotted with towns nestled in the valleys of the Rockies. Como -- founded by Italian railroad workers -- has five nationally registered historic buildings, including the roundhouse, a brick structure in the image of the Roman Coliseum. There's the old ranching town of Hartsel. And Shawnee, a one-time resort destination for exhausted miners wedged into Platte Canyon. The 110 miles of US-285 is a traveling lesson in frontier life. Few road trips anywhere give you this much immersive history in a bygone century.
The drive continues through the Pike National Forest, where the road is flanked by flowing streams, sheer cliffs, and towering mountains. The terrain alternates quickly; you may find yourself driving through an endless mesa and start singing, and by the time you've finished belting "Since U Been Gone" you're all of a sudden climbing through alpine forest.
Beer and wine at the halfway point
At the end of US-285 is Salida, an old-school mining town turned recreational hub with the Arkansas River running right through the middle. It marks the midway point of the drive, and is THE place to stop for a roadside beverage. The bars here are set up over the river on boulders, and on a sunny day sipping a beer outside, looking at the river and the mountains behind it, will be that moment you realize, "Holy shit, I'm in the Rockies."
If a beer by the water isn't your ideal halfway beverage break, Mountain Spirit Winery sits just down US-50. It's not exactly Napa-in-the-Rockies, but it has some unique blends of both traditional and fruit wine that you won't see elsewhere. It's the sort of place you stumble on during a great road trip, spending an hour when you'd only planned to pop in for a quick tasting.
Continuing on US-50 through Gunnison and Western State Colorado University, you'll arrive at the scenic highlight of the drive, the Blue Mesa Reservoir. The largest body of water in Colorado is a breathtaking field of blue surrounded by golden cliffs and sand dunes. The highway runs just to the right of the reservoir, then crosses over a series of dams and bridges for some of the best moving-car photo ops of the drive.
The best viewpoint of Blue Mesa comes at the end, as you approach Black Canyon National Park. After crossing the reservoir you'll see a short access road to your right, marked by a sign to the park. Take that road about a mile down to the top of the Blue Mesa Dam, bottling the Gunnison River as a reservoir. You can look deep into the marble canyon to one side, and the reservoir and desert cliffs to the other.
An abandoned motel worth exploring
As you hit the home stretch of US-50, near Cimarron, a sign for a Sinclair gas station pops up around a corner, followed by a dilapidated motel sign with a "vacancy" sign that looks to be clinging by a single nail. Upon closer examination the scene is fit for a film about fugitives and secret agents dropped at the base of the Rockies. Two cars straight out of Starsky and Hutch are parked out front, and one room in the motel is mysteriously full of wardrobe clothes and props. It's one of the most curious abandoned stops on any US highway, and worth a stop for the mystery alone.
Your last big turn comes in Montrose, where a left through the heart of Downtown brings you onto US-550. Montrose is rather unremarkable, and if you're hungry at this point hold off until you get into Ridgeway, about half an hour south. There you'll find an old house converted into a taco joint called Taco del Gnar. Despite the teeth-clenching surfer-ness of the name it has possibly the best tacos in Colorado, and is a perfect dinner stop just an hour from Telluride.
Telluride: a destination worth the journey
A few more climbs up into the San Juan Mountain Range -- the youngest part of the Rockies -- brings you into Telluride. The remarkably preserved mining town has bucked profiteering real estate developers to maintain its historic roots. It's a small city -- only about 2,500 full-time residents -- with a rep as one of the best small American cities to spend the weekend. It;s a well-earned reward at the end of a long journey and you should absolutely take a couple of days to ride its free gondola, climb the towering peaks that surround the city, and stroll through its Downtown that looks remarkably similar to how it did 100 years ago. The Rockies might continue past Telluride, but you won't see much that compares to what you'll see there.
So, sure, there are plenty of ways to experience America's signature mountain range. And, much like the peaks themselves, the options for how to see it can seem overwhelming. Don't overcomplicate things -- this is as good a one-day course in the Rockies as you can find. You'll learn history, see the best scenery in the state, and eat pretty well along the way. And when you think back about the most magical days of your life, the road trip down US-285 into Telluride will definitely be among them.
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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer with Thrillist who would like to thank the lovely people at Hertz Car Rental for providing the bad-ass SUV that made this road trip possible.