Updated: Aug 23, 2022
Alta Lakes, Telluride CO
Part 1 — June 21 to July 03
The goal and reason for why we wanted to visit Southwest Colorado was simply to beat the heat of summer. By the time we had left northern AZ, even with being at 6000’ elevation, the daily temps in June were soaring into the nineties. We needed to go higher and find better tree line. Colorado had what we were looking for with spending most our days at an average elevation of 8-9000’ and with ample shade.
The unfortunate aspect we did not know or realize until there, was that July is CO’s monsoon season. And not so much monsoons in the way New Mex or AZ gets them, but it’s steady, predictable and frequent rainfall. Enough to saturate the grounds, present risks for flash floods and ultimately teach us how to navigate and consider our limitations during these months. When speaking to any locals, they all corroborated that yes, it is their monsoon season, but it came heavy and it came early.
Aside from that, we had great temperatures with days ranging from as low as 38° to highs in the 90s depending on where we were at geographically.
We spent our time covering the entire Southwestern corner, making stops at each of the national parks and monuments (Mesa Verde, National Monument and Gunnison Canyon) beginning with the Four Corners. We spent most our days living within the national forests, mostly the San Juan’s, The Unc and the San Isabel, but also traversed the entire Million Dollar Highway and visited some interesting and outstanding towns along the way. We scaled sheer canyon walls clipped in with harnesses, came face to face with a mountain lion, walked through endless streams of blooming, alpine floral varieties, evicted chipmunks and watched communities of yellow-bellied marmots play in the rocks. The array of peaks and ranges we encountered as went moved us towards the center of the state before finally turning south to go in between the famous Collegiate Peaks known for having the highest collection of fabled 14’ers of any range and quite possibly the highest average elevation of any in the lower 48.
We also really harnessed the main aspect of our day, and what commenters and readers have all shown the most interest in: eating! We just launched Meal-Time Monday’s on Instagram and our ‘Far Out Foods’ will showcase our often simple, sometimes extravagant meal ideas created on the road, from within a van and achieved through limited means. You’ll see this as a regular occurrence on the days list, so prepare to get a pen and paper, or save the photos if you’re looking to gather any of the ideas for yourselves.
And so, are you ready to travel Southwest Colorado? Here we go!
SHIPROCK & FOUR CORNERS
6/21 Tuesday - Day 0
Camped along FR (Forest Road) 258, San Juan NF (National Forest)
The revered Shiprock located at the heart of Navajo Nation was an expected to see landmark and sure enough, it emerged, displaying its distinct shape seen from many miles away.
An ancient volcano, resembling a bird with wings, rises more than 1500 feet straight up from the harsh desert terrain. It’s a sacred site and there’s no camping, hiking or anything other than viewing from afar and that’s just what we did. It was still a magical landmark and we instantly recognized its uniqueness and cultural significance. So much so, that we even brought kitty out for a celebration of its magnificence.
Continuing on Highway 491, we passed by the signs for the Four Corners landmark, which I figured would be an obvious travel destination for us at some point and here we were, crossing from Arizona into New Mexico on our way towards Colorado. Might as well complete the quadrant and see the spectacle.
It’s a total waste. It’s a dirt lot, with permanent vendor stalls encircling the cemented, central square with a queue of people waiting to take selfies and family group shots atop the intersection. We walked around and ventured off behind the landmark to gaze at the astounding vista, feeling the harsh desert heat.
Being a privatized landmark, controlled by the Navajo Nation, it was eight dollars per person to get in and ultimately lead to nowhere. We could not hike beyond the perimeter as it was part of the reservation lands, the bathrooms were atrocious, they were initially enforcing all kinds of mask mandates for an outdoor venue and then never followed suit. It felt like a complete scam and we would caution anyone to visit unless they had decent time to kill with an hour drive each way, only to be swindled into buying some typical and expected souvenirs.
We made it into Colorado, hoping the elevation would continue to climb and we’d be returned to the seclusion and cover of the forest.
We landed at a very cool, easy to access forest site and spotted an area we liked. After the long day of travel, we settled in easily for the evening. The site had a pond, which different cow and calf pairs would visit throughout the day. It was completely inundated with thick brush and armies of chipmunks, which meant kitty was connected to the leash and anchored to the rear of the van, encumbered by his desires to hunt and chase.
We were in love with the area. Tall, looming Ponderosa Pines cast shadows and the forest was alive and enticing. We were within the San Juan’s, and it’s allure would capture our travels for the coming weeks as we made our way North towards the Million Dollar Highway.
MAGICAL RAIN HIKE
6/22 Wednesday - Day 1
Dolores FR 258, 7700 ft, 76° high
Taking advantage of the captivating terrain, we ventured out from camp, directly through the woods guiding our path with only a compass heading to run into the Sunset Trail, a 7.7 mile trek that used other connecting trails to complete a loop. The terrain was favorable, a soft gentle forest with lots of room to pass along the trodden path, immersed in the 360° views. We climbed, descended, scaled rock bluffs and got introduced to July weather in Colorado. A thundering rain storm advanced onto us and we took shelter beside a tree, smiling from the freshness of it all. We snacked, standing upright, observing the motion of the clouds waiting for our chance to break out and get back before things got any worse.
Pre-hike breakfast was a fried egg over sautéed spinach, garlic and onions. Yum!
For lunch we had a BLT using Light Life’s Smart Bacon alternative, which is a gluten based product, but crisps up nice and tastes fantastic. The ‘meat’ was our favorite Tofurky’s peppered pastrami-style lunch meat alternative, which is also a vital wheat gluten and soy product. It does the job and I usually dress it up similar to Mikes Way from Jersey Mike’s with tomato, spinach, cheese, peperoncinis, salt, pepper, oil & malt vinegar on top of either toasted sourdough or inside a large size tortilla wrap.
Dinner was a feeble, but satisfying sliced veggies with hummus: carrots + radishes.
We also found a new (old) fork at our campsite to replace our melted/lost fork. It’s a little comical, but fun when you get little hints like that that the universe is watching.
WAR OF THE CHIPMUNKS
6/23 Thursday - Day 2
Stoner Mesa, 10.070 ft
Cool morning, with partial sun.
Unsatisfied cat. He needs to hunt. We experimented with off leash and by the first five minutes he snatched up a chipmunk and was trotting off with it in mouth. I released the munk from his grasp unharmed and kitty was returned to the leash.
Breakfast was a repeat of spinach, garlic and onion with a fried egg on top. We like to steam the eggs with a dribble of water and put the lid on the pan and it cooks the top of the egg marvelously without even having to flip. It works especially well if trying to melt cheese. It was served with a crispy slice of bacon and peperoncinis.
We traveled on, in search of more remote territories and ended up winding our way up to the top of Stoner Mesa, a forty-five minute, switch-back, dirt road trail. It was our highest climb in the van yet.
Smartly, we recognized the 2pm rains and put our afternoon hike on hold as voluminous gray clouds rolled in overtop our elevated site. Kitty ran loose in the aspens. Dinner was crispy, Beyond Meat brats sliced into a very spicy tomato sauce.
Beyond Brats are the best! (Also, peep the new old fork!)
INTIMATE WITH NATURE
6/24 Friday - Day 3 10.050 ft
Twin Springs Dispersed Site
Cool morning after a long night of rains. Our day started at around 58° and climbed to mid-sixties. Kitty was back outside and cone free. A genuinely happy cat.
Twin Springs hike, 629 Eagle Peak Trail
From the onset we saw elk, mule deer and then, magic struck for a second time. As we cleared a hill, we spotted on the down slope moving swiftly and directly towards us a full grown mountain lion. It was completely massive. I mistook it for a bear due to its sheer size, but nothing can confuse the sighting once the long, curling tail becomes visible. In a single instant going from locked gazes to elite, woodland ninja, it leapt into the air, redirected itself and disappeared into the trees without a single, further sound.
We stood slack-jawed, unable to process the moment. We just went heads up with a gigantic, elusive predator and somehow collected a second, non-threatening encounter. We sat on a log, trying to actually not be speechless as we wanted to make noise for its sake and our safety. When we finally felt safe to proceed, I whistled and made sure to converse with a little extra gusto to announce our presence.
Big Kitty Tracks!
Wonder what it’s been eating?
We came to a long, loose rock descent and within the soil I found the most massive paw print I’ve ever come across. It was definitely our trail visitor, heading in the opposite direction, right towards where we met. I saw more prints along the way and even found an equally impressive, fresh pile of panther scat. This creature had to be at its peak close to 170 lbs. Once down closer to the stream we got our first taste of Colorado’s magnificent floral displays. Butterflies were scattered amongst the summer flowers of purple, yellow and blue varieties: Iris, Blue Columbines (state flower), Bluebells drooping with dew, upright Indian Paintbrushes, Sunflowers and White False Hellebores marked the entrance and exit to the damp, marshy areas that existed within the Spruces and Aspens. In the stream we saw rainbow trout milling along clear as day.
We were passed by a couple dirt bikers which went into our conversations of how best we’d like to travel these forested trails. They took the short route back up the mountain while we descended down to the creek below. Finally, turning back up, we climbed the 1400 feet in 100ft increments as the trail switch backed it’s way up the mountain. We passed by five, through-hikers that were dispersed around the trail lounging in the mid-summer heat.
Walking the road back to camp, we were surrounded by swarms of horse flies. I look over at the forest we had previously driven past, and suddenly there was a familiarity to it. An image of nature we had grown intimate with. Hike total: four hours, 8.39 miles.
Lunch was buffalo seitan wraps with cucumber, onion, avocado, goat cheese and fresh arugula. It certainly satisfied the cravings we had inside.
The scenery here was astounding. We felt so isolated and immersed in a beautiful natural setting. High above the nearest town, we sat in warm sunshine and watched clouds roll past. It was serene.
Saturday 6/25 - Day 4
FR 316, Mancos (1)
On our way out, a few trail hikers were parked at the trail head and we saw two of the tiniest mule deer twins outside our camp. We visited Loops Coffee in Delores, went to the Market Grocer and checked out an organic shop that was hawking a bunch of over priced diet and supplement goods. What could I expect, it was actually called Flat Belly Organics. We hit the Main Street Brewery in Cortez and began our CO sticker and patch collection. We filled the water tank at the Recycling plant. Colorado will continue to provide great city amenities like water, often free and easily accessible.
Our camp spot was along FR 316, just outside Mancos. A pretty busy spot, but we found a little secluded spot In the trees. Dinner was carrots, cucumber and hummus with Garden Veg pretzel chips. Slices of a newfound favorite cheese that we’re still eating to this day: a locally made portobello leek colby jack.
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK
Sunday 6/26 - Day 5
FR 316, Mancos (2)
Mesa Verde National Park was yet another chapter in the fantastically compelling story of the 1200 year span of Ancestral Puebloans existence in the Southwest. Descendants of the first migrants to enter the continent, their history is one of intrigue. Going from nomadic hunting and gathering tribes that migrated with the great animals to becoming agrarian and constructing many intricate pueblos, existing within the trade markets that circumnavigated the globe. Building upon their predecessors, they evolved and advanced their way six hundred years into great archeological sites such as Chaco Canyon to the UTE mountains where we are at presently.
The turning point for me, is when at the height of their six hundred year run at masonry, basket weaving, pottery, social structures and global trade, a shift occurred where instead of continuing in that development, they retreated high up into cliffs to begin a totally irregular and confusing period of existence. The cliff dwelling period marked the final note in their presence before disappearing from the records all together.
Across the entire Southwest, from the archeological sites of Gila and Bandelier in New Mexico to Crested Buttes and mesas of Utah and Colorado, their entire pathway lead to one final existence: Living high and guarded within a cliff. Many questions arise from this point, and the story that fits best for me is one of carnage. A fractured civilization coming to a head. Guard towers, signal fires and faced with an extreme fifty year drought, the end was surely not bittersweet.
The anthology depicted in Corn of Man investigates the remnants of bones from this period to paint a much more sinister picture of what was once a joyous and collaborative tribal life. Smashed skulls, puncture holes, broken bones tell what most likely became the prevailing threat and what ultimately would force a community to abandon their impeccably constructed villages and retreat up perilously high cliffs with only long ladders to reach their tiny sheltered homes. The story is most certainly still being unearthed!
Mountains, Malts, Mesas
A rainy day left us inside with a live blues band to tear down the clouds and fill the air with their strumming, electric sounds. An eight table bar had the air waves bumping with their cool sounds.
The open mic held an opportunity for anyone to get up and jam with the band and Wesley, the soulful, southern singer serenading into the Rhythm and Blues tracks took it to a whole new level. Gata, his ‘something’ was ushering us onto the six person dance floor to jam with the band. Speaking of jams...
CAUGHT IN A JAM!
Caught in the slick mud on FR 316, we got caught attempting to back through a turnaround on our way home in search of a campsite. A large rock pinned the rear axle.
So, we got out and put on the work gloves to unearth the slick mud around the tires. To ensure a hopeful recovery, we filled in behind the front drive tires with rocks and constructed a four foot long ramp made of different size rocks to get us up and over the primary obstacle and then through the drainage ditch and back onto the packed, gravel road. It would not be easy, but we were determined.
A hard felt, but successful reverse got us to the road and we scooted our way back down to a less consequential site. The teamwork prevailed and we laid in relief having accomplished this in the final waning hours of daylight. What an Adventure!
Rock ramp strategy success! 🙌
MESA VERDE - DAY 2
Monday 6/28 - Day 6
FR 316, Mancos (3)
Breakfast was over easy eggs with fresh chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and vinegar greens. Topped with Huntington CAs: Dexter Holland’s (The Offspring) Gringo Bandito hot sauce and sided with a couple everything seasoned avocado slices. I highly recommended that hot sauce!!
Pictograph Trail: 2.1 mi out and back
A rocky scramble along Mesa ridge, we walked along the ancient corridor. Cool air holding out within the seeps, while fresh sunshine warmed us to a proper sweat in the exposed parts. A large prominent wall held fifty petroglyphs. Hands, spirals, mountains, animals. Its such a joy to see what inspired them!
Finishing with a rock scramble, with natural foot and hand holds, we rested high up on a boulder’s lookout imagining the life of the previous inhabitants. While looking out, we discovered an unlisted dwelling across the canyon, Echo House.
Lunch was a much desired turkey, bacon, cheese wrap with cole slaw, spicy mustard and fresh salad greens. It was a delight and set us back on course to finish the day.
We drove down the Upper Mesa Loop to see the overlooks that were aligned in a 15.000 foot long canyon. It housed close to ten different structures, most notably the 150 room Cliff Palace. Intense hail hit as we sat in front of the final site for the day, the Sun Temple: A D-Shaped, Chaco Canyon inspired, open roofed structure that was architecturally similar to it with an astrologically aligned North to South wall running across its flat side.
We opted for some much needed showers at the park’s campground before returning to our forest hideaway. It was a well received treat, and first one in six days since our usual, hectic and semi-private aquatic center one we left behind in Northern AZ.
More rains. Hopefully we can get back up to our camp safely.
DURANGO, TOWN DAY
Tuesday 6/28 - Day 7
Junction Creek, Durango
The path from Mancos rolled right across the river and on into the bustling city of Durango. We drove around town for awhile, noticing the crowds, but taking delight in the very cool looking Main Street drag. We found shade to park and went out in search of what all the town had to offer. We found an endless supply of cool shops from outdoor retailers boasting the best names in the industry to eclectic boutiques. There were gift shops, Nepalese craft stores, art galleries, museums and plenty of bars, restaurants and snacks to eat. We could have went in them all, but chose a few along each side of the street and, unfortunately for our wallets, found interesting things in all of them. We landed ourselves twice at the Balcony Bar which had a really good fried portobello mushroom taco. It was done up street-style with a slightly crispy tortilla and covered in a creamy sauce with big fresh jalapeños and lettuce.
Each location we were greeted warmly, and could dive into conversations with ease. We were asked where we were from and if we were passing through and what brought us here. It was very friendly for the hosts of this tourist town. And, for someone to have put it as simply as, “It’s rare to meet someone here that’s actually from Colorado,” it seemed they all recognized their own bit of touristy travel that landed them here as well.
Overall, it was a very welcoming and accommodating city, that greeted us fairly and wasn’t too high on its own horse to take in a fellow traveler. I even scored a perfect brown leather cap that should help ease the eyes on attempting to make it into the ranching and roping world.
Rains were held back by the protective mountain range seated just beyond the town. I still figured we ought to get out of town by five in order to make camp in good time or else leave space for a B-option should things not pan out.
Right away, things did not pan out. On our forest road we came to a pretty soggy and rutted bend and we sat evaluating its state. Having just been stuck, chancing yet another attempt was not enticing. I thought maybe we could make a run at it and backed the van up to stare it down. I even walked the path on foot and that was when a Subaru pulled up and held similar concerns. They decided to give it a go and went through it with little to no struggle, but within a few hundred yards, I could see them turning around and came right back to where we were at. They said it was gated and marked private with no way through. They were actually using the same app as us (iOverlander) and were confused by this. I was pretty familiar with what was listed for the area and mentioned there weren’t a lot of options nearby, but suggested they could double back to where we had been camped at in Mancos if they didn’t find anything else. They mentioned the fork in the road and said perhaps we went the wrong way. I said that’s a good thought and when I said goodbye and checked the map for myself, realized this was entirely the wrong road.
We drove up the fork for a bit, but I could see it was no more correct than the one we had bailed on. I got my bearings straight and rechecked the sites location on Gaia. I got the coordinates plugged in and we headed back through town towards the correct forest road.
There weren’t a lot of options as we climbed the wide gravel road, nor were there any availability at the sites that did exist. Luck panned out and we found a great, wooded and level spot just past another occupied site.
The cat throughly enjoyed it, running up and clinging to every tree he could muster. He leapt through the tall brush and poked his nose into the understories, inspecting and scanning for any movement. Every log was crawled on and became a scratching post for his tiny nails. Just before sundown he darted up the road with Bella in pursuit. He found his way over the drainage ditch to use the outdoor bathroom. He was now one content kitty and we were glad for this, having spent the day snoozing in the van.
We tucked him in for the night and checked out our spoils, putting up a few of the newly acquired stickers. Rest came easy for us as we were still fresh off our showers and had a thrilling town day.
THE UPS AND DOWNS
Wednesday 6/29 - Day 8
Henderson Lake, Durango (1)
Camp Day, Day 2! Or not. Colorado’s rain filled mountains created a fly epidemic of biblical proportions. Our vehicle and surrounding area was swarmed with a thousand deer, black, horse and midge flies, all well-versed in haunting you with their chewing, painful bites. We couldn’t walk, open a door, nor think about the beautiful forest without seeing these ravenous, straight-from-Hades, fun-suckers pinging off the doors, trees and our bodies.
I managed a bit of exploring with the kitty while Bella made avocado, nectarine and goat cheese toast for us humans. For Kitty, a bug haven is quite a delight and had a gluttons share of grasshoppers.
The scenery around us was sublime. Tall spruces with glittering Aspens blowing in the breeze, shimmering their leaves like tiny coins. Clouds rolled by as we hopped over fallen logs attempting a mini outdoor hike. However, these flies put a halt to our mountainous plans, and we ultimately decided to pull shades and brake our way back down the steep, mountainous slopes. Back in town, we took care of a bit of laundry and then went off in search of another excellent mountainside destination. This time, Henderson Lake, a remote, alpine lake that required gaining four thousand feet from the valley of Durango. We carved nearly a hundred switchbacks to reach our pristine oasis and one hour of driving to cover a total of fourteen miles should explain what it took to get there.
Dinner was going to be a much anticipated Impossible meat gyro wrap night with garlicy, herby potatoes as a side. Bella made up a little onion, carrot, jalapeño jar to pickle and sample later in the week when the vinegar had matured the vegetables. I chopped herbs, potatoes and marinated the package of chuck impossible meat. We had sage, thyme, dill, rosemary and of course tzatziki to set this course off right.
The flavors were off the charts. The marinated, seared, herb infused impossible meat sliced into strips left each gyro packed with flavor. Two, heaping scoops of tzatziki and fresh, soft tomatoes. Thin sliced onions and crumbled feta with chopped spring mix took this wrap was over the top. The herby potatoes were cooked perfectly. If I were to estimate, it was $6 in total food costs and could sell for $18 out the window of a food truck no problem. And satisfy with adequate portions, as well.
NOW, ITS A CAMP DAY!
Thursday 6/30 - Day 9
Henderson Lake (2)
Waking up to off and on sprinkles, we evaluated our camp conditions. The rains were not heavy, but laying down constant moisture causing us some concern for if we’ll be able to make it out or not. Not needing to be anywhere and decent on all our supplies, with exception to coffee, we decided to stay put and see out the weather.
We had been gifted a cup of fresh, whole Kenyan beans and so we experimented with a usb blender to try and get them ground up. With a bit of sifting,