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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

Ouray, the Million Dollar Highway, and the Marvels of Colorado

One of the highlights of our journey northward into Colorado was to be the San Juan Skyway, also known as the “Million Dollar Highway”, which winds through the heart of the Rocky Mountains. During our time exploring Mesa Verde, though, we had to keep a wary eye on the horizon, where the clouds were gathering and darkening throughout the morning. By the time we were ready to leave, a sporadic light rain had begun to fall and we weren’t sure if we’d be able to ride far at all.

Under those conditions, we left Mesa Verde and headed for Durango, CO. I really don’t remember a whole lot of the ride because I was busy boring holes in the clouds ahead with my eyes, trying to discern their direction and intent. There were moments when there was nothing but blue skies above the crown of the mountains and two turns later we’d be heading directly into the darkened grey abyss. Luckily for us, the actual rain held off.

After our turn north from Durango, the temperature began to drop precipitously as we climbed ever higher into the mountains. We stopped to layer up and take in the view. Despite a degree of nervousness as we battled the possibility of rain and what was becoming an even more serious issue of losing daylight, it was impossible to ignore the majesty of our surroundings. The mountains rose steep and high around us, covered with dense forest and cut by the snaking path of the highway as it wound upwards for thousands of feet, seeking out the passes that divided each valley from the next. Occasionally, there would be an overgrown clearing in the woods by a stream that contained the dark wooden bones of a miner’s hut or a conveyor mechanism, all relics of the rushes of the 19th century.

The fading daylight became the most pressing of our problems, more so since darkness would hide the onset of a storm or deadly wildlife in the roadway of the narrow passes. We rode by Silverton, CO without being convinced of its value as a stopping point and hoping that we could make it, if not to our original destination of Montrose, CO, then at least to a campground not far from it. As it turned out, though, the light failed faster than we expected and we ended up making an emergency call to spend the night in the only other town on the map, called Ouray, CO.

We descended the mountain pass into Ouray just as the light was failing and it felt like we’d chanced upon the quaintest little village imaginable. Ouray, which informally adopted the moniker “the Switzerland of Colorado”, is a one street old-style town that felt like old west meets ski chalet meets colonial village. We ended up getting a room in a restored saloon that came straight out of those western movies where the cowboy comes back from weeks on the horse, draws a bath, and has a whiskey and a lady sent up to take care of him while he soaks.

Eager to explore the place where every building seemed to elicit warm fuzzy feelings of quaintness, we made our way down towards the Ouray Brewery. It felt like Christmas, with a cold bite to the air, lights hung from the awnings, and toy stores vying for window space with nice antique shops. All that was missing was the snow. The brewery itself was warm and inviting and, best of all, had swings for seats at the bar.

We enjoyed a sampling of flavors and some food before they informed us that they were shutting down for the evening. It was barely 9 o’clock on a Saturday night. Okay, we wondered, what other places could we go? Well, apparently there were two bars in the entire town that stayed open past 10. And though it may have looked like a winter town, we were informed that summer is actually their busy season owing to all the festivals and outdoor events that take place in town so this was about as happening as it would ever get. So quaint… Luckily we managed to find some crazy runners who were in town for a 17-mile uphill race that afternoon and so we made the best of the limited time available before turning in for the night.

The next morning dawned bright, sunny, and even a little warm. We walked down the main strip in search of breakfast. It wasn’t quite as picturesque as it had been the previous night but the charm was still undeniable.

We found a nice little cafe and recharged our batteries before hitting the road. We had to make up for the time we’d missed the previous day and still get to our intended destination: Great Sand Dunes National Park. That meant a whole lot of riding and we were both very excited to see what Colorado had to offer in daylight.

Colorado did not disappoint. We were exposed to almost every different kind of scenery imaginable as we descended from the high mountain passes to Montrose, east on rt50 and then south on rt114 from Gunnison. There were low passes that snaked quickly through the mountains and long stretches that contained only rickety old farms and silence. The valleys smelled like the wildflowers that burst into color in the morning sun and the passes held the deep, rich scent of evergreens. The verdant uniformity of the mountainsides was broken up by patches of yellows, oranges, and reds that the elevation had spurred into an early fall bloom. It was a feast for the senses and the soul.

When I’m riding and cannot stop to take pictures with my Nikon, I’ll often tether my iPhone and snap a few shots of the road as it races by. During this ride, that was about all I could do. To showcase the extraordinary beauty and variety of the journey to Great Dunes National Park, I’ve put together some of those photos: