by Bob Kunkel
If you’re one who loves riding on two wheels through spectacular mountain scenery, around mountain curves and switchbacks, and along cool river valleys then riding in Southwest Colorado should be high on your list.
I’m Bob Kunkel, executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office. I ride a 2014 H-D Street Glide Special and a 2011 Dyna Super Glide, and I’m a member of our local Iron Horse HOG chapter. Straight up, I could not think of a better place to live and ride than in the Four Corners region. Mountains on one side, desert on the other and an impressive list of authentic mountain towns to explore. From Durango, there are interesting day rides in all directions.
TO THE NORTH
Take a mid-morning ride to the north on Hwy 550 through the Animas River Valley, past Purgatory Resort, over Coal Bank Pass and on to the top of Molas Pass. You’ll quickly gain elevation, make many tight turns and see spectacular scenery. Stop at the mountaintop rest stop on Molas Pass and admire the views. This basin claims the cleanest air in the continental US. Then head on down the mountain and enjoy more twisties on the way to Silverton. Be prepared to stop at one of the mountainside overlooks for a photo of the Town of Silverton nestled down in the valley below. Silverton is one of the highest towns in the United States, at 9,318 feet (2,836 m) above sea level. This is also where the book "The Christopher Killer" takes place. Silverton is a former silver mining camp, most or all of which is now included in a federally designated National Historic Landmark District. Take notice the river and the train leading into town.
Far below the highway, the world-famous Durango/Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad winds its way into Silverton along the river. In summer, as many as four trains a day journey from Durango to Silverton and back while allowing passengers a two-hour stopover to explore Silverton. Be sure to visit the newly remodeled Grand Imperial Hotel, and pick a lunch spot from any of several funky restaurants. Our group likes Handlebars, Brown Bear or Pickle Barrel. A must-stop is the world’s highest Harley-Davidson store on Main (actually Greene St). Enjoy the ride back to Durango.
Total time: around 4 hours.
Rider tips: Expect cooler temps, wear sunscreen, possible afternoon showers, watch for wildlife.
TO THE EAST
Head out of Durango on Hwy 160 and scenic Pagosa Springs is just over an hour away. The highway is two-lane most of the way with several passing lanes spaced evenly along the route. Expect highway speeds and sweeping turns through ranchland and rural countryside. Just past the little burg of Gem Village, take the business district loop through the town of Bayfield to see a charming little downtown. At about the halfway mark to Pagosa Springs, you’ll see the right side exit to the Navajo Reservoir and State Park. You can’t see the lake, but it's big and is similar in look and feel to Lake Powell. Ride on and you’ll round a corner to see the newly designated National Monument, Chimney Rock.
Entering the Pagosa Springs area from this direction, the valley is open-end with big mountain vistas to the north and east. Keep going and drop down into the original downtown, and find a place to park on the right. Pagosa Springs is surrounded by the 3 million acre San Juan National Forest and multiple wilderness areas, as well as the Southern Ute Indian land. Located on a high-desert plateau 7,000 feet above sea level, the town got its name from Pah gosah, the Ute Indian word for “healing waters,” because Pagosa Springs is home to the world’s deepest geothermal hot spring, and the mineral-rich water here is said to be therapeutic.
The river is home to the Springs Resort & Spa, one, one of three downtown hot springs properties. Lunch or refreshments on the corner at Tequila’s provide good viewing of the numerous soaking pools and lively river activity. On the other side of the street, Goodman’s Department Store, family owned for over 100 years, is worth a look. At the stoplight, go right over the bridge and the Visitor Center (paved parking lot) is a great source for area information and a good place to get close to the river.
A one-hour return ride back to Durango.
Total time: about 4 hours.
BUT WAIT If the mountains are calling, and time is available, ride north out of Pagosa on Hwy 160 and enjoy the beautiful valley vistas that lead to the climb up to Wolf Creek Pass. This classic mountain highway offers double lanes and large sweeping turns all the way the top. Pause at the parking area at the top for that photo op and head back down. Be ready to stop at the paved overview for a signature view of the valley below. Be sure to stop by Treasure Falls, a 100-foot waterfall visible from the highway. A short hike takes you to the base of the falls. If you’d like to celebrate the ride to the top, Pagosa Springs has three breweries that serve craft beers and good food…Riff Raff, Pagosa Brewing and Wolfe Brewing.
Add this extra leg to your trip to Pagosa Springs and you’ll have a made a great memory.
Total time: 6 hours.
Rider tips: Expect some local traffic through Pagosa Springs, cooler weather and afternoon thunderstorms on Wolf Creek Pass, drink plenty of water, watch for wildlife.
TO THE SOUTH
Durango is a two-wheel friendly community with a wide selection of bike shops and motorized dealerships. Just south of downtown Durango is Handlebar Sports for Honda and Yamaha, Durango Harley- Davidson, and Fun Center for Kawasaki and Suzuki. (Coles Chop Shop is located on North Main Ave)
Take Hwy 550 / 160 south out of Durango and make the right turn, up the hill onto Hwy 160. The “mesa” is a pleasant 30-minute ride on two-lane road past farms, ranches and homesteads leading into New Mexico. At the state line the highway changes to four-lane. You’ll ride into the city of Aztec, NM (small quaint downtown on the left) known for the Aztec Ruins National Monument. The Visitor Center is just off the highway on Ruins Road and worth a brief stop. Paved parking lot, easy in/easy out. Turn right at the stoplight just over the bridge.
Head farther south on Hwy 160 toward the City of Farmington, NM located at the junction of the San Juan River, the Animas River, and the La Plata River. Farmington serves as the commercial hub for most of Northwestern New Mexico. It is on the Trail of the Ancients Byway, one of the designated New Mexico Scenic Byways. Entering Farmington, The Four Corners Harley- Davidson dealer is on the right.
Photo Credit: Farmington Convention & Visitors Bureau
Time spent in Farmington is on-your-own. For the return trip to Durango, I recommend making a loop route. From the same highway entering Farmington (East Main) turn north on Pinon Hills Parkway (stoplight) located between Ziems Ford and Lowes. Follow this rolling highway past San Juan College and Pinon Hills Golf Course (Voted top public course in the country). Go all the way to the La Plata Highway (170) and turn right heading back toward the mountains. Referred to as the ‘dry side” of the county, the LPH offers light traffic, open space, and long views of the La Plata Mountains. The ride terminates at the Community of Hesperus and the junction of LPH and CO Hwy 550. Turn right back into Durango.
Photo Credit: Farmington Convention & Visitors Bureau
Total time: 3 hours depending on time spent in NM.
Rider tips: Riding away from the mountains temps rise, sunscreen, stay hydrated, watch for wildlife.
TO THE WEST
Head west on Hwy 160, expecting a long elevation gain with great views to the north. Just beyond the Hesperus intersection the tiny Ski Hesperus still operates in the winter. Enjoy the rolling highway all the way to the Western town of Mancos. Make a left at the light to check out the old downtown. Back on the highway, you’ll come upon Mesa Verde National Park. The new Visitor Center is just off the highway on the left and a must-stop. Mesa Verde is the only national park built by human effort; all others are built by nature.
Farther west is the City of Cortez, named for Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. There are many prehistoric sites in the Cortez area, listed on the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties and the National Register of Historic Places. It is a gateway to the Four Corners Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, Crow Canyon Archeological Center, and Monument Valley, Utah. Historic Trails include the Old Spanish National Historic Trail and Trail of the Ancients. For recreation, the nearby McPhee Reservoir is a popular draw.
From the “T” intersection on the west end of Main, go left on Hwy 550 and it’s a 40-mile ride to the Four Corners Monument. If you’re a bucket lister, it’s a once in a lifetime photo op.
On the return to Durango from Cortez, take Hwy 145 left to Dolores and enjoy this little community along the Dolores River. There’s a great little brewery across from the park. (If you continued on Hwy 145, the road goes on to Rico and Telluride). Backtracking out of Dolores, take Hwy 184 left at the top of the hill and return to Mancos. Go left on Hwy 160 and back to Durango.
Total Time: 4 hours (not including side trip to Four Corners.)
Rider Tips: Heading toward the desert the temps increase, hydrate often, wear sunscreen, for information visit the State of Colorado Visitor Center in the middle of Cortez, watch for wildlife.
Total time: 6+ hours, plus stops
Rider tips: From Durango, ride counter-clockwise for best weather conditions. Drink plenty of water. Watch for wildlife. Bring your camera.
RIDE WITH CAUTION: Though the entire stretch has been called the Million Dollar Highway, it is really the twelve miles (19 km) south of Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass which gives the highway its name. This stretch through the gorge is challenging and potentially hazardous to drive; it is characterized by steep cliffs, narrow lanes, and a lack of guardrails; the ascent of Red Mountain Pass is marked with a number of hairpin curves used to gain elevation, and again, narrow lanes for traffic—many cut directly into the sides of mountains.
Rider tip: The northbound lanes from Silverton to Ouray (counter clockwise) hug the mountainside.
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