I am at 4,000 metres, puffing and panting as I walk around, trying to take in the grandeur of the scenery that spreads out before me. I am at Imogene Pass near Telluride – and the only word I can think of in my oxygen- deprived state is ‘heavenly’.
I’m on a road trip through Colorado, which sits in the south-west of the USA, discovering as much as is physically possible in eight days.
Touchdown is in Denver, The Mile High City and the capital of captivating Colorado. We base ourselves at the Hotel Indigo for our frantic 24 hours in this city.
Around every corner, there’s something that draws us to linger longer. And there is beer – lots and lots of beer. Brewing was first undertaken well before Colorado even became an official state of the United States of America in 1876, and we just happen to arrive at the start of Denver’s Great American Beer Festival. I admit I am no great beer connoisseur – but an Irishman in our group, Mark, gladly takes on the tasting task at each place we visit.
We appreciate Denver’s layers as we walk, talk and look around this city that was almost completely lost in a fire in 1863. Come nightfall, we while away the hours at Green Russell – a very trendy cocktail bar on Larimer Square, where the sparkling lights strung up above the street welcome us to one of Denver’s oldest and most historic neighbourhoods.
Loveland, the city of love, is next. After doing the obligatory selfie and attaching our locks on the city’s LOVE sign, we head to Benson Sculpture Garden. Surrounding a charming lake, the garden exhibits the work of sculptors from around the world. Historically, sculptors moved to Loveland, as the city had three foundries to bronze their work. Nowadays, it is also home to one of the biggest sculpture festivals in the USA – held every August.
Lunch is at Mo’ Betta Gumbo, a little café in the Foundry Plaza – however, what sets this eatery apart is Chef Clay and his 48 varieties of infused moonshine.
It was not love that drew Chef Clay to Loveland, but rather the need for a change in lifestyle. His watermelon-infused moonshine gives us a good kick for the afternoon ahead. We dare not try any others, as tempting as they look, as this afternoon we have to ride into the hills.
The road to our overnight accommodation takes us past the Devil’s Backbone rock formation for a hasty look before we arrive at Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch. Here we spend an afternoon on horseback, riding up to a prime vantage point for a hearty steak and down again for gooey s’mores and a campfire sing-along.
As the stars twinkle above us and the campfire flickers and pops, a guitar strums in the background and no-one is worried if we don’t know the words or sing out of tune.
As we travel south, we follow the meandering Colorado River. The scenery is forever changing, and the bright colours of autumn are simply spectacular. Aspen trees are sporting shades of yellow, orange and red as the oncoming winter advances and their leaves become ready to drop. We pass draping hillsides, spectacular valleys and rushing rivers, and are granted never-ending ‘wow’ moments and photo opportunities as we meander on our journey.
The road splits, the lanes sitting on top of each other through narrow canyons before we stop for lunch in the town of Ridgway at The True Grit Café – dedicated to the 1969 movie True Grit and the legendary American screen cowboy, John Wayne.
Wandering the streets, the signage consistently offers up fascinating facts. For instance, who would have thought that this tiny town is where all the Grammy statues are made?
Continuing on our way, we pass Glenwood Canyon and White River National Forest – where we catch a glimpse of bald eagles soaring high overhead, as well as rafters below negotiating the gentle rapids.
In Montrose we find archaeologist Richard Fike swinging back and forth on an old rocking chair. Fike started collecting at the age of four, and tells us he opened his first museum when he was eight years old. More recently, he founded the Museum of the Mountain West, which aims to preserve historic Western memorabilia and buildings. It includes a collection of historic log cabins and Western town stores, as well as other historic buildings that have been moved to the site.
Following Butch Cassidy
It’s incredible how fast the scenery transforms in this part of the world, and it seems like no time before we’re out on a bluff in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado’s newest national park, peering down a sheer drop.
In a blink, we are passing the Colorado National Monument – where towering monoliths created by Mother Nature flank the road.
Telluride is our next stop, where we pull up for two nights. With a festival almost every week, mountains skirted with glacial ice all year, free gondola rides and welcoming locals, it’s well worth a visit. It’s cold – very cold – when we rise before the sun to prepare for our jeep tour.
But our early start pays off, and we reach Imogene Pass before mid- morning. Colorado is high, and has 58 peaks that are ‘14ers’ – peaks over 14,000 feet (4,000 metres). The air thins as we admire gorgeous vistas, fringed in snow with the rich autumn colours and wild strawberries blushing along this remarkable, historical and at times very narrow 4WD-only road.
Almost falling off the map, Telluride was once a vast sheep grazing farm, and dozens of mining companies have also tried to extract gold and silver from its hills.
However today it supports neither industry and instead lures skiers from around the world to its slopes of powder snow. Of course in summer, it also attracts hikers and bikers – so no matter when you visit, you won’t be disappointed. You can sign up for the walking tour of the historic town, where you see the first bank Butch Cassidy ever robbed, or you can take the gondola to Telluride’s Mountain Village – it’s free and there are plenty of shops to browse. The scenery is stunning, especially at sunset.
Train whistle blowing
Our next two stops have been on my wish list since I was a little girl. The first is Ute Mountain Tribal Park – where Wolf Hatch, our local native guide, escorts us around towering mesas where ancient pottery lies scattered, and drawings are etched on rock walls. Within this protected land, which you must have a guide to enter, brumbies and wild cattle roam – and you can sit in pure silence listening to nothing but maybe the wind blowing. This is wilderness at its best.
Then there’s Mesa Verde – a UNESCO World Heritage site that protects some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in the United States. First established in 1906, it conserves the heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people, who made it their home for more than 700 years. On our visit we see a number of the 5,000 known archaeological sites in the park.
Our last stop is Durango – but before we explore it, we jump on a bus and head up another mountain to Silverton, perched above a lofty valley in the southern San Juan Mountains. Silverton is one of the highest towns in the United States, at 2,836 metres above sea level. It began its life as a mining town, but has found a second life as a recreational hub for tourists. That is mostly thanks to the railroad, which was first built for the mining industry in 1882. It’s a town where there are few paved streets, but it is loaded with character – and characters, like Robert Lobato, who works at the Harley-Davidson shop in town. He tells me with a smile that it is the highest Harley-Davidson shop in America, and I don’t doubt it. It’s a smile carefully framed by a perfectly manicured handlebar moustache, so big I am mesmerised. You can either travel up by bus and catch the train down, or vice versa. Neil, a train enthusiast, is on his sixth ride and shares his advice.
“On the way up, you really hear the engines working – but the way down is best for the views,” he says, as we sit down in the last carriage.
He is not wrong – the scenery and views from the carriages pulled by the hard-working steam engine along this narrow-gauge railroad are simply out of this world. We follow Animas Canyon and the river of the same name, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the entire western United States. We spot wild sheep and keep our eyes peeled for bears.
As my journey comes to an end, I watch the first snow of winter swirling over the distant peaks and think back on something that Robert Lobato said to me, in his western drawl: “When you are two feet from heaven, how can you be unhappy?”
Getting there: Qantas flies from most Australian capital cities to LAX and SFO with connections to Denver with Delta Airlines or United.
For more information on visiting Colorado, head to colorado.com