You know how the expression goes: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.
If you’re planning an escape to Durango in southwestern Colorado, your GPS will lead you through some historic mining towns, scenic lookouts worthy of a stop and unique hot springs that, well, you’ll definitely be able to smell as you make your approach. (For the uninitiated, the hot springs have a strong sulfur smell).
Before you marvel at the Anasazi ruins in Mesa Verde National Park, schuss down the slopes at Purgatory Resort or go backpacking through San Juan National Forest, these are the must-stop places that dot the route to Durango and will help you break up the road trip. Each has a little something different to offer, from epic sledding hills to beer brewed in Colorado's mountains to geothermal wonders.
Go ahead, stretch out that 6-hour drive and turn it into a memorable road trip.
Before you hit the road, you've got fuel up, right? While Golden is just 20 minutes or so from downtown, it's right at the base of the mountains, nestled in the Clear Creek Valley, and will put you in the right mindset for a mountain escape. (Plus, this is an opportunity to let the traffic settle on I-70 some before making your trek).
If the weather is cooperating, requesting a spot on the patio at Bridgewater Grill. There, you can go sweet with s'mores waffles or savory with an Angus corned beef hash. (Or, order up a true Colorado breakfast: A Colorado breakfast burrito stuffed with green chilies, chorizo, scrambled eggs, cheese and then smothered with some signature pork green chili). From the restaurant's patio, you can watch kayakers paddle through a course that's been built in the waterway. While you're waiting for your meal to come, take your children down to Clear Creek and pan for gold. (Hey, the early settlers during the Gold Rush struck it rich on this very creek, so it's worth a shot!)
If you've got the time, make your way to the Colorado School of Mines campus where you can visit the Geology Museum for free. It houses more than 60,000 rocks, gems, and minerals, including some of that famous Colorado gold.
Distance covered: About 12 miles between Denver and Golden
Pull over and play before your kids even have time to ask “Are we there, yet?” Just outside Breckenridge, the Town of Frisco has some cool attractions. For the artistic types, you can take transform 2,000-degree molten glass into a work of art you get to take home. Or, stretch your legs and play in the Frisco Adventure Park, which has 1,200-foot snow tubing lanes and a lift service to get you and your gigantic tubes up the hill. In the warmer months, you can rent canoes, kayaks or stand-up paddleboards and get a little activity in at the Frisco Marina before you climb back in the car.
Distance covered: About 65 miles between Denver and Frisco. Though, if you're driving on the weekend, don't underestimate just how busy I-70 can get!
For locals, Buena Vista is a great base camp to go rafting along the Arkansas River, and you get some mighty good views of the mountains from that raft. But if you're just stopping through, Eddyline Brewery is a worthwhile stop for a can of beer. Yes, a can!
The can is making a comeback in Colorado's burgeoning brewery scene. The reasons? Canned brews have a lesser impact on the environment because 75 percent of all aluminum is still in use. Brewers are also in favor of the can because it does a better job at keeping light and oxygen out than bottles. On top of all that, a can of beer is easy to stash in your backpack so you can crack it open when you reach a summit or as you park your kayak on the riverbanks.
The mountain brewery has lots of extras, too, including an outdoor bar and a stage to host concerts. On any given day, you could stumble upon beer pairing events or concerts in the brewery's beer garden.
Distance covered: About 65 miles between Frisco and Buena Vista.
Ouray has been nicknamed the "Switzerland of America," thanks to its flower-filled valleys, which are a great photo opp. The fine chocolates at Mouse’s Chocolate & Coffee are a nice Euro-touch, too. Still, this mountain escape is uniquely Colorado.
If you've got the time, it's worth checking into one of the bed and breakfasts and turn this detour into an overnight stop. The intrepid types will be delighted by renowned ice climbing in the Ouray Ice Park. In the warmer months, anglers can go flyfishing along with a number of streams nearby Ouray. Among them? The Cimarron River, which is full of rainbow and cutthroat trout, but is limited to the public. A good access point is near the confluence of the Gunnison River. The San Miguel River isn't dammed in this region, and the fishing can vary depending on the snowpack and runoff, but a good time to cast your line is mid-summer.
In the last year, Colorado's hot springs towns created a historic loop for tourists to explore the geothermal wonders. In all, there are 5 destinations in the Western part of the state, including Ouray. But what makes Ouray stand out is their hot springs which are odorless, a rarity.
Distance Covered: About 185 miles between Buena Vista and Ouray
This old mining town is nestled between Red Mountain and Molas, two San Juan Mountain passes. A fun activity for the whole family? Hop on a historic, coal-fired train that travels the same tracks as the miners, cowboys, and settlers who came to the Wild West more than 100 years ago. The train route links Silverton and Durango, and you can book a seat in a private car, known as "presidential class," a step above first-class.
Distance Covered: About 25 miles between Ouray and Silverton.
You're almost there! But a swing by Pagosa Hot Springs (or an afternoon trip while you're settled in Durango) is well worth it. If you haven't noticed just yet, each mountain town has its own distinct personality. Pagosa Springs is just about 15 minutes east of Durango. There, you can plunge in the world's deepest geothermal hot spring, which was measured at 1,002 feet deep, which feeds mineral water to 23 soaking pools in The Springs Resort & Spa that's situated along the San Juan River. Pool hopping anyone?
Distance covered: About 120 miles between Silverton and Pagosa Springs. You're only about 20 miles away from Durango, now.
Inspiration for your next road trip
Looking for some more road trip inspiration? The Hot Springs Loop is a relaxing way to explore Colorado's Western Slope. The 720-mile loop connects Steamboat Springs, Glenwood Springs, Pagosa Springs, Ouray and Chaffee County. In all, there are 19 spots where you can soak in the geothermal wonders, while simultaneously taking in the views of Colorado's great mountain towns.