The San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway beckons with an autumnal explosion of fall colors and a soak in the Lobster Pot. The lure of taking the waters inspired a last minute road trip to Colorado and it did not disappoint. In fact, I venture to guess it will be one of my most indelible memories.
Beyond the anticipated road trip itself, were the box canyons, the springs, mountain tops, a CBD stop, recommended restaurants, hiking, wild animals, ski towns, Durango, and Mesa Verde National Park. Had Monument Valley been open we would have stopped there, too, yet it was still exciting to see a glimpse of the monument from the highway. Without much planning or initial research, our points of interest stacked up, so strategizing the time was essential. How to maximized a three night trip? Return home late on the fourth day and return the rental car the morning of the fifth. This gave us the ease at which we were able to do all of the above and more. Like wandering through the little towns, marveling at the light of early fall, and taking a million pictures every time we opened our eyes, for all around us was a constant, sensational, psychedelic beauty. And also not taking pictures, just breathing in clean clear air and being at one with big beautiful Gaia. These are the highlights of our hot springs journey with just enough detail to get you there and plenty of room for you to fill in the blanks and personalize your visit. An easy search of the area brings up all of the options.
Starting in Sedona, Arizona, we rented a car at 8 a.m. and my friend and I were on the road by 8:45 packed with 2 small coolers, 5 gallons of water, various shoes and small suitcases. Regarding the Southwest, I had been as far North as Lake Powell and Zion, but never Southern Colorado. Once, I had visited a friend in Denver back in the early 90’s, so I was excited to see something different in the state. Leaving Oak Creek Canyon and the pines of Flagstaff, we drove across a craggy, barren landscape through the dusty plains of Northeastern Arizona that gave way to long open vistas with lone spires that stood like stalagmites in the distance, jutting up into a misty pink atmosphere. In these long stretches of driving we talked about everything and nothing at all. I told a long forgotten story of someone I had met from Durango, a friend of a friend who had stopped in Sedona for the night. I remembered he said he was a bartender in Durango, maybe at a famous hotel. That was when I had first moved to Sedona, eight years ago, and I reminisced about what a fun night it had been. His name was Bailey.
We drove on. The two lane highway lead us through Kayenta and the Navajo Reservation, past Monument Valley and the Four Corners of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, and into the adorable town of Cortez, resplendent in 1950’s “Americana” Architecture and signage. Driving through, a mental note to eat at one of the authentic looking Mexican restaurants on the way back and within a few blocks we had counted four or five medicinal pharmacies. So, this is Colorado.
Suddenly, we were driving past blazing colors of yellow and yellow-green leaves cast in electric sunlight. Indeed the foliage had begun to change creating a visual vibration of color all around us and we realized we were there at the peak of the season! What a bonus as I realized I had no idea about fall time in Southern Colorado.
Nestled into the dark green, shaggy pines and spruce, the aspens flickered phantasmagorical glints of light through cadmium yellow leaves as the sun dropped into the late afternoon sky. Unknowingly, we were entering the San Juan Skyway at the golden hour, an All-American Road and a component in the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway System famous for it’s beauty. And it took our breath away. Truly. Gasping at every turn, we drove into the mountains and climbed higher and higher, past immaculate ranches and almost forgotten small towns, through forests already ablaze with an autumnal gold from the shorter days of sunlight and cooler temperatures. Straight up into the alpine trees, past deep forested gorges dense with spruce and aspens until we finally turned off the highway into the first box canyon, Telluride.
It was 4:30 in the afternoon and Telluride looked just like it did in a movie I had seen at the Sedona Film Festival a few years back. A documentary about how the town raised fifty million dollars to preserve open land from development. Kind of impressive which you felt driving in, a feeling of community and great pride - because it was so beautiful. Surreal, glowing light of yellow and green color therapy went straight to my brain as we oohed and awed our way through. Surrounded by high mountains, I later learned the area has 14 peaks that exceed 14,000 feet in altitude, and nearly all the area is above 6,000 feet. The few valleys and bordering foothills below about 8,000 or 9,000 feet are semiarid and have a growth of sagebrush and the tree line was distinct at an altitude of about 12,000 feet where only grasses and low bushes grow. We were on a “behold the beauty” high mixed with a little altitude giddiness!
As we drove in to the back of the box canyon we saw the mask mandate was prevalent, even on the street, and the businesses were operating in corralled areas on the sidewalk and through to-go windows. We parked by the city park and took a stroll through the trees. The park was full of locals and people like us. We stretched and walked a bit before driving back out to the highway. We were spending the night at a lodge in Ridgeway, an hour further down the two lane highway.
We pulled into town at dusk and the prospect of staying at our lodge, taking a hot tub and sauna, and dining in our room on the smorgasbord of goodies and Montepulciano wine we had brought with us was most appealing. Our room, 107, was on the first floor near the lobby, which made it easy to come and go. We settled in and slept well. The next morning we drove into town for pastries and coffee. Then a stop down Cannabis Row, as I referred to the many pharmacies along the street one right after the next . We chose Rocky Mountain Cannabis simply because it made me think of Rocky Mountain High and I had already been singing that lyric a few times throughout the day. I just couldn’t help myself. Rarely have I felt this high on nature and beauty…like the first time I went to Hawaii. After they buzzed us in the store, we bought some chocolate CBD wafers reportedly good for body aches and pains and, after leaving, decided to eat one as we drove to the hot springs, literally, a three minute drive down the road.
The springs were a delight! It was a good decision to combine a CBD edible with the healing therapies of deep heat, cold plunge, and sauna, the glorious Colorado sun. Clear blue skies made for idyllic heliotherapy or sunbathing on the lawn that was surrounded by fairy herb gardens and colorful flowers, a perfect respite before rotating through the circuit all over again. The other bathers were peaceful and quiet, but the mood was also friendly and I struck up a conversation with a woman that looked exactly like a client I knew back in Saint Louis. Like she was frozen in time, since she certainly wouldn’t look like that now. It was uncanny, but nice to think of my friend from so long ago. All the while, I was in was Bath Culture paradise! The CBD dissolved my low back pain and was strong enough to divide the wafer in half or even quarters in the future. We paid $22 dollars for 10 wafers that effectively could be 40 doses, 20, or 10 - a whole wafer being the strongest.
The bath house had various ponds, but our trifecta was Lobster Pot, dry sauna, and cold plunge. One eleven and I’m in heaven! The Lobster Pot was the hottest pond registering 114 degrees in the sun and cooling off to 111 degrees in the evening. A few rounds of this intense contrast therapy and we took a break for lunch.
The town square in Ridgeway is basically a grassy green park with moms and kids and a few blankets out on the lawn where people were playing guitar; where one can swing, tinkle a variety of xylophones, and the Uncompahgre River flows. We settled on a lunch spot across the street and while the waitress was seating us she commented that she liked my mask. I usually wear a hajibe but the classic mask was easier on the trip to get from point A to B and then take it off. I thanked her and added that my aunt had made it. Then she referenced her aunt from Oklahoma had made her some masks and I exclaimed my aunt was from Oklahoma! I don’t usually engage too much with servers at restaurants, so it was funny how this all transpired and our commonalities seemed to add up fast as we made our way to the table. My inquiry about the chicken fried steak further sealed our Oklahoma connection and as she left she announced her name was Bailey, if there was anything else we needed. Our ears pricked up and my friend and I laughed at the coincidence of it all.
When the moon started to rise, went back to the hot springs, back into the Lobster Pot. A group of 20 somethings beckoned us in scooting over to make room in the hot pot. We listened to their vacation banter. Two of the guys lived in Telluride and their childhood gal friends were visiting. They were young adults coming into their own. We joined in and we talked about the smoke and California, the fires, quarantine and masks. Barely touching on politics one of the guys gently summed it up, however, as the others were getting out, I don’t see why its such a big deal to wear a mask in the stores, but Its all about freedom and this is America.
Under the stars we had the Lobster Pot to ourselves as the white, almost full moon began to peek over the roof top.
The next morning we found a better coffee and on the cafe patio, I did a double take on a little girl that I seemed to recognize, yet didn’t know at all. I couldn’t place her but it seemed I had recently seen her somewhere. In fact, I gave her a light apology for staring at her under this pretext. When we went back to the hot springs, later that morning, she was there with her mom and I said hi, acknowledging that I had spoken to her at the coffee house. I eventually decided I had seen her in the Sinclair station standing in line to buy something, when we had stopped for gas a few days before on the reservation. Why do I keep seeing people I think I know?
This time we were better prepared for the hot springs with just a robe and flip flops, a towel and water. The day before the scene had been quite busy for it had been locals day. In contrast, this morning the bath house was all but empty except for that mom, her little girl, and us. A difference that made the idea of of staying in one of the rooms or camping at the hot springs more palpable.
After a couple of rounds of hot and cold plunging we left. A late check out from our lodge and we headed to Ouray, the next box canyon and hot spring mecca on this scenic loop.
We drove up to Box Canyon Falls to the overlook of the gorge then drove back along the canyon floor exploring the the gravel roads and neighborhoods around the town. The San Juan mountains were huge earning the moniker Ouray is known for as the Switzerland Of America. The vibe was down to earth and liberal, quite different from the pristine ranches and roads of Ridgeway, where an unmistakeable conservative air blew softly in the breeze.
Eventually, we drove up and out of the canyon through Red Mountain Pass and I remembered a friend’s warning. I had to navigate towards the center line and dared not turn my gaze to the right as there was no shoulder but a shear drop off, no guard rail to catch a mistake. Oh, this must be what Andre was talking about…
Here, I started feeling the magnitude of the granite rock around us and words like Paleozoic, Jurassic and Pleistocene came to mind, geological events culminating in the Ice Age. Events that conjured images of the woolly mammoth and the saber tooth tiger ruling the land and the intensity of what it must have been like for early man to survive, a man like Thor, seminal to the modern day Colorado Mountain Man who is descendant of the Scandinavians, Irish, and Scottish immigrants that had pioneered and settled the area mining for gold and working the railroad. These were Celtic badasses and I thought of Bailey with his red beard and twinkling eyes.
We drove on through a corridor of gold and yellow with intermittent clusters of burnt orange leaves winding our way down the Million Dollar Highway. A picnic on the lawn at James Ranch Market satiated us for the rest of the day.
We pulled into Durango at 5:30 p.m. and it was still quite warm in the 80s when we checked into our lodge, and our room number? 107. The whole journey was unfolding through synchronicities and coincidences like that. We went out to find the town was bustling in the warmth of the evening and after walking both sides of Main Street, and I started noticing almost every guy had a reddish beard. We ultimately settled on a patio seat at The Strater Hotel. We met our server on the sidewalk and behind her black mask her eyes caught mine with an unmistakable double take and she exclaimed, I’m sorry, but you look just like someone I know! She used to work here and you look exactly like her!
That’s what I’ve been telling everyone the last few days! We all laughed in unison. One drink and we went back to the lodge for a hot tub and an early night.
The next morning we found a delicious coffee house and walked along the Animas River Trail followed by breakfast at Jean Pierre’s. Think pistachio eclairs extraordinaire and live piano! Also the best classic Eggs Benedict I’ve ever had.
Just after noon we were on our way to Mesa Verde National Park. The expanse of the park was incredible and the colorful glow of the scrub oaks created a patchwork tapestry of red and orange autumn leaves. We saw a coyote on the trip and he seemed accustomed to seeing cars and people passing by, although the park was not crowded at all. Mesa Verde is immense and probably always feels comfortable to visit with a sense of having it to yourself. With our limited time, the ranger recommended we do the Mesa Top Loop where we saw the spectacular Square Tower House, Sun Temple, and various Pit Houses. At 8,500 feet in elevation we could see for miles to the next mountain ranges and beyond.
Looking through a telescope.
Indeed, we had lunch in Cortez and then headed back to Arizona. We drove into the setting sun which seemed befitting, the finale to our journey, the end just as awesome as the beginning when we drove up with the rising sun. Our timing with the light and the scenery had been spectacular and fortuitous without planning. We were so satisfied and as we drove on, a cloudless sky of light cast a dramatic perspective on the vast, craggy, barren land of the reservation and all those spaces in between out in the desert.
The sun was dropping low casting an orange alpenglow and the Harvest Moon rose up behind us. I watched it out the back window and then to the side of our car. We were an hour out of Flagstaff and almost home.
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