A few years ago, a September family wedding in Durango, Colorado inspired our road trip through the grand expanse of the American Southwest. This magnificent and unique area of the United States has drawn outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers worldwide for its natural beauty, rugged terrain, flavorful cuisine and Old West charm. The Southwest is a large geographical area and we had eight days to explore so we focused on the region referred to as the Four Corners. This is where the borders of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico all intersect and is the only place in the US where this happens. Besides a marker at the Four Corners National Monument, the undefined borders blend together in one sweeping land mass as far as the eye can see. Be sure to take your eyes off your phone and gaze at the compelling beauty of this territory that is almost always sunny under a deep blue sky.
Durango was founded in 1879, along the Animas River, and became a booming railroad town facilitating the transport of ore from the mineral rich San Juan Mountains. We arrived the night before the wedding and checked into the stately Strater Hotel. It feels like traveling back in time when entering the lobby of this hotel that has been a fixture on Main Street for over 130 years. Victorian walnut antiques adorn each of the original restored guest rooms, and the Diamond Belle Saloon inside the hotel looks like something out of an old western movie. Hiking, biking, rafting, fishing, rock-climbing and skiing are some of the exciting local pursuits here as well as spending the day aboard a scenic train ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge RR. The Visitors Center provides several walking tour guides of the homes and buildings in the historical district, and Main Street offers many unique stores and restaurants. Check out the 11th Street Station Outdoor Food Court for food trucks offering a wide selection of ethnic cuisine, Ernie’s Bar and live music.
Journey to Telluride
After attending a lovely outdoor wedding at the Wagon Road Ranch, we departed on our journey to Telluride along the San Juan Skyway through the San Juan Mountain towns of Silverton, Ouray and Ridgeway. Considered one of the most spectacular drives in the US, this area draws millions of visitors annually due to the numerous trails, old mine sites, subalpine forests and mountain peaks towering over 14,000 feet. The section from Silverton to Ouray is referred to as the “Million Dollar Highway” either because of how much it cost to build or how much gold ore remains in the roadway’s fill. One thing is for sure, it guarantees million dollar views as it winds over the Red Mountain Pass with jaw dropping cliffs, cascading waterfalls and scenic overlooks of mountains and valleys along the way. Autumn is also the perfect time to experience the aspens in all their splendid golden glory. Stop in colorful Silverton, an old gold and silver mining town, and see the 1902 county jail museum. If you have time, hike to Box Canyon Falls or soak in the hot springs in Ouray, dubbed the “Switzerland of America.”
We arrived in the mining turned ski resort town of Telluride just in time to enjoy the last day of the annual Brews and Blues Festival, one of many summer festivals there. This is where Butch Cassidy got his start robbing banks in 1889 and the town is oozing with Wild West charm, lots of nightlife and an easygoing atmosphere despite its celebrity clientele. The New Sheridan Chop House, one of the finest steakhouses in town, is located in the century old hotel of the same name. Our room at the Camel’s Garden Hotel was spacious with a gas fireplace and included nightly wine and cheese and a scrumptious buffet breakfast. In winter, the après ski scene is at its best on the patio at Oak, the hotel’s BBQ restaurant, located across from the free gondola that transports visitors and skiers to the Mountain Village at the base of the ski resort. Picturesque Telluride is located in a box canyon and the views of the mountains are in every direction. The ski resort is considered “the most beautiful place you will ever ski”, and is well known for its advanced terrain but also has over 50% beginner and intermediate runs. Don’t miss the glorious “See Forever” trail with tremendous views of the San Juan mountains and Utah’s La Sal mountains beyond. Dinner at Allreds, accessed only from the gondola, is well worth the price for a memorable dining experience and awesome mountain views year round.
Monument Valley, Utah
We continued west on the San Juan Skyway to Monument Valley, UT and checked into The View Hotel. You will most likely recognize the iconic panoramic view at Monument Valley featured in many John Ford Westerns with John Wayne, as well as over a dozen others including Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise. The hotel and restaurant is located in the Navajo Tribal Park and also has a gift shop with authentic Native American jewelry, rugs, pottery and pictures. The 17 mile self-guided Valley Drive, a rough dirt road through the dramatic and arid valley floor, is incredible and takes about 1.5 hours with stops along the way. Guided hikes and horseback riding tours are also available. Navajo fry bread at the hotel restaurant is delicious and every guest room has a balcony overlooking the valley. As the sun sets, the monuments take on a fantastical pink hue and long, nebulous shadows contribute to the peace that descends on the valley. This is a place where time stands still.
Zion National Park, Utah
We awoke to the sun rising over the majestic monuments and continued on our journey to Zion National Park. We couldn’t get a reservation in the park so we stayed in the small town of Springdale just outside the park at the Majestic View Lodge and enjoyed a delicious dinner at the Bit & Spur Restaurant and Saloon. Zion National Park is a lush oasis of over 900 species of plants and considered a miniature Yosemite. It is a striking contrast to the desert conditions in most of the other parts of this region. The Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, a 15-mile scenic drive from Springdale to the east entrance, offers gorgeous views of the National Park. Inside the park, a shuttle takes visitors along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive with stops at major roadside viewpoints and trail heads. The Emerald Pool Trail appeals to hikers of all levels, but the exhilarating Angel’s Landing Trail is challenging and not for anyone with a fear of heights. This hike takes approximately 4 hours and the last section to the summit is steep and unprotected. For those faint at heart you can stop midway at Scout’s Lookout. Another popular excursion is the Narrows at the end of Riverside Walk. Prepare to get wet as you walk along the bottom of the Virgin River flowing through a gorge in the canyon on the valley floor.
Lake Powell, Arizona
If you have an extra day, visit nearby Bryce Canyon. We didn’t have time, so we continued our journey to Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas. Lake Powell was formed by the Glen Canyon Dam, which provides water storage and power generation for the surrounding desert and offers a playground for water-sports, fishing and house-boating. There was much controversy over the construction of this dam and the flooding of Glen Canyon because of the environmental destruction and lost Native American archaeological sites. Today the controversy continues as climate change and years of drought threaten the viability of the lake and demand for water in the region. Still others appreciate the recreation and tourism the lake provides. The lake is huge, over 250 square miles and has over 2000 miles of shoreline. You can rent a boat and explore the lake on your own or take a guided tour. We took a lazy float trip down the Colorado River on the other side of the dam with Colorado River Discovery. We also visited the nearby Antelope Slot Canyon with Chief Tsosie’s Antelope Slot Canyon Tours. This is dazzling and one of the most photographed slot canyons in the world.
Although the Grand Canyon is one of the top things to see in Arizona, we had already been there so we continued on to the red rock towers of Sedona, AZ. We stopped to shop at Cameron Trading Post that has existed for more than a century, and for some locally sourced food at Diablo Burger in the funky Wild West town of Flagstaff. Driving through the stunning forest of Oak Creek Canyon, we arrived in Sedona, a beautiful town with fine dining, 5 star resorts and easy access to trailheads nearby. We stayed at the classy Amara Resort and Spa in town which included a nightly wine hour and complementary bicycles. The Pink Jeep Tour was a thrill and visiting the top of Airport Mesa for the view at sunset is a must. The Devil’s Bridge Trail leads to the largest natural sandstone arch in the area and those brave enough can get a photo standing on top of the arch. Prickly pear cactus grows wild throughout the Southwest and the edible fruit is popular in candy, jelly, juice, and margaritas! Dinner at the romantic Dahl & DiLuca was a treat with Italian upscale dining and live music.
Phoenix, Arizona, our final destination
We headed to Phoenix for our last night to visit with some relatives before our flight home the next day. On our way we stopped at Montezuma Castle National Monument to see a Sinagua Native American five-story 20-room cliff dwelling, approximately 900 years old. The Saguaro Cactus, reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoon series, dotted the landscape along the highway as well as in the yards of homes all over Phoenix. We drove over 1000 miles on our journey and left with a sense of awe over the remarkable geographical variety that exists across the United States. We are so lucky to have well-run state and national parks that protect these environmental treasures for future generations. There is so much to see and gain from the great American road trip and this is the perfect time to embark on your own journey! Plan your route and remember to bring plenty of water, sunscreen and sturdy footwear. And listening to a little “Green Grass and High Tides” by The Outlaws never hurts!
If you liked this article, check out another American cross-country road trip here on Culture Honey.