Hiking in Colorado
Neil Wiley

I didnít have time for a local hike last month so I made do with walking a few trails in Southwestern Colorado. The weather was a little cooler and the mountains were a little bigger, but I still prefer our Northern California trails. The Colorado trails were steeper, rockier, and most were filled with tourists. Our road traffic may be worse, but our trails are remarkably free of crowds.

Day hikes near Pagosa Springs
Pagosa Springs is a small but growing resort town east of Durango. Itís high country with elevations ranging from 7,500 to 13,000 feet. Acclimation to the altitude is a problem for some. You can have trouble breathing, experience headaches, or get nose bleeds. Fortunately, our family adjusted quickly, but some in-laws and friends didnít. Smokers and less fit people appeared to have the worst time. Lots of rest and water seem to help.

To reach our first trail, we drove north from Pagosa Springs 14.5 miles on Piedra Road. We parked in a lot just past the river bridge. The trail took us south along the west side of the river through a nice little, high-walled canyon. Although the elevation changes were small, the trail was narrow and rocky. It couldnít have been that difficult, however, because I saw at least one woman pushing a stroller. The canyon widened into a large meadow. We walked about 3.5 easy miles before retracing our steps to the car. We could have walked another 8.5 miles through more box canyons and ended at another Piedra River Road bridge, but we decided to have lunch at Pagosaís famous Malt Shop instead.

If you want an even easier trail, drive east from Pagosa about 15 miles on Highway 160. As you begin your ascent up to Wolf Creek Pass (10,850 feet), watch for signs marking the parking lot for Treasure Falls. Itís less than a quarter-mile up a paved and shady trail to the falls. The trail seems a bit steep at times but the elevation gain is only 150 feet. Benches along the way provide rest stops for the short of breath. The falls are well worth the walk.

Another relatively short trail we enjoyed took us to Opal Lake. We drove eight miles south of Pagosa on Highway 84, turned left on the rough gravel of Bianco Basin Road for about ten miles, then right on Castle Creek Road (666) for one mile, then right at the sign for Opal Lake. The trail heads uphill rather steeply through shade for about 15 minutes worth of walking, then moderates as you pass through large meadows and ford several small stream crossings. The hike is highlighted by large groves of aspen, pleasant meadows, and the finaleóa mountain lake reflecting large mountains. The climb takes you from 8,400 feet at the trailhead to 8,600 feet at the lake. Although the map says the hike is only 1.5 miles long, it seemed longer going up and shorter going down.

We took several other unnamed hikes along mountain roads and up to nearby meadows for picnics. For maps and trail information, stop by the ranger office on the main street of Pagosa Springs.

Hiking through Mesa Verde
Most visitors to Mesa Verde National Park never walk the trails beyond the cliff houses. Itís enough for them to climb ladders up to 32 feet, crawl through low tunnels, and perch on vertical cliffs hundreds of feet high. Even the tours are not for the fainthearted or the unfit.

On a busy summer day, itís impossible to escape the crowds, but the park offers six trails that give you more breathing room.

Soda Canyon Overlook Trail is probably the shortest and easiest trail. Beginning one mile north of the Balcony House parking area, it provides an easy walk to the canyon edge, offering views of the Balcony House and other archeological sites along Soda Canyon. Round trip is only 1.5 miles.

Another short hike along Knife Edge Trail takes you from the northwest corner of Morefield Campground to the Montezuma Valley Overlook offering views of Montezuma Valley. It is reputed to be an excellent place to see sunsets.Two trails begin from the Spruce Tree House Trail. The 2.1-mile Spruce Canyon Trail follows the bottom of Spruce Tree Canyon, turns up Spruce Canyon, and ends at the picnic area. The 2.8-mile Petroglyph Trail continues below the edge of the plateau to a petroglyph panel, climbs to the top of the mesa, and returns via the rim to the museum.

The Point Lookout Trail switchbacks up the back side of Point Lookout to the top of the mesa for views of Montezuma and Mancos valleys. The longest trail in the park, the Prater Ridge Trail, ascends from the east side of Prater Ridge from the Morefield Campground parking lot to the top of the ridge and back for a round-trip of 7.5 miles. (Taking a shortcut cuts the walk to three miles.)

After all that hiking, you deserve a rest. The nearby town of Cortez offers excellent motels, including a new Holiday Inn Express with an excellent indoor pool and spa. For food, I recommend a visit to the Main Street Brewery and Restaurant for their half-pound Angus beef hamburger raised in a natural environment without artificial growth stimulants, dry-aged, and finished with spent brewery barley.

While you are in the area, I also recommend a trip to Creede, an old mining town northeast of Wolf Creek Pass. The town looks as if it came from a Western movie. The local theater offers excellent live plays. And the mining museum takes you back in time.

To paraphrase an old saying, I wouldnít want to live in Colorado, but I sure like to visit.


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