Colorado is blessed with more than its fair share of scenic byways that make travelers say “wow!” at nearly every turn. Those roads definitely live up to their reputations.
There are, however, many lesser-known Colorado back roads that offer nearly comparable experiences. The difference is between outright “wows” and softer sighs of wonder. With these back roads, second best is still award-winning.
One good example is this back road from Alamosa to Pagosa Springs. Most people travel the scenic and more direct U.S. 160 over Wolf Creek Pass, but for those with a bit of Robert Frost in them, the 130-mile route on US 285, State Highway 17 and US 84 is worth every extra mile and minute. Bookended by two very different towns, this route offers two mountain passes, magnificent alpine scenery, a memorable steam-powered train, intriguing histories of three cultures, and the opportunity to soak in one of the world’s finest hot springs.
Alamosa is a fitting beginning to this road trip. It lies in the 7,500-foot-high San Luis Valley, one of the largest alpine valleys in the world, sprawling 150 miles north-to-south and 50 miles east-to-west. While the valley is Colorado’s only true desert (as determined by rainfall), it sits on a huge aquifer that supports more than 230,000 acres of wetlands. The land is also nourished by El Rio Bravo del Norte, “the fierce river of the north”—better known as the Rio Grande, America’s second largest river.
Wildlife and humans have been making the valley their home for eons. One of the earliest inhabitants was the Sand hill crane. Every year, in March and September, more than 20,000 Sand hill cranes make a stop in nearby Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge during their yearly migration.
The first humans to come to the valley were Native
Americans. For more than 4,000 years the Utes, Navajo
and Apache hunted, fished and made the land their home. In
the 1500s, Spanish explorers moved up from Mexico,
bringing their horses, guns and religion, and establishing
their most northern outpost in North America. By the 1800s,
ranching and agriculture—fed by extensive Hispanic irrigation
systems—were firmly embedded into the life blood of the
Today, the largest town in the valley is Alamosa. It’s more of a regional supply and transportation center than tourist town. Spreading out from a southern bank of the Rio Grande, the town’s tree-lined residential streets and small commercial center offer a laid back style and strong sense of community.
“You can find six generations of family owning the same house,” says resident Don Thompson. “The young people might go away for an education, but they come back to live and raise their children.”
For visitors, the town offers an excellent welcome center and numerous accommodation and eating options (good food at the San Luis Valley Brewing Company and try the blueberry muffins at Milagros Coffee House). In Cole Park you can see the 1883 locomotive #169, one of the fastest narrow gauge engines ever built. For a more direct experience,
offers passenger excursions east over La Veta Pass
and southwest to Antonio (to connect with the
You’ll follow the train south as you head out of town
on US 285 on the first leg of this road trip. The road
runs as straight as an Apache arrow and the flat valley
floor spreads out in underwhelming agriculture
splendor. You can see why the Spanish used it as
an easy route into the region. Just before Antonito, a
short detour at Conejos will bring you to Our Lady
Colorado (although the church itself is not that old).
At Antonito—where standard gauge train tracks meet narrow gauge—the main attraction is the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad. The 64-mile, narrow-gauge steam railroad has been chugging over Cumbres Pass for more than 125 years. Built in 1880 to serve silver mining, it’s America’s longest and highest narrow gauge railroad. By the 1960s, the line was basically abandoned, but through the efforts of preservationists the most scenic portion was saved and began carrying tourists in 1971 between Antonito and Chama, New Mexico. (In 2009 the season runs through October 18.) Antonito is also where you turn west onto State Highway 17. Now you’ve joined part of the Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway, which follows many of the ancient roads through the San Luis Valley. This part of the byway offers rich and varied terrain.
With the Conjoes River babbling away on the left and rugged cliffs standing silently on the right, the road settles gently into the landscape. Conjoes Canyon offers stunning views before the road breaks into a
lush valley of tall pines, reflective ponds, huge groves of aspens and
a cattering of homesteads. The picture-postcard beauty seems slightly
reminiscent of a European alpine scene.
Cresting the first mountain pass (La Manga, 10,230), the road comes
around a bend and another impressive valley spreads out below. A large
overlook has four interpretative panels that describe the history of the
road and states: “Like the first prehistoric inhabitants, you too are a
‘caminante’ or one who walks upon the land.” While it’s true that many
have come before you, it’s also nice to think that you’re seeing a view
that few modern-day Coloradans have seen.
Not far from the overlook the road starts climbing to its next mountain
pass—Cumbres Pass at 10,022. At the top is an extensive collection
of buildings that are part of the Cumbres and Toltec scenic Railroad
National Historic site. If you time your trip right, you’ll get numerous opportunities to see and photograph the steam locomotive puffing along the route.
The train’s destination, Chama, New Mexico, is where you’re heading as well. The fly-speck of a town consists of a string of shops on one side of the road and the railway
station on the other. While the town doesn’t look like much, a little
exploration uncovers some fine local art, crafts, and jewelry, as well
as some fun lawn art at the Local Color Gallery.
Leaving Chama and the train behind, you turn west onto US 84 and
the last leg toward Pagosa Springs. Now, you’re out on the flat floor
of Chama Valley. Not far from town you come to the sign that indicates
the Continental Divide. You can’t help but wonder how it’s possible
that on a plain flatter than a pool table “rainwater divides at this point.
To the west it drains into the Pacific Ocean. To the east into the
Atlantic.” You pour some water on the spot, but the water doesn’t
seem to know what it’s supposed to do.
As the road starts climbing out of the valley and into San Juan National Forest, the scenery goes from flat to 3-D. Vast tracts of forest and rugged mountains are part of the southern San Juans, considered by many the wildest in Colorado. It was in these mountains that Colorado’s last grizzly was killed.
Numerous smaller roads lead to trail heads where day hikers can get their fill of exercise and natural beauty.
The biggest shock of the entire trip is when you pull out of the quiet scenic splendor of the mountains and come face-to-face with the brash, bold, sulpfur-smelling tourist town of Pagosa Springs. On one side of the San Juan River are a long
line of 1800s buildings filled,
cheek-to-jowl, with restaurants, bars,
cafes and tourist shops—a modern-
day version of a booming mining
town. On the other side of the river,
is a surprisingly attractive string of
pools and public park areas that
cascade down to the water’s edge.
They’re all part of the town’s famous
The name Pagosa Springs comes
from the Ute name, “Pagosah,” which
means “healing waters.” According to
the Ute tribe, the springs weren’t
always there. Legend has it that a
plague descended on the tribe.
People were dying and not even the best medicine men could cure them. In desperation, a gathering was held on the banks of the San Juan River. A huge bonfire was built and everyone danced and prayed around the towering flames in hope that their voices would be carried skyward to the gods. The pleas for mercy and salvation lasted long into the night.
The next morning, when the people awoke, they found boiling water where the fire had been. They drank and bathed in the water and were cured. From that day forward the location became known as a sacred place of peace and healing.
Unfortunately, because of the springs importance, ownership was disputed by the Navajos, who also believed the springs were theirs. While the San Juan River was accepted as the dividing line between the two tribes, the access to the hot springs was constantly disputed.
Sadly for the Indians, in the late 1800s the U.S. government took control of the springs and then deeded out parcels to private parties.
Reportedly, the springs are the world’s largest
and hottest natural mineral springs. Water
temperature is about 144 degrees, so no one
bathes directly in the spring. The Native
Americans used to take steam baths in natural
cavities adjacent to the spring, or trapped the
water in pools allowing it to cool before taking
Today, there are two hot spring bath facilities
with indoor and outdoor baths, water of varying
temperatures, and both offer overnight
accommodations. The larger of the two is
The Springs Resort, with 18 individually
designed outdoor soaking pools terraced
along the banks of the San Juan River. The other, The Springs and the Spa Motel, is located on the opposite side of Hot Springs Boulevard, just south of U.S. 160. Between the two is the Pagosa Springs Visitor Center, which resides in a replica of a turn-of-the-century hot springs bathhouse.
As you sit in one of the hot springs pools and soak away the afternoon, you can’t help but think that Colorado’s not only blessed for having some of the best scenic byways in the country, it’s also blessed for having some of the best back roads.
Jeff Miller is Denver-based freelance writer and former editor of Encompass.