Four for the Road

There's nothing more American than a long stretch of highway (or a winding stretch of dirt), a full tank of gas—and nowhere to be until work on Monday. Whether you're looking for luxurious hot springs, Technicolor waterfalls, small-town beer tastings, or some down-and-dirty four-wheelin', we've got the perfect trip for you.

May 2010

1. Hit the Showers

Visit the lush scenery and gushing waterfalls of Colorado's Unaweep Canyon.

The route: Steamboat Springs to Gateway
The distance: 472-mile round-trip Driving time: 9.5 hours

With gray skies thundering over Steamboat Springs, I check the weather. Thick bands of rain clouds dance across the state. After seven months of mountain winter, I'm craving sunshine, but the approaching Memorial Day weekend promises sogginess everywhere. Except, that is, for Gateway: The tiny community near the Utah border is a glorious yellow orb on the weather map.

A few days later I load up the car, and along with my husband, Ben, and our friends, Steve and Tiffani, head south from Steamboat before catching I-70 west to Grand Junction. From there, we follow Colorado Highway 141 into Unaweep Canyon, expecting more of the red-rock landscape that stretches from Grand Junction to Moab. Instead, our jaws hit the floor mats.

Lush, lime-green grass carpets the valley floor, bordered by vertical rock walls rising 300 feet above the road. Over the black cliffs stream silver columns of water, some shimmying down in a playful trickle, others thundering over ledges like blasts from a fire hose. "I feel like I'm driving through The Lord of the Rings movie set," Steve says.

We park and step out of the car to admire the surge. This particular waterfall, we later learn from our map, is Fall Creek Falls, and it tumbles over the cliffs in muscular waves. Private fences line the highway, and no obvious trail leads to the cascade's base, so we simply stand on the side of the road, soaking in the mist-freshened air and savoring the sight of gushing water.

Colorado, sometimes lacking enough moisture to grow weeds, isn't known for great waterfalls. But Unaweep Canyon is surrounded by the Uncompahgre Plateau, which collects prodigious amounts of snow. During runoff in May and June, four major tumblers spill into the 30-mile-long canyon, and seasonal rainy weather creates countless more ephemeral spouts. The canyon, originally cut by an ancient (and farther west) path of the Gunnison River, is now home to several different creeks.

We gaze from the road, later confirming that most of the land is private property and off-limits to hikers. But the view from the street is good enough to enjoy the indecently named Butt-Crack Falls, which issues from cleft cliffs near milepost 139; Wildcat Falls on the south side of the highway; and Fall Creek and Fish Creek falls to the north. All are enchanting, and though Colorado Highway 141 is known as the Unaweep- Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway, we decide to christen it "waterfall alley."

As we roll into Gateway—a tiny smattering of old buildings—the clouds thin enough to let patchy sunlight through and we stop for lunch at Karen's 141 Diner. But as we gulp down burgers and malted milk shakes, we talk less of the mountain biking we'd hoped to tackle in the La Sal Mountains and more about the mystical scene we've just witnessed.

Rain follows us the entire weekend, but we don't care. We pitch a pair of tents high above Gateway on a patch of public land overlooking the Dolores River Canyon, and watch storms roll off the mountains. We giggle with anticipation, knowing that our return trip through waterfall alley will be even more spectacular than the original. —Kelly Bastone