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.
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
2. Taste Test
Our mission is simple: two days, three breweries, and as many different beers as we can sample.
The route: Denver to Aspen
The distance: 400-mile round-trip Driving time: 8 hours
We rocket out of town, hurtling westward, fleeing the city's dwindling days of dirty, melting slush for the crisp sunshine of the mountains. It's early afternoon, but beer is already on our minds, a much-needed salve for the overfilled workweeks that my fiancée, Jennie, and I had been tackling for months. Because it's a Friday and the sky is clear, I-70 is traffic-free—for once—and we rip over to Glenwood Springs in no time. As we pull into town, we find our way to Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company, a beer joint tucked inside the lower level of the Hotel Denver, just steps from the Colorado River.
Inside, we find a table and order the brewery's sampler, four ounces each of the brewery's eight beers. It's afternoon, but the place is already hopping, proving my theory that every legit mountain town yearns for a decent brewery. The suds at Glenwood are solid, and if afternoons lasted all day, I would put back more than a few of the Red Mountain ESBs (mild and creamy) and No Name Nut Brown Ales (like a home-brewed Newcastle). If you like tart fruit beers, the Grizzly Creek Raspberry Wheat will light up your taste buds. "It pushes you up against the wall and slaps you around with raspberries!" says my pucker-faced lady friend. Indeed.
Splitting a sampler is perfect since I'm driving, and, after departing Glenwood, we cruise down Highway 82 to Aspen, ending up at the Hotel Lenado, a quaint 19-room hotel just a couple of blocks from the center of downtown. We check in, eye the wood stove in the corner of the room—we'll fire up that bad boy later—and head over to Aspen Brewing Company, nestled just down the hill. Here, a walk is in order—the brewpub is only a few blocks away from downtown—because the beers pack an alcohol-soaked punch.
Pushing open the brewery's door, we're greeted by an enormous and overly friendly Bernese mountain dog. After a quick head pat, we grab seats at the bar and glance up at the evening's offerings. Our bartender, Brad Veltman, a guy in his mid-20s rocking a pinstriped Aspen Brewing Company baseball hat, turns out to be the owner. He apologizes that his full lineup of beers isn't available—they're struggling to brew enough beer to keep Aspen satiated. I dig into a half-pint of the Conundrum Red, a bright, fine red ale, and then switch to try a seasonal stout, a dark, sweet, chocolaty beer that's as thick as motor oil. Jennie, tired of sampling, cuts to the chase and goes straight for a pint of her favorite flavor: India Pale Ale. Aspen's version, dubbed the Independence Pass Ale (yep, IPA), is a strong, balanced ale overflowing with hops—the epitome of an Americanized IPA. It's delicious, the best new beer either of us has tried in a long time.
It's barely 5 p.m., but the crowd starts to filter in, and soon the small space is packed; people grab spots at the long tables or stand wherever they can find room. A steady flow of folks comes in with empty growlers, offering them to the bartender like they are receiving holy wine at church. People willing to pay for a half-gallon of fresh draft beer (instead of getting the cheap stuff at the convenience store) is a good sign for any brewery, and after a few pints I grab a growler and join them.
Full growler in hand, we stop off for a late dinner at New York Pizza—a locals' joint above the Billabong outfit at the corner of Mill Street and Hyman Avenue—for huge slices of New York-style pizza. Appetite quashed, we steal back to the Lenado, take a dip in the hot tub, light up the wood stove, and easily fall into a deep sleep.
When I wake up, I flick on the TV for the weather, which looks ugly for our return trip. Attempting to avoid the ski traffic insanity on the east side of the Divide, we zip out of town, stopping just off Highway 82 at a Carbondale shopping plaza for breakfast sandwiches and coffee at the Upper Crust Bakery. Soon enough we're in Frisco, eating lunch at Backcountry Brewery. The bright barroom, with an open ceiling and views of the Frisco Bay Marina, seems to be the best place to sit, and we order the sampler tray, an array of seven different seven-ounce pours. Backcountry has an impressive lineup of brews—every one was a rock-solid choice—but the straw-colored Ptarmigan Pilsner and the English-style Telemark IPA stand out as clear winners.
After finishing our tasters and lunch (the chicken fingers hit the spot), we cruise through Eisenhower Tunnel, only to find cars backed up for miles. For once, I don't really mind—I have a half-gallon growler of Independence Pass Ale to look forward to when I get home, and there's nothing quite like drinking a draft beer in your own backyard. —Patrick Doyle
3. Road to Nowhere
Navigating a rollicking four-wheel-drive adventure in one of the remotest parts of the United States.
The route: Lake City to Ouray to Telluride to Silverton to Lake City
The distance: 100 miles off-road, 50 miles on pavement Driving time: 2 full days, 2 half days
I'm only nine miles of bumpy and rutted dirt road into my journey when I come across the ghost town of Capitol City. I hop out and wander among the decaying log houses—Capitol City went bankrupt after the gold and silver mines busted—reveling in the surrounding craggy peaks. This is the joy of the San Juan Mountains: tiny towns—some disappearing, others thriving—in the midst of unrivaled wilderness.
I left this morning from Lake City, an itty-bitty town in southwestern Colorado that owns the distinction of being the remotest community in the Lower 48, on a four-day off-roading journey. The plan? Spend as little time on pavement as possible, crisscrossing the San Juans in my lovingly abused 1999 Jeep Cherokee.
After a stroll and a few snapshots in Capitol City, I point my tires up Engineer Pass, the highest point of the trip at 12,800 feet, where I admire wide-open vistas before descending the steep, rocky route and picking up Highway 550. I turn north and cruise four miles into Ouray. (No wonder they call it the Switzerland of America—the town squeezes itself inside a tight box canyon.) Famished from the drive, I head to The Outlaw Restaurant for a steak and live piano music before turning in for the night at the Alpenglow condos, right in the center of Ouray.
Day two finds me humming along Highway 550 before turning west onto Highway 62 through Ridgway. Leaving the pavement behind, I bank south onto Last Dollar Road. This is the tamest segment of the journey, the only one I'd attempt without four-wheel drive and high clearance. The road is still bumpy, though, and the breathtaking views of the San Miguel River's canyon and the Sneffels Range stop me mid-bounce.
Last Dollar Road eventually finds paved Highway 145, where I turn east and motor into Telluride. The dirt and grime and dust have left me spitting sand, so I decide to quench my thirst at Smuggler's Brewpub and Grille. I happily tuck into a pint of Powder Night Espresso Porter, with dark roasted malts and Italian espresso, before retiring at The New Sheridan Hotel, which dates to 1895 and combines a rich history and a convenient in-the-heart-of-downtown location.
Continuing my counterclockwise loop, I churn south along Highway 145, which plays host to blown-open views of Wilson Peak (of Coors commercial fame), before turning east to Ophir and more off-roading. My destination is Silverton via Ophir Pass, but at the summit I take a 20-minute hike to the icy-blue waters of Crystal Lake. Back in my vehicle—and still puffing a bit from my excursion—I glide down the mountain to Highway 550. At the bottom of the hill, I turn south and roll into Silverton. My first stop is the tasting room at Montanya Rum, a local distillery serving two award-winning varieties of rum, where I spend an hour sipping cocktails. Then it's a quick jaunt over to the historic Teller House Hotel for my last night.
The final leg of my itinerary has me heading back to the start, following County Road 2 northeast over Cinnamon Pass. After about 12 miles, Animas Forks ghost town peeks over the horizon, and I spend a few minutes wandering among its worn-out houses, jail, and mining ruins. After the summit of Cinnamon, I head downhill into Lake City. My loop complete, I decide paved roads never felt quite so good. —Pete Bronski
4. Some Like It Hot
Our three-day pursuit takes us through two states and over three mountain passes, and lands us in four fabulous mineral springs.
The route: Denver to Saratoga, Wyoming, to Steamboat Springs
The distance: 525-mile loop driving time: 10 hours
Westerners have relatively easy access to some of the country's most stunning geography. We can jump in the car and explore soaring peaks, high desert, pine forests, and a variety of geothermal hotspots—which is exactly what we're hoping to find on our trip through northern Colorado and southern Wyoming this weekend.
My husband, Matt, doesn't love hot springs, but he's indulging me, mostly because I remind him that we can stop at Johnson's Corner, a landmark truck stop and diner just south of Fort Collins, with a solid breakfast menu and mouthwatering cinnamon rolls, on our way north on I-25. Fully sated after a breakfast of eggs and biscuits and gravy, we buy a cinnamon roll for the road and cruise toward our first destination of Saratoga, Wyoming.
The drive through southern Wyoming resembles what I'd imagine Siberia might look like: dry and desolate and isolated. It's beautiful, though—antelope dot the rolling prairie, and tall, spindly grasses sway in the near-constant breeze. But it's the beauty of Medicine Bow National Forest that really catches my breath. Interstate 80 elbows around the forest, but during the warm season Highway 130 opens and makes for a lodgepole pine- and wildflower-lined drive through Medicine Bow and into Saratoga.
The rustic town of about 1,700 residents straddles the North Platte River and sits atop one of the most active mineral springs in the state. The Saratoga Resort & Spa, an inn built in the 1950s that still has a middle-of-the-last-century ambience, takes full advantage of the area's geothermal goings-on. Captured in a variety of stone-enclosed pools, a nearly odorless hot spring gurgles up through the ground in the resort's backyard. The pools, some small and some large, hover anywhere between 100 and 106 degrees. Before heading to the inn's on-site brewery for a late lunch of piquant green chile and happy hour-priced brews, we slip into each of the four intimate, tepee-covered pools before cooling off in the more temperate, 70-foot-long pool.
After a night at the resort, we wake up, throw on our still-wet bathing suits, and drive less than a mile to the town's Hobo Hot Springs, a public spring that's free and open 24 hours a day. The pool area is Spartan at best—it's really just a concrete enclosure that envelops some seriously hot spring water (the main pool's temp can reach 110; the "lobster pot" at the back can hit 120 degrees)—but it's worth the stop for its sheer uniqueness. In the summer, bathers can walk from the Hobo Hot Springs down to the North Platte River, where a small area closed off with rocks catches enough hot spring water to make a refreshing pool right in the river.
Back in the car, we towel off and wiggle into warm, dry clothes before pointing our GPS toward Steamboat Springs, a three-hour drive south from Saratoga. The route takes us through stunning geography—rolling hills lined by high peaks—along Wyoming's Highway 230 and Colorado highways 125 and 14.
The scenery in Steamboat Springs is just as picturesque, if a bit more metropolitan. We pull up in front of Winona's, a quaint breakfast and lunch joint along the main drag of Lincoln Avenue. There's almost always a wait, but we sit down to a bowl of delicious tortilla soup and a juicy burger after just 15 minutes. From there we check into the Rabbit Ears Motel, a roadside spot with typical motel furnishings but with an atypical location: right on Lincoln Avenue and adjacent to the Yampa River. This location is also ideal for hot springs aficionados. Directly across the street lies the Old Town Hot Springs, a recreational facility that has eight hot spring-fed pools, two waterslides, a fitness center, and massage facilities. The atmosphere feels a bit like you're going to soak at a 24 Hour Fitness, but it's great for families with kids, and it's easily accessible after a long day in the hills.
For a more adults-only swim, we drive the seven miles uphill to Strawberry Park Hot Springs. In the twilight, we get enough of a glimpse of the hot springs' layout—a gorgeous spread of six pools of varying temperatures surrounded by stone walkways and Adirondack-style chairs—that we can feel our way around the pools once darkness descends. (Tip: Bring a flashlight.) As the sun sets over the springs, two things happen: A brilliant display of stars emerges and swimsuits disappear. Don't fret if you're the least bit shy, though—it's so pitch black that it's nearly impossible to see your hand in front of your face. The nighttime ambience, fueled by alcohol snuck in past the entrance staff, has a distinctly risqué—and plain fun—vibe.
Fully relaxed and a bit pruned, we retire to our bed at the motel for a deep, hot water-induced sleep. The next morning we're back in the car on our way home to Denver, passing dangerously close to Hot Sulphur Springs Resort & Spa. Typically it'd be a must-soak for any hot springs tour—it's one of the oldest and largest springs resorts around—but we decide we've simmered enough for one weekend. —Lindsey B. Koehler