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On Walkabout On: Highway 160 In Southern Colorado

Our visit to Mesa Verde National Park was our final stop on our trip to Arizona and the Four Corners region.  After visiting the park we spent the night in beautiful Durango, Colorado.  The next morning all we had left to do was drive from Durango back to our home in Colorado Springs by going East on Highway 160:


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It is a 314 mile drive that Google says takes 5.5 hour to complete.  However, as people with young kids know, plan for a longer drive due to frequent stops.  After eating breakfast at the hotel we set off on our trip back to the Springs at around 8:00 AM in the morning.  The drive on Highway 160 heading East from Durango was a scenic one as the highway went through the heavily forested San Juan Mountains:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

As the highway increased in elevation snow on some of the peaks around the highway was visible:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

As the highway reached the 10,857 foot summit of Wolf Creek Pass, the ground was covered in fresh snow from all the rain we had experienced the past few days of our trip that at this high elevation was cold enough to fall as snow:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

Wolf Creek Pass is a pretty fun section of highway to drive due to all the curves and elevation gain.  The highway really is an impressive feat of engineering during this stretch of road that rises up and over the mighty San Juan Mountains. You can see more pictures of the San Juan Mountains from my prior trips to the area at the below links:

I kept wanting to stop and take pictures because of all the beautiful scenery, but there were few places to stop for photos without being a nuisance to other drivers on the highway.  As we descended down the Eastern side of the pass I could see the Wolf Creek Ski Area up ahead that sits at 10,000 feet in elevation:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

The ski area was all shut down for the year, but they could have easily had skiing open well into the summer considering all the snow on the ground:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

Apparently this ski area is the subject of some controversy because it is basically a small resort for locals in the area to ski at, but American billionaire Red McCombs bought land near the ski area and has been lobbying the US Forest Service to allow him to build ski runs and access roads through the National Forest land.  The locals are against the development due to concerns about the impact on wildlife and water quality in the area.

From the ski area we descended below 9,000 feet and the snow was largely gone now as we drove through this large tunnel that first opened in 2006:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

After driving through the tunnel we next found ourselves driving right next to the rapids of the Rio Grande River:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

The San Juan Mountains are the source of the mighty Rio Grande River which becomes nothing more than a trickle once it reaches the border of the US and Mexico at our prior home, the city of El Paso, Texas.  But it is pretty cool to think that from these mountains this river flows all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.  Eventually we came out of the mountains and decided to stop and have lunch at Pagosa Springs.  From there we continued East on Highway 160 through the foothills and towards the plains of the San Luis Valley.  Along the way we spotted this old railroad water tower:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

As we left the foothills the trees were largely gone and we found ourselves driving through the largely flat and barren plains of the San Luis Valley.  The valley is surrounded by the San Juan and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains which sucks up most precipitation causing the valley to be very dry and thus a desert with little natural vegetation:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

However, the valley does have a lot of water from the Rio Grande and water below the surface.  The San Luis Valley has a huge aquafier underneath it that has been the subject of years of water rights fights with investors trying to take the water from local farmers to sell to communities in the Denver area. Likewise the Rio Grande has also been the subject of water rights fights with other states.  The San Luis Valley is one of the epicenter out West of the need for large cities to support their growing populations and farmers trying to continue their way of life.   Something else of interest about the valley is how high in elevation it sits.  Most of the valley is above 7,600 feet in elevation.  This high elevation combined with the surrounding mountains causes cold air to be easily trapped in the valley.  This causes the largest city in the valley Alamosa, to often be the coldest city in the state and sometimes even the entire United States during the winter.

As we drove East on Highway 160 we saw something else that the San Luis Valley is well known for, its large herds of buffalo:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

We next drove through Alamosa without stopping and then drove through the eastern section of the San Luis Valley towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

At the far eastern end of the valley the 14,345 foot Blanca Peak, the 4th highest mountain in Colorado dominates the view:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

Blanca Peak is one of 58 mountains that rise over fourteen thousand feet in the state which are commonly known as 14ers.  In the immediate vicinity of Blanca Peak are three other 14ers: Little Bear Peak, Ellingwood Point, and Mt. Lindsey:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

As we continued to drive towards the East I could eventually see the 14,042 foot Mt. Lindsey come into view.  Lindsey is the peak pictured below on the right:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

I could also see to the Southeast the southern most 14er in the state the 14,047 foot Culebra Peak:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

This mountain is the only 14er in Colorado that sits entirely on privately owned land.  In order to climb this mountain hikers have to pay a $100 fee during select weekends during the summer.  This mountain is actually on my short list to hike this summer.

Eventually we ran out of valley to cross and Highway 160 began to ascend up and over La Veta Pass:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

This pass is no where as treacherous as Wolf Creek Pass since it rises to a maximum elevation of 9,413 feet which is nearly 1,500 feet lower than Wolf Creek Pass and the terrain is no where near as rugged.  This meant we had no snow to deal with and few very sharp turns to navigate.  We made it up and over the pass with no issues and soon the beautiful Spanish Peaks came into view:

Picture from Highway 160 In Colorado

The Spanish Peaks are two of my most favorite mountains in Colorado and are quite a sight no matter where they are viewed from. The highest peak, West Spanish Peak rises to a maximum altitude of 13,626 feet making it what is known in Colorado as a 13er.  You can read more about the Spanish Peaks from my prior hike up West Spanish Peak at the below link:

Conclusion

After passing the Spanish Peaks, Highway 160 intersects with I-25 that we took back to Colorado Springs.  We left Durango at 8:00 AM in the morning and made it back to Colorado Springs by 4:30 PM making what Google said was a 5.5 hour drive into an 8.5 hour drive for us.  Like I said if you have young kids it always takes longer to go anywhere.  However, going slower than usual on Highway 160 wasn’t a bad thing considering all the great scenery we got to see.  I can’t wait to drive it again some day!

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