Southern Colorado: An Escape from the Arizona Summers
By mid June / early July the southern Arizona summers become unbearable. The summer routine for Arizonians is to flee the heat on the weekends.
For me there is no better place to run to than the San Juans in Southern Colorado.
There are so many different things to see and places to go that I could have a blog just about Southern Colorado. Don't worry there will be plenty more about this area. The goal of this post is to show you how easy it is to escape for a weekend up north and give you a little insight on some hiking and camping spots.
Last summer some friends and I wanted to escape the Arizona heat. We were in the depths of covid so we knew this would be a mostly camping excursion with a few stops for gas and coffee along the way. Now that restrictions are lifted there are things you can certainly add in. But covid or not this trip was a blast. We saw very few people and the views were incredible. We were there in mid June and it was cold and the alpine lakes were still frozen over. Mid July - August is a better time to go if you are wanting to see wildflowers and the beautiful blue shades of the lakes. For us, it was nice to be cold, wear jackets and have a campfire. Either way you cannot go wrong with Southern Colorado from early June - late September.
This was a quick long weekend trip but I do recommend adding more time if you can. We left Friday night after work and got back late Monday
Itinerary: 3 nights; 4 Days
Night 1: leave after work get to Cortez
Day 2: Durango to Ophir Pass; camp near Ice Lakes
Day 3: Hike Ice Lakes, lunch in Durango, camp outside of Durango
Day 4: Mesa Verde, Cortez, Drive home
Time is of the essence on trips like this and the group of friends I was going with like to get out of town ASAP. We left Phoenix around 5 pm with dogs in tow. There are cheap motels in Cortez and Durango that are dog friendly and are perfect place to sleep for the night if you do not have a camper van. Now things change a little bit with a van as there are plenty of FS roads to pull off onto. However, we did not feel like setting up tents in the dark so we opted for a hotel. We arrived in Cortez about midnight.
The drive from Phoenix to Cortez is just about 6 hours. In my opinion it goes by really fast. It's 2 hours to Flag which is a great stopping point. Then another 2 hours give or take to Kayenta and then 2 more hours and you are in Cortez.
Day 2: Durango and Ophir Pass
We were up and on the road by 6:30. In need of caffeine after a short nights rest we stopped in Durango at Durango Coffee Company which is one of our favorites. The agenda for the day was to head up red mountain pass to a turn off near Silverton. Red Mountain Pass is also known as the million dollar highway and it certainly delivers in terms of beautiful views. There are many turn offs for camping, hiking and off roading. After some research we picked Ophir Pass. While this road did not require 4 wheel drive it is very steep and very narrow.
I do not recommend this road for those that are afraid of heights. It was not technical but it was quite narrow. We did not make it all the way to the ghost town or over to Telluride. The pass was relatively busy but nothing that was unmanageable. The views are stunning and it is definitely worth a drive if you are in the area.
Along the drive there is a small area to park to get out and take some pictures. There is also a hidden lake that you can hike to. As we were the only people there on a Saturday I would prefer to keep this actual hidden gem a secret from the blog post. If you are in the area and want to check it out please feel free to reach out on our website and I can share more details :)
After the quick hike we headed over towards Ice Lakes Trailhead / FS road 585. This is a LONG road with a few official campgrounds and a multitude of areas to boondock. Initially this road was pretty busy but per usual it starts to thin out the further you go. We ran into some weather and it had rained the night before and ended up raining on us while we were driving. The road was fairly well maintained but did require 4x4 at the end due to the weather.
Of note, there is also a turnoff to clear lake near the Ice Lakes Trailhead. Unfortunately, we were too early in the season and the road was still closed but if you get a chance to check it out it looks like there are some great camping spots up there. Let us know how it is if you have been!
We spent the afternoon enjoying the campsite and letting the pups run around in the creek. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate and we spent most of the evening huddled under a shade canopy avoiding a thunderstorm. Regardless, we had the most fun enjoying our campsite and solitude.
Day 3: Ice Lakes Hike
We woke up to chilly weather and enjoyed a nice lazy morning before heading down the road to Ice Lakes. There are three lakes you can hike to but as it was so early in the season we barely made it to the first lake. The last half mile was covered in snow. It was an incredible hike and I highly recommend it. It is a little tough but even if you do not make it to the lakes the views from the lower part of the trail are absolutely stunning.
After the hike we headed back to Durango. As we had a long drive ahead of us in the morning we were planning on camping along a FS road outside of Durango towards Mancos. Unfortunately, a fire broke out along the service road we had planned to camp on so we had to change things up a bit. We ended up camping at Mancos State Park. We had an assigned campsite and it was relatively quiet and pretty.
Day 4: Mesa Verde National Park
I have driven by Mesa Verde every time I drive to Colorado and have never been. Since it was a weekday we decided to try our luck and beat the crowds. The drive to Mesa Verde is very picturesque and it is quite a trek to get back to the dwellings. There are not a lot of hikes around this area. I recommend seeing it as an add on. There is not a lot to explore around there and most of the area is protected / prohibited from hiking to avoid any damage to the ruins. That being said, it is certainly impressive and totally worth seeing.
And that is a wrap on our quick trip to Colorado. Were we tired with such a whirlwind trip? Yep. Was it totally worth it? Also yep!
A huge thank you to my adventure friendsere. Thank you for signing up for little to no sleep, questionable roads/conditions, and plenty of Plan Bs along the way. Also, a huge shoutout and thank you to @jkwiderski (check her out on IG) for so graciously letting me use a lot of the pictures from our trips!