- Road: paved, mostly sweepers and extremely scenic – southwest style
- Round-trip from Denver: 937 miles
- Length of Byway: 133 miles
- Vehicle types: car, motorcycles (sport bike and cruiser), 4×4 off-roading all along byway
- Elevation change: 4660 to 7320 above sea level
- Location: South Western Colorado
So, you think you know Colorado, right? Mostly mountains and plains, right? Well, think again. Honestly, the only thing missing here in Colorado is the ocean…other than that; we’ve got pretty much everything else. This particular byway takes you to lower elevations…if you approach it from the southern end of the byway, at Placerville. The scenery at this point changes from rugged mountain ranges to red sandstone canyons built by several rivers, such as the Dolores and San Miguel rivers that twist and wind their way along the western edge of the state. This was my introduction to this particular byway. I had never been to this part of the state…Durango and Grand Junction yes, but not here, in between those two western Colorado towns. The stark contrast of this byway as compared to the day before along the Silver Thread Byway was not only the colors of the rock and foliage, but also the warmth of the day. Yes, it can get quite hot out here. Again though…I was in awe; I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road ahead as we rode along this byway. I wanted to soak up each and every bit of scenery that I could.
After having breakfast at the Durango Diner, Jeff and I rode through Dolores and over Lizard Head Pass to Placerville; the southern end of the Unaweep/Tabeguache Byway. At this point, you reach the junction of Hwy’s 145 and 62 coming from the northeast. The byway follows Hwy145 to the northwest at this point and winds its way through the San Miguel Canyon alongside the San Miguel River. Because we were heading downward in elevation, the vegetation had begun to green-up and against the red cliff backdrop, this part of the ride was quite colorful to say the least.
Let me say this now, I’m not much of a wimp when it comes to riding my sport bike. I actually do like to ride fast and lean into tight mountain road curves. But…that had nothing to do with preparing me for the sheer drop-off of Norwood Hill. After crossing the bridge over the San Miguel River and leaving it behind us, the road ahead curved wide and then headed upward and twisted around sheer rock cliffs for a couple of miles. I can’t tell you how much looking straight ahead as if you have blinders on while being on two wheels is so very important. This particular road made that point dramatically clear to me as each time I tried to gaze over at the valley growing deeper below, I realized another curve was coming up and if I hadn’t looked at the road ahead instead of the valley, I would most certainly have plunged several hundred feet to my doom.
Since I can’t find any info on the elevation gain of Norwood Hill, I will just link two photos from the Internet here:
At the top of Norwood Hill, you round a curve and the scenery opens up to you as you ride along the top of Wrights Mesa. I cannot describe the feeling I got as we rode along and I took in the 360-degree views…yes, I took my eyes off the road, since there were no curves…only wide open space as far as the eye could see. I was awe-struck, actually. Here we were on the western edge of Colorado…out of a red sandstone canyon and atop a lush green mesa (around 7000 feet) with far off mountain ranges to the west, east and south. Just after Norwood, hwy145 ends by joining with hwy141. Again, I don’t have any photos, but I can link to a local Norwood real estate website which does provide a few photos…
As we descended Wrights Mesa, we began to approach yet another canyon. Just before the Unaweep Canyon, we came upon the visitor center at Naturita where we made a pit stop and shed a few layers of clothes as the air had warmed up considerably. The visitor center in Naturita provides quite a bit of information on the area’s history including the uranium mining that took place during WWII outside of Uravan. This article: Uravan, Colorado pretty much sums up the uranium mining history of the area.
One of the still-existing pieces of history in the Unaweep Canyon is the Hanging Flume. Recently restored in 2012, this flume skirts along the canyon wall just above the Dolores River. The best place to view this flume was the viewing point along a wide sweeping curve that ran alongside a red sandstone overhanging cliff. After Jeff and I pulled off into the viewing area, more motorcyclists coming from the north had joined us. It seemed this was a good place to not only read about some of the flume’s history, but to also stretch out tired riding legs.
This website shares historical photos and the history of the flume from the late 1800s:
After not having much luck in getting permission to build his resort in Grand Junction, the founder of the Discovery Channel found a suitable spot just south of Grand Junction along the Unaweep/Tabeguache Byway. This resort was built in 2005 at the junction of East and West Creeks and the ‘gateway’ to the many canyons along the western edge of Colorado. While I don’t want this part of my blog to sound like an advertisement, I do want to mention this particular resort mostly for the owner’s attention to environmental preservation.
Since Jeff was feeling just a tad hungry as we approached the resort, we decided to stop at one of the several restaurants on the property for a bite and a cool drink. I wasn’t feeling that hungry, but was definitely feeling like something to cool me down, so I not only had an ice cold iced tea, but a bowl of vanilla ice cream as well. I enjoyed sitting out on the small patio of the Paradox Grill. The grounds of this resort are quite spectacular with their native foliage and breathtaking views of the entrance to Unaweep Canyon. I couldn’t help but bring my camera with me as we walked to the grill…there were so many blooming flowers and cacti along with the picturesque views of the resort against the backdrop of the canyon walls.
After leaving Gateway, we meandered our way northward toward Whitewater and the junction between Hwy’s 141 and 50. Before reaching the junction, we made one more stop to view one more piece of Colorado history at the Driggs Mansion viewing area. Now, while this home is called a “mansion”, it most definitely is not large at all. But, the history behind the building of this homestead is what makes it remarkable. A few snapped photos later and we were off again heading northward through the last bit of canyon along this beautiful byway.
In 2012, a restoration team worked to restore what is left of the crumbling mansion. You can view a video of the project at this link:
Heading back to Durango
Before I end this blog, I wanted to share one of my favorite photos. After Jeff and I parted company at Whitewater…he going north to Grand Junction to visit family and I headed southward along Hwy50 through Delta and then Montrose and on to Ouray along Hwy550, I found a perfect spot to share the scenery that I had the extreme pleasure of viewing just before entering the town of Ouray. The time was somewhere between 6 and 7 pm and the sun, clouds, shadows and colors of the land mixed to create a rich green hue. Along Hwy550 several miles north of Ouray, you can pull over and snap photos of the ranch land that lies in the outstretched valley just below the majestic San Juan Mountains. While I was just a little bit worried about having enough light to guide me all the way back to Durango, I couldn’t help but stop and soak up the view.
Now, while Hwy550 is not part of the Unaweep/Tabeguache Byway, it is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, aka Milion Dollar Highway, which another friend and I rode through last summer. This byway is, in my opinion, the most breathtakingly beautiful byway in the state.
I got lucky to reach Durango with just enough light left to make my late dinner and enjoy the twilight and full moon rising out on the balcony of my vacation rental and to plan my next tour along the Trail of the Ancients.