Day 1: Durango to Silverton (47 miles)
En español | You’ll see jagged mountains, Native American cliff dwellings and deserted gold-mining towns in Durango, known for its mining and railway roots. Fortify yourself for the climbs ahead with hash browns, eggs and pork with green chili peppers at the family-owned Oscar’s Cafe, where a model railroad circles the room. Then ascend through the San Juan Mountains, gaping at stunning 14,000-foot peaks. Keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep, mountain goats — even black bear. Outside the former Wild West mining town of Silverton, take the Old Hundred Gold Mine tour, where you can pan for gold and keep what treasures you find.
Where to stay: The Historic Alma House, an antique-filled former miners’ boardinghouse in Silverton.
Day 2: Silverton to Telluride (72.5 miles)
The 23-mile stretch of two-lane road between Silverton and Ouray is known as the “Million-Dollar Highway” because of its cost, the value of the ore underneath — or perhaps the many travelers who've said they wouldn’t traverse it again for a million bucks. It can be a hair-raising drive, but worth it if you don't mind taking on several S curves with no guardrails and perilous mountainside drops. At the end, though, you can unwind with a dip in one of Ouray’s hot springs or a world-class blue-cheese burger with onion rings at Maggie’s Kitchen. Spend the night in Telluride (a curved one-hour drive from Ouray), which has a well-preserved downtown and opera house, and in the winter is a top ski destination for the rich and famous.
Where to stay: Telluride's New Sheridan Hotel, which boasts the town's oldest bar, more or less unchanged since 1895.
Day 3: Telluride to Cortez (76 miles)
Stop in Dolores, with its artifact-filled Anasazi Heritage Center. Mesa Verde National Park, near Cortez, is another must-see for its archeological center and about 600 cliff dwellings inhabited by the Pueblo Native Americans many hundreds of years ago. In Cortez, stop for a sandwich or hearty salad at the Farm Bistro.
Where to stay: The whimsical '50s- and '60s-themed, brightly colored Retro Inn at Mesa Verde in Cortez.
Day 4: Cortez to Durango (46 miles)
Mountains give way to cattle and llama farms as you near Durango, where you can ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad with a vintage steam locomotive. The vistas are even better than those seen by car. You can also stretch your legs on the Colorado Trail, browse shops and galleries in downtown Durango and take a peek at the Old West exhibits in the 131-year-old Strater Hotel's lobby. Wet your whistle in the hotel’s Diamond Belle Saloon, where drinks and eats are served by “Belle Girls” in period costumes, or grab a cold craft beer at Carver Brewing Co.