Colorado is famous for outdoor playgrounds like Aspen, Boulder, Telluride, and Vail. But venture away from the big names and the Centennial State offers other stellar scenes, not nearly as well known as they should be. Highway 50 is one of them.
The 65-mile stretch between the towns of Montrose (to the west) and Gunnison (to the east) is home to a cluster of attractions, including Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and the Curecanti National Recreation Area, and offers the same wholesome fun as elsewhere in the state: rock climbing, hiking, fishing, kayaking and canoeing, primitive camping, and a staggering number of gorgeous views. A little further afield are hippy towns and even abandoned mining towns.
With the (already limited) tourist traffic dying down and the ideal weather at this time of year, Highway 50 could be the best road trip you take this fall. Here are six spots to hit along the way.
1. Museum of the Mountain West in Montrose
A few miles west of the entrance to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is Montrose's Museum of the Mountain West, a non-profit passion project of Richard Fike, a retired archaeologist. These types of “Old West” museums, with displays of pioneer ephemera and Wild West town buildings, are fairly common in this part of the country. But Fike's stands out. Not just because of the superb collection, but because of Fike himself, who has been collecting artifacts since he was a child and opened his first “museum” in the guestroom of his family home when he was just eight years old. Knowledgeable and passionate about the American West, he doesn't seem to tire of touring visitors around the museum and telling them tales. Plan on a minimum of an hour (Fike recommends two) to tour the collection, which includes a doctor's office, church, and school.
It's only seven miles in length, but plan for half a day if you want to really enjoy the 12 overlooks along the South Rim Drive of the Black Canyon, so named because sunlight has a hard time penetrating the deep, steep, and narrow chasm. The views are dramatic, especially at Painted Wall, where it's possible to spot peregrine falcons, Cooper's and red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles, as well as the more common violet-green swallow. For travelers wanting to linger, there's a campground where 88 first-come, first-served sites offer basic services (showers aren't among them).
3. Morrow Point Dam
Driving onward from the national park, head east toward the town of Cimarron. There, pull off the two-lane Highway 50 and you'll find yourself standing at the foot of Morrow Point Dam. At its base, the reservoir cuts a rushing, roiling ribbon through a small canyon. Small boats—kayaks, canoes, and rafts—can be launched here, but beware: The rapids are for experts only and conditions can change quickly due to dam activity. Alternatively, cross the bridge over the reservoir and explore the surrounding canyon on the marked trails. A small section of narrow gauge trestle for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad is on display here, but Engine 278, the train that usually sits atop it, has been removed for restoration.
4. Curecanti National Recreation Area
The Curecanti National Recreation Area occupies a broad swath of this region. With numerous access points, each with its own attractions, it's possible to get off the pavement and into the backcountry without seeing any other travelers. From Cimarron, go east toward the tiny town of Sapinero and drive by the Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado's largest body of water and one of the three reservoirs in the Curecanti. Just beyond is a hiking trail that leads up to Dillon Pinnacles, craggy rocks that stand as evidence of an earlier volcanic era. The four-mile ascent can be strenuous but what awaits is worth the effort: From the top, you see the Blue Mesa Reservoir spread out before you and can glimpse the San Juans—Colorado's largest mountain range—in the distance. A couple miles beyond the turnout for Dillon Pinnacles is Red Creek, a section of Curecanti where campers can set up tents. And onward towards the town of Gunnison are multiple turnouts for hiking, climbing, and fishing.
5. Town of Gunnison
Gunnison isn't a trendy destination in the same way that Crested Butte is, just 25 miles to the north, but it's a fine stop for lunch or coffee, fueling up, and spending an hour or so browsing the shops. Find a parking spot and explore the town's N. Main Street. There's Castle Creek Guitar Co., home of the unique dobrato, a guitar with a vibrato tail piece; Gunnison Gallery, featuring the work of 60 local artists; and The Bookworm, where you can buy literature of the American West, postcards, and maps.
From Gunnison, you can take CO-135 north to the touristy town of Crested Butte. But for a more intriguing side trip head northeast via CO Road 742 toward Tincup, an old mining town. Traveling along a gravel road for the last few miles, you'll emerge from a cloud of dust to see a picturesque structure that serves as the town's church and Town Hall, a handful of simple, wooden homes for the hardy folks who live here, and a booming population of grazing cows—watch out, they have the right of way here. The town is also home to a curious cemetery where Tincup's deceased are buried in sections segregated by religion: Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant. Look for the worn wooden marker for the grave of “Stormes T.L.,” a New Yorker who came to Tincup during its initial boom and who, after he died in 1879, was Tincup's first burial.