Free Rafting and Lake Swimming in Western Colorado

We started our trip flying into Denver and driving to Colorado Springs, found inspiration in Taos, and now we’re in western Colorado visiting some of the most striking views I have ever seen. Here we finally got a chance to do some great hiking, swimming, and even got out on the Colorado River for some rafting.

Lunch in San Juan National Park near Pagosa Springs

Lunch at Williams Creek Reservoir, San Juan National Park

Our first stop after New Mexico was Pagosa Springs, named after the natural hot springs. We managed to find a cheap Airbnb for $50 a night, though most of the places were a good bit more expensive. Our host told us that most of the houses in the area are vacation homes and that the biggest draw to the town is the timeshares. There are also several soaking locations in town, but they are all private spas which will cost you $20-$60 for the privilege of soaking in the spring. Our host also told us about a free spot called the “Hippie Dip” located under a bridge. Well, we did not need to pay the $50 tourist tax and also opted out of the “Hippie Dip” since it was about 90 degrees out. Instead, we opted to go hiking.


Pagosa Springs borders the massive San Juan National forest and a short drive will take you into some really scenic parts of the park. We went for a hike along one of the branches of the San Juan river. The best part about this hike was that a good portion of it was in a deep gorge lined with tall sheer cliffs, so there was plenty of shade. Most other hiking we had seen in Colorado was pretty exposed – not the most attractive on a hot sunny day. After a great hike, we had lunch at the Williams Creek Reservoir and caught a spectacular view of a bald eagle circling above us. Surrounded by awesome nature, we decided to take a refreshing dip in the lake.


Swimming in the mountains

Our next stop was Durango, CO, another small mountain town that has a bit more going on than just time shares. Durango is a hip spot that has been growing. The Animas River which runs through the center of town is lined with a river walk which makes it very bike/walk friendly. Durango also boasts some really good breweries. But since the town has been coming up, so have the house prices. The touristy thing to do is to take a bus from Durango to Silverton, then take one of the old fashioned trains back. This trip costs $106 per person! Round trip on the train will cost you $89 per adult, and some extra time. We opted to drive – the views driving through the mountains to the old mining town of Sliverton are fantastic.


View of Silverton driving in through the mountains

We knew we wanted to visit Telluride but we could not find a cheap rental, so we opted to stay in a historic inn just outside in a tiny abandoned mining town called Rico. Telluride is full of money with awesome music concerts, skiing, art galleries, and rich folks flying in on their private jets – Rico is the opposite. While we did not realize it when we booked our stay, our host was fairly blunt about letting us know the woes of Rico. Pretty much everyone that can work goes to Telluride, leaving Rico with many drunks and what our host called “woodsies,” which was how he referred to the homeless people living in the woods nearby. It’s not clear what exactly is holding the town back since it is set in such an alluring location near other small mountain towns that have taken off with tourism. But in any case, it made for a really interesting stop. It was like time had stood still for decades giving us a unique glimpse into what these remote western towns used to be like.


Rico, CO

The road from Rico to Telluride was sublime – the most amazing section of road we drove that entire trip. I am really glad we always pack our lunches because we stopped at Lizard Head Pass, and once again, got to eat in a spot with magnificent views.


Lunch at Lizard Head Pass

Even though it is remote, I can understand why Telluride is such a hot mountain town. The views from anywhere in the town are stunning, the white line down the center of the mountains in the picture below is a massive waterfall! Not only is it picturesque but the skiing, mountain biking, and hiking looks phenomenal. Unfortunately many people seem to know this and the town is quite expensive. We only stopped in to check out the sights and walk the main drag.


Telluride, CO

The lush forests and mountains quickly faded as we headed to Grand Junction, our final stop in western Colorado before heading back to Denver. Much like the place we stayed in Taos, this place had amazing views. We spent our first evening enjoying beers and snacks from the back deck where we had a clear view of the Colorado Monument.

View from the deck in Grand Junction

View from the deck in Grand Junction

We had planned on trying to drive to Moab during our stay but our hosts invited us to go rafting down the Colorado River with them! It was hot and we had been thinking about trying some rafting in Colorado, so we jumped at the opportunity. This is the best part of staying locally – you never know what opportunities might come up. So we helped our hosts pack up and ferry the whitewater kayaks up river, then got to spend the day cooling off as we floated down the Colorado River enjoying spectacular views of the Colorado Monument and local wildlife from the water. In return, we offered to make  dinner, but our hosts trumped us and got steaks to grill. We picked up a bottle of wine and made some sides. We all ended up enjoying a superb dinner party with top notch food and great company. Being well fed, rested, and having spent a great day chilling on the river, we left Grand Junction next morning with awesome new friends and memories.


Highway 70 driving back to Denver

There are some really great roads on the drive from Grand Junction to Denver. The opposing traffic is split up into two levels as highway 70 wraps its way between the mountains and along the Colorado River. It was a pleasant, scenic drive until we started getting back toward Denver. Then the traffic started to pickup as we passed the posh resorts of Vail and Breckenridge. Sure they looked nice as well, but since we are not big on crowds, we were already starting to miss the tranquility of western Colorado.


Denver traffic starting in the mountains

We would fly out from Denver after a couple more days adventuring around Boulder and Longmont to see what it would be like living in eastern Colorado closer to the Denver airport. We had some Marriott points, so we stayed in a hotel that reminded us bit too much of work travel. Watching the business people eating breakfast and talking business things in business clothes gave us a sobering reminder of the life we left behind.

Although the natural beauty of Colorado was grand and striking, we learned that we prefer to live where the hiking trails and parkways are shaded in the summers, with a bit more humidity. Western Colorado is far from a major airport and the Denver/Boulder area is expensive and crowded. In the end, like with many of our travels, we came away with a new appreciation for home. This two week trip ended up costing us nothing, in fact, through travel hacking we unexpectedly came out ahead $1000! Stay tuned to learn how in the next post.

6 thoughts on “Free Rafting and Lake Swimming in Western Colorado

    • My favorite part was the western side of the state, especially if you are into Mountains and views. The roads between Durango/Silverton/Telluride are really just some of the most amazing I have seen.

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  2. Some great views and scenery and a reminder that you dont need to spend a lot of money to have a great time. Much better than being at work on a nice day sitting in meetings and pointless conference calls! …I try to do the same thing. I enjoy just going different places and taking it all in. A good sandwich and maybe a few micro brews in the evening and im set. I dont like the idea of some of these tourist trap areas trying to overcharge and soak you for every little thing.

    • Agreed, I have a hard time enjoying tourist traps. Being surrounded by nature in the mountains is free, and hard to beat.

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