Colorado’s West End Hidden Gem

[Western Colo. | February 2020 | San Juan Silver Stage | By Ninah Hunter]

THE FIRST TIME I DROVE the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway (UTB), I was blown away. After many trips along Highway 50 through the flat farmlands and barren adobe hills between Montrose and Grand Junction, I had no clue such a wonderland of geological beauty, cultural artifacts, western history, and recreational opportunities existed in this part of the state.

The UTB is a 133-mile stretch along Highways 141 and 145 from Whitewater to Placerville. It doesn’t take long to start oohing and aahing after you cross the Gunnison River and enter the craggy, rock-strewn East Creek Canyon.

Dolores Canyon

Dolores Canyon. Courtesy, Sage Carver

At the crest of Ninemile Hill, you’ll find the Grand Valley Overlook Interpretive Stop, where you can see the Book Cliffs and 2,000-foot Mount Garfield bordering the Grand Valley to the north. Traces of the legendary wagon and stagecoach road of the 1900s are visible on the north side of East Creek.

Descending from Ninemile into Unaweep Canyon, travelers notice the massive Precambrian rock cliff walls as the road winds through a bucolic narrow valley dotted with old working ranches. You’ll eventually cross over the Unaweep Divide. Unaweep in Ute means “parting of the waters” or “canyon with two mouths.” This refers to the fact that one “mouth” (East Creek) drains eastward and the other (West Creek) drains westward toward the Dolores River.

From the Divide, you’ll soon wind around the distinct Thimble Rock formation on the south side of the highway. It provides an impressive backdrop for the crumbling ruins of Driggs Mansion. This home was built between 1914 and 1918 by a wealthy New Yorker, Colonel Laurence La Tourette Driggs. He and his wife abandoned it a few years later.

After Driggs Mansion, you’ll travel through the Unaweep Seep, locally known as “Swamp Hill,” 55 acres of land managed by the BLM to protect this unique biological area. Next up is the West Creek Picnic Area with an interpretive display. Located in a deep narrow gorge along West Creek, the habitat here provides sanctuary for numerous wildlife species.

At the sleepy town of Gateway, you leave Unaweep Canyon and enter the dramatic red-rock country of the Dolores River Canyon. Once you cross the Dolores River and turn south, the unexpected and striking Gateway Canyons Resort presents itself in a splendid setting at the base of Palisade, a 2,000-foot monolithic formation.

From the Resort, Highway 141 follows the Dolores River through a magnificent red-walled canyon. The engineering wonder of the Hanging Flume can be seen along this section of the UTB from an interpretive overlook. This wooden structure was built from 1889 to 1891 and suspended from the massive Wingate sandstone cliffs some 150 feet above the river. It carried water to nearby mining operations but was soon abandoned after the stock market crash in 1893.

Hanging Flume

Close up of the flume. The hanging flume along the cliffs above the Dolores River. Image by the author.

Just past the Flume, the Dolores and San Miguel Rivers converge before reaching the ghost town of Uravan. It was established in 1936 as the townsite for mining and milling vanadium, some of which was later used to make the first atomic bomb. The mill closed in 1984.

The road continues on through Naturita and onto Highway 145 before it climbs onto a high, grassy plateau with panoramic views dominated by Lone Cone Peak. The road passes through Redvale and Norwood before it drops precipitously down Norwood Hill into the beautiful rubicund San Miguel Canyon along the San Miguel River to Placerville, where it officially ends.

For more information, downloadable brochures, and an interactive map, visit the UTB’s website at utbyway.com. Don’t miss this gem next time you’re in Western Colorado!