The truck is barrelling down Million Dollar Highway as if a million dollars really were at stake. With its trailer weighed down heavily by a load of logs, it navigates the twists and turns of the narrow mountain road.
Coming up on the other side is a lumbering recreational vehicle (known in America as an RV) and the road is narrowing. It’s a white-knuckle moment for the vacationing driver as the two vehicles slip past each other without incident.
Including the bicycle rack attached at the rear, the RV is 11 metres long. Driving one is not an easy task, especially taking curves. The turning radius of an RV is three times that of a car.
After a long day of driving west from Denver, the first destination of our trip – the Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction – is reached by evening. A stroll at the 1,500-metre-elevation plateau the next morning reveals that the RV was parked only a few metres from the edge of a precipice.
The view of the Colorado Valley is a magnificent one. On the horizon are the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains, partially enshrouded in mist. Up closer are sandstone monoliths towering as high as 150 metres. These start to turn red in the first rays of the morning sun.
Rim Rock Drive, completed in 1950 and running southwards along the edge of the canyon, reaches elevations of 2,000 metres. The RV passes huge boulders the size of houses as it finally reaches the valley and heads to Ouray.
The town, at an elevation of 2,350 metres, once thrived on gold and silver mining. Today, tourism is the town’s gold.
The next morning, we travellers pay a visit to Linda Wright-Minter, owner of the Wiesbaden Hotel. It’s a rather nondescript-looking wooden house from the outside, but inside it’s another story.
There’s a spa area in the cellar called “Vapour Cave” where the smooth walls of rock are moist and glistening in the light of a mine lamp. Waters from a hot springs – first discovered by the native Ute people around 1800 – are awaiting in the wading pool. A 10-minute soak in the hot spring water is as relaxing as a visit to a sauna.
After the nerve-racking stretch on Million Dollar Highway through the San Juan Mountains, we travellers will arrive in Silverton, 30 kilometres south of Ouray. It’s a route offering breathtaking vistas of snow-capped peaks, yellow-coloured mountain slopes and dark green Douglas firs.
After Silverton, the RV heads towards Pagosa Springs and The Springs Resort & Spa on the banks of the San Juan River. This is one of three facilities in the town that taps into the hot springs waters for their swimming pools. Clouds of mist hovering above the 23 open-air pools are illuminated when the first rays of the sun peek down from the nearby mountaintops.
Besides the hot spring water, the pools are also fed from the river, so that temperatures in the pools range between 25 and 45 degrees Celsius.
After a drive of some 200 kilometres, the RV arrives at the Pinyon Flats Campground, with its supra-dimensional parking slots, in the Great Sand Dunes National Park. It is already dark. In the moonlight you can see the huge sand dunes, appearing as if out of a pastel painting. The appearance is accentuated by the fact that this sandy desert lies right in the middle of the Sangre de Cristo Range with its many 4,000-metre-tall mountain peaks.
In order to reach the dunes, you have to cross the shallow, but wide, Medano Creek. The hike up to one of the ridges takes a lot of effort, even though the sand is still hard after the cold night. The largest dune is 230 metres high, the tallest of any in the United States.
In the early morning light, deep shadows streak across the landscape.
After the hike, with the dunes providing a surreal backdrop, we travellers will enjoy a small open-air breakfast from the RV fridge.
The return drive to Denver provides no further spine-tingling situations. At Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak, elevation 4,301 metres, towers over the landscape. Visitors can get to the top riding the world’s highest-elevation rack-and-pinion railway.
This group of travellers, however, elects instead to enjoy the comfort of their RV for the final leg of the journey.