The West End, a rural and historic region along Colorado’s Western Slope, is a diverse ecosystem of mesas, high alpine environments, and dramatic red rock canyons. From dinosaurs to ancient native peoples, from miners to contemporary recreationalists, this unique corner of Colorado has always drawn those in search of the road less traveled and other-worldly landscapes.
The towns that dot the West End—Norwood, Naturita, Nucla, Bedrock, Paradox, Redvale, and Gateway—were all founded at the turn of the century as mining towns. This destination is home to some of Colorado’s most storied mining history, and the remnants of that history can still be seen today in the ruins left behind in the ghost towns and old mines that dot the landscape. Exploring the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway is the perfect way to immerse yourself in the West End’s landscape as well as history. Take this unforgettable 133-mile journey with us as we travel through canyons, plateaus, mountains, and ancient archeological sites.
Discover the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway
You’ll drive along the Uncompahgre Plateau and through the Unaweep Canyon as you begin your journey in Whitewater and make your way to the town of Gateway, Colorado. The Uncompahgre Plateau is one of the most unique geological areas in the world. More than 300 million years ago, the plateau uplifted from the crust of the earth, revealing layers of sediment and rock once buried deep within. The base of the monolithic Palisade formation in Gateway, Colorado is one of the best examples of the layered rock. The dramatic sheer walls of the Unaweep Canyon are believed to have been formed by the powerful waters of the Gunnison River (though the river has since changed its course). This landscape is still dotted with streams and smaller rivers as well as green, verdant foliage in the spring and early summer. You can expect to come across abundant wildlife in this area, including golden and bald eagles, peregrine falcons, black bears, mountain lions, desert big horn sheep, bobcats, coyote, elk, deer, fox, rabbits, and trout in the rivers and streams.
The walls of the Unaweep Canyon are also home to the evidence of ancient wildlife; paleontologists have found partial skeletons of the Diplodocus and Camarasaurus dinosaurs from the Jurassic period as well as tracks of smaller carnivorous dinosaurs and fossils of plant-life, including reeds, ferns, conifer trees, and cycads that indicate that the landscape was once covered in dense forest. Paleontologists have also found fossils of shelled invertebrates, freshwater fish, early amphibians, and reptiles, all evidence of the lakes and seas that once covered the area.
On the next leg of your road trip as you make your way south from Gateway to Uravan, you’ll enter a landscape carved by the Dolores River. It’s here that you’ll come across structures from the 1870s to 1920s left behind by European settlers and miners. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Fremont and Anasazi Native Americans inhabited this area between 750 and 1200 A.D. The ancient peoples cultivated crops, built stone structures, and left behind stunning rock art and artifacts. The Ute Indians later came to live in the canyons and desert of Western Colorado and still have historic, cultural, and spiritual ties to the landscape.
The Hanging Flume, a 17-mile long remnant of a hanging flume built over the course of three years from 1889-1891, is located just before the town of Uravan over the San Miguel River. The Hanging Flume stands as a monument to turn-of-the-century engineering. It was built to re-direct water to the mining operations of the Montrose Placer Mining Company but was only in operation until the “Panic of ‘93”, when the 1893 crash of the stock market brought down many of the gold mining operations throughout the West. The failed enterprise was then used as an irrigation source for ranchers and homesteaders as they slowly moved into the area at the beginning of the 1900s. In Naturita, plan to stop by the West End Visitors Center or the Rimrocker Historical Society Museum for more local history and byway details.
On the second half of your journey along the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway, slow down to enjoy the pastoral ranching landscape, and stop to fish, hike, kayak, or take photographs along the scenic San Miguel River. The river begins high in the San Juan Mountains and runs down through Placerville all the way to the town of Norwood and beyond. Anglers can expect to catch brown, cutthroat, and rainbow trout in these clear waters, and the dramatic canyon walls carved millions of years ago by this powerful river make the perfect backdrop for a summer picnic. The combination of the historic sites, stunning geology, pastoral communities, and unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation make this one scenic drive that you won’t soon forget.
For more information about the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway, visit https://www.utbyway.com/about.