Cortez to Telluride
When the first trappers came over Lizard Head in 1833 to the area that became Rico, they found the remains of smelters used by the Spanish. The first Spanish explorers in recorded history had arrived in the area in the late 1700s. Rich veins of silver were discovered in 1879 and the town of Carbon City was born, renamed Carbonateville, then Lead City, then Dolores City and finally Rico. Along with dozens of saloons, Rico’s population mushroomed to almost 5,000 until the early 1890s. In 1891 it became a link in the Rio Grande Southern’s route. Mines in the area shipped rail cars full of ore every day to the smelters in Durango until, in 1893, silver’s devaluation led to mine closings. History buffs especially will enjoy Rico and its old Colorado atmosphere. Buildings and relics from the mining boom of the 1880s remain throughout town. But the main attractions lie around Rico in the seemingly endless natural areas surrounding the town.
From Rico the Dolores River Valley leads to Lizard Head Pass, then Trout Lake to Ophir and Hwy. 145 to Telluride. Accessible by car on Hwy. 145 throughout most of the year, until 1952 Lizard Head Pass only could be traversed via railcar along the Rio Grande Southern Railroad. At the summit of the pass, Lizard Head Trail can be used for hiking and snowshoeing together with panoramic views and wildflowers in season. Descending from Lizard Head Pass, awesome “fourteeners” dominate the surrounding mountains: El Diente, Mount Wilson and Wilson’s Peak. From the top of the pass, looking to the southeast, are 13,000s: Yellow Mountain, Vermillion Peak and Sheep Mountain.
Just 10 miles from Telluride, the Lizard Head Pass (over 10,000-ft.) area itself is a destination for outdoor activities along the San Juan Highway not to be missed for its awe–inspiring backdrops of snow-covered peaks, waterfalls in springtime, many varieties of lovely wildflowers in summer, golden aspen in fall and of course its snowy wonderland in winter. Several Forest Service roads and hiking trails lead into spectacular viewing areas just off scenic Hwy. 145: Navajo Lake Trail, Bear Creeks Trail, and many others. The Lizard Head Wilderness Area is one of the most rugged and pristine sections of southwest Colorado. Most of its hiking trails are near or well above timberline. Hope Lake Trailhead is located about 4 miles east of Hwy. 145. Its six miles out and back of hiking offer a bit of everything from stunning views to gorgeous wildflowers. A forest road leads to small Priest Lake surrounded by fields of wildflowers. Another forest road leads to Trout Lake that delights anglers for the fish and surrounding cirque of spectacular 13,000-ft. peaks.
Dolores is only about 65 miles from Telluride on the Hwy 145 leg of the San Juan Skyway. Nonstop it can be driven in about 11/2 hrs. After Lizard Head Pass it drops down into the top end of the San Miguel River valley which forms a box canyon. The valley floor is surrounded on three sides by high cliffs and crags which provide an inspiring setting for the historic town of Telluride. West of Telluride, Hwy. 145 follows the San Miguel River downstream through another steep valley clad in thick forests of fir and aspen as far as tiny Placerville, a former mining camp. Then Hwy. 62 heads east around the north edge of the San Juan range through more open lands to where it meets US 550 just after Ridgway. Nestled in a V-shaped valley etched out by millions of years of erosion from the San Miguel River, Placerville also is the place where the Unaweep – Tabequache Scenic & Historic Byway ends at its intersection with the San Juan Skyway.