There’s little homogeny to be found along the route as it follows Highways 145 and 141, from the mountain scenery found near Placerville to the high desert vistas of the Uncompaghre Plateau near the town of Whitewater. But if there is any common denominator between the scenes and stories found along this route, it’s water.
Water has indeed played a pivotal role in both the creation and the evolution of the landscapes and history that connect the dots along this sparsely populated corner of the Colorado map. With their thousands of years of continual motion, the San Miguel, Dolores and Gunnison Rivers have etched their presence into the landscape here, carving paths into the soft sandstone of the Uncompahgre Plateau, and, in so doing, exposing this landscape’s remarkable geologic history.
The area’s more recent history is also evident along the route, which follows a meandering riparian course, manifest in sites like the Hanging Flume, at one time a marvel of mining engineering. Constructed along the sheer canyon walls of the San Miguel River, the flume in its heyday was a mind-boggling 17 miles long, and delivered 23 million gallons of water per day from the river to the Lone Tree Placer site, where it was used to operate hydraulic mining equipment.
Although water has been an enduring theme in the chronicles of the Unaweep-Tabeguache saga, the area’s history has been augmented too by its curiously unexpected claims to fame. The now-deserted mining town of Uravan was a leader in the construction of the world’s first atomic bombs, as a hotspot for uranium mining in the 1940s and 50s. In the town of Gateway, find one of the world’s finest – and most secluded – car museums, where 30,000 square feet have been dedicated to telling the story of America’s love affair with automobiles.
The Unaweep-Tabeguache Byway itself has a story to tell, one that is etched into the canyon walls, written in the layers of prehistoric rock and hidden among the rubble of historic ruins. The miles of rock stack up like vibrantly illustrated storybook pages, telling the tale of how both time and the determination of man have shaped this corner of Colorado.
Placerville to Norwood
The junction of Colorado Highway 62 and Highway 145 near Placerville marks the southern end of the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway. Traveling from here to Norwood, you follow the twists and turns of the San Miguel River, fed by snowmelt drained from the high peaks of the San Juan range around Telluride.
At mile marker 90, look for the San Miguel River Nature Conservancy Preserve, one of the last remaining undisturbed, low- to mid-elevation riparian areas of Colorado, and home to a diverse array of plant and animal species. There is a handicapped- accessible 180-foot elevated boardwalk for viewing, and interpretive signage.
Norwood to Uravan
Once you leave the San Miguel Canyon floor and crest Norwood Hill, enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding peaks, from the Wilsons group to Lone Cone, all the way to the La Sal Mountains of Utah. Pass through the ranching and farming communities of Norwood, Redvale, and Naturita, on your way to the deserted townsite of Uravan.
Just before mile marker 76, the crumbling foundations still visible along the roadside are all that is left of this town and mill site, established in 1936 and named for the uranium and vanadium found here.
From the 1930s to the mid 40s, the Uravan mill processed the vanadium used to harden steel in war armaments, while uranium was later recovered from the mill tailings and used in the construction of the first atomic bombs by the Los Alamos, N.M.-based Manhattan Project. Production of uranium and vanadium continued until the mill closed in 1984.
Uravan to Gateway
Just beyond mile marker 81, find two of the scenic route’s most inspiring sights. Just to the west down a dirt road is the confluence of the San Miguel and Dolores rivers, and the joining of these two spectacular canyons.
Closer to mile marker 82 is the turnout for the Hanging Flume, a feat of engineering when it was constructed in 1889-1890. Interpretive signs help tell the story of the engineering behind this wooden flume, much of which still clings to the rocks some 150-feet above the canyon floor.
The next 30 miles of the route follow the twists and turns of the Dolores River Canyon to the town of Gateway, so named because of its location at the mouth of this spectacular canyon and its proximity to the Utah border. The nearby fin of towering sandstone, named The Palisade, provides a stunning backdrop to the riparian and agrarian feel of this secluded town. Amidst the spectacular canyon scenery is a different kind of attraction: Gateway is also home to the Gateway Automobile Museum, located at the Gateway Canyons Resort. This modern museum tells the compelling story of the American automobile, with over 40 vehicles representing the last 100 years in automotive history.
Gateway to Whitewater
Moving beyond Gateway and into Unaweep Canyon, pay attention to the changes in geology and topography happening around you. Unaweep Canyon itself remains a mystery to geologists, as they debate whether this dry canyon was carved by the nearby Gunnison River, or created by a fault line or glacier.
At mile marker 115, find the Uncompahgre Fault, an important chapter in geologic time, where the Precambrian rocks on the east were brought into contact with the red rocks of the Paradox Basin. The Fault has resulted in a vertical displacement of over 8,000 feet.
Further beyond lie the remains of the Driggs Mansion, built between 1914 and 1918 by a wealthy New Yorker. Local stonemasons cut sandstone from nearby Mayflower Canyon to make the walls of this Italian farm-style home. An interpretive sign at mile marker 129 tells the story.
Five miles beyond is the Unaweep Divide, where from this elevation of 7,048 feet, two creeks drain in separate directions: East Creek moving eastward to the Gunnison River, and West Creek flowing westward to the Dolores River. This rare geological feature adds to the mystery of this uncommon landscape.
The northern terminus of the route is at Whitewater, and after crossing the Gunnison River, you can see the Uncompahgre Plateau in the distance.