Dolores to Rico and Trout Lake – The ‘Skyway’ between Mesa Verde and Telluride

Beautiful Dolores River
Dolores to Rico and Trout Lake

Brilliant, entrepreneurial, eccentric, endlessly full of energy, plans and schemes, Otto Mears (1840–1931) always seemed to be in a hurry, never more so than building tracks for the Rio Grande Southern Railroad (RG&S) to Dolores, Colorado. After building toll roads and railroads in the San Juans for several decades, he knew what he was doing. This was his biggest project. In 1891 more than 3000 men were working on it. Rail tracks all the way from Durando would head towards Rico down the Dolores River Valley. The town site of Dolores had been laid out a year earlier at the mouth of Lost Canyon. Rico was thriving. Slopes around the town were full of mining claims. The RG&S had to scale dizzying vertical slopes to reach Rico’s mines. To the north, the first RG&S train rolled into Telluride in 1890, and a year later into Rico. Soon two passenger trains a day were making round trips between Rico and Ridgway and Rico and Durango. Rico prospered. The town never slept.

Dolores was born in the mining boom but within 10 years had become the center of a timber boom. As long as the forests supplied timber, the San Juans and Dolores prospered. The RG&S lumber trains headed for Durango and beyond. When timber plants were shut down around Dolores, fortunately cattle and sheep could be loaded on to stock trains heading for packing plants. At the same time, apple orchards were filling huge adjoining sheds in Dolores. Today the RG&S tracks are buried beneath Highway 145 passing through town south of Central Avenue. The economy of Dolores is still linked to agriculture but it is the McPhee Reservoir, stretching 10 miles down the valley from the town, that has turned it into a recreation center as well.

Autumn Between Telluride and Delores

McPhee Reservoir, the largest in the San Juan National Forest and second largest in Colorado, has 50 miles of shoreline edged with piñon, juniper, and sagebrush. Hikers will enjoy the beautiful Can Do Trail which leads to Ridge Point Overlook and a wonderful landscape of sandstone cliffs along the lake. The area has two mountain bike routes of different lengths up to 16 miles. Boating on the reservoir usually opens May 1st and the boat ramp is open 7 days a week 6:00 am – 8:00 pm. Open year-round for fishing, the reservoir offers many different species of cold and warm water fish including walleye, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, rainbow trout, crappie, northern pike, perch, and kokanee salmon. Trout fishing is generally good year-round. Walleye fishing is best in the springtime.

Dolores is just minutes away. Travel south on Highway 145 and west on Highway 184 for about 7 miles to County Road 25. Turn north off this road and into the McPhee Recreation area complex on Forest Road 271. Mesa Verde is 30 minutes away and Cortez is about 45 minutes away. From Dolores the Dolores River Valley deepens as it climbs northward nearly 1800 feet to Rico. Below Rico the valley becomes a canyon that widens only briefly for Rico before becoming a gorge heading for Lizard Head Pass. In the 1870s the discovery of gold and silver in the Ute Reservation above what became Rico (1879) rapidly transformed a wilderness into a thriving town. The RG&S soon reached Rico’s mines.

Trout Lake Trestle
Leaving Rico the Skyway (145) climbs steeply. To the west the Wilson Mountains and Lizard Head, a freestanding spire of more than 13,000 feet, reveal awesome views. The summit of Lizard Head Pass is 9+ miles northeast of Rico. Descending from Lizard Head Pass, try to imagine the challenges facing Otto Mears and his RG&S railroad builders. Follow the Skyway a few miles to Trout Lake. The railroad went around the lake. Only about 14 miles south of Telluride, Trout Lake within the Uncompahgre National Forest is one of the most scenic, easily accessible alpine lakes in Colorado. Throughout the year, Trout Lake is a popular spot for fishing, boating, hiking, cross country skiing, and photo opportunities. Besides its breathtaking scenery, Trout Lake often is visited for its historic “Trout Lake Trestle”, a relic of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad.