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October 3rd, 2022

Beyond the Box Canyon

The east end of San Miguel County, where Telluride and Mountain Village perch high in the San Juan Mountains, is spellbinding, with stunning vistas and a range of high-alpine outdoor activities. Head west, though, to Wright’s Mesa and Norwood, or further still to the West End, including the Uncompahgre Plateau and tiny western towns like Nucla and Naturita, and the terrain remains staggeringly beautiful, but undergoes a transformation to wild grass mesas, red-rock canyons and high-desert trails. There’s also a whole new world of outdoor recreation.

About 30 miles from Telluride, Norwood prides itself on its ranching and agriculture heritage. The annual San Miguel Basin Fair and Rodeo in mid-summer is not to be missed, nor are old-school establishments like the Lone Cone Bar and Restaurant, a local institution. You can also find newer-age gems there, such as the sustainable and organic Indian Ridge Farms and the artisan bakery Blue Grouse Bread.

The area’s attractions can also be found at night. Norwood was the first Western Slope town designated a Dark Sky Community by the International Dark-Sky Association, with Nucla and Naturita following shortly after. Put simply, Norwood and the West End are among the world’s best places to see the stars. 

Four miles outside of Norwood, the Thunderhead Trail system, a 19-mile single-track network, snakes riders and runners through four connecting loops of ponderosa pine forests and along the Naturita Canyon Rim. A few miles northwest, the Burns Canyon Trail System provides 8 and a half miles of fast, flowy and fun beginner and intermediate single track.

Further west, the 105-mile-long Paradox Trail, stretching from Nucla to the La Sal Mountains outside of Moab, Utah, is well-known. Shorter loops for hikers, runners and bikers include Bucktail Draw Loop (22 miles) and Pinto Mesa to Tabeguache Creek (a 24.5-mile point-to-point section of the Paradox Trail). Birders, hikers and runners may enjoy Pinto Mesa Indian Trail (16 miles) and Dry Creek Trail (7.2 miles). Spearheaded by the West End Trails Alliance, the area plans to add 54 miles of single track in the next three years.

Just outside Naturita, the confluence of the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers makes for a perfect spot for all modes of river sports: standup paddle boarding, rafts, duckies and kayaks. The most popular run, the Flume, meanders from the confluence to a take-out at Biscuit Rock. The Hanging Flume is a historic wooden chute built in the 1800s that was used to haul water out of the canyon for gold mining. Nowadays, river enthusiasts float below the remnants that cling to the vertical canyon wall; motorists and road bikers can view it from Highway 141 at the marked pullout.

Perched on a butte above Naturita, Camp V is the perfect base camp from which to explore the area. The boutique camp combines art, star gazing, storytelling and campfires to build an unforgettable community of locals and travelers. It offers accommodation in rustic-chic cabins, airstreams and canvas shelters. There’s also camping on the San Miguel River.

For the intrepid traveler, the under-explored “rest” of San Miguel County and the West End is a must for authentic western towns, dramatic high-desert landscapes and unforgettable outdoor adventures.

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