It's hard to decide which is better ― my perfectly cooked, brick-size steak at JJ’s Riverwalk Restaurant & Pub, or the sight and sound of rushing rapids and the backdrop of mountain peaks beyond.
But here’s the beauty: In Pagosa Springs, you don’t have to choose between gorgeous scenery and really good food.
Pagosa Springs’ leap from stunning mountain hamlet to culinary hot spot was hardly an overnight phenomenon. The Colorado town, about 275 miles southwest of Denver and about 25 miles north of the New Mexico border, has always been a summer playground for hikers, anglers, and those who come for the mineral-rich hot springs.
Historically, though, you’d be hard-pressed to convince even the most broad-minded, blue-plate optimist to travel here to eat. Things have changed. Now you can’t keep gastronomes like me away.
“Pagosa Springs is definitely an up-and-coming culinary town,” says Kellie Stevens, who ― along with her husband, executive chef Todd Stevens ― owns Alley House Grille, a globe-spanning food temple in a renovated Victorian home along the town’s main thoroughfare.
“We moved here because it’s so beautiful, but we also wanted to share our love and passion for great food,” says Kellie, the restaurant’s pastry chef. “We love the sense of community in Pagosa Springs; this restaurant is a dream come true for us.”
Relaxing in the dimly lit space, a glowing gas fireplace warming my back, I think that my curried Indian chicken with dried fruits, fresh mango, and fragrant basmati rice is pretty dreamy too.
That’s a good thing, because my drive into Pagosa Springs was about as relaxing as a roller coaster ride. Wolf Creek Pass (U.S. 160) turned out to be a series of punishing twists and turns that eventually leads to the 10,850-foot summit ― and guardrails are few and far between.
The road is generally open in winter, but I was happier navigating summer’s pine-carpeted peaks than braving this road in snow.
Then I swept down the hill and around another tight curve, and Treasure Falls ― a weeping 100-foot waterfall ― caught my eye.
I pulled into the small, off-road parking lot and hiked the 0.25-mile trail to the bridge at the base of the falls, a misting cascade rimmed by jagged rock formations and rough wilderness. It was then that I started to feel the payoff of the harrowing drive.
Which the food has only reinforced. After a Baja-style fish-taco lunch at Kip’s Grill & Cantina, where locals soak up suds and sunshine on a flower-filled deck (sometimes to the tune of bluegrass or rock by a local band), I bask in the hot springs at the Springs Resort, where I’m staying.
Then I gather myself for a side trip to Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, where two giant ceremonial stone spires have left visitors spellbound for more than a millennium.
In August, the crescent moon will rise and linger between the commanding pillars, a spectacular “lunar standstill’’ that continues once a month through November. After that, the celestial event won’t happen again for nearly 19 years.
Lucky for me, Pagosa Baking Company’s celestial goodies are available year in and year out.
I buy a few just-baked lemon cooler cookies, chocolate brownies, and pudgy cinnamon rolls for the drive home, even though I’m sure the scenery ― and those twisty turns ― will give me all the highs I need.
Pagosa Springs is about 275 miles southwest of Denver and 60 miles east of Durango, on U.S. 160. For more information, call 800/252-2204.
WHERE TO STAY
Fireside Cabins Rustic cabins with kitchens and porches. INFO: From $105; 888/264-9204.
The Springs Resort Walking distance to the resort’s soaking pools. INFO: From $129; 800/225-0934.
WHERE TO EAT
Alley House Grille $$; closed Sun; 214 Pagosa St.; 970/264-0999.
JJ’s Riverwalk Restaurant & Pub $$$; 356 E. U.S. 160; 970/264-9100.
Kip’s Grill & Cantina $; 121 Pagosa; 970/264-3663.
Pagosa Baking Company $; 238 Pagosa; 970/264-9348.
WHAT TO DO
Chimney Rock Archaeological Area 3 miles south of U.S. 160 on State 151. INFO: Guided walking tour $8; 970/883-5359.
Treasure Falls Follow the easy 0.25-mile (one-way) trail to the base of the falls. On U.S. 160, at the base of Wolf Creek Pass.