Unaweep-Tabeguache Historic and Scenic Byway

Located south of Grand Junction and running southwest from Whitewater, the glorious Unaweep-Tabegauche Scenic and Historic Byway sweeps through unfathomably deep canyons and climbs skyscraper plateaus, taking us on a winding journey through an ancient and historied land.

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From Gateway, Highway 141 follows the Dolores River upstream through a dramatic red-walled canyon, stunning and wild. People don’t live along this stretch and the few gravel roads that branch out from the highway enter untamed lands. Follow one of these roads west as it winds slowly upward through shattered stone and a maze of cliffs into one of Colorado’s least-disturbed piñon-juniper mesa lands. This is the Sewemup Wilderness Study Area, an area that encompasses the Sinbad Valley and areas virtually untouched by humans.

This remote area attracted a certain type of person, mostly outlaws. The McCarty Gang spent time here, allegedly mixing with Butch Cassidy and company, who were hiding out just a few miles west. After most of the McCarty Gang were shot dead during a bank robbery in Delta, the lone survivor fled, but the Sewemup continued to attract men who needed a hideout far from the law.

A gang of cattle rustlers gave the area its name. They stole cattle from ranches along the Dolores and San Miguel Rivers, running them into hidden box canyons where they cut the old brand out and sewed up the skin. Once the skin healed, the Sewemup Gang re-branded and sold the cattle. To avoid detection, they built wooden steps over the slickrock. Once the gang left the area, ranchers tore down the trails and burned the log steps, once again making it extremely difficult to get into areas the outlaws once used.

Back on the main highway, the contrast between parched land and the flowing river feels striking, but completely natural. At some spots, water seeps straight from stone like magic, creating desert microclimates where fragile, soft plants cling to the rock. The air remains humid and cool in the cliff shadow. Lush growth stretches out from the seep like grasping arms trying to overcome the desert.

Few people travel this majestic road, and the canyon walls funnel the sound from approaching vehicles far away, but most of the time they simply echo the music from the ripples of the Dolores.

We humans often can’t seem to comprehend the intense complexity of the natural world, gravitating to things we can quickly grasp, human works. In the Dolores River Canyon it’s no different. Under the massive towering cliffs and mesas, most travelers stop at an overlook for the Hanging Flume, a nearly 10-mile-long waterway built to enable hydraulic placer mining at a claim a few miles down from the confluence of the Dolores and San Miguel.

What makes this particular flume unique is that it’s more than just a ditch in the dirt. Engineers and workers hung long sections of the flume straight from the vertical cliff walls high above the river – a ditch in the sky. It took three years to build the flume, 1889-1891, but was used for just three years until the “Panic of ‘93,” when the stock market plummeted along with mineral prices and they abandoned everything.

The southern end of the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway climbs out of the canyonlands, but continues to traverse land and livelihoods dictated by minerals in the ground, including uranium and vanadium in the aptly named, but longgone town of Uravan.

In 1936, the U.S. Vanadium Corp. created Uravan, a mill town to dig out vanadium, used to make steel harder. Just a few years later, in the early 1940s, the government reclaimed the mine tailings and processed them to collect uranium. Some of this uranium was used in the Manhattan Project’s top secret atomic bombs that ended World War II. One local commented, “If we didn’t do that, I reckon we’d all be speakin’ Japanese.”

After Uravan, the road continues along the San Miguel River, then down Highway 145 through Nature Conservancy preserves and the simple town of Naturita before climbing to a high plateau near Norwood, where the horizons leap back in every direction. After the tight canyons, the land here feels immense and alpine, the summits of Lone Cone and the San Juans beckoning with snowy promises.

Although the designated byway soon ends, at least on the map, this beautiful route continues on to Telluride, Ridgway or full circle back to Whitewater. It’s a sparsely populated journey of canyons and mountains, cowboys and developers, the atomic industry and nature conservation, outlaws and dreamers. It encapsulates the essential history and reality of Colorado along a single ribbon of highway.

(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

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