The drive through La Plata Canyon towards Kennebec Pass is one of the San Juan Mountains’ thrilling 4-wheel-drive adventures. It’s especially great in autumn, when fall colors are at their peak . You’ll enjoy shimmering golden aspens and waterfalls as you bump your way uphill, as far as you can go, towards the pass.
As soon as you turn off of US 160 onto La Plata Canyon Road, you’re greeted with a sign that spells out what’s ahead. There are a couple of campgrounds, and the promise of La Plata City — which is now just a ghost town that’s vanished from existence. Really, you just have one goal: Kennebec Pass, 14 miles away.
This is just as good a time as any to admit that I didn’t make it all the way to Kennebec Pass. As you can see, the shadows were already getting long, at the beginning of the drive. And, yes, I chickened out when the road got really rough, a couple of miles from the pass. But fortunately, the destination isn’t as important as the journey, and in early October, this journey is spectacular.
La Plata Canyon Road starts out as a nice, paved, two-lane. It’s a pleasure to drive as it passes between Aspen trees…
… and alongside ranchland, with colorful mountains in the distance.
Eventually, you reach the actual canyon, the road turns to dirt, and much of your time is spent surrounded by trees.
Even as you pass through the forest, there are some interesting sights to spot, including this old bus that served a second life as a rustic shack — emphasis on the “rust”.
You’ll get to enjoy at least a couple of waterfalls along the side of the road. I stopped at this one on the way uphill. I believe it’s known as Bedrock Creek Falls. Another waterfall, Basin Creek Falls, is just up the road. More on it in a moment.
While the forest can be dense, there are places where the road breaks free of the tree canopy, and you’re treated to a burst of fall sunlight. A little bit of sun is all it takes to set these trees on fire with oranges, reds, and green.
This old cabin, surrounded by aspens, looks too perfect to actually exist.
Nearby, an old barn has become entangled in the trees.
As you climb, watch for this tall stone chimney at the side of the road — it’s all that’s left of an old cabin.
I didn’t know it at the time, but on the climb through La Plata Canyon, any time I looked to the right (to the east), I was actually looking directly towards Kennebec Pass. Somewhere up there is “the notch” — a break in the rock wall where the road passes through. La Plata Canyon Road curves around near the end, and ends up on the side of the mountain across the way.
I was probably about 2.5 miles away from Kennebec Pass when I decided I just couldn’t go any further. The surface of the road was jostling my rental SUV quite severely, and to be honest, I was surprised one of the jagged rocks in the roadbed hadn’t shredded a tire. And, it was getting late — much too late to end up stranded on a remote road.
I managed to turn around, and head back downhill.
Early evening is a spectacular time to take a picture of a waterfall. The dim lighting gets rid of shadows and bright spots, and allows you to slow down the camera…
… turning cascading water into a smooth, dreamy texture. I stopped for a while at Basin Creek Falls, the ‘other’ waterfall I mentioned earlier…
… and took a few pictures.
Basin Creek Falls looks rather small, until you do a little investigating. The part that’s above the road, on the west side, is indeed somewhat puny…
… but from there, the water passes under the road through drainage pipes, then tumbles down a much larger drop. This part of the waterfall would be beautiful from down below, but I didn’t see any easy way to get there. With the day quickly coming to an end, I didn’t have time to seek out a route. Instead, I dangled my feet over the brink, enjoyed a quick moment, then moved on.
So, without making it all the way to the destination, I had to be satisfied with the journey. I don’t have any complaints.
The Bottom Line
If you want to make it all the way to Kennebec Pass, be prepared for a bumpy, jostling ride, especially near the end of the 14-mile drive. Allow plenty of time, and take it slowly. If you’re not equipped with a high-clearance 4-wheel-drive vehicle, you’ll have to be content with the first few miles of the canyon. No matter how far you’re able to go, you’ll enjoy some spectacular scenery, especially around the first week of October (give or take a week or two, based on the weather), when the fall leaves are changing.
The entrance to La Plata Canyon is located along US 160, about 11 miles west of Durango, Colorado. From the highway to Kennebec Pass, you’ll drive 14 miles. Everyday cars will have no trouble with the first few miles, but near the end, the rough road will prove challenging for anyone in a stock 4-wheel-drive SUV.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Durango into La Plata Canyon: