About 10 miles outside Delta, Colorado, the road heading southwest turns a rough grade of gravel and, about the same time, the scenery on either side goes Technicolor. In the fall, cottonwood trees here in the rugged Umcompaghre Reserve turn an unreal, Tweetie Bird yellow. Come spring, wild flowers blanket the mile-high cow pastures in every other conceivable hue. There’s plenty of time drink in this wondrous detail as no sane person would drive more than 45 mph on gravel this serious, on a byway this narrow and cambered, this secluded — though the odds are good there’s no one else on the road to Nucla but you and a few adventurous steer.
It’s a good three hours from Devil’s Thumb GC in Delta, through the Umcompaghre, to The Hideout GC in Monticello, Utah. It’s another two from the swanky Tamarron Resort above Durango, Colorado, to the superb Pinon Hills GC in Farmington, New Mexico. But if indeed golf is a journey (as the New Agers keep telling us) then this is just the place to get your bliss on. For here is a starkly beautiful, mesa-strewn wonderland where the sky is big, where the next turnoff is liable to mean another national park, where the rides between courses are as inviting as the golfing outposts themselves.
This is the Colorado Plateau, a hunk of arid landscape stretching southwest from The Rockies’ Western Slope to the highlands northwest of Phoenix. One reaches this golf-rich region through Salt Lake City or Denver, connecting to places like Durango or Grand Junction, Colorado, where the mountains end and the desert sage takes over.
Grand Junction is a logical place to start (or finish) as it’s home to what is arguably region’s best course, The Golf Club at Redlands Mesa. This Jim Engh design has earned a raft of national plaudits and it’s not difficult to understand why: The setting here is at once startling and exhilarating, a dither of canyons, random rock formations and high-desert heaths. At the par-3 17th, the black tee is nestled on a peak so tall and acute, you half expect the Grinch to show up with his sleigh-full of stolen toys. I’m not joking; it’s looks and feels like the freakin’ Matterhorn. Watching your ball fall the 100-odd feet to earth is like watching Wile E. Coyote resignedly plunge off a cliff to the canyon floor below (there’s even a bail-out bunker right of the green to serve up an appropriate “poof” at impact).
Forgive all the animated allusions, but the scenery out here honestly does border on the cartoonish. It’s bloody spectacular and the rides between venues — i.e., the ascetically magnificent terrain one must pass through — make golfers appreciate each layout’s physical attributes all the more. Devils’ Thumb, an hour south of Grand Junction in Delta, Colorado, is clearly a product of its inimitable landscape. Imagine a honest-to-goodness links laid out in the Sea of Contentment, and one begins to envision what architect Rick Phelps has created here. Opened in 2001, Devil’s Thumb careens around a veritable moonscape with alarming originality. Like Redlands Mesa, this course is difficult if not impossible to negotiate on foot. So take a cart. And some Dramamine.
The locals in Delta may warn city slickers away from the vaunted road to Nucla, but do ignore them. A ride through the Umcompaghre Reserve is not to be missed. At one stage the motorist is convinced he’s barreling into oblivion, as a pair of cavernous canyons slowly encroach on either side of the gravel ribbon. Rest assured you will find your way down, to safety. Just make sure you’ve set aside plenty of time, check that your rental has a viable spare tire, and bring your camera.
Having negotiated the Umcompaghre, the road to Nucla will deposit you on Highway 191 which runs north-south along the eastern edge of Utah. Turn right (north) and it’s 40 minutes into Moab, home to Arches National Park with its breathtaking rock formations, myriad southwestern eateries of high quality (check out the Desert Bistro and its goat cheese-stuffed, corn tortilla-crusted chicken breast), and a lovely little golf course by the name of Moab GC. Designed and built by the owners, it’s 6,400 from the middle tees, beautifully kept and wiggles cleverly into the foothills outside of town.
Turn left (south) on 191 and it’s 20 minutes into Monticello, home to the region’s newest “destination course” — with drives like this, they all fit this description. The Hideout GC (no. 15 pictured above) was built across the street from any old uranium mill using federal dollars left over from the inevitable Superfund clean-up. Designed by Phoenix-based architect Forrest Richardson, The Hideout rises well above the novelty of its odd development history. The gorgeous 4th and 16th holes run side by side (in opposite directions) atop a ridge that marks the land for what it is: glorious, high chaparral. Holes rise and fall, dart in and out of miniature canyons, and slice their way through thick stands of cottonwood and choke cherry — all in the shadow of the mighty Abajos, a free-standing mountain range that tops out at some 11,500 feet. Overlooking the entire scene is the Horse of Abajo, an outline of trees on the eastern face which, as locals point out, really does resemble the head of a noble, all-seeing stallion.
Just over the Abajos from Monticello lies Canyonlands National Park. It’s a 20-mile drive into the wilderness before one even reaches the park entrance. Blowing down this remarkable access road at dusk — or in either direction on Highway 191 — can be a disorienting sensory experience. In the distance, long strings of deep purple clouds appear to settle atop and extend beyond the surrounding buttes, creating an irregular and ever-shifting horizon of soil, rock and, on occasion, impending weather. Radio reception out here isn’t so great; in the resulting silence of a rental car, or standing in the red dust at a roadside look-out, one revels in the seclusion and shudders slightly at the many peoples who over the centuries have arrived, thrived and been extinguished here in this unforgiving landscape.
Indeed, an hour east of Monticello is Mesa Verde National Park, where tribes of ancestral Pueblos carved a life for themselves in a series of remote canyons some 800 years ago. The cliff dwellings here are as eerie as they are awesome. Somehow it comes as no surprise to learn the thriving culture that built these cities in relief disappeared as abruptly as they appeared — the victims of severe drought, unrelenting enemies, or perhaps cannibalism. Theories abound on their plight but, in truth, no one knows for sure. The Four Corners region, where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona come together, has for millennia been home to tribes of indigenous peoples. The Spanish arrived circa 1500 and modern American “civilization” turned up only 150 years ago. It is the confluence of these cultures — some extant, some recently supplanted, some long gone — that makes the place, the cuisine, the general ambience so distinctive.
Does golf work alongside buffalo meat and abandoned cliff dwellings? Well, that’s like asking whether it goes with haggis and derelict castles. Just remember this particular tableau is a mile high — so drop a club to account for the elevation.