The people in Colorado are a little different from other Americans. It could be all the sunshine they say they get. It could be the thin air. Either way, they are, they say, statistically the healthiest folk in the union. They are also strangely obsessed with elevation.

The state's many small mountain towns all have signs informing visitors of their altitude and population - in that order. Ask a Coloradan the population of their town and they'll probably get it to within a few thousand or even a few hundred, but ask them the elevation and their answer will be within a few feet.

Colorado was at one point part of the American frontier, the westward expansion that became known as the Wild West. The state remains a place where cowboys meet trustafarians (the progeny of wealthy parents who lounge around the ski towns smoking - legally, now - marijuana) and the Rocky Mountains reach their pinnacle, both metaphorically and literally.

If you stand at the crossroads in the centre of Montrose (5,806 feet; population 19,132 and named after Sir Walter Scott's novel A Legend of Montrose) and face southeast, you will see that this Anytown USA, where the Salvation Army thrift store coexists with a Gun Depot and where John Wayne, looking down from a mural, keeps a rifle trained on the citizens year-round, is surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery in the whole country.

In the winter, a stunning veil of snow covers the surrounding mountains but, when the ice melts and the columbines bloom, this part of Colorado - in fact, the whole state - is arguably even more beautiful.

The 58 14ers, mountain peaks that stand more than 14,000 feet high, are the pride of Colorado. There are also about 600 13ers. Furthermore, Colorado has 42 state parks, 10 national parks and monuments, 13 national forests and grasslands and, as amazing as it sounds for a landlocked state, the tallest sand dunes in North America.

Ranger John Otto wasn't from Colorado but he was so struck by its canyons that in 1907 he wrote: "I came here last year and found these canyons, and they felt like the heart of the world to me. I'm going to stay … and promote this place, because it should be a national park."

Missouri-born Otto did stay and, after persuading the people of nearby Grand Junction to petition politicians in Washington, the Colorado National Monument was established as a protected area in 1911. Otto lived among its table hills and canyons, and he built mile upon mile of trail so others could enjoy the spectacular scenery.

Otto became the first caretaker of the park and was paid the princely sum of US$1 a month. He stayed for 16 years.

The bizarre shapes of rust-coloured rock formations, created over millions of years, give the park an otherworldliness that can be seen all over the Colorado Plateau (which stretches into four states and includes the Grand Canyon).

Otto hand-drilled holes in the rock of one of those free-standing formations, Independence Monument, and drove iron pipes into them to make stairs. Less than a month after his first ascent he went back up and raised the national flag, a tradition that is revived every July 4.

A 30-minute drive south from Montrose is the town of Ridgway (6,985 feet; population 924).

Nicknamed the Gateway to the San Juans, Ridgway - a living museum of the Old West - sits at the mouth of the range. About 8km shy of the town is Ridgway State Park, which contains Ridgway Reservoir. Formed by the damming of the Uncompahgre River in the 1980s, the reservoir is now a centre for recreation.

With a canoe strapped to the top of a metallic pink Chevrolet Blazer and camping gear in the boot, we head towards the reservoir.

Elk Ridge campground is on a hill that juts out into the water. The area is carpeted - and the air scented - with pinyon pine and juniper trees.

As the light dims, a fire is lit. A campfire in the United States means you are obliged to indulge in a s'more, roasted marshmallow and a layer of chocolate sandwiched between two graham crackers.

The following morning we drive to Dallas Creek to try out the canoe. The wind is up and whitecaps break on the water - a warning sign of the tough paddle ahead. After coasting along with the wind for a little while it becomes apparent that getting back to shore won't be easy. My co-paddler and I turn the 20-foot fibreglass canoe around and, with a massive effort, manage to complete the return journey in only double the time it took us to get out into the middle of the reservoir.

Ridgway may be a small town, but it has a big claim to fame.

Opened in 1985, the True Grit Cafe is named after the 1969 John Wayne movie, which was filmed in the area. Fashioned as a Wild West saloon from the outside, it is built on what was an empty lot in front of where Wayne's character, Marshal Rooster Cogburn, unloads prisoners from the Indian Territory. The upstairs bar resembles a shrine to The Duke, who won both a Golden Globe and his only Oscar for his part in the film. The Grit's home-made fare, including "the best dang chicken fried steak this side of the Rocky Mountains" can be taken on the cafe's deck, which looks out at the park where the movie's hanging scene was filmed.

Ridgway, like every other town in the state, it seems, has a brewery (Colorado Boy) and a distillery (Trail Town Still), which produces a delicious black pepper vodka and "desert water", a spirit distilled from agave.

A little further on from Ridgway, nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains in another box canyon, is the town of Ouray (7,792 feet; population 1,000). The county, also called Ouray (and pronounced "you-ray"), is known, at least to the people here, as "the Switzerland of America".

Ouray's downtown area is designated a National Historic District, with the Beaumont Hotel, the Ouray City Hall and the Walsh Library all being on the National Register of Historic Places. Main Street is peppered with Victorian-era buildings but it is perhaps the Second Empire-styled Beaumont that takes pride of place. Local historians say the hotel was the finest in Colorado when it opened, in 1887. After hosting presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, business dropped off and the property was forced to close its doors. For 34 years the hotel sat abandoned, but it has since been renovated and, in 2003, the property reopened.

Jeep tours offer visitors a chance to see the surrounding ghost towns, once home to the flood of prospectors who came here during the gold rush of the late 1800s.

Ouray County, like most places in Colorado, is full of lakes, waterfalls and creeks. In winter the temperature drops to minus 10 degrees Celsius, freezing Box Canyon Falls solid and attracting ice climbers from all over the world.

Ouray is also known for its hot springs. Unlike many others, these springs are free from sulphurous odours, which is a blessing given the town's public pool contains close to a million gallons.

Colorado is a year-round wonderland. The mountains, (snow-covered or otherwise), the rivers and reservoirs, the small-town friendliness, the quirkiness … it's easy to see why John Otto fell in love with the place.

 

Getting there: American Airlines flies direct from Hong Kong to Dallas, from where the same carrier flies a summer service (until August 18) and ski-season service (December 18 - April 6) to Montrose.