Day 6 – Mesa Verde to Salida
The sun rises over the Mesas as we woke up ready to tackle a big stretch of driving this morning. First things first we stopped by one more site while staying in Mesa Verde. The Far View Sites are a collection of ancient Ancestral Puebloans farming structures that date back more than 1,000 years ago. Unlike the cliff dwellings we visited the other day, these structures were built on top of the mesas, just alongside their farming plots. Though not as impressive as Cliff Palace or Balcony House, these sites are easy to access as they are the closest to the park entrance. They also feature stunning civic engineering as seen in their reservoir system, ceremonial tower, and housing system. Even to this day you can see the grooves in the reservoir and the spillways in the homes. There are other sites that we did not see as part of the Far View Sites, they are all conveniently connected along a mile or so long loop. And with that we say our good byes and head north to Durango.
Durango is truly an old West town, featuring a living main street that offers many restaurants and shops. The main street ends with the town railway station, featuring Durango’s crowning jewel for tourists: The Durango – Silverton Narrow Gauge Train (D&SNG). This railway operates three train trips a day up though rugged San Juans and end in Silverton. The train station is well worth popping your head in and looks similar to what it did a hundred years ago. Aside from the historic Durango the town has grown around it, partially due to Ft. Lewis College just on the other side of town. It is here, in the “New” Durango where we ate breakfast at Oscar’s, “Where those in the know go”. The restaurant features cheap, hearty breakfasts with unique hash brown cakes and delicious eggs. The local’s spot features lots of railroad paraphernalia, photos, and drawings on the wall. They also feature posters from each of the Durango “Snow Down”, a week filled with snow and skiing fun.
With a full breakfast in our stomachs we hit the road driving north towards the Million Dollar Highway that links Durango to Silverton to Ouray to Ridgeway. On the way we got an idea why many of the ski areas around here boast some of the steepest terrain in the country. The rugged San Juans rise up steep with exposed granite at every turn. Despite the difficult terrain there are dozens of hiking and 4×4 trails that criss cross the mountain. The most noticeable of these, criss-crossing the highway, is Old Lime Creek Trail. These roads are perfect adventures for those looking to get away from the highway and explore the wild of Colorado’s southern mountains. Just in between Durango and Silverton we pass by several fourteeners, beautiful vistas, and some interesting looking mountains. One, named Engineer Mountain, truly showcases the many layers of sediment and rock that have risen up over the millenniums. We drove over two mountain passes as well, Coal Bank and Molas, both offering stunning views of the mountains and valleys for miles.
Moving along we come upon Silverton, which makes Durango look like a metropolis. Silverton is really a one horse town, featuring one major road lined with restaurants, saloons, shops, and two hotels to see. Nestled between two major mountains, the town is a quant reminder of what mountains used to be, back in the day. Silverton really goes the extra mile, featuring several blocks with wooden sidewalks, unpaved streets, and the original storefronts. The town looks so historic that it has been used for filming several western scenes. Combined with Durango, the towns have hosted great films such as True Grit, City Slickers, and The Searchers. The mountain town host 500 full-time residents, but welcomes more than 2,500? tourists. There are many 4×4 trails and hiking routes that lead to other mountain towns that begin in Silverton. We were lucky to arrive in the town close to 12:45, and caught the Narrow Gauge Train pulling into the town. Unlike Durango with a station, Silverton’s rail comes straight down the street, dropping people off just one block away from main street. After getting up close and personal with the coal train, we moseyed over to the Railway? store. Certainly worth peeking in they have an amazing collection of railway pins, patches, posters, and maps. Any and every train enthusiasts should put Silverton on the map just for this stop.
Moving upwards we drive past Red Mountain and the mining site of Idarado Mine. Red Mountain takes its name from the color of the oxidized iron in the mountain, giving the slope a rust color that trickles down all the way to Red Mountain Creek. We captured great photos at the top of the mountain pass, as well as in the mining site. The Million Dollar Highway certainly lives up to its name, both in the difficulty of its construction and the beautiful scenery along the drive. The towering mountainsides are full of deep green spruce trees and acres of Aspen trees. This drive is one of the best in Colorado during the fall as the mountains turn gold for two or three weeks. Furthermore, lower on the highway the hillsides give way to steep and massive stone cliff sides that features dozens of waterfalls that slide right off the stones. Be cautious while driving, as the road is narrow at parts and has solid rock walls on one side, hundreds of vertical drop on the other. It’s easy to see how this is the most avalanche prone area in the county, with the drive between Durango and Ouray featuring more than 100 avalanche chutes. After making it into the town of Ouray, we are met by another main street oriented mountain town, this one quite similar to Georgetown, CO. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t cooperating with rain falling, making the town’s main summer draw of the Box Canyon Falls was not an option. Of course in the winter Ouray becomes the nation’s capital for ice climbers, featuring the only designated ice climbing park in the state.
After all that excitement the rest of our drive was relatively mundane. We passed through Ridgeway, Montrose, and into Gunnison before the Colorado landscape graced us with a break in the clouds and a beautiful vista. Travelling east towards Gunnison we drove past Blue Mesa Reservoir, the state’s largest reservoir. You couldn’t ask for a better site as the mesas stone walls expertly trap the water in place, with the help of a dam, and stretch their fingers for miles and miles. The contrast between the blue water and the orange and red mesas are wonderful to gaze at during the drive to Gunnison. They offer many sites for fishing, camping, hiking, and trail driving as the National Park Recreation Area spans many miles. Entering Gunnison there isn’t too much to see, with exception to the Western State College campus. Relatively small, they enroll close to 2,500, the campus does feature a rolling green filled with athletic fields with buildings rising up the hill to the east. Still headed east we gained in elevation again, this time passing bewtween the Sangre de Christos and Sawatch mountain ranges, featuring Monarch Mountain Ski Resort. A major draw for those in Colorado Springs and beyond, this mountain is a laid back resort, perfect for locals and tourists to enjoy the powder and learn to ski in Colorado’s white playground.
Moving along we reach the destination town for today, Salida. The town gives off a country western, small town vibe. Everybody knows everybody and people are all friendly enough to say hello. Even out of towners like us were welcomed warmly while walking down main street by a business associate of my father; “It’s too small a town for me not to see ya.” The town seems to be caught in between, seemingly plains like with the multitude of ranchers and hay farmers in the valley, but similar to the mountain towns we have visited with an elevation above 7,000ft and a hotspot for fishing, kayaking, and river rafting. Exploring the town, we noticed much of main street houses everyday shops in refurbished and renovated, but original storefronts. This meeting in the middle makes the walks through town much more enjoyable. Make sure to stop by Riverside Park and take a gander at the mighty Arkansas River, clearly the focal point of the town and the pride and joy of its residents. While we were there we enjoyed a great dinner at the Boathouse Cantina. This restaurant sits right on the banks of the river and offers great views. More bar than restaurant, I enjoyed an Alaskan Amber Ale with my Black and Blue Cajun Burger. The beer begins with a crisp and clean bite that any amber should have, but quickly finished with a sweet and smooth taste. The ruby red coloring finishes off what I consider to be Alaskan Brewing’s best all-around, anytime beer. My burger was a little more intriguing, with a cajun seasoned cream cheese crumble and chipotle mayo it gave my mouth and spicy and dramatic kick. Though paired with delicious Colorado beef, the combination melted in my mouth…and then left my reaching for my beer. Overall a pretty tasty burger, but certainly a little spicy.
After dinner we made our way to our home for the next two nights: Mt. Princeton Hot Springs and Lodge. At the base of one fo the collegiate peaks, the hot springs boasts many mineral and heated pools as well as a 400ft water slide. However, I don’t recommend doing what we did, arriving after dark. It was close to 8:40 when we pulled up, after a nerve-wracking drive along a darkened county road, and sadly missed most of the attractions that the Lodge and Hot Springs had to offer. I’m sure the lodge looks beautiful during the day, but due to environmental covenant laws it was quite difficult to tell in the dark. Thankfully our cabin was all set and ready with the porch light on. We were all relived to get inside and lay our weary heads after making the long trek from Colorado’s southwest corner up to the heart of the High Country. The scenic and exciting drive took all day, but was enjoyable at every stop.
Posted on August 26, 2011, in Colorado Road Trip and tagged Arkansas River, Blue mesa Reservoir, Boathouse Cantina, Colorado, Durango, Gunnison, Mesa Verde, Million Dollar Highway, Monarch, Mt. Princeton, narrow gauge rail, Oscar's, Ouray, Red Mountain, Salida, San Juans, Silverton, train. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.