Southwest Colorado: San Juan Mountains and the Colorado Plateau

Last Thanksgiving, I took a road trip through Cochise County, Arizona with my dad. We had so much fun that we wanted to go on another road trip the next year. I threw out the Four Corners Region. It turns out my Dad always wanted to go there, so I started planning the trip in late August. I had been to the region once before on a road trip so I made sure to go to a lot of places that were new for me in addition to the highlights.

In about a week’s time I designed a 4-day road trip that worked with the Thanksgiving holiday and winter hours of parks. We booked the flight in late September.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we flew to Durango, Colorado via Denver. The doors of the plane opened at 11pm and we walked down the ladder onto the tarmac. It was 30 degrees- a 40 degree drop from LA. We rented our truck (the only style of rental car available) and drove 15 minutes into town before settling into our motel, the Durango Lodge.

 

Day 1:

We woke up and walked around downtown Durango. The main street was full of businesses with no vacancies. However, because it was Thanksgiving, it was a ghost town. The only places that were open were Starbucks and a marijuana dispensary.

In the town, we met another tourist who said Durango is more full of itself than any city in America except New York. It seemed to be a negative way of saying that there is a lot of local pride, which I think is a good thing.

He also mentioned that there are 7 breweries and 10 dispensaries for a town of just 16,000 people. I’m assuming that there a wide draw from the surrounding states and Native American reservations with stricter weed and liquor laws.

The town had a college-town vibe with lots of cute smaller houses. Durango seemed to be one of the most livable small towns I’ve been to.

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Main Street, Durango

Durango’s most famous tourist attraction is a train to the town of Silverton about 45 miles away. With nothing open (including the train) and little left to see in town, we decided to drive to Silverton through the steep San Juan Mountains.

Despite the cold, Durango was still underneath the snow line, but very soon after leaving down, we hit snow. The road climbed and climbed. Eventually, we hit our first mountain pass, Coal Bank Pass at 10,640 ft above sea level. From beyond the pass, we could see a seemingly endless vista of snowy mountains. We continued down the pass and up Molas Pass 10,970 ft above sea level! This time we got out of the car and looked around- more snowy mountains.

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Molas Pass- 10,970 ft above sea level

A sign post said that the cleanest air in the US was recorded here in the San Juan Mountains.I breathed in deeply.

Past Molas Pass, the road dropped into Silverton. A one-street no-stoplight town. The one street had some beautifully preserved buildings from its mining days. I would think that in the summer with the railroad running, the town probably gets a good deal of visitors. However on Thanksgiving, it was also a ghost town.

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Busy day in Silverton

It was nearing lunchtime, and my dad and I were searching for a place to eat. Unfortunately, in a town of 300 people the options are slim to begin with and even slimmer on Thanksgiving day. One place appeared to be open, so we walked in. It was packed.

We soon found out that this was a Thanksgiving potluck for everyone in the town and we were invited. My dad and I both got two huge plates of turkey, all the fixins, and pumpkin pie. We then sat down and talked to some of the locals.

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Thanksgiving “dinner” at 11:30 AM

Life is hard in Silverton. The town is quite popular with over 1,000 residents in the summer because of the train. However, the population drops to 300 in the winter. Nobody can hold a full-time job other than teachers here because there isn’t enough to do. The single school has about 50 students. To play sports, the students drive 45 minutes over the mountains to Ouray to join their teams. They do have a famous ski mountain- Colorado’s highest that is known for its steep terrain and lack of grooming.

We offered to contribute to the restaurant owner for the meal, but the he refused. He wanted us to enjoy our Thanksgiving and remember the generosity of the people of Silverton- which we certainly will.

Pressing onward, we drove north along a road called the Million Dollar Highway. In today’s money, a million dollars probably couldn’t pave a half-mile of this road, but it has a nice ring to it. The road climbed and climbed and climbed until we reached Red Mountain Pass at 11,018 ft above sea level. From here, the road changed drastically as we dropped into the steep Uncompahgre Gorge. The guardrails disappeared and the curves sharpened. The road now cut into a cliff. The gorge was so steep that it was snow free.

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Icy waterfall along the Million Dollar Highway

30-minutes of downhill driving led us to the town of Ouray below the snowline. Known as the Switzerland of America for its stunning location, Ouray is also the Ice Climbing Capital of North America.

Just up-canyon from the town is the world-famous Ouray Ice Park. Here, the town installed sprinklers above the gorge to create ice waterfalls for climbing.

We met the caretaker of the park. He had a massive beard and was wearing shorts and flip flops despite the 28-degree weather. Our new friend explained that people come from all over the world to climb in Ouray. The park is free to the public, but the park encourages climbers to purchase a membership to support its maintenance. The water used to create the waterfalls is actually redirected water from the river below. I would think that this park would be quite a sight to see in mid-winter. However in November, it was still too warm for the ice falls to form.

The town of Ouray was quite charming. Three things surprised me about the town. First, Ouray is actually the county seat of its own county. Can’t imagine much more than a few thousand people live there. Second, the main road is the only paved road in town. Everything else is improved dirt. Third, there is a huge public hot spring in town. Unfortunately, it was undergoing a renovation while we were. Guess I will have to go back.

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Ouray County Courthouse

It was now 3pm and we were worried about driving the mountain passes in the dark, so we hurried back to Durango. Since we knew the road, we were able to move quicker and returned in just 90 minutes.

Back in Durango, we napped and then headed over to the historic Strater Hotel for our second Thanksgiving dinner. The meal was just as delicious as lunch. The buffet stretched into 3 rooms!! Needless to say, my dad and I passed out from food comas immediately after returning to our hotel.

 

Day 2:

We woke up early and hit the road right around 7:45 am. The road west of Durango climbed up a small mountain pass that paled in comparison to anything we saw yesterday. After reaching the pass, the landscape opened up into a wide plain. This was where the Rockies ended and the Colorado Plateau began.

Dropping into the plain, we continued through the town of Mancos to Mesa Verde National Park.

Mesa Verde, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains the most famous ruins in the Southwest. While most people know Mesa Verde for its cliff-dwellings, the first settlements in the area were actually built on top of the mesa. The Anasazi lived on the mesa-tops from about 500-1200. Around 1200, they moved underneath the mesas- most likely for defensive purposes. By 1300, Mesa Verde-along with virtually every other Anasazi settlement in the area- was abandoned.

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Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

The descendants of these people then moved both west to the Hopi mesas of Arizona and southeast to the Rio Grande valley of central New Mexico. They are now called the Hopi, Navajo, and modern Puebloan peoples.

Something not obvious to the virtual tourist is just how large Mesa Verde actually is. From the visitor center, it is more than 20 miles up to the Mesa Top. From there, there are 3 loop roads that are each 3-7 miles long. Each loop road has 5 or so stops to look down on the cliff dwellings. During the summer, you can tour some of the larger dwellings with park rangers.

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Another view of Mesa Verde

Being the day after Thanksgiving, the park was nearly empty. We saw only three other groups: a couple, a solo man with a great camera and a really strict family from India. Because of the loop road format, we ran into these groups at least 15 different times.

The largest, most impressive, and most famous ruin is called the Cliff Palace.

We also got to see a bunch of others including the Hemenway House, the Sun Temple, and Spruce Tree House. We spent about 2 hours in the park before pressing on. Had it been the summer, we probably could have spent an entire day here.

After a surprisingly good Mexican lunch in the town of Cortez, we drove southwest to an unpaved county road.

We crossed two No Trespassing signs and arrived at the Box Bar Ranch, which serves as the entrance to Yucca House National Monument. The Federal government has a public easement to access the ranch as means to visit Yucca House. The monument was declared in 1919 to protect a large pueblo that housed an estimated 13,000 people until around 1300 when everything was abandoned. For comparison, the current population of Montezuma County is 26,000. It is believed that about 100,000 people lived in what is now Montezuma County during the height of the ancient Puebloan culture.

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Entrance to Yucca House National Monument

This unusual monument does not get many visitors and for one main reason- that there is nothing to see. In an incredible display of foresight, the archaeologists who discovered the site decided to leave the site buried underground until better preservation methods could be developed. This way, the ruins will not be destroyed by looters which happened to Mesa Verde in the early 20th century.

A boardwalk leads to a gate service as the entrance to the monument.

Past the gate, faint trails eventually fade into the scrubland. We saw a few remnants of bricks and a wall, but not much else on the 34-acre site. After 30 minutes of hiking around and exploring, we headed back to the truck.

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Yucca House National Monument

While walking through the untouched native scrubland was fun, I would not recommend going here unless you are (really) into archaeology or on a quest to visit all the National Park Service units.

My dad and I then headed north back through Cortez to the Anasazi Heritage Center. In addition to a fantastic exhibit on modern Puebloan baskets, the museum had some great films about the history of the region. The films discussed two narratives of the sites here.

For archaeologists, the sites are windows into a past culture. Modern scientific methods can teach us how these people lived and why they abandoned all the sites in the area around 1300. The tree records show 70 years of drought and cold temperatures during the 13th Century. It also appears that the people cut down every single tree that could be used to build houses. This severe lack of resources may have also led to internal strife.

For the modern Puebloan and Hopi people, the sites were never abandoned. Rather, the migration to their current location is part of the Great Migration. The sites still house the spirits of their ancestors and are still important places in their stories and their religion. The dichotomy of narratives of the sites here is important to recognize and factors heavily in how the sites are treated and excavated.

Here is a link to a NY Times article about what happened in 1300

The sun was now getting low in the sky and we still had some driving left. We headed off to the small town of Dolores nestled between a and a steep hillside. Just above the town, was Sophia’s, a soon-to-be retreat center. We rented a room there on AirBNB and were greeted by the lovely staff.

The AirBNB had some unique amenities including a labyrinth and goats!

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The two baby goats are named Harvey and Moon because they were born under the harvest moon.

For dinner, we went to the Dolores Brewery, which was surprisingly good- the brewmaster used to be the corporate brewer for the Rock Bottom brewpub chain before marrying a girl from Dolores. In addition to great beers, they had amazing pizzas. It was so good, we got a second pizza.

We went back to Sophia’s and went to bed early, ready for another big day in Utah!

 

 

 

 

 

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