Rocky Mountain High

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I have only been to Colorado once, and Bob had never been here. Back in the 1990’s I won a four-night trip to visit Keystone Resort. Those few days convinced me that Colorado is the most beautiful place in the world, and I knew I would return. It’s taken me almost 30 years, but I finally got back here! And I’m so glad that I got to share this with Bob.

We started off at a campground just outside of Colorado Springs. It was very nice. We visited Garden of the Gods, drove to the top of Pike’s Peak and hiked the Red Rock Canyon. But, Colorado Springs is a city, and there’s traffic and a lot of people, and after four nights there we were ready to leave.

Garden of the Gods is a collection of natural rock formations that you can walk around and explore. Unfortunately, there were so many people there that it was pretty difficult to take pictures without people.

We moved on to Cañon City, Colorado. (Cañon is Spanish for canyon … which is exactly how it’s pronounced!) What a lovely town this was! There’s a small downtown area with some great shops and restaurants, just big enough that you can walk from one end of Main Street to the other and back. This is also the location of the Royal Gorge with its walkable suspension bridge. I thought Bob would jump at the chance to walk the suspension bridge over the gorge, but he surprised me by saying he’d prefer to ride the old train through the gorge instead. So, we did! It was beautiful, but it was honestly just an introduction to the “wows” we would be chasing in Colorado. (That one is for you, Priscilla and Scott! LOL)

Bob, looking down into the canyon where we would ride the train. You can barely make out the train tracks.

After Cañon City, we moved on to a campground in the middle of nowhere in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. This valley encompasses about 8,000 square miles with an altitude just shy of 8,000 feet. To give the folks back home a frame of reference, this valley is roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, but the altitude is almost 2,000 feet higher than Mount Washington. The surrounding mountains, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and San Juan Mountains to the west, fool you into thinking you are close to sea level … but a short walk up a very small hill tell your lungs otherwise! 

The last town with a gas station, Salida, was 31 miles behind us. We stopped there to fill up the motorhome but didn’t think to see how much gas was left in the Honda. Turned out we only had 1/4 tank. We now had to make a choice: either head back 31 miles from where we came (we already know what’s back there), or drive 29 miles farther ahead (unknown territory), because that is where the next gas station is located. We decided to venture ahead 29 miles to the town of Crestone, population approximately 141.

The drive to Crestone passed miles of high desert valley surrounded on 3 sides by mountains. We can’t see the mountains at the southernmost edge of the valley, as that’s all the way down at the Taos, New Mexico, plateau. We passed homesteads of small houses with various outbuildings and vehicles that have sat through a few seasons, each surrounded by hundreds of acres of scrub brush desert. The intersection where we turned toward Crestone comprised not one, but two, cannabis dispensaries and a Dollar General, but nothing else. For those of us from puritan New England, seeing cannabis dispensaries all over the place as well as greenhouse buildings surrounded by tall chain link fences (where you know they are growing it) is very, very strange! 

We finally arrived at the town of Crestone. The gas pump (single pump outside the Elephant Cloud Market) offered me 85 octane for $3.99 or 87 octane for $4.29 per gallon. We have never seen diesel fuel sell for less than gasoline, but it does in Colorado! We also found Crestone Liquors and, since we had nothing of that ilk for the next 4 nights, we stopped for some beer. Holy smokes! This store has a window at the front and a full menu of everything they sell posted on the front facade. You tell the man at the window what you’d like and he gets it for you, hands it out the window. The guy had lots of craft beers in addition to the local favorites and popular national brews, wines, hard liquors, you name it. What a concept! Owner operated business, no employees, low overhead, keep the profits!

Crestone has a few cafes, several art galleries, a small hotel, rental cabins and yurts, a small grocer with the one gas pump, a small cannabis dispensary (of course) and the liquor store. There were lots of camper vans around, old hippie types, young dreadlock types, and hikers. It was fascinating! We drove up a road that headed toward the mountain and saw many small, colorful flags hanging randomly from trees. At the end of the road we found a driveway and sign announcing that this was a Taoist spiritual center, of all things.

Scenes from Crestone, Colorado.

That evening, I checked the internet for information on Crestone and found that the New York Times had written an article about the place in 2008. It’s fascinating!! And such a fluke that we just stumbled upon it!

“At 8,000 feet on the edge of the desert plains of the San Luis Valley beneath the Sangre de Cristo Range, this town and its environs have about 1,500 residents and two dozen different religious centers, including a cluster of Buddhist monasteries, a Catholic monastery, a Taoist retreat, a Hindu ashram, a Shumei center and several American Indian sanctuaries. This forested hillside haven, nestled on an enormous aquifer below the 14,000-foot Crestone Peaks, has long been considered sacred.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, we were listening to NPR in the car and someone mentioned having been to the UFO Watchtower in Colorado. Well, guess where that is located? Yes, indeed, it is in the San Luis Valley about half way between the RV Park and the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. And we were planning to visit the Great Sand Dunes … we had to check out the watchtower!

We are still not even clear about how this got started, but it has something to do with the woman who owns this land, and how there have supposedly been more UFO sightings in the San Luis Valley than anywhere else in the country. She built this “watchtower” (which is really just a platform elevated about 10’ off the ground). She has a “garden” of tchotchkes in front, a little gift store/“museum” and even invites RVers to stay overnight in her lot (for a fee). There is a 4” thick binder filled with photos and stores of sightings, which we browsed. We believe in science, and considering how this is not even the only galaxy in the universe, how can we possibly be the only living creatures?? That being said, we saw nothing unusual while we were there. Um … wait a minute … I’ll take back “unusual” and trade that for “otherworldly.”

The office/gift shop/museum of the UFO Watchtower.
Bob thinks he’s spotted a UFO!
It’s hard to tell … maybe he spotted something from the garden. I wonder what the aliens would think of us if they landed here?

We actually hated to leave the San Luis Valley. We could have stayed longer (and might return to do just that some day), but we had reservations in Durango so we headed on down the road.

Durango itself didn’t impress us much. The town obviously started out as a tiny hamlet at the base of the mountains, but it’s quaintness got the better of it and the town has now been developed to where it’s just a confusing maze of streets and highways. I went out to run some errands and was really struck by how difficult it is to find anything! The big draw here is the Durango and Silverton Railway. You can take a 3-½ hour train ride in an antique car through the San Juan Mountains to the old silver mining town of Silverton. You are given a couple of hours to poke around Silverton, then take either another 3-½ hour train or a comfy tour bus back to Durango.

Now, this train excursion has the potential to take up your entire day, and we have a dog to think about. It’s also pretty expensive — at least $100 per ticket. But, it is one of the most popular train rides in the world and I’ve been wanting to do this since I first learned of it almost 30 years ago! Bob came up with a solution — we’d buy one ticket for a round-trip train ride, one of us would take the train up and the other would drive with the dog; we’d meet up in Silverton, enjoy that together and switch places! Brilliant! Smart guy! 😉

I opted to take the train up to Silverton (8 am departure). We planned to meet in Silverton when the train arrived, around 11:30. Stroll, have a snack, etc., then Bob would take the 1:30 train back to Durango and Tessa and I would pick him up at the train station. We’d be home by 4:30.

WELL …my 8:00 am departure was delayed 15 minutes for reasons not divulged to the passengers. I thought nothing of it, until about an hour into our trip when the train suddenly stopped (on a ledge, mind you). The engineer made several short blasts of the train’s horn and the conductor came flying through the train cars toward the engine. We soon learned that there was a mechanical problem with our locomotive and it would need replacement. We slowly hobbled to the next station, where several hikers departed and we waited for our replacement locomotive to come up from Durango. [I have to commend the Durango and Silverton Railway staff, because they did an awesome job of keeping us informed, offering multiple options to both hikers (who often ride these trains just a few miles to start their multi-day hikes and summits) and tourists in an effort to alleviate stress for as many as possible.] Except for my not having any cell service shortly after leaving Durango and not being able to communicate with Bob, I had no pressing need to get to Silverton. So, I struck up a conversation with the couple behind me, Lana and Paul. It’s amazing how quickly you can discover common interests with complete strangers, but we ended up sharing the long ride and enjoying ourselves.

Top photo: locomotive that broke down (diesel).
Bottom photo: the replacement (steam).
Paul and Lana from Denver. Hope you two had a great vacation!

By the time we arrived in Silverton, Bob had been waiting a couple of hours! In any event, we both had the opportunity to ride the train, visit Silverton, and we made it home safe and sound … only about 13 hours later instead of 8!

But, honestly, it was worth it. We highly recommend the train from Durango to Silverton! What happened to us was very unusual, and the staff handled everything with absolute professionalism and helpfulness. We are really so glad that we didn’t leave Tessa home that day!

The next day, we decided on a whim to take a drive to Ouray, Colorado. Several people told us that Ouray is absolutely gorgeous. As it turns out, the road from Silverton to Ouray is called the Million Dollar Highway because every turn has a million dollar view. Once we arrived in Ouray, we found a great little brewery with delicious food and beer (Scott and Priscilla: Ouray Brewing Company, try the brown ale) and ran into Lana and Paul from the train the previous day! Imagine that!

Ouray is not far from Telluride, so we decided to do a loop … Durango-Silverton-Ouray-Telluride-Durango. “Wow” is the best word I can use to describe the Million Dollar Highway. This has to be the most beautiful drive in the United States. People talk about Mount Rainier, Montana, the Canadian Rockies, Alaska … but I just can’t believe that there is a place more beautiful than the mountains between Silverton and Ouray. If we stopped traveling right now, I’d feel confident that I’d seen the most beautiful place on Earth.

So, I’ll stop talking about this leg of our journey and just show you a bunch of pictures!

We sure picked the right time of year to visit Colorado! New England thinks it has the best autumn colors … we beg to differ!

Our time in Colorado concluded with a few days at Mesa Verde National Park, which is a location of ancient Pueblo Indian cliff dwellings dating from 600 AD to about 1200 AD. The park calls them Anasazi cliff dwellings, but Anasazi is not the name of a tribe, it’s a Navajo word that means “ancient enemies.” The Pueblo Indians were not the only cliff dwellers. A couple of years ago, we visited the Gila cliff dwellings in New Mexico which were inhabited by the Mogollon people, and next week we’ll be seeing more cliff dwellings in Arizona that were used by the Navajo.

The cliff dwellings were first discovered in the mid to late 1800’s by a local miner and rancher named John Moss who often explored this land. In 1874, a friend of his introduced him to pioneer photographer William H. Jackson, and Moss led them to some ruins that he had discovered. Jackson photographed the ruins. This discovery brought more explorers to the area, and more ruins were found. It took decades of petitions to the Smithsonian and the US Government, but finally, in 1906, this land was declared a National Park by President Theodore Roosevelt. 

Many of the dwellings are only viewed at a distance from the top of the opposing cliffs, but a few are accessible by ranger-led hikes. We didn’t realize that reservations were required for the hikes, and by the time we figured this out only one ticket was available on a hike to the Long House. Since visiting this house requires climbing ladders and I’m not good with ladders, Bob took that tour. I was very sorry to miss seeing it, but I did a self-guided hike to a smaller ruin called Step House. The biggest disappointment was that the road to the Cliff Palace and Balcony House was closed and we were unable to see those. Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America with 150 rooms. If you ever plan to visit Mesa Verde, I would suggest booking reservations for the hikes to the dwellings as far in advance as you can.

Bob at Long House dwelling.
Long House.
Cliff Palace dwelling from across the canyon.

And, so, this concludes our visit to the magnificent state of Colorado … although we only saw the southern portion! We’ll have to visit the northern part of the state some other time because … yes … snow fell overnight on top of those mountains last night!!! We’re heading south today!

3 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain High

  1. Did you get the Rocky Mountain High yet? Take it easy… The air is thinner there. Love your pics and adventure. Get out of there before you get snowed in!!! Breathtaking views though. If you get a chance, Bill says to go to Silver City – old western town by these puritan standards. Take care Bill and France

  2. LOL! We just entered New Mexico, so we’re moving south! OMG, you aren’t even kidding about the altitude. We did some short, easy hikes and I was stopping for air at the slightest incline! Tell Bill we’ve been to Silver City, NM … is that where BIll’s talking about? At the base of the Gila mountains. It’s about 20 miles from one of our favorite campgrounds, City of Rocks State Park in Deming, NM. Miss you guys!!! Hope you are well.

  3. Hey, Did Bill mean Silverton, Colorado? That’s where we took the train to. Old mining town in the mountains.

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