ROAD TRIP

A Scenic Tour of Southwestern Colorado

Visitors to Southwestern Colorado fill their lungs with the refreshing mountain air--and their cameras' memory cards with tons of scenic photos.

The narrow roads carved into the steep canyon walls of Mesa Verde National Park have particularly beautiful views: valleys dotted with juniper trees and sagebrush in between giant mesas. Around one turn, we spot wild horses.

The park's cliff dwellings are the real show. At Spruce Tree House, a 13th-century sandstone dwelling once home to the Ancestral Puebloan people, a ranger points out several kivas--underground rooms used for various ceremonies. We join a group tour of Cliff Palace, which has 150 rooms and 23 kivas. Our guide explains that an average Ancestral Puebloan man was 5'4", which helps us imagine how 125 people once lived here--and how residents managed doorways less than four feet tall and two feet wide. We climb a series of ladders to the top of Cliff Palace, passing three-inch wide grooves worn into the sandstone by human fingertips. I'm grateful for the ladders.

In Durango, we check in to the Rochester Hotel, a red-brick Victorian building dating to 1892. A lounge area offers homemade oatmeal-raisin and chocolate chip cookies and a jug of iced tea--all with a help-yourself policy for guests. I'm thrilled with our room's little private patio, which opens into the side courtyard.

At The Palace restaurant, where we're serenaded by a barbershop quartet over dinner. I can't manage to finish my mozzarella, tomato, and basil sandwich, and Lisa hardly makes a dent in her plate of penne--because the portions are so big and because we stuffed ourselves with cookies back at the hotel.

Waitresses at the Diamond Belle Saloon dress in 1800s period costumes, complete with peacock feathers in their hair, and more often than not there's someone playing ragtime on the piano. While we have drinks, I half expect brawling cowboys to fall from the balcony.

Lodging

Food

  • Silver Bean410 W. Main St., Cortez, 970/946-4404
  • The Palace505 Main Ave., Durango, 970/247-2018, penne $9

Activities

  • Mesa Verde National ParkHwy. 160, 970/529-4465, nps.gov/meve, $15 per car

Nightlife

  • Diamond Belle Saloon699 Main Ave., Durango, 970/247-4431

Day 3: Durango to Ouray
Durango attracts outdoorsy types who make the most of their days, and at 7:15 a.m., nearly every chair in our hotel's breakfast area is filled. After eggs, fresh fruit, and tea, we drive to Mild to Wild Rafting for a trip down the Lower Animas River. A family from Chicago with three boys shares our boat. The water level is fairly low--meaning the rapids are mild--so our guide, Roy Igo, a Harrison Ford doppelgänger, makes the ride more exciting by extending the initial lesson into a paddling clinic. Not to be shown up by the boys, Lisa and I furiously obey his commands of "Forward two, back one!"

For lunch, we return to town, where the chicken wings at Carver Brewing Co. are messy and scrumptious. Then we stop at Honeyville, specializing in all things to do with bees; there's even a see-through hive stocked with live bees in the middle of the store. Lisa, who loves whipped honey, is delighted that the store sells it in flavors such as cinnamon and peach.

We drive into the mountains on Route 550, a.k.a. the Million Dollar Highway. Just before Coal Bank Pass at 10,640 feet, we see the impressive Pigeon and Turret peaks, both well over 13,000 feet high. Soon after, we look down at the old mining town of Silverton, which is 9,318 feet above sea level.

A man at Silverton's visitors center gives us a map to a nearby ghost town, Animas Forks, and assures us that our rental--a white PT Cruiser we've nicknamed Stay Puft--will do just fine. Half an hour later, as we bounce along a rocky dirt road with a sheer drop-off, we're not so sure. Still, we arrive unscathed to see rickety buildings and crumbling foundations in what 120 years ago was a town of 450 people.

Silverton itself looks like a ghost town, as it's low season--in between the summer tourists and the winter skiers. We struggle to find a single store open. One window sign reads: we are not open, never, never, never. There could not be a more appropriate moment for a tumbleweed to roll by.

Continuing on Route 550, we fight the urge to pull over every few minutes to take photos. One stop we can't resist is Red Mountain, a collapsed volcano with sides that are burnt orange and red, thanks to the rich iron deposits. Eventually we arrive in Ouray, dubbed the Switzerland of America for its position beneath snowcapped peaks.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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