Colorado Road Trip – Denver, Pagosa Springs, Chimney Rock, Mesa Verde, Durango (Videos #99,#100,#101)categories: USA Travel
Sometimes cities die. Their people move away leaving only a mystery. Mesa Verde is one of those places and I’ve wanted to see it for some time.
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My father‘s family moved to Colorado in the 1800s. They lived out in the flat eastern part of the state which is better for farming that it is for tourism. My grandfather was a cowboy on the last round-up before they put up the fences in Colorado. With this strong Colorado connection, I’ve been to the state many times, but I had never been past the Rockies to the dry, high southwestern corner of the state. After a recent tourism conference in Denver, I had the opportunity to visit that area with the Colorado Tourism Board. I leapt at the chance.
Colorado is a big state. Denver is near the center but even so, driving down to southwestern Colorado is a road trip, not a day trip. We took a tour bus, but a rental car would work as well to get down past the Rockies. It is a 5-hour drive plus stops from Denver to Pagosa Springs which was our destination the first day. We drove through some little towns like FairPlay, with its South Park Historical Park, that I would have loved to get a better look at, but we had to make some time.
We did stop to pick up lunch, stretch our legs, and explore for an hour in the town of Buena Vista. Buena Vista as a few small charming shops with crafts and antiques but there are some even more interesting things going on with the food scene. There are at least three food trucks with a permanent location on the main drag as well as some other interesting local restaurants. This is a great stop for lunch without having to resort to fast food as one might on a typical road trip. There is a taco truck in an old school bus, a Mediterranean food truck and Buena Viking (burgers) that encourages you to “Always be yourself… unless you can be a Viking… then always be a Viking!”. Buena Viking is on the porch of the Deerhammer Distillery which makes whiskey.
We came over the Wolf Creek pass (10,857 feet) to get to Pagosa Springs. The pass was made famous in the 1975 album and song of the same name by C. W. McCall in the great CB radio scare of the 1970s.
Just after the pass, we stopped at Treasure Falls along the highway. It is a quick hike up from the highway to see the falls, although quick may not imply easy as this entire portion of Colorado is more than a mile above sea level. The base of the valley at Pagosa Springs is still at 7,126 feet. You will be grateful for any days you have spent ahead of time at altitude before attempting any of the local hikes, including a network of trails above the town on Reservoir Hill.
Pagosa Springs has been known for its hot springs long before white men showed up. The word Pagosa comes from an Indian word loosely meaning “boiling water”. The “Mother” spring is located just outside the lobby of the Springs Resort and Spa. It was named by the Guinness World Record as “The World’s Deepest Geothermal Hot Spring”. They know that the spring is at least 1,002 feet deep.
Pagosa Springs has 1,700 residents most of the year but swells to around 8,000 on Memorial Day and around 10,000 by July as people come to enjoy over 3 million acres of National Forrest nearby.
We stayed in the Springs Resort and Spa. The hotel has 23 different hot spring-fed soaking pools down by the river’s edge. The approximate water temperature is posted at each pool so you can choose your experience. There is a public bathhouse on the property but the pools are open 24 hours to guests of the hotel.
Some of us toured a community garden project in geodesic domes heated geothermal energy at a particularly picturesque spot on the river.
Before dinner, we tried the beer at Riff Raff Brewery at their new location along the river. Like many of the businesses downtown, their original location is powered by geothermal energy so the brewery has the motto of “Earth Powered Beer”. We tried an English Pale Ale and a more unusual Greene Chile Beer as we enjoyed their outdoor tables at the water’s edge.
Chimney Rock National Monument
Only 18 miles from Pagosa Springs is Chimney Rock National Monument. In this national monument, you will find ruins from some of the northernmost villages of the Ancestral Puebloans which was centered around Chaco Canyon. Chaco Canyon is 90 miles to the south in Northern New Mexico. The Ancestral Puebloans used to be known as the Anasazi but this term has fallen out of favor as it is a Navajo, who were not their descendants, a term that may mean “ancient enemies”.
The Ancestral Puebloans lived in the Chimney Rock area in 900-1125 A.D. Some archeologists speculate that the buildings at the top of the mountain (7620 feet) may have had an astrological connection because from the vantage point of these buildings the moon will appear between the two tall rock spires, which give the park its name, only at the apex of the 18.6 years lunar cycle.
This would have been an inconvenient place to live with no natural water source at the top of the hill as well as an inconvenient place to build stone structures as the Ancestral Puebloans did not have any domesticated animals to haul stone to the top of the hill.
There is no entry fee to Chimney Rock but there are fees for the guided walking tour ($14/adult & $7/child ages 5-12) or self-guided audio tours ($10/adult and $5/child (ages 5-12). Only people on the tours can drive to the top of the mesa. From the upper parking lot, it is not a difficult hike to the structures at the top, but you will want to wear good walking shoes and have good mobility. I highly recommend the guided tour. No reservation is needed for a tour and they are first come first served with a maximum group size of 25 people.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde is both a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. You may have gotten the impression from photos that Mesa Verde is one well-preserved set of cliff dwellings, but it is a large and extensive site. Some 4,400 different sites have been discovered in the area. If you had visited the site between 450-1300 AD you would have found much of the mesa covered in corn instead of the scrub forest you see now.
The cliff dwellings were only built in the last 100 years of habitation at the site, but they do capture the visitor’s imagination and most of the pictures taken at the park. Cliff Palace is the largest of these structures and I would highly recommend a tour. You can only visit on a ranger-led walk. You do need to be able to climb some ladders to get down and back up from the mesa to the site.
Mesa Verde was abandoned sometime around 1285. It seems that a severe drought, overpopulation and especially cold temperatures caused the site to be abandoned. As to where these people went, their dependents can still be found among the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico.
Before you tour the cliff dwellings like Cliff Palace stop at the older buildings to see how the building practices of the people of Mesa Verde changed over the centuries that they inhabited the site. You can see early pit houses, dug into the soil, as well as later kivas which are round ceremonial structures characteristic of the Ancestral Puebloans.
We stayed at Far View Lodge inside the park. The name of the lodge is descriptive if not imaginative. Each of the rooms has a balcony. The rooms and the restaurant have views for many miles over this flat open landscape.
We backtracked to Durango which is located in between Mesa Verde and Chimney Rock. Durango is an old mining town that is the largest city (16,000+) in the region. It has a picturesque main street, lots of local adventure outfitters, and a steam train for which it is probably best known.
We toured the historic Strater Hotel which was built in 1887. The hotel was founded by a Cleveland pharmacist named Henry Strater who believed Durango would grow into more than a mining camp and would need a grand hotel. Every Colorado Governor since 1887 has stayed in the Strater’s governor suite.
Author Louis L’Amour would routinely stay in rooms 222 while he worked on his western novels. Not coincidently that room is directly above the Diamond Belle Saloon where you can still hear the honky-tonk music that inspired L’Amour.
Each room in the Strater is decorated with antiques that were collected by the current owners, the Barkers, who have owned the hotel since 1926. Over the 3 generations of Barkers that have owned the Strater, they have collected the largest collection of American Victorian walnut antiques anywhere in the world.
In addition to the Diamond Belle, the hotel has a restaurant and has a bar called the Office Spiritorium. It was so named so that men could honestly tell their wives they were at “the Office”.
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Two blocks from the Strater is the station and museum for the famous Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. If you have the time you can take the 45-mile ride between the two cities on the old steam trains from the station. The line has been running steam trains since it was built in 1881. It originally carried miners, silver, and gold, but now carries tourists.
The museum is worth a stop to see the historic trains and random collection of other vehicles and historic artifacts.
Mild2Wild Rafting and Jeep Tours
Our group split into two with half the group opting for a rafting trip on the Animas River which winds through Durango. I joined the other half which took a jeep tour up into the La Plata Mountains. We started at 6,512 feet in Durango on a warm day but drove up to 12,000 feet to where the snow still lingered in May. Our guide brought some blankets but seriously if you take this tour, don’t do what I did and leave your jacket behind.
The landscape we drove through was festooned with wildflowers but scarred by avalanches as this is one of the most avalanche-prone areas in the lower 48 states. We stopped to pick flowers as our guide identified the native plants, hiked down to a waterfall, and looked for local wildlife. We spotted a number of deer and marmots along the road.
As fun as the river rafting would have been I thoroughly enjoyed the jeep tour, but I suspect the right answer on your trip is to spend more than one rushed day in Durango. We didn’t have much time for shopping in its interesting shops and galleries and didn’t try even one of its 6 craft breweries.
We spent the last night of our whirlwind trip at Purgatory Resort in the mountains 25 miles from Durango. Purgatory is the local ski area and has fantastic family suite vacation rentals as well as more modest rooms. TripAdvisor named Purgatory the “Best Value Ski Spot in North America”, but even when the snow is gone the lifts are still available to hikers and mountain bikers. Summer visitors can also ride their Alpine slide, do summer tubing down the ski slopes, ride the zipline, tackle the family ropes course or bungee trampoline.
From Durango, we flew back to Denver, instead of driving back.
Mesa Verde is a world-class attraction that you really should see. No trip to the area should skip it in my opinion. We tackled this whole itinerary in 3 nights but you would be better served to spend at least double that amount of time. This trip is a great extension to a trip to Denver as I did or as a stand-alone trip to this beautiful part of Colorado.
If what really appealed to you was the hot springs at Pagosa Springs, then you should know that it is one of a loop of hot springs resorts west of the Rockies, which also includes Ouray, Ringway, Glenwood Springs, Steamboat Springs, Buena Vista, Nathrop, and Salida.
Whether you come for ancient history, western lore, adventure, or just the great outdoors, Southwestern Colorado is worth exploring.
See more of my photos of Colorado