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On the Road: Colorado Mountain High

One of the most beautiful drives in America

Adele Woodyard
Dec 29, 2005
The 236-mile-long Million Dollar Highway, which winds through the San Juan Mountains from Durango, Colorado, has been called one of the most beautiful drives in America. But if you want to follow the trail of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, reach into your wallet for an exciting ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge (D&SNG) Railroad.
Powered by coal, the steam engine hauls a snakelike string of bright-yellow vintage coaches, open-air gondola cars, and a parlor car that serves champagne. It huffs and puffs through the Animas River Gorge, past abandoned mines and canyon walls close enough to touch, inching, in some places, along a narrow shelf above a 400-foot drop. Signs warn of rockslides and turbulent white water swirls below.
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The all-day, 90-mile round trip arrives in the Victorian mining town of Silverton in time for lunch. There are over 20 restaurants, with names like Bent Elbow Bar & Grill and Natalia's 1912 Family Restaurant, once the town's oldest brothel, from which to choose. During the two-hour layover, visit the former jail, shop in 19th-century buildings, or tour dead gold mines just five miles away. The Durango-Silverton ride is seasonal and reservations are recommended. During the winter, the D&SNG offers a 52-mile round trip from Durango to Cascade Canyon.
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Durango itself is a popular tourist town in Western dress. As a railroad hub, it came of age during the late 1880s, and its heritage can be seen in the historic districts. Among the restored Victorian buildings on Main Avenue is the impressive Strater Hotel, established circa 1887, where ragtime piano still resounds in the Diamond Belle Saloon.
West of Durango, Highway 160 crosses into Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. The Four Corners is the land of the Anasazi, prehistoric Indians considered the ancestors of the Pueblos. These "ancient ones" are believed to have settled in Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park about 550 A.D. Here, they flourished for over 700 years, eventually built entire villages within the canyon walls, and then were gone by 1300.
Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, was discovered by two cowboys in 1888. Eighteen years later, Mesa Verde was established as a national park. According to the recorded history, 75 percent of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings within the park have one to five rooms. Cliff Palace contained 217 rooms, 23 kivas (ceremonial rooms), and housed 200 to 250 people.
Going east, Highway 160 will take you to Pagosa Springs where hot mineral springs are open all year. Western paintings and memorabilia are on display at the Fred Harmon (creator of Red Ryder and Little Beaver) Art Museum. Five miles to the south on Highway 84 is the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Park. Bob, a bull elk, shares the zoo with bear, mule deer, cougar, wolf, bobcat, and other live animals native to the area. A fun time to visit is 4 p.m. in the summer (2 p.m. during the winter)--that's feeding time.
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If the unknown fate of the long-gone Anasazi intrigues, turn south on S.R. 151 before you get to Pagosa Springs and head for Chimney Rock Archaeological Site in the San Juan National Forest. Beneath the twin rock towers that give the mesa its name, lie the ruins of an Anasazi village high above the Piedra River. Archaeologists believe the Anasazi built their Great House in relation to the moon, and at certain times of the year the public can watch the moon rise between Chimney Rock's twin spires.
If you follow 151 and turn south on S.R. 172, you will cross into New Mexico and S.R. 511. Go west on S.R. 173 for the Aztec Ruins National Park. Despite the name, the excavation is not Mexican, but is actually an unusually large Anasazi pueblo--450 rooms enclose a central plaza where a Great Kiva dominates the space. By 1300, they, too were gone. Why they left, and why this was true of all Anasazi wherever they lived in the Four Corners area, remains a mystery to this day.
Be Advised
The information presented in this column is, to the best of our knowledge, correct and accurate at the time of publication. However, because of our lengthy lead time, we recommend you call the proper authorities or local experts for confirmation before visiting.
Editor's Note
Mud or snow on your windshield give you chills? Four-wheeling your weekends away? Got a good story to tell about it? Send us all the gear-popping, seatbelt-tightening, dust-kicking details in 500 words or less, along with your best photos (color slides, preferably), and we'll pay $300. Send to Truck Trend, c/o "On the Road," 6420 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048. We'll publish your adventures.
Getting There
From Hwy 160: Take Hwy 666 from Monticello, Utah, to Cortez, Colorado; from New Mexico, Hwy 84 to Pagosa Springs, or I-25, Exit 50 at Walsenburg, Colorado.
Campgrounds: Mesa Verde National Park; six private campgrounds along 160 from Mancos to Pagosa Springs; one at Silverton.
For More Information
Durango Area Tourism Office
111 Camino del Rio, Durango, CO 81302
Mesa Verde National Park
P.O. Box 8, Mesa Verde, CO 81330-0008
Pagosa Springs
Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 787, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147



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