Thursday, September 26, 2013

Autumn Weekend in Durango, Colorado

Day 1 - Driving to Durango

Allyson and I took a three day weekend trip up to Durango from Santa Fe this past weekend. Google maps suggested several alternate routes. We took the one that seemed like it would be most scenic but was only four minutes slower than the fastest option. With this route, we planned to drive through Abiquiu (town near Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O'Keefe did a lot of her painting) and up to Pagosa Springs, Colorado, before turning west to head to Durango. This drive was absolutely gorgeous! A great variety of big scenery, from great expanses of red rocks to rolling hills of pine trees dotted with changing aspen trees. 

 Roadside right before Ghost Ranch

Shortly after passing the sign to Ghost Ranch, we came across a turn-off on the left for Echo Amphitheater. This was a lovely picnic spot and also had a short hike right up to the amphitheater. Pretty spectacular!

 Echo Amphitheater

Our plan was to hike about 8 miles south of Pagosa Springs to Opal Lake (4 miles round trip). Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate. As soon as we reached Colorado, the dark clouds rolled in and the lightening filled up the sky.

And then there was this....

I've never seen the sky look like this in my life, and of course we were heading right for it. It brought us two hailstorms before we made it to Durango. We checked into our amazing studio, put some warmer clothes on, and headed down to historic, downtown Durango. One block off Main, on 2nd Street, is Steamworks - a great brewery with good food too! We managed to spend several hours eating, drinking, and watching football, before heading back to our studio for the evening.

Day 2 - Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

The next morning, we woke up early to walk to the train station from our studio. It was a two mile walk along the Animas River Trail. I just love checking out different town's trail systems! Our early morning walk was right along the river and the train tracks for much of the trail. We stopped at Durango Coffee Company on Main Street for a delicious latte before catching the bus up to Silverton.

 From the Animas River Trail

 The train leaving town

My dad and his girlfriend had done the train ride before and recommended only doing the train one way. The train ride is 3 1/2 hours long one way. I am so glad we did it the way we did it. 7 hours on the train is just way too long! Plus, the bus gave us an opportunity to see some different views. Also, the bus gets up to Silverton a little earlier than the train does, so it felt like we had the town to ourselves until the train arrived.

A couple tips about the train:

1. We got an online deal of 10% off the bus up/train back package. The standard tickets are $97 a piece before the discount, so the discount helped a bit.

2. I recommend sitting on the right side of the bus/train going up, and the left side coming back into Durango. Overall, the views are much better on that side.

 Down below is an old stagecoach road (photo taken from the bus)

Our bus driver gave us the option of stopping for a few minutes on top of Molas Pass, and of course we all said yes. It was so clear and crisp and the mountains were all covered in snow from the storm that came through the night before. I get a little motion-sick too, so it was nice to get out and get some fresh air before finishing up the bus ride to Silverton. I would argue that these views are the reason you should choose the bus/train option, rather than train both ways. The views from up above were amazing. 

 Molas Pass (10,910 feet)

Heading into Silverton (Photo taken from the bus)

Once we got to Silverton, we decided to grab a bite to eat before the crowds from the train arrived. There are plenty of options to choose from. I wasn't blown away by our choice, but it was a small mom & pop diner that seemed to be the locals' choice. After some breakfast for lunch, we took off to explore this adorable mountain town.

 Ready for a long winter

We took a short walk up the hill to the Christ of the Mines Shrine. It's a place where few people go and probably has some of the best views of the town and mountains.

We had 2 1/2 hours in Silverton. The bus arrived around 11am and we had to board the train at 1:35pm. This was a good amount of time to spend walking around and taking pictures. A lot of people spend that time shopping in the little shops, but that isn't exactly what Allyson and I call fun. Instead, we spent our time walking around and checking out the adorable houses and barns.

 Four way stop

Before boarding the train, we stopped at a little jerky stand and splurged on some elk jerky. (I call $12 for a small pouch of jerky splurging.) Other options included alligator, salmon, venison, and beef. The elk was delicious!

After much deliberation and research online, I decided to book us seats on the open-air gondola on the train. I'm really glad I did. It wasn't that cold and the fresh air was nice when we were on the train for 3 1/2 hours. Not to mention, I could get a lot better pictures from there. The only negative is the soot from the coal. We both wore sunglasses and it wasn't really that bad.

For the first 30 minutes or so, the right side of the train had better views than the left. But I was patient. Below are just some of the amazing views we saw on our train trip back to Durango. Of course, some of it was just too incredible to capture by camera and required me to just soak it in without worrying about a picture.

Honestly, this day was beautiful and exhausting. However, mostly it was just a tease. The San Juan Mountains (which is where Silverton, Durango, Telluride, etc. reside) are full of incredible hiking and backpacking. I had tried to plan a week long backpacking trip to do before Allyson started her internship in Santa Fe, but we went home to the Bay Area instead. Now, having been here, I know we have to get back here for some serious backpacking. It's a must-do for any hiking enthusiasts!

Day 3 - Mesa Verde National Park

On the third day, we planned to head further west to Mesa Verde National Park, before heading back to Santa Fe. This added on a significant amount of driving, and I would recommend staying one more night in Durango if you can. We had to get back to work, so we figured the long day was worth seeing Mesa Verde!
 Cliff Dweller Art and Moon (in front of Visitor Center)

There is a lot to see at Mesa Verde, and we only had four hours or so. We opted to do the guided tour of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde and North America. I have a slight fear of falling, so I was a little worried about the ladders you have to climb up to get to Cliff Palace and back to the start. After completing the tour, I realize how ridiculous that was. Cliff Palace is not scary, unless you are worried that someone who is not in good shape will fall off the ladder and on to you. That really is the only thing to be scared of on this very popular tour.

After the Cliff Palace tour (which took about 45 minutes to 1 hour), we drove over to the museum and Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling. Spruce Tree House is supposedly the best-preserved cliff dwelling in the park and is self-guided (except in the winter). I really liked this one because we got to go inside a kiva (a room used for spiritual ceremonies). This "hike" took about 45 minutes. It's basically down hill and then back up, all on a paved path. There are benches along the way for people who need a rest (the park is at 7,000 feet elevation so many people needed the rest). 

 Spruce Tree House

 Hand Petroglyph at lower left corner of window

Inside the kiva

We left Mesa Verde around 2:30pm and made it back to Santa Fe by 7:30pm. We stopped in Pagosa Springs for tacos to go, from Kip's Grill and Cantina. Highly recommend stopping here for a bite to eat. The tacos were delicious and the place had a great patio. I wish we'd stayed to eat, but we were feeling like we needed to keep driving. Also, we timed it perfectly to see the evening sun shining on those red rocks around Ghost Ranch. We are planning a trip back to Ghost Ranch in the late afternoon so we can hopefully experience those intense colors again! 

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