Tuesday 27th October
Beautiful bright sunny morning as we packed up camp and left Moab heading south towards Colorado. Travelled for fifty miles to Monticello near the sate border, here we turned south west, crossed the state line and entered Colorado High Country. By now we had left the red sandstone cliffs behind and entered flat farming country with plenty of grain elevators alongside the road. We soon reached over 7,000 feet, skirting the San Juan National Forest with views of the snowcapped mountains in the distance.
Turned east onto US 160 towards Durango, our destination. We checked in at the Alpen Rose RV Park, five miles north of Durango in the Animas Valley just off US 550. The campsite is in a beautiful spot with high red cliffs on either side of the valley and mature trees still in their autumn colours.
The camp sites are spacious and best of all there is a large dog park for Sandy. Just across the main road is the Animas River and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Wednesday 28th October
Went into Durango for a look around and to collect rail tickets for a steam train trip up to Silverton the following day. Durango sits at the side of the Animas River at an elevation of 6,512 feet and has a population of about 16,000. It began life in 1881 as a railroad town and the streets still retain some of their fine Victorian and Edwardian buildings and hotels. There are lots of unique boutique shops for clothes and jewellery, outdoor specialty stores and art galleries. Theatres, coffee shops, breweries and restaurants, there is plenty to do here, it really feels like a very vibrant town.
Thursday 29th October
We were at the nice old rail station in Durango at 0815 this morning ready to board our steam train carriage up to the old silver mining town of Silverton.
In our coach there was a professional historian who gave a commentary during the journey to explain what we were seeing and talk about the history of mining in the area and the building of the railway. Our narrator was Carrie and she was brilliant, she entertained us and made us laugh all the way there and all the way back, she reminded us a little of Catherine Tate.
The 45 mile journey took three and a half hours and we were being pulled by a fine K36 Class steam locomotive number 481 built in 1925.
When the mining boom hit the San Juan Mountains in the late 1800’s the demand for supplies to be brought to the isolated mining camps and bring the precious minerals out increased. The head of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, General William Jackson Palmer answered the call and laid out the town of Durango and built a narrow gauge track up to Silverton.
We chugged out of town and followed the Animas River along the valley (past our campground)
and past lush farmland until we started to climb up into the Rockies.
On the way Carrie explained about the geology of the area and how the minerals were formed and points of interest as we passed. We continued to climb alongside the river through stunningly beautiful scenery with pine and cottonwood forest, deep ravines, gorges and waterfalls. The forest is a designated wilderness area, needless to say the railroad was built before the wilderness act became law. Although thousands of people take this trip every year, looking out from the carriage it does feel like you a looking at untouched wilderness. On the way we passed several small communities and deserted mines. We reached the highline of the track, the most difficult part to build being cut out of the canyon walls and winding around the mountain hundreds of feet above the Animas River. We steamed slowly around the mountain as the cars seemed to hang out precariously over the sheer rock faces, very exciting,
no wonder my favourite ride at Disney is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
During our journey Carrie had informed us about the history of the railroad, Durango, Silverton and General Palmer but she also told us stories about some of the ordinary characters that lived in the mining towns. One story was about a woman called Grace who married a mining engineer called Charley and came out to live in a log cabin in Eureka, a nearby mining town. Carrie told us about the difficulties of life in these isolated towns, how two of her children died young but also the good times they had and funny stories about the two surviving daughters, particularly the one called Clarence – yes, a girl called Clarence. Charley moved around the mining towns of Colorado and New Mexico with the family and in one mine hit his head on a rock. He decided that he needed to see a doctor so walked to the nearest rail depot to get the train to town. Whilst there he collapsed and died. The people at the depot did not know who he was when they buried him. Days went by and Grace didn’t know what had happened, eventually she went to the depot and found out the awful truth, that she was left alone to bring up the two girls. Here I have summarised what was a fascinating real life story of life in the west in the late 1800's and it turned out that Clarence was Carrie’s grandmother.
The old silver mining town of Silverton was established in 1874 and sits at over 9,000 feet, ringed by snowy mountain peaks. Greene Street is the only paved road, the rest are in there original dirt form. This is the main street in town and has red brick and stone buildings and is where most of the hotels, saloons, restaurants and shops are located.
We found some lunch at the saloon in the Grand Imperial Hotel which takes up a large block on the corner of Greene Street. It has a grand style western bar and a honkytonk piano playing.
After lunch we took a walk around town and found notorious Blair Street, an unpaved road with mainly old western town style buildings
where all the bordellos, bars and dance halls thrived, an area like this seems to be an integral part of all these old mining towns, after all there was a lot of money about.
We boarded the train for our return journey
and Carrie continued to tell stories of the old west and gave us an insight into what a fashionable lady of the period would be wearing. She makes and embroiders a lot of her period costumes and she was wearing a lovely Edwardian outfit which she described to us layer by layer, we even had a glimpse of the stockings and drawers!
What a day we have had on this incredible journey back in time.
Friday 30th October
Today, on to Mesa Verde National Park, 35 miles east of Durango along US160. About AD 550 some of the people living in the region decided to move onto Mesa Verde and over the following 700 years their descendants built elaborate stone communities in the shelter of rock alcoves on the cliff walls. In the late 1200’s they left their homes and mysteriously vanished. The Park was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological history of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived here and the 600 cliff dwellings they left behind.
Our first stop was the Visitor Centre to purchase tickets – four dollars each – for a guided tour of one of the cliff dwellings, Balcony House. We took the road into the park, climbing up mountain roads to the top of the Mesa, getting magnificent views of the surrounding countryside.
The mesa is cut through by deep canyons and it is in the eroded cliff walls of the canyons that the ancient dwelling are found. It took about an hour to reach Soda Canyon, and the site where we were to meet up with the Ranger who was to be our guide.
The dwelling is 600 feet above Soda Canyon floor and we made our way down the cliff path until we reached a 32 foot long wooden ladder
which we climbed up onto the 39 feet deep and 20 feet high alcove in the cliff wall.
The complex is 264 feet long and has 38 rooms and 2 kivas (subterranean rooms). From the parapet that we had climbed onto we inched sideways through a crack in the cliff face to the next part of the site which is divided into three plazas.
Here we saw the two kivas which would have had wooden roofs and a ladder to climb down into the space. There were several two-story structures with intact balconies between the first and second stories. This is the unique feature of this site, hence the name Balcony House.