Enjoy outdoor adventure at Colorado’s national parks, regional culinary fare, and the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Story and Photos by Marisa L Byers
I revisit Durango, Colorado 17 years after honeymooning in this historic mountain town. Being a native Texan, it’s hard to admit that another state could possibly steal my heart.
Colorado comes on strong with jaw dropping views and rich First Nations history. My journey starts in Mesa Verde County, with the picturesque towns of Cortez, Dolores, and Mancos situated near the Four Corners area of the United States (where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona meet). Because I’m short on time, I fly into Cortez via Boutique Air; however, most visitors access this community by vehicle to take in the amazing landscapes driving in. Cortez has lots to offer with various wineries, rich Pueblo and Anasazi history, and hiking trails to keep you occupied for days.
Canyon of the Ancients, a working ranch, turned Bed and Breakfast is the place to stay. Each cabin is uniquely decorated with a rustic chic flair and comes stocked with the things you need to feel at home. They have so many ranch dogs, it seems one comes with each cabin. The owners love sharing the rich history of their ranch. Guests enjoy hiking, herding sheep during “rush hour,” feeding animals, etc., or exploring the proud town of Cortez.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument houses the original dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans, circa 750 AD, a favorite place for hikers. Over 3 million artifacts from the Southwest Colorado region are housed in The Anasazi Heritage Center. Inside, a multi-sensory learning experience highlights the culture and ingenuity of the great First Nations people. Within the cultural center is a simple walking/hiking trail to the top of a hillside with an original “kiva,” native Puebloan dwelling. Visitors also enjoy breathtaking views of the valley of Cortez and neighboring river regions.
Mesa Verde National Park is a short drive away over winding roads with postcard worthy look outs. The area is known for crazy weather patterns. As we drive up in May, it snows, hails and rains; all within a short time span. At the top of the mountain, where the Far View Lodge is situated, we marvel at the view of the four corners region. The Far View Lodge has comfortable rooms, casual and upscale dining options and noteworthy wine selection, but people stay there for the views. We enjoy breathtaking views of daytime scenery and stellar night skies. There are numerous excursions that explore the park and original Navajo dwellings.
A park ranger with the Mesa Verde National Park leads usthrough Balcony House, an original Navajo settlement abandoned in approximately 1200 AD. Not for the faint of heart, the journey entails climbing 20 yards along the side of a mountain on a large, ladder of tree trunk-like sections and crawling through “fox-hole” like tunnels. But all of the hard work is worth it to witness the sheer ingenuity of the First Nations people and the vantage points they were able to see across the canyon. There is much speculation as to why the tribe left, but no conclusive evidence. From the Mesa Verde National Park we travel to Mancos, Colorado, a small town teeming with creative artists and their work. We could stay for hours, if not days, in this welcoming community of local artists, artisans, and writers. In the heart of Mancos we lunch at the Fenceline Distillery, which sits along a winding creek where patrons drink cider and wine. Then we head to the movie house. The Mancos Creative Arts group takes us through their original movie house, once abandoned, but being restored. During its heyday, the theater was a stepping stone for a cinematic legend, Dianne Keaton.
From Mancos, we continued to our final destination, Durango, Colorado. An original settlement from the Wild West days, it began as a railroad town in 1881 and has grown into an excellent biking and ski town. A lot has changed since the early days, but historic old buildings, an antique railroad and rich history keep the 1880s feel alive. The historic Strater Hotel is close to everything in Durango. Built in 1902, it houses the country’s largest collections of American Victorian antiques and stained glass artwork. For 60 years the Barker family has owned the hotel and after three generations, Mr Barker still gives tours of their wonderful property. Author, Louis L’Amour was a regular patron of the Strater Hotel and has a room dedicated to him. Each room has a journal and guests are encouraged to document their stay and share their favorite experiences; reading the old entries is entertaining. Restaurants, meeting rooms and an old fashioned saloon are all inside the hotel. Experiencing the artifacts and rich history makes me feel the Strater is more of a museum than a hotel.
In downtown Durango we find a railway station for the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGRR). The old steam engine originally pulled cars filled with silver and gold from the mines into town. Today it pulls tourists along a 45 mile trek around mountain ranges and past canyons, waterfalls, rushing rapids, wildlife and more; actors portray famous Durango residents who share their stories about the Wild West days. The train ride was voted “ one of the world’s top ten train rides” by the Society of American Travel Writers and “number one North American train trip” by National Geographic Traveler. Rides are available May to October and take roughly five hours for a round trip. Tourists can opt for a one way trip or simply tour the museum to save time.
Texans are flocking to Durango and buying second homes. Scenery, outdoor activities and a thriving farm to table food scene create an environment and lifestyle Texans want to experience.
Colorado is and will always be my “go-to” for satisfying my outdoor, nature fix. Until you experience Colorado’s beauty, you don’t even know what you could be missing. Durango and Mesa Verde Country Colorado will welcome you like an old friend and will stay in your heart and mind forever.