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Posts Tagged ‘Durango’


On a day that would eventually caress eighty degrees the early morning chill forced me to don a jacket for the first time since leaving the UK to visit the breakfast room for coffee and load the car. The local Albuquerque based TV station announced it was on “drought watch” predicting a “sea of sun for the next few days”.

With another 200 mile journey before us we filled up with gas, sharing the forecourt with two hefty Harleys and a monstrous Winnebago. We had resolved to explore “historic downtown Durango” before hitting the road – am I alone in finding that the use of “historic” to describe so many places in the US as a tad ironic?

Durango’s biggest tourist attraction is the “historic” (there I’ve used that word again) Durango & Silverton Railroad that chugs 45 miles to the mining town of Silverton through the breathtaking scenery of the San Juan Mountains. Sadly, our itinerary did not allow us to experience it on this occasion. The journey takes three and a half hours each way and we had only a couple of hours at our disposal. We did, however, see the early morning departure trundling out of town as we searched for a parking space.

And besides, breakfast was our priority. We alighted upon the Carver Brewing Co. and walked into what was clearly “where it was at” on a Saturday morning. We  managed to grab a table in the large brew pub and restaurant before a lengthy line developed outside. The steady hum of conversation inside was only intermittently stilled to enable the interrogation of ipad and mobile phone screens before the backslapping and debate on sport and politics resumed.

Durango resembled Moab in that it had a cosmopolitan, high-energy vibe that was alien to the towns we had visited in the earlier part of the trip. Mountain biking and river-rafting are equally as popular as in its Utah counterpart. It also has a small ski resort, formerly called Purgatory – I can understand why they changed the name!

In addition, it felt now as if we were “out west”, unsurprising in that the town had been founded in 1880 as a rail junction for the Gold Rush community of Silverton.

Our guidebook had claimed that downtown Durango was the “liveliest urban area in the Four Corners” and “worth an hour or two of anyone’s time”.  And indeed it was. Gift shops, outdoor clothing emporia and coffee houses gave it a youthful, vibrant feel. And the brilliant sky and slowly mounting temperatures made for an agreeable stroll along its streets.

We were impressed too with the free trolley service that connected downtown with the outlying areas and which had transported us back to our motel the night before.

We could not leave the town without visiting the railroad musuem and wander among the vintage steam trains and huge model railway layouts.

Everybody we met during the trip, on hearing that we had been to Durango, asked whether we had taken a ride on the railroad, so it sits high on a list of things to do when we are next passing by.

We finally dragged ourselves away from Durango just before noon, joining the US-160 East towards Pagosa Springs.

Once we had passed a series of out of town plazas, stores and malls, the scenery reverted to the same look as we had encountered the day before – rolling hills with periodic farms and homesteads, embraced by the San Juan National Forest. The occasional yellowing of the trees that we had observed more than a week before in Utah was becoming more widespread as we drove through Bayfield and Chimney Rock. A raccoon in the middle of the road was added to the growing list of animal species we had seen splattered by passing traffic.

We were scheduled to turn south at Pagosa Springs onto US-84  a few miles north of the New Mexico county line, but as with so many spread out U.S. towns, it was difficult to establish where the centre was. Dubbed “The Best of Colorado” it seemed to go on forever! But just as we were about to concede that we had unaccountably missed the turning, we reached downtown (we think), took the opportunity to avail ourselves of the restrooms of a local bar (me) and gas station (Janet), and check the map. In fact, the turning was visible around the next bend. My map reading reputation was intact!

In view of our substantial breakfast and late departure from Durango, we agreed to kick on and take our chances with lunch. This part of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico was undoubtedly cowboy country as the profusion of ranches  (Squaw Valley, Crowley Creek and Spring Creek to name just a few) indicated. We even saw a large head of cattle being herded into a field by a group of men in full western regalia.

We were welcomed into “New Mexico: The Land of Enchantment” with spectacular lightning strikes over the mountains ahead, though these amounted to nothing. With Santa Fe still more than a hundred miles away we pressed on through the distinctly Mexican sounding communities of Los Brazos, Los Ojos, Ensenada and Tierra Amarilla. Even the majority of stations on the car radio were now playing mariarchi music and the advertisements were in Spanish. We were still in the US but…………….

The San Juan National Forest had given way now to the Carson National Forest to the east and the Santa Fe National Forest to the west. At Cebolla we encountered a stray dog sauntering along in our lane – at least he was alive, and remained so after we had swerved round him (I’m assuming it was a him though I didn’t check the gender). Much more exciting was the sight of a roadrunner scooting in front of us a little further on. It would appear that he had already shaken off  Wily Coyote (no change there then).

I have already embarrassed Janet once in this diary about her being caught short so I will not mention the unscheduled stop we had to make 50 miles short of Santa Fe to allow her to make the acquaintance of a (very) small bush in an otherwise unoccupied picnic area.

Placitas, Abiquito, Chamita, Espanola, Arroya La Madera and Medalanes were left behind as we targeted a 4pm arrival in Santa Fe. Lunch had been forgotten in our quest to get settled at one of the stops we had most looked forward to. As we approached the town we experienced heavier traffic than we had been accustomed to all vacation. Nevertheless, we found the El Rey Inn without too much difficulty.

Built in a traditional northern New Mexico adobe style, the El Rey Inn opened in 1936 with just 12 rooms, since expanded to 86. The rooms and suites occupy 5 acres landscaped with trees, shrubs and flowers. Each room is unique, decorated with southwestern-style furniture and antiques. The inn itself boasts paintings, murals and sculptures from around the world.

After a brief walk around the grounds, we prepared ourselves for what would be a long overdue meal in town. As the trolley had stopped for the day, this necessitated a taxi ride into the plaza.

Having barely eaten since breakfast we wasted little time in selecting where to eat. Santa Fe’s most famous hotel, La Fonda, has an award winning dining room, La Plazuela, at which we were fortunate enough to arrive when a table was about to become vacant. Just off the lobby, the restaurant is in a lovely conservatory style setting with two trees filled with lights and a small central pond sharing the space with the solid, beautifully decorated wood dining furniture.

Delicious enchiladas (again), excellent service and a warm atmosphere made for one of the best dining experiences of the trip.

The  evening was capped off with a single dollar taxi ride back to our hotel, an arrangement that I’m sure, dear reader, you would like to see replicated in your town. We were even regaled with stories of the “mob” in Las Vegas by the driver who seemed to have several “buddies” with connections – well worth his 500% tip!

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Buoyed by two good night’s sleep in Moab we were refreshed for what would be one of the longest road journeys – around 290 miles – of the entire trip before we reached our next overnight stop of Durango, Colorado. Two conscious decisions led to this – firstly, to make a detour to visit the Four Corners Monument and secondly, to ignore our trusty route planner’s recommendation to travel as far south on US-191 to Bluff before heading east, and cut off earlier at Monticello to pick up the 491. We were to make yet another detour, of which more later.

Having filled up at the Maverik gas station (this chain was a regular source of cheap fuel throughout the trip), we set off in the company of the customary blue sky (the rain on our journey into Moab two days previously had been a momentary aberration) and soon found ourselves alone on the road.

After 53 miles we took US-491 at Monticello as the Eagles sang on the in-car CD player “put me on a highway, show me the sign”. Well, the next sign we saw was one welcoming us to “Colorful Colorado”.

We had left, at least for now, the dramatic sandstone formations that had dominated the landscape for much of the past week. The area was a blend of flat pastureland and forest, dotted with the occasional homestead and small ranch, outside which horses and cattle grazed.

The Eagles were soon usurped by Kiss Country Radio 97.9 FM (“Keeping Cortez, Farmington and Durango country)”, which was to be our companion for the remainder of the day.

Dove Creek was the first town of any substance in Colorado with its business park and small airport. Further evidence of the growing number of grazing livestock was an advertisement on the radio for feed grains.

We were amused by a sign that announced that the Colorado Welcome Center was another 34 miles, an indication of the vast scale of this nation that you had to drive 50 miles before you could be officially welcomed to the state!

The San Juan National Forest which was to follow us all the way to Durango began to assume greater prominence as we passed the settlements of Cahone, Pleasant View, Yellow Jacket, Lewis and Arriola.

At Cortez, the largest town on today’s journey but one beset by roadworks, we eschewed the signs for Durango and branched south towards the Four Corners Monument.

Shortly afterwards, a low mountains range denoted that we were entering the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation. Once notable hunters, the Utes had been split up and relocated to poorer land by the white settlers’ westward expansion.

However, mineral leases and tourism had enabled them to build an impressive casino, hotel and resort (pictured above) where we halted briefly for free if indigestible coffee, restrooms and a futile flutter on the penny slots.

We managed to miss the turning for the Four Corners initially, but recovered the route within three miles. Had we taken the right road we would have avoided almost getting crushed by an immense truck turning left into the road at which junction we were sitting. The driver, equipped with almost obligatory drooping moustache and cowboy hat (not unlike the Dennis Hopper character in Easy Rider), did not seem amused, but his cargo of blindfolded horses appeared less concerned.

Crossing the San Juan River we arrived at the Four Corners Monument, the only spot in the U.S. where four states (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona) meet at a single point. Whilst that might sound glamorous, the reality is less so – it is a barren, hot (77 degrees) and dusty place, given over to the presence on all four sides of the ubiquitous Indian gift stalls (we were back in the Navajo Nation at this point).

That said, in addition to doing the tourist thing and having our photos taken spanning all four states (I was surprised we were not charged for the privilege), we picked up some lovely t-shirts.

So pleased with our purchases were we that we then contrived to leave them behind in our motel room in Durango the next morning. Happily, thanks to the kindness of the proprietor and a payment of £25 to UPS, I can now report we have just taken custody of them again at home.

We had to retrace our “steps” (around 30 miles) to traffic-ridden Cortez before continuing our journey to Durango on US-160 East. But lunch now beckoned. My vegetarian past cruelly cast aside, I had harboured a craving for a Wendy’s hamburger ever since our flight had touched down in Las Vegas eleven days before, and, as luck would have it, an outlet cuddled up to us just as we were pulling out of town.

I’m not sure this is what Jimmy Buffett had in mind when he sang Cheeseburger in Paradise but my double was scrumptious. Janet also enjoyed her crispy chicken sandwich. Our unfamiliarity with fast food burger joints was exposed, however, when we ordered two vanilla iced frosties, thinking they were coffees (a la frappuccinos), only to discover, not unpleasantly, that they were in fact milk shakes. And all for less than ten bucks.

With only 46 miles to Durango we decided to call in at Mesa Verde National Park en route. When we revamped our original itinerary to include the loop through New Mexico (Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Gallup), we had been required to drop Canyon de Chelly and Mesa Verde.

But it was not until now that we fully realised just how close it was to the road we were taking, and even though time would not allow us to explore it as fully as it deserved, it would be crazy not to spend a couple of hours there.

Mesa Verde (“green table” in Spanish), the only U.S. national park exclusively devoted to archaeological remains, was home to the Ancestral Puebloan people between 550 and 1300AD, at which stage they mysteriously abandoned the cliff dwellings that had been their home. Formerly nomadic, they had turned to hunting and lived in pithouses clustered into small villages usually built on mesa tops but sometimes in cliff recesses.

We can only speculate why they lived in these secluded alcoves. Perhaps it was for defence or it may have been because they provided better protection from the elements, or even for religious or psychological reasons.

Whatever the purpose, they are astonishing buildings, some of them remarkably well preserved.

Unfortunately, we hadn’t sufficient time to join one of the ranger-led tours into the best preserved cliff dwellings, but we did take the self-guided Mesa Top Loop Drive which afforded us some excellent views of both the internal layout of the pithouses and overlooks of some of the villages.

Leaving Mesa Verde we drove through the Mancos Valley with the San Juan Mountains overhead. Mancos proclaimed itself as “Where the West Still Lives”, a not unreasonable boast as the scenery was taking on a distinctly more cowboy country feel.  But this was clearly under some threat as a large picture of a cow was accompanied by the words “I’d rather be a cow than a condo”.

After checking in at the Econolodge motel in Durango we took the free trolley to the historic downtown for dinner at Tequila’s Family Restaurant, a beautiful tex-mex establishment with dazzling, colorful furnishings. My seafood enchiladas were the best I had ever tasted and the margaritas were delicious. And it was also inexpensive. The experience was topped off by our server, Hector, dashing back to our table before we left to thank us for his tip.

As the next day’s journey would be much shorter, we resolved to spend the next morning exploring downtown Durango before setting off for our next stop in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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