Friends, Scenic Byways, National Monuments and Ancient Cultures - Cortez CO

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October 27th 2017
Published: April 13th 2018
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Flat as Flat Can Be with “Ripples” on the HorizonFlat as Flat Can Be with “Ripples” on the HorizonFlat as Flat Can Be with “Ripples” on the Horizon

Between Vernal UT and Grand Junction CO
While planning my trip from Vernal UT to Grand Junction CO for a two-night stop to visit friends, I had decided to take US 40 east to Dinosaur CO, CO 64 south to Rangely CO and then CO 139 south to I-70; however, conversation with a couple of locals the day before my departure sabotaged that plan. I was told that portions of the road were unsuitable for pulling a trailer and that it would be just as quick to head west and then south on US 191 all the way to I-70. According to Google Maps, the westerly route is 2 hours and 130 miles longer, but I decided “better safe than sorry.” I don’t know if the information was accurate or if they were just having some cowboy fun, but, then again, I don’t know why folks write computer viruses. Malware, I sorta can understand, but viruses, no.

Sooo, boys and girls, Wednesday, October 18, 2017 found me heading west from Fossil Valley RV Park in Vernal on a “longer-than-originally-planned” drive to reach RV Ranch at Grand Junction in nearby Clifton CO. I must admit that the drive, which basically followed Willow Creek and then, eventually, Price River, was pleasant, the road was great and the trip was uneventful. After I got settled in at RV Ranch at Grand Junction and grabbed a bite to eat, I called my elk hunting friend from years past. He came over to see my rig and engage in some guys talk. Thursday, I drove to his house and spent the day with him and his wife. I was glad I had stopped as I had not seen them since I had given up elk hunting after my successful 2008 season and my early 2009 divorce – yes, we split the elk 50/50! PS My friend said he had not driven my original, aborted route for a few years but has heard of no issues on those roads. Better safe than sorry.

Friday, October 20, 2017 found me heading to La Mesa RV Park in Cortez CO via “the road less travelled” – US 50, CO 141 and US 491. Although much more serpentine and picturesque than my Monday drive, the road was great and, thankfully, the trip was uneventful. After my short drive and set-up, I made my way to the Colorado Welcome Center at Cortez. For those with limited time and a short, specific agenda, a stop at the visitor center might not be extremely productive; however, for those making a longer, more flexible stop or those with some unscheduled time, a stop at the visitor center is a must. Maps, brochures and recommendations abound. For example, my first item of business on Saturday, October 21, 2017 was the San Juan Skyway Scenic and Historic Byway. I had planned to drive the seven-hour, 236-mile loop in a clockwise fashion ending in Durango CO where I could adlib with whatever time remained. Unknowingly, the visitor center attendant suggested I drive in a counterclockwise direction to get better scenic views through the windshield. Advice taken. As I approached Silverton CO and Ouray CO, I enjoyed views of those two towns I might have missed had I been driving in the opposite direction.

I started my Saturday morning by heading east on US 160 to Durango and then north on US 550. Intersecting highways are found in Cortez, Durango, Ridgeway and Placerville while the “Road to the Sky” passes through Silverton, Telluride and Ouray. I had never driven this stretch of Colorado; however, my ex-wife bought me a steam locomotive trip on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad as an birthday present many years ago. The aspen trees were in full color, and I had exhausted my supply of film (yes, THAT long ago) before we reached Silverton. On the drive from Durango to Silverton, I stopped at a vista with numerous placards describing the history and the mechanics of The Hanging Flume only to learn that I had passed Hanging Flume Overlook on the journey from Vernal to Cortez the previous day. Research is everything, but some features simply slip through the cracks.

Silverton is a quaint little historic mining town turned tourist attraction that remains much as I had remembered from the train trip. My ex had made a one-night hotel reservation in Silverton so we could enjoy the town without rushing to catch the return train that same day. Silverton has numerous carved wooden statues scattered about town – cowboys, lawmen, outlaws and Native Americans. While my ex was shopping, I spotted an empty bench in front of the store that needed an occupant. Of course, I was dressed in cowboy boots and cowboy hat – my usual attire for that period in my life. As I was basking in the sun with my legs crossed, arm stretched across the back of the bench and pondering the history that had happened on those very streets, a car pulled up with tags from somewhere in the Midwest. A slightly older couple emerged. As the lady stepped onto the wooden sidewalk, I uncrossed my legs whereupon she startled quite severely. I thought she was having the proverbial big one and was not looking forward to returning to work during my retirement years. She had thought I was a piece of carved wooden art (a piece of work, perhaps, but not a piece of art). We all had a great laugh. PS to those pondering the trip – We returned via the train; however, I would suggest taking the train one direction and the bus back to your point of origin. That provides two different visual perspectives. Definitely plan for an overnight stop in Silverton if at all possible.

Debate remains but the canyon-clinging stretch of the byway between Silverton and Ouray is called “The Million Dollar Highway” either because it cost so much to build or because of the amount of gold ore that remained (and yet remains) in the roadway’s fill. Ouray bears the name of a Tabeguache Ute Indian chief who championed peace and friendship with white settlers in the mid-1800s. I had a busy agenda and didn’t stop, but the literature tells me many of the town’s mining-era buildings have been preserved and that the Ouray County Historical Museum is housed in the 1887 brownstone Miner’s Hospital. I made a drive through Telluride and decided it was just another overpriced ski resort. Most of the businesses were closed on a sans-skiable-snow Saturday, and I didn’t find its “national historic district.” It is worthy to note for the acrophobics among you that many parts of the “Million Dollar Highway” have drop-offs that lack guardrails so the plows have a place to deposit the snow – the bottom of the cliff. Whether spending time in the area or merely passing through (particularly from south to north), the “Million Dollar Highway” is an awesome drive.

Sunday, October 22, 2017 found me driving back to Durango CO. The ex and I had stayed in Durango the night before and the night after the steam train trip. Unlike Silverton, Durango has changed exponentially. My destination was the Diamond Belle Saloon Inside the Strater Hotel, where I had agreed to meet a childhood friend and his wife for Sunday
The Lobby Screams Elegance and Whispers HistoryThe Lobby Screams Elegance and Whispers HistoryThe Lobby Screams Elegance and Whispers History

Historic Strater Hotel – Durango CO
brunch. The literature tells me that the town of Durango was perfectly located for railroad interests and by the 1880s it had become a train hub and a center of commerce. The Strater Hotel, which once catered to railroad barons, is an elegant lady that tells us of the opulent lifestyle of the affluent in days past. I arrived before my friends and chose to be seated in the balcony section of the bar (removed from the pleasant live music and ambient noise) where I envisioned better conversation.

Curt grew up kitty-corner from me in a small town and was two years my elder. His mother and mine were best friends which provided me with a source of hand-me-down or previously worn or slightly used clothes. I suppose a parent would be arrested for such demeaning actions in today’s society, but I was grateful to get Curt’s clothes so I could pass my slightly-more-worn-than-when-received clothes to my younger brother and sport a “new” wardrobe on the first day of school! The poor teacher had to see the same shirt two years in a row – first Larry, then Roger! By the time I graduated high school, Curt was away in college. He graduated college and married while I was in the Marine Corps and took work as an educator in the Chicago suburbs. It turned out that my brother married Curt’s cousin (thus, I was able to get his retirement location and phone number) but had only seen him at funerals, etc. for over fifty years. I looked forward to a nice day and was quite pleased with the outcome.

The Four Corners landscape is replete with artifacts left by numerous ancient peoples. One of my reasons for coming to the area was to learn their story, which I did by visiting several historic sites and museums. While highlighting and addressing the same subjects and the same peoples, each site is unique and adds a different perspective for the tourist.

Monday found me heading to Mesa Verde National Park near Cortez, arguably the megastar of the Four Corners. I find ancient Native cultures more interesting than a mere magazine article but not so interesting as a Ph.D. The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was a couple of hours north of my former home in Silver City NM, and most of our visitors got a trip through the Gila National Forest to see the ruins. Most had never seen anything comparable. Even though I went to the cliff dwellings numerous times, I still found the site interesting. Created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, Mesa Verde National Park (Spanish for "green table") encompasses 52,485 acres and protects some of the best preserved Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites in the United States. With more than 4,300 sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, it is the largest archaeological preserve in the U.S. Mesa Verde is best known for structures such as Cliff Palace, thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America. I could regurgitate volumes of information about the ancient Native cultures of the Four Corners but will not. I will, however, say there is a comprehensive Wikipedia article about Mesa Verde National Park and the folks who lived there for my readers who are interested.

I should first note that Mesa Verde is relatively large. From the main visitor center near the park entrance, it is over twenty miles to any of the archaeological sites. There are several overlooks with ample parking along the way; however, the vistas are mediocre in my opinion. Second, Weatherill Mesa Road is seasonal and has an 8,000-pound weight restriction and a 25-foot
… While Murals Bring the Artifacts “to Life”… While Murals Bring the Artifacts “to Life”… While Murals Bring the Artifacts “to Life”

Mesa Verde National Park - Cortez CO
length restriction. Bicycles are prohibited, and the road had closed for the season by my late-October arrival. Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum (and the road leading to it) is open year-round. Third, some of the dwellings are accessible only via a ranger-led guided hike. Some of those hikes require ascending and descending ladders and are physically demanding. Tickets are required and are available at the visitor center. I suppose Mesa Verde is just plain one of those attractions you just plain have to visit when travelling in the same zip code; however, I was thoroughly disappointed. METICULOUSLY PLAN YOUR VISIT WELL IN ADVANCE!!! I didn’t.

The Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores CO, operated by the Bureau of Land Management since 1988, is southwest Colorado's premier archaeological museum. The center also doubles as the visitor center and headquarters for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The museum focuses on Ancestral Puebloan, Native American and other historic cultures in the Four Corners region. In addition to several research and educational functions, the museum features permanent exhibits on archaeology, local history and Native American cultures. Two features struck me as exceptional. First, there is a mammoth collection of Native pottery. Second, the museum addresses the interface between Natives and Anglo settlers in subjects such as water, timber and ranching.

Outside are two 12th-century archaeological sites – one near the entrance, Dominguez Pueblo, and the other, Escalante Pueblo, atop an adjacent hill which can be accessed by a paved footpath. Dominguez Pueblo could be justifiably skipped by the average tourist, but, since it is located between the parking lot and the entrance to Anasazi Heritage Center, you might as well stop for the 1-2 minutes required to ponder its history. The footpath to Escalante Pueblo appears (with the possible exception of the gradient) ADA compliant, is replete with informational placards describing the fauna along the way and hosts a couple of benches for rest breaks. My regular readers might remember that In Dinosaurs at Dinosaur National Monument Plus Outlaws and Scenic Drives – Vernal UT, I had stopped at an overlook between Park City UT and Vernal UT that commemorates the Domínguez-Escalante Expedition. That expedition first investigated the Escalante Ruin in 1776. Built by the San Juan Anasazi between 900 and 1300 A.D., it consists of a partially excavated multi-storied masonry pueblo with at least 20 rooms and a kiva and is representative of the small surface pueblos that were once common throughout the region. The ruins are slightly better than those at Dominguez Pueblo; however, I can only recommend the hike up the hill to those with extra time or to those looking to burn some calories. There definitely are more time-effective archaeological sites available than Escalante Pueblo, but the Anasazi Heritage Center is a must-see attraction for all.

Although an hour drive out and back, Lowry Pueblo near Pleasant View CO is another of my highly recommended attractions. The only negative is its remote location which can be mitigated with a loop drive to be described later in this blog. Only a short walk from the parking area one encounters squat walls akin to those found at Escalante Pueblo (Anasazi Heritage Center, above) but a large protective roof looms across the site. Under the roof are fantastic archeological remnants of the ancient peoples. While many areas are open to public navigation, some areas are cordoned off with bars which prevent access but simultaneously allow visualization of the inner configuration of the ancient structure. The Lowery Pueblo is absolutely the best “up close and personal” pueblo I encountered. I must remind my readers, however, that I did not take any of the ranger-guided tours at Mesa Verde National Park.

In my opinion,
Labeled Photographs Help the Visitor ...Labeled Photographs Help the Visitor ...Labeled Photographs Help the Visitor ...

Hovenweep National Monument - Little Ruin Trail - Cortez CO
Sand Canyon Pueblo near Cortez is a waste of time and fuel for the average tourist. Well done placards describe life in the pueblo, but all the ruins are at ground level and (to the uneducated eye) are merely piles of rocks that could just as easily have been deposited by a glacier. Although an hour drive from Cortez (again, mitigated by the aforementioned loop), Little Ruin Trail at Hovenweep National Monument is well worth the effort. Administered by the U.S. National Park Service, Hovenweep National Monument was once home to over 2,500 people and includes six prehistoric villages built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. From the visitor center, a paved footpath leads to a small box canyon. Across the canyon, one can see some ruins perched on the canyon rim. With the park ranger’s input under my belt, I opted to go left to a path that descends about 80 feet into the canyon, crosses the canyon floor and ascends on the other side. From there, I walked the essentially-level trail to the “box end” of the canyon and circled around the end of the box canyon to create a loop. Ruins are found along the entire loop, including along the trail on
… Make Sense of the Landscape – Please Note: The Fall Foliage Is Time-Dependent… Make Sense of the Landscape – Please Note: The Fall Foliage Is Time-Dependent… Make Sense of the Landscape – Please Note: The Fall Foliage Is Time-Dependent

Hovenweep National Monument - Little Ruin Trail - Cortez CO
the visitor center side of the canyon. For those with mobility or respiratory compromises, veer right at the first junction to take the trail that maintains the same elevation. Exertion-wise, visiting all the ruins is probably a push. Time wise, the canyon route is quicker. I’ll try to pick out some pictures that help explain. Regardless and in either instance, the hiker gets close enough to the remarkably well-preserved multistory towers to see them well. Nicely done placards and name plaques explain and identify the features. Make no mistake, however, this is not an up-close-and-personal, “hands on” experience like Lowery Pueblo.

The final attraction I visited during my stay was the Four Corners Monument near Teec Nos Pos AZ. Four Corners Monument is located on the Navajo Nation and is administered by Navajo Parks & Recreation. Ever since I was studying grade-school geography, I have awed at the prospects of standing in four different states simultaneously. Yes, boys and girls, parts of the “child in me” remain – I’d argue that’s what keeps me young at heart! There are claims that the actual meeting point of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado is not where the marker has been placed; however,
The Facility Is Much More Impressive than I Had EnvisionedThe Facility Is Much More Impressive than I Had EnvisionedThe Facility Is Much More Impressive than I Had Envisioned

Four Corners Monument - Teec Nos Pos AZ
there are equally viable assertions that the placement of the marker is accurate – “Why the Four Corners Monument is in Exactly the Right Place.” As I say from time to time, “I’ll spend my allotment of heartbeats on something that matters.” Four Corners Monument is unique, and nobody can argue that claim. I was pleasantly surprised with how nicely the monument was constructed. There are vendor booths which were uninhabited, for the most part, during my fall visit – all of which come alive, I’m sure, during the height of the tourist season. Nicely done, and very enjoyable.

With a proviso that San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway is a day trip unto itself, one could easily make a one-day looping trip to explore most of the other attractions I visited – from Cortez, visit Anasazi Heritage Center (37° 28' 34.72" N 108° 32' 45.21" W), Lowery Pueblo (37° 35' 14.95" N 108° 55' 06.21" W), Hovenweep National Monument (37° 23' 0.07" N 109° 04' 20.37" W), Four Corners Monument (36° 59' 56.34" N 109° 2' 42.68" W) and return to Cortez. Per Google Maps, that loop is 145 miles (3 hours, 1 minute) which leaves ample time to visit each site. Bring a snack as I don’t remember
Fulfillment of a Childhood AmbitionFulfillment of a Childhood AmbitionFulfillment of a Childhood Ambition

Four Corners Monument - Teec Nos Pos AZ
seeing any food vendors along the way. I would suggest spending an entire day at Mesa Verde National Park. The visitor center and the museum; hikes, both ranger-led and unguided; vista appreciation; and driving time will make for a complete, yet unhurried, day.

I was quite pleasantly surprised with my stop in southwestern Colorado. Visits with two friends were long overdue, the drive through the San Juan Mountains was phenomenal, standing in four states simultaneously fulfilled a childhood ambition and learning about the ancient pueblos and their inhabitants was enlightening. I would like to return to the general area someday to explore the mountains north and east of Durango. This very enjoyable stop served as the benediction for the 2017 Chapter of The Great Adventure. An overnight stop in Payson AZ got me into Phoenix metro between the morning and afternoon rush hours. Like the old adage says, “It’s nice to be gone, but it’s great to be home.” I’m not sure exactly how it works when one takes “home” along on the adventure. I guess my home might be where I can get biscuits and sausage gravy at Hacker’s Grill!

Additional photos below
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Snow-Capped Peaks Loomed in the DistanceSnow-Capped Peaks Loomed in the Distance
Snow-Capped Peaks Loomed in the Distance

San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway

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