Colorado Revisited - Steam Trains and Cliff Dwellings

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May 30th 2014
Published: May 30th 2014
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So it’s up at 6.30am for an early start for the 200 mile trip to Durango where we are booked to take the classic narrow gauge steam train ride to Silverton & back along the mountain passes. We are going back into Colorado.

We take the road to Kayenta 24 miles away and recall that it was here that we stopped 10 years ago to get a punctured tyre fixed by a kind garage owner on a Sunday – all other shops were closed. It definitely got us out of a spot.

It’s pretty straight forward on the 160 all the way. We take it in turns to drive – 1 hour shifts which works well. We pass 4 Corners monument (not sure why they call it a monument?). It is the only point in the US where 4 states meet – New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado & Utah, and in true American fashion they have a big Visitor Centre though not much else around. Obviously a place for Geography geeks! What is interesting though is the landscape in this part of Colorado has the same buttes and mesas yet is not in red rock and looks far less impressive than the landscape in Utah.

We arrive at Alpen Rose RV Park about lunch time & after a quick lunch we set off shopping again. Durango seems to be largely a 2 street skiing resort town (S Camino del Rio that goes on for miles from one end to the other and Main Street where all the bars, clubs and eateries are) with a famous Train heritage. We’re at 7,000 feet above sea level again. The river runs through the centre and they have plenty of amenities. It’s also geared to a lot of high energy sport, ATVs, rapid canoeing, hiking etc.

We spend most of the afternoon shopping for various things:- C’s clothes, AT & T store which was a nightmare to find, City Market with our discount card (cheaper than Walmart!), Cheap gas $3.35 per gallon etc. P seems a bit frustrated – not his thing we guess. Though he did get himself a few things too.

Back at the ranch it’s BBQ outside for a change as the weather has been 81 degrees. Nice.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway

It’s the day we have planned for – the steam train day trip from Durango to Silverton. Up at 6.30am, we head to the station about 20 mins drive away & park the RV for the day ($9).

The station is pretty quaint & has a feel of days gone by. There are plenty of travellers even though this is only the 3rd day of the season for this train which has being going since 1881. It was created during the mining boom of the region & survived only because a local businessman saved it from extinction and started running tourist trips here. They have a Polar Express trip for Christmas, special short trips for kids 2 to 5 only, and in winter a shorter trip in the snow.

The 45 miles journey takes 3 hours each way due to the steep incline in places through the San Juan Mountains. We set off at 8.45 am. We go past our RV park and the scenery is pretty good, there are horses in ranches, hundreds of Prairie Dogs, there’s a glider port, the river Animas (Rio Los Animas Perdidas – the river of the lost souls and no one knows why it was given that name by the Spanish?); it’s now used for kayaking, canoeing, rafting & fishing. The train journey crosses the river at many points as it comes down the valley from the mountains which are still snow covered. It’s 75 degrees in Durango and after the 3,000 feet ascent to Silverton it’s about 65 degrees.

The steam train is pretty impressive as are the carriages and 2 special ones have people dressed in historic costumes and they give folks a history lesson. There’s also an open air observation carriage which is good for taking photographs from. We are in the heritage carriage with old style benches. Midway through the journey we get to what they refer to as the ‘High Line’. This is the point in ‘Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’ that Robert Redford and Paul Newman jump off the train to escape & into the river below. It’s the most beautiful and steepest part of the journey and the view over one side is not good if you suffer from Vertigo – it’s a steep fall off the cliff!

We get to Silverton at 12.30 pm. It’s a charming little place (a one Road Town) just like an Old Wild West Town. You feel like you have walked into a film set. The buildings are in a variety of colours. The old brothels are now eateries – we assume largely dependent on the tourist trade brought in by the train each day. Quite a few places are shut because it is a Sunday and also because the season for some doesn’t start till the end of May. There’s snow piled high in places and the mountains around are pretty white. There are a gazillions skidoos around – obviously the mode of transport here for a significant part of the year.

As we walk along looking for somewhere to eat & P is thirsting for a beer we hear a piano being played in a saloon across the street. It’s Grumpy’s Saloon (part of the Grand Imperial Hotel) with ‘Dale’ playing the piano like they did in the Wild West saloons. He’s dressed the part and plays all the old favourites ‘singalong’ tunes really well. We sit at the bar – as you do – and have some great Durango IPA beers – the food itself was so-so but the atmosphere and the décor of the saloon (moose, buffalo, antelope heads etc. - sticking out from the walls observing life!) made for a good ‘wild west’ experience. We take a trip around the town – take plenty of pictures till the train is back puffing away and ready to leave. Some passengers take a bus back to Durango and other join us who have got here by bus.

We get back at 6pm. Walk around Durango & walk along Main Street to get a feel of the place – just what you need after sitting around for 6 hours on a train. After a while we stop at the Brew House for a pint each – Denver IPA this time – pretty good, while watching some baseball on TV.

Dinner is Blueberry pie and butter pecan ice cream. Nice way to end the day……..zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Mesa Verde National Park

It’s another sunny day & we have a few chores (shopping at City Market, fill up the propane tank, try some Durango Joe’s coffee) before the 50 odd miles to the Mesa Verde National Park for 3 nights. We see the steam train make its way to Silverton pass the RV Park, then drive to the stores for what we want and set off at about midday. We arrive an hour later at the Visitor Centre for the Park. It’s an impressive new building with an amazing sculpture of a Pueblo Indian climbing up a steep mountainside.

The Centre itself is slightly disappointing as it seems to lack additional information for the surrounding area. The rangers are helpful but we are very disappointed to find out the one side of the Park (Wetherill Mesa) is closed till the end of May – they don’t staff up until then apparently. The side that is open has plenty to keep us going, however, it would have been good to see The Long House & Step House – Cliff Dwellings, the former being one of the largest cliff dwelling sites. Not much we could do anyway.

After checking into our RV site in the Park we have some lunch and get organised by booking 2 Ranger led 1 hour trips tomorrow. The Balcony House (at 10am) and the Cliff Palace (at 5pm). It costs $4 pp for each tour which seems pretty good value. The info sheet they provide gives tips on the best time to visit sites for photographs, light etc.

As we still have time and the weather is being kind we drive the 45 mins on very winding & slow roads (20 mph) to the Spruce Tree House. It’s a pretty awesome sight when you get there. It’s the best preserved Cliff Dwellings in the Park. It’s on a small ½ mile hike. The Alcove is 216 feet long & 89 feet deep. It has 120 rooms, 10 associated ledge rooms, 8 kivas and 2 towers. This small town was built between 1200 & 1278 AD by the Ancestral Pueblo People (as they prefer to be known today) who left between 1280 and 1300 for some inexplicable reason. It is suggested that about 60 to 90 people lived here.

The Ranger on site was very helpful and gave us the prevailing view about the people who lived there. They were not Anasazi (which is a Navajo word meaning …….Ancient ones or Ancient enemy) as some had thought.

N.B: There seems to be conflicting views on the facts about this we find on our travels through the various NPs.

It would appear that the Pueblo tribes with their diverse languages and dialects have now elected to be referred to as the Ancestral Pueblo people (even though this is based on the Spanish name for them). There is a suggestion that there had been some conflict with the Navajo – hence the cliff dwellings as a defensive structure. This is disputed as the view is that whilst Indians did live in the area, they did so after the Puebloans moved on & they respected the cliff dwellings unlike the white man who plundered it before it became a National Park in 1906.

The Pueblo people & their descendants moved to New Mexico and Arizona and still reside there in various locations as different communities with 6 different languages & various cultural differences on the main them.

Earlier theories that they may have been Aztecs related to the people from Mexico is now discounted. The reason for them leaving the Mesa Verde area varies – the main theory is that drought got them to move to areas with more fertile land and natural water supplies, however, others disagree with this view. What is clear is that the history of the various tribes now referred to as the Ancestral Puebloans is unclear as 95% of them perished by contracting diseases brought here by the Spanish for which they had no immunity, taking with them their verbal/oral history, so facts are quite fragmented.

What is not disputed is their amazing technical skills in building and construction in the 13th century. They demonstrated great structural engineering qualities and innovation in their design and building. As a community they were into Agriculture & grew corn, squash & potatoes that came originally from Peru. They had great skills in intricate basket making, elaborate pottery making which they traded in and exported & imported. They were and are a very matriarchal society, however, men seemed to do most of the building and weaving while women cooked, did the pottery and looked after the home and children.

The communities, villages, town or cities they built though small by todays standards had Kivas which are round structures with a fire pit inside which housed families or in some cases were used only for religious/ceremonial purposes. They had courtyards & plazas. They lived off natural spring water that came from seeping springs in the sandstone. The views of the cliff dwellings and from them (when you can reach them) is pretty breath taking.

We pop into the Chapin Archaeological Museum later where we see a great video about Mesa Verde and the Pueblo people & their culture. Although one of the Puebloan Rangers was quite critical of the westernised & sanitised version of events portrayed by the video. The exhibits include many artefacts recovered from the area and a re-creation of how they would have lived, worked, hunted and worshiped as a community, which was a really good visual representation of their story.

There are many wild animals that live in the park including bears and we meet a couple who a few hours before had seen a bear with 2 cubs in the valley below; there are supposed to be cougars (mountain lions) here and we see quite a few deer, rabbits, and colourful birds.

Our next day here sees a sunny start to the day which warms up. We are booked onto a Ranger Guided 1 hour tour to Balcony House. It is in an alcove 39 feet deep and 20 feet high. The complex is 264 feet long and has 38 rooms and 2 kivas. It is built 600 feet above the Soda canyon floor. It was built between 1180 and 1270.

To get to it we have to climb a steep 32 foot step ladder. During the tour we squeeze past an opening in the cliff to get to another chamber and to exit we first have to literally crawl through a small tunnel and then climb up steep ladders again. It’s a pretty amazing & educational experience and the tours is well worth the $4 each we paid. Then, as advised, we go to Soda Canyon opposite that gives us a good frontal view of the Cliff, the Alcove and the dwellings inside. It’s amazing to consider how the community – men, women & children moved to and from their homes across the rocks on hand and toe marks made on the steep hill sides. The people farmed on the top of the Mesa which was quite fertile.

After that entertainment we do the Mesa Top Loop and stop at quite a few spots where Pithouses existed. These were the earlier form of homes built here before the more sophisticated brick and mortar type cliff dwellings.

Next we go to Navajo Canyon View point with some cliff dwellings on the opposite side – not in very good condition. Then it’s the Square Tower overlook. It is in a corner deep in the valley. Unfortunately due to the deteriorating state of the dwellings it’s propped up by scaffolding. It’s pretty impressive none the less.

Just when we were getting tired of Pithouses & Cliff dwelling ruins, we come to Sun Point View and wow – a quadruple whammy! We see across the deep canyon Cliff Palace (the jewel in the crown of Mesa Verde), Sunset House (which is a smaller ruin in good shape but not accessible), Oak Tree House (again a beautiful cliff dwelling community/village also inaccessible), the Mummy House (a small ruined dwelling area on the side of the cliff face), Fire temple & Fire House ( a semi ruined cliff dwelling area but still reasonably attractive to get folks to stop for pictures and view) & 1 mile further is the remains of the Sun Temple – considered to be a religious ceremonial place used by all the communities in the area.

We stop off at the Chapin Mesa near the Museum for lunch overlooking a cliff dwelling from the RV parking lot. Not bad even if the weather is starting to cool as it’s now overcast – which is a shame as it takes some of the gloss off for photography.

At 5pm the finale; we booked on to the 1 hour Ranger tour to see the Cliff Palace – the jewel in the crown of the park. The place is absolutely beautiful and breath taking - a sort of Macchu Picchu experience. It is considered an architectural masterpiece for the time. It was ‘rediscovered’ in 1888 by 2 cowboys from Mancos nearby who were looking for stray cattle on the Ute reservation. The time & energy taken to construct this leaves us in awe. There are 150 rooms – for living, storage, & special chambers and 23 kivas. About 75 open spaces exist. The Alcove is 89 feet deep & 59 feet high. The complex is 288 feet long. Two styles of towers exist here – square and round – their purpose is unclear. The construction period is from 1190 to about 1280. It is estimated that up to 120 people lived here. The Ranger, Venencio Aragon, is a Puebloan and his talk is inspirational, educational and intellectually challenging. It was probably the best $4 we have ever spent on any travel experience.

Then it’s back to base camp for rest, dinner and sleep. Unfortunately, the weather forecast for the next days is not brilliant and even suggests we might even get some snow. Wow!

It’s a pretty cold morning and we decide that as the cloud cover is bad for pictures and makes the place look very dull we’ll do a bit of admin and laundry. When the sun comes out in late afternoon we head to the Far View Sites. Again these are Pithouses and not really as impressive as everything else we've seen. The views aren't that great either despite the name. Don’t see any bears either!

So, it’s an early start for the next leg of our trip to Canyon De Chelly National Monument in Arizona after a short stop in Cortez about 10 miles from the campsite…………………see you in Arizona.

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