From New Mexico we headed to Durango, Colorado for what would become a memorable week. We enjoy all of our travels but some visits you know are special. They will be revisited in our memories and photos for years to come. This was just such a week. We were lucky to be able to find an RV park with space on short notice in this ever popular leaf peeper location. We were even luckier to get two of the last four seats in the narration car of the Durango and Rio Grande narrow gauge railroad. Then Mother Nature gave us a home run. Not only did we hit peak color but it rained which meant snow on the mountains.
The San Juan Skyway sometimes referred to as The Million Dollar Highway follows US Route 550 from Durango to Silverton and on to Ouray and Ridgeway. From there it turns west and then south to Cortez and back east to Durango. In segments we did the whole loop. We jumped out of the truck frequently for photos. The scenery is breathtaking as is the elevation of over 11,000 feet. The road winds along and as you climb toward the old mining towns there is no guardrail. We learned later that this is intentional. Silverton has one of the highest percentages of avalanches in the world being located in five avalanche zones. When they occur the plows come along and push the snow over hedge. This couldn’t be done with guardrails present. Sans guardrail the journey is both barrier free and toe curling.
We set out on our first drive and found a formation similar to Mammoth Hot Springs, only much smaller, just a mile up the road. This is called Pinkerton Hot Springs. The colors of rust, tan, yellow and green blended perfectly with the Fall colors. It was a very overcast day with contrasty skies so we did most of our photos in HDR. Even though it was a damp day we didn’t mind because the scenery was so spectacular. The San Juan Mountains were settled late in the 19th century because they were so inaccessible. Discovery of silver, gold and lead finally brought miners and the towns of Silverton and Ouray. At one time there were 300 mines operating in the area. Gradually their bounty was exhausted and most were closed by the 1970s. The area is now mining the gold from tourists pockets. The Animas River flows freely down the mountains to Durango. We were fortunate enough to catch the DR&G train in Silverton just as it was repositioning for the return trip complete with steam billowing from the smokestack. It looked like a Lionel train setup.
A few days later we rode the DR&G train along the Animas River from Durango to Silverton. This is a narrow gauge railroad has tracks only 3 feet wide so it rocks quite a bit. Made for some challenging photo attempts! The engineers chose the narrow gauge style as it was easier to wind tracks through the mountains. It took two years for a route to be surveyed and established but only nine months to build by using 5 teams working on separate sections. They had to build tunnels, trestles and blast a bench along a ledge above the river. Prior to the railroad all supplies coming up and all ore going down had to be moved by mule teams. The railroad was completed in 1878. By the 1970s with mines closed the railroad was facing abandonment. A wealthy train aficionado from Florida bought the line and turned it from a failing enterprise to, as the National Geographic Magazine stated, the best train ride in the USA. This is a must do for anyone visiting Colorado.
We had about an hour to walk around the town of Silverton, visit the museum and take photos of the train. A return visit is needed for sure to take in all the area has to offer. We really enjoyed both of the interpreters on the train. The first one portrayed the first lawman in the area and filled us in on the early history of the area. The second one portrayed General Palmer, owner of the DG&R, and gave us history on why and how the railroad was built. Along the way we passed the house used in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. It is the one where Etta Place (Katherine Ross) lived and the bicycle scene was filmed. We had to laugh when the 20 something employee came through selling souvenir videos etc. The train was all adults and most with gray hair to boot. He mentioned that the video was narrated by Dennis Weaver and then went on to say he’d never heard of “Chester” before taking this job! OH NO! Say it isn’t so Mr. Dillon!
Durango is a fun place to walk and explore. We spent time in the depot museum, looked at neighborhoods with elaborate Victorian homes, admired restored hotels like The Rochester and ate at the Strater Hotel. The bar maids (dressed a la Miss Kitty) are one of the most photographed parts of Durango. The Rochester once a home for film stars of the 40s and 50s had fallen on hard times before its renovation in the 1990s. There we found a rare photo of “The Duke” in a Speedo.
Next time we hope to plan ahead and take the Photographers Special train where they stop along the way and pose the train for shots you can’t get any other time.