The Durango-Silverton train ride offers beautiful mountain and Animus River views. Photographs by Sarah Jaquay

Mesa Verde National Park boasts hundreds of Ancestral Pueblo ruins, but none is more impressive than the sandstone dwellings at Cliff Palace built below the Mesa top.

Colorado is a stunningly beautiful state. That much we knew from prior trips to Fort Collins, Boulder and the town of Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s also incredibly large. So when we visited our niece and her family in Fort Collins a few years ago, I realized we’d have to see Telluride and Mesa Verde National Park on a separate trip. This summer our niece invited us to her vacation home in Steamboat Springs for July 4th. For afterward, we planned a grand circle tour of Southwestern Colorado, including Telluride, Mesa Verde National Park and Durango for the famous train ride through the Rockies.
We started in quaint Steamboat Springs, originally a summer resort before it became famous for its “champagne powder” and earned its moniker, “Ski Town, USA.” We loved the laid-back Alpine vibe and the fact that natural springs seem to bubble up all over Routt county. There are hot springs in downtown Steamboat but our niece wanted us to experience Strawberry Hot Springs about 20 minutes outside town. These springs are nestled in the mountains with attractive stone masonry separating a series of pools ranging from lukewarm to almost scalding. The adjacent bracing waters of the Yampa River were ideal for cooling off. It was the perfect way to unwind from the previous day’s plane ride. We could only imagine how rewarding soaking tired muscles would be after a long day on the slopes. There was plenty to do in Steamboat over the Fourth, including watching their annual rodeo. It even featured a downhill ski jumping event on some sort of synthetic surface. But we opted for riding the Steamboat Gondola to the top of Mt. Werner and hiking an “easy” loop trail. Easy enough for locals, but hiking at altitude is a bit of a challenge for those living at Great Lakes level.
The holiday weekend passed quickly and our niece’s family had to head home. So we picked up our rental car at nearby Yampa Valley Airport (HDN) and started the six-hour drive to another famed ski destination, Telluride. I’ve been curious about Telluride because it seems to attract celebrities without the hype of Aspen or Vail. We spent the night there as a stopping point on our way to Mesa Verde National Park and we were delighted we did. Not only did it give me a chance to catch up with my cousin, it was really interesting to see what a dead mining town has done to reinvent itself as a charming mountain hamlet. We stayed downtown at the New Sheridan Hotel and had a scrumptious dinner at their restaurant, the Chop House. My cousin moved there after college more than 10 years ago and stayed. Everything is super expensive but she explained their local and regional governments are proactive about making sure important people such as firefighters, teachers and nurses can afford to live there. It reminded us of a Chautauqua in the Rockies. Telluride has lovingly restored its grand (and small) Victorian housing stock and residents routinely express their unbounded gratitude to be able to live there. After we rode the free Telluride Gondola to Station St. Sophia, the mid-point of Coonskin Ridge, where visitors can access hiking and biking trails with sweeping vistas, we were wondering, “Why didn’t we decide to learn to ski the powder after
Our next stop was a bucket list destination, Mesa Verde National Park. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and it’s where visitors can spend a few days learning about the ancient Ancestral Pueblo people (f.k.a the Anasazi) who lived in the area for centuries. There aren’t many options for lodging, so we reserved a couple of nights at Far View Lodge early in the year. The accommodations are spartan, but it’s a great location for restaurant access and for looking out over the parklands. Be sure to ask for a room in a non-pet-friendly building. We were next to an incessantly barking dog whose owners violated park policy by leaving it alone in their room. We’re dog lovers so we were mostly concerned for this frantic pup left in strange surroundings.
We thoroughly enjoyed the “700 Years” bus tour that covers a range of stops from the earliest “pit houses” (think wide holes with covering to keep out the elements) to climbing around the complex sandstone dwellings of Cliff Palace. These guides work for the park’s concessionaire, Aramark. Our excellent guide was an anthropology major who worked with the Tarahumara people in Mexico’s Copper Canyon before taking this job. Another huge advantage of the 700 Years tour is it includes an NPS ranger-guided tour of Cliff Palace, the most famous (and probably most photographed) of Mesa Verde’s ruins. Our ranger was knowledgeable and vividly described what daily life below the top of the Mesa was like. No one knows exactly why the Ancestral Puebloans moved from dwellings on top of the mesa to the cliff dwellings below, but several theories include better defense, cooler temperatures and easier water collection because the structures were built near seep holes in the sandstone. Caveat: Climbing down into and up out of the Cliff Palace dwellings isn’t for the faint of heart or the unfit.
It requires descending wooden ladders and ambling along uneven, worn rock paths leading to the dwellings. If you miss a rung or a step, it’s a long way down to the Mancos River Valley.
After we left the ancient world of Southwestern Colorado, we headed for remnants of America’s Wild West in Durango, about an hour east of Mesa Verde. We’d read a lot about the scenic train ride through the Rockies from Durango to Silverton, another dead mining town. We stayed at the lovely General Palmer Hotel in Durango. It’s a few doors down from the train station. (Fortunately the locomotive excursions stop about 10 p.m. so we didn’t feel like the couple in “My Cousin Vinnie” whose sleep was constantly interrupted by jarring train whistles.) The scenery was incredible as we climbed up the Animus River Valley with mountains on one side and the rushing river on the other. It’s a three-hour ride each way and guests may opt to take the faster motor coach up to Silverton or down to Durango; but we wanted the whole train enchilada. We chose the most comfortable/cushioned seats that are in the San Juan car in the deluxe class of service. The most affordable seating options are open-air cars where guests sit facing sideways instead of facing front. Some who chose those cars said it got extremely warm and there was a lot of smoke from the steam engine. Maybe those cars are a better choice in spring or fall. Silverton is a town that probably wouldn’t exist but for the train travelers arriving from Durango. The most interesting story was about a murder. On August 24, 1881, Marshal Clate Ogsbury was shot and killed in front of the Diamond Saloon on Blair Street. Burt Wilkinson was his killer and was apparently a member of an outlaw gang wanted by Durango’s sheriff. Silverton’s tiny newspaper, “The Silverton Standard & Miner,” covered the shooting and many other local disasters, including the 1906 St. Patrick’s Day snowslides that killed some 20 miners in various camps. The paper started in 1875 and is still publishing today. It’s the oldest-continuously operating business on Colorado’s Western slope.
After another six-hour drive to Denver we checked into the Grand Hyatt just around the corner from the iconic Brown Palace Hotel. (Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the mansion of the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” of Titanic fame.) The hotel is known for its high tea served from noon until 4p.m. When our return flight was pushed back to 5:30p.m., we knew we’d have time to savor scones with clotted cream and other delicacies with some freshly-brewed tea in their elegant lobby. We may not have struck gold like Molly Brown’s husband, but we experienced a platinum-level circle tour of Colorado in summertime.
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