Million Dollar Highway

From Great Sand Dunes NP, my trek continued to Durango.  I briefly considered waking up early and attempting the hike out to Star Dune, but I came to my senses and packed up camp.  I drove across the Continental Divide for the first time this trip at Wolf Creek Pass.  The landscape on the west side of the pass reminded me a bit of Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald in Switzerland.  In hindsight, it's not really the same, but that was my initial reaction.

I visited Chimney Rock National Monument to break up the long drive.  In addition to the gigantic rock it's named after, the monument is also home to several Anasazi ruins. These ancient Indians lived on top of the mesas and their civilization stretched for many hundreds of miles.  The tour guide explained a story of how a high school student validated a theory of their long distance communication by using signal mirrors to reflect sun from Chaco Canyon to Chimney Rock, 60 miles away!!

My main reason for stopping in Durango was to stop by Folding Kayaks, one of the few dealers in the US who carry Feathercraft kayaks.  I don't know about you, but the first place I think of when I hear the words sea kayak is Durango, in the mountains of Colorado.  I asked the owner about this and he explained that he started renting and selling Feathercraft in Seattle and eventually moved to Durango.  He had the model I was interested in ready for me try out, although not on water.  Do you know the feeling when you see something for the first time and in your head, you know you will eventually buy one?  One day, the boat will be mine.

The next day I figured I should try and photograph the narrow gauge railroad.  After all, I'm a huge train buff and it is probably the most famous thing about Durango.  Thanks to Google Maps and free McDonald's WiFi I was able to scout a few locations ahead of time.  I had a short, snake free, hike to the first location, a curve at the top of an uphill section of track.  The first train of the morning passed before I had a chance to set up, but I caught the second train in great light, and the engineer waved at me.

I hurried to my next scouted location to catch the third and final train for the morning.  The tracks stop following the road (or the road stops following the tracks) and enter the Animas River Canyon.  I hiked along the tracks a short distance into the canyon, set up the camera and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.

After 45 minutes I figured the third train wasn't going to happen.  But, my hike into the canyon required me walk along a narrow 1/4 mile section of track where there was no place to safely shelter if a train came along, a la Stand By Me.  I waited another 30 minutes to truly convince myself another train wasn't coming before I hiked out of the canyon.  By the time I reached Silverton, the trains had been there for hours and were ready to take their passengers back to Durango.  Once the trains leave with the tourists, the town really quiets down, but I did see a few interesting vehicles.  I bet the half-track comes in handy during the winter.

I left Silverton with the intention of camping in the town of Telluride.  Although it is only 6 miles away from US-550 as the crow flies, there is no direct route so it is more like 60 miles.  The stretch of US-550 between Silverton and Ouray through Uncompahgre Gorge is nicknamed the "Million Dollar Highway".  Just imagine a twisting two lane road on the side of a cliff hundreds of feet above the bottom.  With semi-trucks and RVs.  And no guardrails.  Unfortunately I was driving alone, so I couldn't take any pictures, safely.

Telluride turned out to be a bust because of the the annual Film Festival, which I completely forgot about.  Since camping in town was impossible and I didn't feel like staying at the free campgrounds in the National Forest outside of town, I decided to bite the bullet and drive onward to my next destination, Natural Bridges National Monument.  I chased the setting sun through Western Colorado, crossing into Utah, through thunderstorms into the night, avoiding suicidal deer to arrive at my destination, weary and tired.  But, as is usually the case, magnificent follows the tedious and I was rewarded with the most gorgeous night skies I've ever seen.

Which I will write about in my next entry…