June 29 – July 8
The “All Aboard!” call and the train whistle can be heard everyday here in Durango, Colorado. Durango is of course home to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Our route from Montrose to Durango follows US 550 to Ridgway where we turn onto Colorado 62 and then onto Colorado 145 in Placerville. We pass by Telluride and continue through the San Juan Mountains crossing over Lizard Head Pass at an elevation of 10,222 feet. Our descent takes us into the foothills and canyon of the Dolores River until we eventually turn onto US 160 which takes us into Durango.
As we get close to Durango we see a forest fire in the distance. (The Lightner Creek Canyon wildfire burns over 400 acres and forces the evacuation of 170 homes. It also prompts local officials to cancel July 4 fireworks). Fortunately the fire is not near our campground – the Durango KOA.
The Durango KOA is located east of town on US 160. Our premium site is mostly gravel with a concrete living area that includes a table and chairs, charcoal grill, and fire pit. (There’s a burn ban in effect so we won’t be using the fire pit). Campground amenities include a heated pool, laundry, mining operation for the kids, and caboose and pavilion where breakfast is served and evening movies are shown. Fresh make pizza (delivered right to your site) and homemade pie are also available in the office. It’s a comfortable campground with sufficient space between sites and nice landscaping.
We’re up early on our first full day here as we have tickets for the 8:00 a.m. train to Silverton and boarding time is 7:30 a.m. Our tickets are for the Knight Sky car which is an open air car with a glass paneled roof. The airline type reclining seats are very comfortable. We also have an attendant who not only fetches snacks and drinks but also provides commentary and alerts us to the best views.
Originally constructed to carry gold and silver ore from the San Juan Mountains, the railroad has been in continuous operation between Durango and Silverton since 1882. The train uses vintage coal-fired steam locomotives unless prohibited by dry conditions when diesel engines are used.
We’re surprised to discover that the train actually makes a number of stops – some to take on water (there are water towers along the route) and others to pick up or drop off hikers, railway workers, or other folks.
The forward half of our car and the one in front of us is dedicated to a group of zip liners. These folks are on a special zip lining tour and get off the train at one of these stops.
The ride into Silverton takes three and a half hours but it goes by quickly as we enjoy the changing scenery. The route covers 45 miles and follows the Animas River.
By the time we arrive in Silverton we are covered by a fine layer of soot, but we knew to wear dark colors, a hat, and sunglasses or some other form of eye protection.
Silverton, with an elevation of 9318 feet, is a delightful, small town nested between the Red Mountain and Molas passes. It has a number of restaurants and lots of small shops to investigate. Since we’re riding the 4:00 p.m. bus back to Durango instead of taking the train back, we have plenty of time to explore. After walking around for a bit, we decide to have lunch at Handlebars.
After lunch we wander through more of shops until time for the one and a half hour bus ride back down. Part of the bus route diverges from the Animas River so we see some new terrain on the way down. We arrive in Durango around 5:30 p.m. and decide to head back to the camper.
On a couple of occasions, we drive into Durango for dinner and to walk around. It’s really crowded and parking is an issue. We find the crowds and bustle in sharp contrast to the quiet, laid-back feel of Montrose. We want to do some bicycle riding on the Animas River Trail that goes through downtown but it’s crowded with bicyclists and walkers and does not appear to be a relaxing ride. There is a section further out from town but we can’t seem to find a good access point. Maybe we won’t go biking here after all.
For the 4th of July, we drive up into the San Juan National Forest for wildlife viewing and possibly some hiking. Unfortunately the wildlife does not cooperate and we reach the end of the improved road before reaching the section of the Colorado Trail that we want to hike. As an alternative we stop for a picnic lunch at one of the National Forest campgrounds where we enjoy the quiet of the forest and the trickling of a nearby stream. Leaving the forest, we take an alternate route through Dolores and the surrounding area. Along the way we spot a herd of buffalo.
For our evening entertainment, since Durango has no fireworks, we debate whether to drive to one of the nearby towns in hopes that they might have fireworks or just watch them on TV. TV wins.
Up early again later in the week as we head for Chimney Rock National Monument.
Chimney Rock covers seven square miles and preserves 200 ancient homes and ceremonial buildings, some of which have been excavated for viewing and exploration: a Great Kiva, a Pit House, a Multi-Family Dwelling, and a Chacoan-style Great House Pueblo. Chimney Rock is the highest in elevation of all the Chacoan sites, at about 7,000 feet above sea level. From the base, the hike to the top is just a half mile and it’s rewarded with dramatic 360-degree views of Colorado and New Mexico. – National Park Service
We’re able to park at the Visitor Center in the lower parking lot and take a van up to the upper parking area where our 10:30 a.m. guided tour begins. Our guide Patience leads us through the lower sites explaining the history and life of the Ancient Puebloans before hiking up to the top. The view from the top is impressive and worth the hike.
After Chimney Rock we drive into Pagosa Springs to check it out. Pagosa Springs is a small town surrounded by forest and wilderness areas, rivers, lakes, and hot springs. The historic downtown has restaurants and unique looking shops. We stop briefly to check out an RV campground. We might have to add Pagosa Springs to our list of potential summer spots.
Once again it’s time to hit the road. It doesn’t seem possible but we’re halfway through our five month journey. It’s been a blast so far!