Air travel in Year Two of the pandemic felt surreal. We anticipated that the discomfort of wearing a face mask for hours upon hours in airports and on the plane would be well worth it once we got in the rental car to begin our planned 12-day self-drive loop out of and back to Denver airport. And we weren’t disappointed!
Our friend Martha lives north of Denver and had arranged to meet us near the Denver airport, to join us on the first couple of nights of our trip. After stocking up on food, ice, and supplies, we caravanned out of Denver together, heading west and south into the Rockies for our first night’s stay.
Our secluded but roomy cabin among the silent trees near Fairplay proved a delight, and the hot tub soothed our weary travelin’ bones. After dinner, we turned off the cabin lights and star-gazed out on the deck before turning in for an early start on the next day.
A half day of driving south and ever-westward brought us to a working horse ranch near Crawford, spread across rolling hills among simply majestic 360-degree mountain views. What a peaceful paradise!
We settled into our massive log cabin, eager to enjoy the oncoming evening on the expansive gallery, watching the horses grazing out in the surrounding pastures and the sunset light painting the towering peaks.
I had no sooner commented on the need to keep our drinks covered against the hovering yellow jackets than- Bam! The roof of my mouth was afire from the sting of one of those suckers who had managed to climb down into my beer bottle! That was scary, as I waited for the oral antihistamine I quickly downed to take effect. Thank goodness I only suffered a painful mouth that kept me from dinner but finally abated. Robin and friend Martha, the retired nurse, kept a wary eye on me initially, which helped me psychologically, but didn’t do much for the swelling, har. Cold beer seemed to me the best remedy but I kept a cap on it after that little fracas.
The next morning, we hit the road early to drive a short distance to the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The north rim is seldom visited, so we had it all to ourselves as we stopped at a few pullouts to gaze way the heck down some 3,000 feet into the river’s gorge. The roar of the water racing through those narrows drowned out our voices as we peered over the edge, vertigo notwithstanding.
Martha headed back home as Robin and I proceeded south and west toward Telluride (Mountain Village), nestled at 9500 feet elevation in the stunning San Juan mountain range. While the town was scenic, it was a bit crazy due to the annual Film Festival slated to start the next day. We dodged beer and food delivery trucks lining the main street of town, making our way into shops, and grabbed a bite to eat.
We considered stopping at one of the numerous oxygen bars to check out the experience of huffing some O2 from a bottle but decided to pass when we realized we didn’t quite fit in with the overdressed, overly made-up ladies with the manicured lap dogs, the hairdos, the nails, and the aesthetic augmentations of lips, breasts, and derrieres who were waiting for their appointments in the overly pretentious “spa” atmosphere. One down-the-nose glare accompanied by a dismissive sniff and a suspicious “May we help you?” query from a spa receptionist was enough.
After Mountain View, the laid-back and wonderfully scenic small-town atmosphere of Ouray (1,000 residents) was a welcome break. We arrived in the pouring rain brought by the remnants of a Pacific hurricane thrashing its dying way through the mountains. Unloading the car at our Air BnB, and trudging up two flights of uncovered, slippery wooden stairs, encouraged us to stay in and eat from our provisions as the evening mists hovered and the temps dropped. But our rental condo was a cozy, comfy retreat along the river in town, even if the dirt and gravel road had turned into a muddy track.
Ouray, at 7,800 elevation, is known as the Switzerland of America and turned out to be a perfect HQ for a couple of days while we explored the nearby late-1800s mining town of Silverton. A National Historic Landmark, this picturesque town is so cool to stomp around, even on a hot and dusty late summer’s day.
The 1880s elegant bank, still in use with those teller cages just like the western movies, was a treat, as was poking into alleyways and the old hotels, bars, and shops, many of which were still in use, even during the Pandemic.
We walked along the sidewalks of paved Green Street in the “respectable” part of town, amused to drop over one block south to the dirt street of the former red-light district. As the town grew, men brought their families to live in town, which provided an incentive for citizens to keep at least part of Silverton respectable.
From the town’s beginnings, an imaginary line ran down Greene Street dividing the town between the law-abiding, church-going residents and the gamblers, prostitutes, variety theatres, dance halls, and saloons found on Blair Street, where we perambulated toward the just-arrived old steam train from Durango.
The train blew a LOUD whistle, huffing and puffing as it chugged to a stop in the middle of the street, in front of the old train station. For a second, I felt like we had stepped back 150 years or more in time. Folks clambered down train steps to the dirt street and headed toward the sandwich and ice cream shops nearby (and not a few bars, mind you). Train engineers walked up and down the train, calling to one another while an old horse-drawn buggy sat in the mid-day sun and the blowing dust, the driver and horse wilting in the heat as they waited for another fare to meander by. I swear, only the clothing of the populace would distinguish the scene before us as being any different from that same scene back in the day.
Our older rental Subaru Forester proved inadequate to driving the 4X4 offroad Alpine Loop leading through those rugged mountains to Animas Forks, a ghost town. Man, I really wanted to experience those aged wooden buildings sagging along rocky slopes, but Engineer’s Pass at over 12,000 feet just proved too far and too many hours of bumping along in low gear, clambering over giant rocks, and teetering near sheer drop-offs with a canyon wall within inches of the driver’s side-view mirror, a sheer cliff within a foot of the passenger’s door and not a guard rail in sight. The higher we climbed, the more Robin cringed away from the passenger window views straight down- wayyyy down.
I found enough purchase under the tires to allow a very carefully executed multi-point reversal and we teetered back down the mountains, past old and still-operating mines along the way, into Silverton then homeward, to Ouray.
Our next two nights would be in Durango, and the drive along the San Juan Highway to get there was an eye-candy extravaganza. As driver though, I got to enjoy those views only at pullouts. The lack of guardrails along much of the drive kept me on my toes and my eyes on the road for the 1.5-hour trip to Durango. Still. We did get some amazing photos, and one alpine lake at a higher mountain pass provided the perfect opportunity for reflection.
Well, Durango was a disappointment. Lower elevation, wind-blown dust, dry heat, and smoke from fires in California added to the Memorial Day weekend zany crowds of tourists and bikers packing into that no-parking-here town. Traffic was beyond nuts, unaided by road construction barriers and detours to nowhere. We stayed 20 minutes west of town, up in the hills, in a run-down homestead with elderly furniture, inoperative fans, grimy floors and countertops, ancient appliances, blown light bulbs, and swarming yellow jackets outside both entry doors. Ugh. But it was quiet, so we made do with our digs.
We soaked one late afternoon in nearby hot springs and managed to get a few walks in around the river threading through and around the town.
The next morning we drove into town to catch the Durango to Silverton train (a touristy thing but a really scenic ride through the mountains.)
Then the car quit on us.
Yeah, so it always happens on a holiday weekend, when you are hundreds of miles from your car BnB host way back in Denver. No rental cars available anywhere in the USA, much less way out here in the dusty back of the Colorado beyond. Hey, the rental car situation had “driven” me to use Turo (kinda Air BnB for cars) to secure a 2012 Forester, which we got at a decent price but, uh-huh, it had problems.
Yelling on the speaker phone in a noisy restaurant on a Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I managed to unwind the issue (known emissions light triggered on dashboard, the car ran ok, truly.) So, okay then, we chose to risk it and drive hundreds of miles across the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountain ranges, to our next destination, Great Sand Dunes National Park.
But first, a stop for provisions and another hot springs experience in Pagosa Springs.
Well, that was a nice break! A good meal and a relaxing couple of hours dipping in a variety of hot springs ranged along the scenic San Juan River proved a welcome respite from hours of driving. We still had a couple of hours’ drive to the Great Sand Dunes, crossing some truly spectacular passes, before we hit the high desert near the dunes.
Wow, the view of those dunes from the desert scrub of our approach reminded us just how remote we were, in a car that we kept our fingers crossed would get us back to Denver. Still. Just mind-blowing, as we drove up to almost 8,000 feet elevation and onto a rough, dusty, rocky pathway leading to the Great Sand Dunes Lodge. It truly was an old, circa 1960s “minimalist”, dust-blown motel sitting on rocks in the high desert. But, AC in the room worked, as did the tiny ‘fridge. The mattresses weren’t too caved-in and the mirror in the tiny bathroom wasn’t too fly-blown.
I chose this place because there was only camping in the park and this was the only motel, period. But what I came for were the VIEWS! YAS! Those massive dunes were right outside our patio and across the narrow road, and the surrounding 14,000-foot peaks and the valley stretching out to the horizon made the sunset views all the more spectacular. Thank goodness I staged photos that first evening, as the smoke from those fires upwind caught up to us the next day, bedeviling us for the final days of our Colorado trip.
If you haven’t seen these ancient dunes, the tallest rising some 800 feet above that high desert floor, you’re missing an awe-inspiring sight. Learning the history of these dunes, how they formed and continue to grow and shift, gave us a keen appreciation for the majesty of this unique environment, chock-full of history of many ancient and modern-day people that still eke out a living from the surrounds.
Up before sunrise our first full day at the dunes, we braved the cold temps and drove just up the road, into the park, past the Visitors Center, and parked at the dunes access area. We had a rental sand board to attempt riding down the dunes, but after wading through that deep, soft sand over a mile to the start of the dunes, we got smart and found a warm sandy low dune area to get out of the wind while awaiting the sunrise.
The shots I got of that sunrise made it all worthwhile, I thought. Thoroughly chilled, we drove to a nearby trail for a hike to an elevated spot to view the dunes.
So here I’ll share that I felt a warning tinkling in my brain while we headed up this rocky ridge, following a small creek winding its way through the tangle of brush below. I knew there were mountain lions around, and here we were, all alone, nobody else on the trails this early. The light was still dim, the sun still had a way to go to top those massive peaks to the east. Honestly, I seldom get these quivers or warnings, but here I heeded them.
We turned around after only 20 minutes or so on the trail and I breathed easier once we got to the car. Hey, I’m not afraid of nature or being way out in the back of beyond but that was one set of fairly strident warnings I couldn’t ignore. Not that day.
This International Dark Sky Park certainly earned its name, as my star photo attests. It was a chilly evening shooting timed exposures, but such sights are, for me, a major payoff to any travels into the great outdoors on our planet.
Our second and last day at the dunes proved a hungry one. Turns out the only “restaurant” (grill that served masked customers through a window) closed right after Memorial Day, in spite of our having earlier called on the motel room phone to confirm they were open. Oops. Dinner that night was grubbed from the tiny camp “store” attached to the motel office, where dust-coated cans of beans and Pringles chips as ancient as the dunes awaited the starved traveler. Egads. We had an old microwave in the room and, thankfully, we found a couple of paper plates and a plastic spoon in our travel kit, so we heated up the beans, which weren’t edible. Pringles and beer or wine, that was dinner. And a couple of crumpled packs of cookies dug out from a windbreaker pocket.
We were only too ready to get up early and head out, laughing as we bumped over dusty rocks past the faded Colorado Gators Reptile Park sign in the camp store parking lot. My Facebook post featuring a shot of the sign observed dryly that we were leaving the desert and entering the Twilight Zone.
Crossing the remaining high passes of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and heading north up Interstate 25 toward Denver, we made good time to Colorado Springs. After wandering around the amazing art collection on the walls of the Broadmoor Resort outside the city, we headed westward into Manitou Springs to eat lunch and collect our parking ticket. Oh, yeah. They get ya’ in Manitou Springs, with cleverly hidden cops watching cleverly hidden No Parking signs (and we looked for them all along the main drag, too). I knew it was that kinda place, from my step-dad who lived many years in Colorado Springs. He, too, got bit in downtown Manitou Springs on one of the road trips he and Mom took Out West. And that was back in the 1980s. Note to Self…
Our lil apartment for our overnight in tiny Green Mountain Falls (pop. 685) was a breath of fresh air- well, except for that damn smoke from those fires to the west of us.
Laundry chores, dinner in the room, and a hot-tub break refreshed us enough to wake at 5 am for the drive back into Colorado Springs and a hot air balloon ride for Robin. I decided to pass on a smoky view of the highways and developments the balloons flew over but Robin had a good time, so it was a fun morning.
Our last night in Colorado was an hour or more north of the Denver airport, with our friend Martha. What a blast we had, the three of us chattering away, playing with her two sweet kitties, and relaxing from our 1,200 miles of trekking.
All too soon we were headed out early of a morning again, racing through road construction and Denver-bound interstate traffic to the insanity of the airport, where construction had us re-routed all around the airport. Once we finally got the car parked and secured for the owner to pick up (or the next unwitting driver to hop into), we hiked more than two miles up to and around and through and back through the airport, trying to way-find where barriers to foot traffic abounded and nary a sign in sight to help us find any terminal, much less the one we needed to get to!
We finally got sensible directions from two construction guys in hard hats. I figured, if anyone knew how to navigate that mess, they did!
COVID challenges ruled the day, and we barely made it to our gate in time. Forget a meal, boarding was underway but hey, we managed through it all, made it back to Orlando, found our car, and drove the hour homeward. Tired, hungry, grimy but maskless, we were happy to be back in Florida in early September, where the air was fresh, if a bit humid.
Our fondness for traveling the American West is renewed every time we visit. We’re very fortunate to be able to travel, still fit enough to deal with the challenges, and just stubborn enough to travel when the world and events often leave us feeling like we’re feeling our way over shifting rocks, up a thin mountain track lacking guard rails, with a deadly drop to nowhere.
Lots more photos, with captions- click on each photo- HERE
YouTube videos of the trip HERE
Google driving loop map HERE