From the Black Canyon, we drove US 550 south and for a reason. Our guidebook listed this road as one of America’s most scenic roads and we wanted to see that. We would pass three 3,500-metre passes and the stretch between Ouray and Silverton in particular was supposed to be fantastic. And so it was!
The wild west-looking town of Ouray was squeezed between two high rock walls and was the starting point for the first switchbacks upwards. Immediately after leaving Main Street, the road ascended to the right and, via a number of hairpin turns, the first 500 altitude meters were quickly surmounted. On some stretches you could see straight into the abyss on the right. A guardrail wouldn’t have been out of place here, but apparently such a thing did not deem necessary. Although there was plenty of snow left and right, the road was dry and passable.
The views were great all the way until we drove down to Silverton, where we had déjà-vu. We had a coffee there and a short walk along the paved main street from where dirt roads turned left and right. This together with the architectural style made our thoughts briefly go back to that special place almost 5000 kilometers away from here, Dawson City. The only difference we could detect was the pavement. This is wooden in Dawson and concrete here. On our way to Mesa Verde National Park, we ended up at the Walmart in Cortez where we met up with Thomas and Sima again.
We visited the Mesa Verde National Park which is dedicated to the Pueblos and is therefore the only National Park in the US to preserve archeological heritage.
People have inhabited the Colorado Plateau from 550 AD. For over 700 years these people lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of canyon walls. Archeologists have called these people Anasazi, but reflecting their modern descendants they are now called Ancestral Pueblo. Using nature to their advantage, about 1200 AD they began to build their villages beneath the overhanging cliffs, using sandstone shaped into blocks. Between 1150 and 1300 thousands of people lived on Mesa Verde.
They grew crops and hunted game on the mesa top. Trampling paths connected the mesa top fields to alcove villages and canyons below. They made baskets and even made them waterproof, later they developed fired ceramic pottery, which was elaborately decorated.
The cliff dwellings range from one-room houses to community centers of about 150 rooms. To get an idea of how impressive these structures are, especially with the location tucked away and covered by the rock of the cliff face, we hiked the four-kilometer Petroglyph Point Trail and enjoyed the cliff dwellings and canyons around us. Ancestral Pueblo lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. By about 1300 AD Mesa Verde was deserted. It is still a mystery why the Pueblos abandoned this location and moved further south into today’s New Mexico and Arizona.
We left Mesa Verde and headed east. There is so much to see in this area so the next national park was already waiting for us. Shortly before sunset, we stopped on a gravel road along the highway and watched the sun slowly disappear behind the mountains. We quickly disappeared into the car with the parking heater on high. A cold night awaited us at an altitude of 2,500 meters!
In Durango, we parked the car in the sun, walked briefly through the city centre and had a coffee in a cozy café. We had to drive about 270 kilometers today. We had previously heard from other travelers that Great Sand Dunes National Park must be very beautiful, and we wanted to see that for ourselves. In Pagosa Springs, we parked for a lunch break right along the San Juan River in the middle of the village and saw people along the bank bathing in the water. This could only mean one thing…hot water springs! Eddy quickly changed his clothes as he did not want to miss this opportunity. The freely accessible part consisted of four small pools through which the hot water flowed. He immersed himself and enjoyed the moment.
On the way to the Great Sand Dunes, we passed a plateau as flat as a billiard table. The surroundings slowly began to resemble the desert landscape we had imagined for this corner of America. Small green bushes as far as the eye could see, with mountains in the background. As we had poured anti-soot filter fluid into our tank today, we could not use our auxiliary heater for the time being. The parking heater draws diesel from the same tank and we didn’t think it was a good idea to run this fluid through the parking heater as well. It had been freezing during the night for several days in a row, so this will definitely be unpleasant tomorrow morning!
We normally take it easy in the morning and slowly start the day with a cup of coffee or tea in hand. Today we zipped open and immediately closed our sleeping bags again. Without heating, it was cold. For the first time, we saw a short lying mark in front of the number on the thermometer. As fast as we could, we dressed up and drove just a bit towards the national park first so we could use the warmth of the motor.
Great Sand Dunes national park is home to the highest dunes in America. According to the information sheet we got at the park entrance, clambering up to the first ridge would suffice. From there one has a nice overview of the dune landscape. Hiking trails were non-existent. It came down to choosing the most favorable route to the top yourself. The route back down mattered less and went a lot faster. Back at the car, we both removed a kilo of sand from our shoes and headed for the next state, New Mexico.