Having reservations about off-highway vehicles and a sense of adventure leads to the author’s first ride.
Get Out To
Historic, scenic interior Colorado.
Gear Up For
Exploring ghost towns, surviving a terrifying highway, leaf-peeping, off-roading, narrow-gauge railroading.
Adventurous couples testing their togetherness, solo adrenaline junkies manifesting their mettle, anyone seeking intimate knowledge of “the other” Colorado.
As a Native Coloradoan with gypsy leanings, I’ve always wanted business cards that read Professional Coloradoan for the simple reason that wandering this state is the one thing at which I excel. But love begs expansion, adventures always await, and one should remain a humble learner. Case in point: Had I ever made time for a narrow-gauge railroad trip? No. Had I ever gone off-roading? No. Had I driven one of the most dangerous roads in America? No. And most absurdly, had I ever seen a mermaid-fish skeleton? No, I had not.
I set off on this new-activities-only adventure at the most perfect time, knowing, as we all do, that timing dictates the glory of any trip. Aspens roared with color and the tourists did not — those bound by school schedules, at least, were sweetly silent. September was a good time to explore the most interior reaches of my state, where I discovered the steep limits of vertigo, renewed clarity about what I most love about Colorado, and that Ripley’s Believe It or Not! stuff sometimes deserves the “Absolutely Not” response.
First, let me just say that the San Juan Scenic Byway basically reveals what most of us move to Colorado for, even though more than 80 percent of us live on the sprawl of the Front Range and make it over to the interior less than we’d like to admit to our out-of-state friends. This 236-mile stretch of road loops through stunning scenery and spans elevations from 6,200 to 11,000 feet. Widely known as one of the most scenic drives in the country, it passes subalpine forests, ghost towns, prehistoric Indian ruins, and swaths of some of the most gorgeous land on this planet.
The most lovely — and most hair-raising — segment is the “Million Dollar Highway,” a 25-mile virtually no-shoulder stretch that runs from Silverton to Ouray and has both stunning views and a 300-foot drop without guardrails. (“No looking at the scenery!” I yelped at my traveling companion, who was taking a turn at white-knuckle driving.) The road’s indeed a bit freaky, even for a mountain gal. It’s marked by steep cliffs, hairpin curves, three mountain passes, and narrow lanes that have been cut right into the side of the mountain. One of Colorado’s most popular and scenic byways, it’s also one of the most avalanche-prone during the winter months. Some say the road is thus named because it cost a million when the original 1883 toll road was widened in the 1920s, others say that a million dollars of gold dust is in the fill dirt used to rebuild it, and others say it’s the views that are worth a million. The last theory is most certainly true: The road was dotted with “leaf peepers,” as they’re fondly referred to — folks out capturing the blazing yellow and waves of green.
Such precarious drop-offs, such waves of mountains, such sweaty palms — all this makes one think of isolation, and the difficulty of transportation, and the yearning to explore new territories. You can’t help but think of early travelers and the pioneers who braved the frontier, and what it must have been like without the security of pavement, let alone of a restaurant or gas station ahead. The importance of community — of having some small beacon in the expanse — becomes paramount.
Ghost towns, the picturesque evidence of abandoned communities that fought hard to survive and eventually gave up or ebbed away, decay by the dozens across Colorado. Gold-, silver-, and coal-mining sites were once essential, as were mills and farms to support mining and stage and rail stops. To see them empty echoes of long-gone generations is a fascinating, melancholy thing. I love visiting them, but many are really rather remote, which is why, after all, they are ghost towns. When the gold and silver played out, or the railroad bypassed them or changed routes, there wasn’t anything else to keep people around.
And therein lies my reason for my first ride in an off-highway vehicle. I had my reservations: I am a quiet hiker, snowshoer, and I love coming across wildlife, all of which generally involve silence. I have previously come to know my favorite places via the energy of my own body, but my snobbery in this regard is something to be examined, and I was ready to have an open mind. Isn’t that the point ofadventure, after all?
Get the Gear
The Polaris General 1000 is available in three different editions. general.polarisco.com
Rock Pirates of Silverton took me where I normally wouldn’t have the wherewithal to explore in a vehicle I would never otherwise have access to. My companion and I could have rented a side-by-side from them and struck off on our own, but, given how far this was out of my comfort zone, a backcountry adventure tour with a guide seemed like the way to go. Enter the feisty James McIntyre, who picked “The General,” his favorite model in the Polaris lineup, as our transportation to the Animas Forks ghost town. Since this charmingly ramshackle cluster of buildings is tucked at 11,200 feet in a tiny valley with soaring peaks — and a soaring golden eagle to boot — it would be difficult to get to without some sort of very sturdy vehicle.
As we jolted along the rock-filled road, I confessed that this was my first time and admitted my bias for quiet. McIntyre simply nodded: no need to ignore the age-old difference in land-use preferences. “There’s a pretty happy common ground between motorheads and the naturalists up here,” he said. Part of the reason, he told me, is that the local off-highway vehicle riders have good manners: They stick to the trails, keep the speeds down, and pull over to let others pass. Also, they aid the quieter sport groups in several ways — offering a shuttle service to drop off backpackers who need a ride to the local Stony Pass, for instance. “We are all here to experience the beauty of the San Juans,” he said, nodding at the golden eagle that he’d spotted. “I mean, look. This is B-E-A-utiful.”
And it was. Not just the rugged Rockies, that attention-commanding force as strong all around us as the mountain air was fresh and thin. But the town itself. The history it represented, the power of dreams. I ducked my head in respect as I pondered the dilapidated empty homes, their wood planks slouching, testament to lives eked out in harsh times under harsh conditions at more than 2 miles above sea level. One of the highest mining camps in the western United States, Animas Forks began as a single log cabin in 1873. Three years later it was a mining outpost with 30 cabins and a hotel, store, saloon, and post office to support the growing community.
With The General’s march up the mountain briefly interrupted for a vista stop, I got a dose of the quiet I craved. In the silence, I tried to picture what the place must have been like some 125 years ago or so, when almost 500 people lived here and even had a local paper. Winters were so tough and the snow so prodigious (one three-week blizzard dumped 25 feet) that most of the residents would head to Silverton to weather the season.
Get the Gear
Left to right: Depending on what you put in it, Yeti’s soft Hopper Flip 18 shouldn’t weigh you down too much. yeti.com; Never go on any adventure without a trusty pocketknife such as Case’s Smooth Chestnut Bone Trapper. cavenders.com; Protect your essential items in William Ross Travel Bags’ Waxed Canvas Satchel. wrtravelbags.com
Those were “professional Coloradoans” for sure, getting here on their own two legs or with the aid of four-legged creatures, building a community and figuring out how to survive in this state in ways I never could. Vertigo is not something I particularly struggle with, but surely everyone has a limit. Yes, the Million Dollar Highway was steep. So were the trails on the side-by-side off-road adventure. But the spookiest drop, the one that had me (pointlessly) clutching anything around me, was on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
The trip was both through terrain and time. Construction on the line from Durango to Silverton began in late 1881; by the summer of the following year, the train would be hauling silver and gold ore from the San Juans with passengers along for the ride. The ability to move freight was valuable and critical for the expanding frontier, but for passengers, it was the view that was priceless.
Out the railcar, I was seeing something not so different from what they would have.
Here was another first-time adventure, one that had me wondering why I hadn’t made the time for it sooner. It does take nearly an entire day, even if you go from Durango to Silverton on the train one way and catch a ride back on a bus for a shorter return trip. But what a day it was. In an open car under blue skies, we chugged up mountains, past waterfalls and cliffs, along the glacier-blue and free-flowing Animas River, through trees putting on their fall-color show.
A few words about the route and those trees: At 6,512 feet, Durango nestles between red sandstone bluffs in the Animas River Valley. To the north, the San Juan and Needle mountains pierce the sky at an average elevation above 10,500 feet. To the west unfold arid expanses; to the south, canyon country. The train wends through the San Juan National Forest and the Weminuche Wilderness. Fall-color season lasts long here, with significant changes in not just altitude but also light and temperature.
We scheduled it just right: The time to ride is from the beginning of September, when all the color in Silverton is changing, through October, when the trees around Durango and along the river take their star turn. Around Silverton, the mountainsides glowed with stands of yellow Aspen groves.
Drought had made some of them a spectacular red. Amid the swaths of red and yellow, ponderosa pines and firs steadfastly remained evergreen; sage and oak brush along the route had turned out in red and orange. In the lower river valley near Durango, cottonwoods were starting to go yellow.
Steam puffing into blue sky, sunlight streaming in, it was all dreamy-lovely until the stretch where our railcar clutched the canyon walls like a mountain goat. And even mountain goats could potentially lose their balance, no? I was not the only one in my rail car who was doing some breathing exercises and leaning toward the mountain, as if somehow that would help the train stay its course. I had to wonder if others around me were also thinking of travel in the West, how it has always been marked by height, by obstacles, by the desire to use technology to move beyond, whether through rock, up mountains, or along paths blazed deep within mountain passes.
But the train chugged on, delivering us safely to historic Silverton and an ice cream shop, the best place to laugh off nerves if ever there was one.
The stunning drive, the boisterous side-by-side, the puffing railroad — the West on wheels to be sure. But this trip was also a journey through time, which is, after all, a highlight of this area. Of all the places in this state, it seems to me that this section of Colorado is most imbued with history. Nowhere else have I seen such evidence of its careful preservation. Ouray, Ridgway, Silverton, Telluride, Durango — all these towns have cleverly hung on to what makes them special: the story of the West, fact and fiction.
I saw John Wayne’s hat (The Outlaw Restaurant in Ouray), the site of Butch Cassidy’s first bank robbery (Colorado Avenue in Telluride), the first town in the country to be lit by Nikola Tesla’s newly invented alternating current (Telluride, after AC first powered the Gold King Mine near Ophir), some of the most acoustically fine opera houses, and museums, lots of museums. A favorite was the Ouray County Museum, recommended as one of the “10 Best Museums in the West” by Smithsonian magazine, where there were surprises galore, including a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! (I did not) “Mermaid Fish,” which, after much discussion, my companion and I guessed might be a small monkey’s skull mounted to the back end of a perch. The world is full of wonders.
But most wondrous of all, it must be said, is what we most take for granted, which is America’s collection of public lands. Our wilderness preservation system is the finest in the world, and there are few places that prove it more obviously. As we traveled this section of Colorado, I felt awe and gratitude for such expanses of protected mountains and forests, and for the foresight of all those who worked to set it aside. Indeed, a highlight of the trip was thinking of future visitors. Whatever their mode of travel, on wheels or under their own steam, they are assured a substantial wilderness adventure, too.
Photography: Jack Brauer, (Get the Gear) Jim Shoemaker, David Balyeat
From the April 2019 issue.