DW, the dogs and I just returned tonight from a week boondocking and exploring the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, with an extra stop at Mesa Verde National Park. They haven't nicknamed the San Juans the "American Alps" without reason, and while I'm not a big National Park guy as I prefer wilderness over the often sanitized National Park experience, Mesa Verde gives you a once in a lifetime opportunity to view ruins of Anasazi cliff dwellings up close and personal.
We left after work on Friday, Sept. 1, got caught in horrific rush hour traffic along the Wasatch Front, and lost a lot of time as a result. It was thus that we didn't pull into our campsite along Klondike Bluffs Road
just north of Moab, Utah until 10 p.m. It was just a transit stop, but Klondike Bluffs suited our needs perfectly -- it was just off US-191, it was easy to locate a spot in the dark, and we didn't see anyone except for the patrons of Skydive Moab dropping into the nearby airport.
Our camp on Klondike Bluffs Road.
We broke camp early the next morning and headed for Telluride.
Dropping into the Paradox Valley en route to Telluride.
Starting up Last Dollar Road at Telluride, long before it turns to dirt.
I had intended to camp on Last Dollar Road, but the road looked tight past the overlook at which several others were already camped. I chatted with one of the campers and he convinced me to not proceed further with my TT in tow, so we headed south to my "Plan B" -- Trout Lake.
The North Trout Lake Road
, south of Ophir, becomes Forest Service land legal for dispersed camping just beyond the east end of the lake. About a half mile east of the lake the road makes a sharp bend across the creek next to the historic Trout Lake Trestle from the days when this road was a railroad bed, and heads southwest to Lizard Head Pass. Right next to the trestle we found what would be our own little nirvana for the next two days beneath the stunningly beautiful Mount San Miguel.
Camped at the end of the Trout Lake Trestle
The evening sun lights up Mt. San Miguel, as seen from my camp patio.
Our camp on North Trout Lake Road.
The following morning DW, the dogs and I drove to Mountain Village and loaded the free gondola that connects Mountain Village with Telluride, where we spent the afternoon browsing the streets, letting the dogs swim in the San Miguel River, and grabbing an excellent pizza. The town was absolutely bustling thanks to the holiday weekend and the Telluride Film Festival.
The dogs were at first a bit freaked loading a moving gondola cabin, but they were pros by the end of the day.
How about this RV?
On the morning of our fourth day, Labor Day Monday, we crossed over to US-550 at Ridgeway, Colo., to take on the infamous Million Dollar Highway through Ouray to Silverton. Reading forum reports on this road left me with a bit of trepidation, but I can now say that if you're used to mountain driving, US-550 isn't considerably worse than any other western mountain road. You just exercise common sense, drive with attention and engine braking, and it's easily negotiated. We stopped near the top of Red Mountain Pass to take in the mine ruins and have a bite to eat from the trailer kitchen.
Mine ruins on Red Mountain Pass.
Abandoned mine buildings on Red Mountain Pass.
At the bottom of Red Mountain Pass, at its south end three miles from Silverton we turned right onto County Road 5 and quickly arrived at the Anvil
and Sultan Camping Areas
established by the USFS on either side of Mineral Creek. These are free dispersed camping areas without marked sites. There was a large Class A and a pair of trailers already at Anvil, but only a single tent was pitched at Sultan and it looked to be closed up for a number of days with no one in sight. I dropped the trailer right next to the creek at Sultan. There we would be serenaded by the sound of the rushing water for two nights -- we only planned one night in Silverton, but this was just too perfect. Another Class A would arrive at Sultan about 100 feet away on our second night, as would a camper van across the creek at Anvil, but that was it.
Our spot at Sultan Camping Area.
In between those two nights we did the tourist thing in Silverton, which is a very different town than Telluride. The latter, a ski resort town popular with the rich and famous, just oozes wealth from its pores. Although Telluride's downtown core has been lovingly preserved, the tarmac at its tiny airport is dotted with numerous large private Gulfstreams and Lears, and the forested slopes around town are speckled with luxury condos that are probably occupied two weeks per year, in between colossal high-rise hotels. By contrast, Silverton's outskirts are occupied by single-wides on gravel lots. Nevertheless, Silverton's entire downtown core is a designated National Historic District that has received no less love in its restoration than has Telluride.
As you might guess from its name, Silverton owes its existence to a mining heyday that once brought the town fame and glory. Fun fact: Silverton was the second city in the U.S. to get 110-volt A/C service. Instead of luxury hotels and condos, the mountains surrounding Silverton are absolutely littered with mining ruins everywhere you look. It's a mining history buff's Mecca.
As she's very claustrophobic, DW stayed at the RV while I drove 25 minutes to be a tourist at the Old Hundred Gold Mine Tour. Arriving at around 10:30 a.m., I had to wait for the 11 a.m. tour. About 15 people disembarked the mine train at the end of their 10 a.m. tour, but when the clock struck 11 I was the only customer standing there. I got my own private tour!
Sure, it's been adapted for tourists and is sort of like a mining museum set up one-third of a mile into a mountain, but it was a real, working mine at one time and my guide was a retired miner, so it's the real deal. It's worthy of $18.95 and an hour of your time in Silverton.
The entrance to the Old Hundred Mine.
While lights have been added to the tour area for tourist comfort, the 1/3-mile mine train to access the tour area is typically pitch black.
The contraption that looks like an elevator in the lower tunnel accesses another draft 700 feet higher in the mountain. The upper tunnel is the alternative escape route.
If you think your black tank is nasty...
For the afternoon I went back to retrieve DW and we took a 4x4 adventure to the ghost town of Animas Forks, el. 11,200'. Virtually any high-clearance 4x4 can get there without difficulty.
Climbing past other mine ruins en route to Animas Forks.
On our way back to the trailer, the hardcore skier in me had to detour to see Silverton Mountain, an experts-only haven where a single chairlift carries you to relentless steeps that you're required to ski with a guide.
Move over Vail, that's the entire "base village" at Silverton Mountain.
After one more night beside the bubbling Mineral Creek, we bid farewell to Silverton on Wednesday morning and headed south towards Durango.
So long, Silverton. We'll meet again.
My plan had been to find a boondocking spot along Hermosa Park Road
near Durango Mountain Resort, and although that plan was already cut in half by spending an extra night in Silverton, we opted to further revise the Hermosa Park plan from two nights all the way down to zero and instead continue on to Mesa Verde National Park where we made camp on a little slice of BLM land less than two miles from the park entrance
. Now I'm not one to second guess someone else's choices, but for the life of me I can't understand why people would insist upon paying for a spot in the crowded National Park campground (without even hookups at most sites) when this was far prettier, absolutely free, I couldn't see or hear any neighbors, and I had to comply with virtually no rules.
DW seems happy with our Mesa Verde campsite choice.
Looking toward Mesa Verde from camp.
OK, I couldn't have both level and a fully extended awning, but I'll still take it.
After dropping the trailer at camp we took a driving tour of Mesa Verde together. DW didn't sleep well that night, so I went back alone in the morning for the walking (and climbing) tour of the Balcony House ruins. Really, it's a shame to visit this park and not get tickets for one of the tours; otherwise, you're just looking at any of the numerous Anasazi cliff dwellings from a distance.
Mesa Verde National Park
Looking north from Mesa Verde.
To get to Balcony House you first downclimb some metal stairs from the mesa top, then you ascend this 30-foot ladder.
Leaving Balcony House is no less intimidating.
We broke camp at around noon after the tour, and headed back across the state line into Utah. We had planned to camp one more night about halfway between Monticello and Moab to break up the return drive, but with hot temperatures and a blazing sun we scratched those plans and made a run for Salt Lake, arriving home a day ahead of schedule. No matter, we had a wonderful week camping our way around beautiful southwestern Colorado!