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Posts Tagged ‘Durango’

This one month / 3000 mile trip started in Denver on 1st September and it’s now the half-way point and I’m in Helena, the capital of Montana, the 4th largest state by area but the 44th by population. Walking around the deserted city (pop 28k!) on a Saturday afternoon was proof enough of the state’s low density. I’ve already driven 2500 miles, so it will come in way over 3000! Anyway, here’s a resume of the first part. I’ve tried inserting photos but the iPad doesn’t seem to want to, so you’ll have to wait until my return or look at my daily tweets http://www.twitter.com/TootingGareth…..

Denver is a delightful city and exceeded my expectations. For a mid-West Colorado city, it’s sophisticated and cool with great art and food. My B&B was an old mansion located right in the Civic Centre and the owner made spectacular & original breakfast dishes and provided excellent restaurant recommendations. The Art Museum, with its new Daniel Libeskind wing, is one of the world’s greatest; in addition to an unrivalled collection of Western US art, there were four temporary exhibitions and I had to drag myself away. Over in the Botanical Garden, glass sculptor Dale Chihuly has scattered his works amongst the flora and fauna, as he did at Kew but with more water here it was more effective. He comes from Seattle so a stop at his museum is a must later in the trip.  When you’re in a State capital, a visit to its Capitol building is a must. They all seem to have the same shape, modelled on the US Capitol, but each has its own decorative spin and Colorado’s was a fine example. My second day was spent in the Rocky Mountain National Park which was a thrilling introduction to my 16 days in the mountains, though when I got to have lunch at 12,000 ft I was feeling a bit light-headed. I’d have liked another night in mile high Denver (and high in another sense now that marijuana is legal and sold in all sorts of forms on main street!).

The first part of the journey to Durango, 350 miles south-west, was a bit dull, following the highway to get some distance behind me. Then a stop at the Great Sand Dunes National Park brought the first scenic spectacle (sand dunes in The Rockies!) and the rest of the journey through the San Juan mountain range was lovely. Durango is a bit touristy, and the food a disappointment after Denver, but The General Palmer Hotel was a pleasant period piece and I had selected Durango anyway as a base for two trips, the first of which was to Mesa Verde NP. The landscape of canyon and table (mesa) isn’t the main reason for visiting it; its the remnants of 3300-year-old settlements, abandoned mysteriously 700 years ago. The first settlers occupied the mesa (table) top, but they later moved to precarious buildings built into the cliffside (security?). A fascinating trip. The second trip was a ride on the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge steam railroad, first built in the late 19th century, when silver was mined at one end and transported to the other. It isn’t much more than 50 miles, but at 13mph rising 3000 ft in the Rockies, it takes 3.5 hours! I chose to ride it both ways in the more comfortable period car with external platform and hostess service, which was a great choice as it was spectacular but also very sociable. A treat.

I started early on the 400-mile trip to Salt Lake City when I discovered both Arches and Canyonlands NPs were en route, thinking I’d make a stop at one.  Arches was like a moonscape, acres of red stone of all shapes and sizes (only some of which form arches) scattered amongst the desert landscape. I decided I had enough time to take a look at neighbouring Canyonlands , but wasn’t expecting to be quite so blown away by the vast expanse of canyons that take your breath away as soon as you set eyes on them when you walk to the edge of the tableland. I stayed so long I arrived late in Salt Lake City, having to navigate myself to my B&B in the dark and miss dinner!

SLC was as much of a break in the journey as anything else, but it was a pleasant surprise. Another nice B&B, this time in an Arts & Crafts building near the Capitol called Inn on the Hill, and a return to more sophisticated city food courtesy of the recommendations of a man from Portland also staying at the Denver B&B! The Mormon religion pervades everything in the city, the heart of which is Temple Square, containing a somewhat kitsch temple (which you can’t enter) and a host of other church buildings, the best of which was a reused ornate grand hotel (which in all fairness they had restored beautifully). ‘Sisters’ from Tuvalu, The Philippines etc do their missionary work offering to help you find your way around the square but it’s fairly innocuous. US ‘elders’ running tours of buildings are more hardcore though, pushing some – including me – over the edge with tales of Jesus’ visit to the US in biblical times. When a Dutch lady commented on a wall of pictures of former ‘prophets’ and ‘disciples’, all men, he got very defensive, making things worse by saying women have their place, just not in church leadership! On my second day I ventured to the lake which gives the city its name and was surprised they didn’t make more of it. It’s still and rather eerie.

The next journey, to Yellowstone, was much longer than its 400 miles because it was so scenic that I kept stopping to take it all in and photograph it. It took me from Utah to Montana, through a bit of Idaho and a lot of Wyoming! After another dull start on the interstate highway, I headed into Logan Canyon where autumn colours were already evident and made me excited about what might come later. The drive above and past Bear Lake provided yet more stunning views and then I entered Grand Teton NP, where the snow-capped mountains and glaciers followed me all the way to the entrance to Yellowstone. This is where things turned a bit rustic on the lodging and gastronomic front. I’d been unable to get into any of the park lodges six months ago, so ended up just outside in West Yellowstone, a somewhat downmarket tourist trap just by the entrance, in a 100-year-old hotel made of logs surrounded by ‘restaurants’ offering a choice of burgers, pizzas, Chinese, burgers, pizzas…. Its the scale and diversity of scenery that surprises you at Yellowstone. 1m acres of mountains valleys meadows & canyons, rivers waterfalls lakes cascades & streams, and all sorts of thermal activity. It’s 100 miles north to south and 80 miles east to west and in 2.5 days I hardly touched the surface, but it was indeed spectacular.

Another lovely journey, though less than 200 miles this time, through agricultural valleys between the mountains, with a breakfast stop in Ennis, an archetypal small town with an archetypal diner, took me to Helena, Montana’s capital. I’m breaking my B&B policy here as both were fully booked (!), but after rustic West Yellowstone, it’s actually rather comfortable in a chain hotel! Helena is a delightful town, with a ‘mansion district’ of 19th century homes including the original governor’ s house, a Capitol that punches way above its weight, a spectacular neo-gothic cathedral with more stained glass and gold leaf than a handful of normal churches and a main street called Last Chance Gulch! The main reason for this stop, though, was a river trip on the Missouri through a canyon. It was named Gates of the Mountains by the 1805 Lewis & Clark expedition launched by President Jefferson just after the Louisiana Purchase, the land Napoleon sold. It was (another) glorious day and yet another scenic treat.

So tomorrow it’s another 400 mile trip to Glacier NP, close to the Canadian border and as far north as I go before heading west into Oregon & Washington. Can it possibly be  as good as the first half? To be continued…..

 

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