Cortez, CO to the Mesa Verde National Monument, then looping around the Million Dollar Highway of Colorado to Farmington, NM
13.03.2016 - 14.03.2016
We woke up late this morning and had an eight hour scenic drive ahead of us, so we were a bit panicked as we headed towards Mesa Verde National Park a few miles down the road from where we slept last night.
Once we entered the park area, there was still a 20 minute long climb to the top of the Mesa. We were listening to NPR on the radio on the drive and since we were circling around and around a huge mound of land, each time we were on the left side of the Mesa we'd hear NPR's report for that area and on the right side we heard a different area's news. The soundtrack of the drive was a weird mix of whale song stories and conversation about racism in the short term job market, and it was great.
Once we finally go to the top, we were awestruck by how high we had climbed and the enormous valleys below us.
Even better, the Mesa was also a historical site for ancestral pueblo people who had lived in the area for over 700 years, and their homes carved into the cliffs around us were built between 550 and 1300 A.D.
It was a full day's hike to the cliff dwellings in the distance and we didn't have the time to spare, but fortunately we had zoom lenses to allow us to see the intricate and beautiful ancient cities made out of rock and clay.
There were also museum-like sections around the park that visitors could explore, featuring signs which explained how the buildings were constructed and what their purpose was.
On the way out of the park, we came across a pair of deer on the side of the road who were grazing alongside a wild horse.
After leaving Mesa Verde, we quickly stopped at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, CO to check out the museum of the Ancestral Puebloan (or Anasazi) Culture and other Native cultures in the Four Corners region. The visitor center featured an archaeological exhibit displaying information and pieces found in the area. Since my older brother graduated with a degree in archaeology and specialized in lithic tools, I was happy to realize I already knew a lot about what I was seeing from what he had told me.
Following the history lesson, we headed out on narrow roads through landscapes of thick forests and fast-moving rivers towards the Million Dollar Highway.
As we drove, the air quickly got thinner (we would eventually reach about 12,000 feet elevation) and colder. The higher up we got, the more we wanted to stop at the viewpoints along the way.
The signs warning drivers about crossing fauna finally made sense to us when we drove around a bend and almost hit a herd of mountain goats grazing right next to the road.
We eventually stopped to get gas and cook some lunch with our trusty Jet Boil while we admired the landscape around us. I was so excited about the views that I ran around the area each time we stopped and unfortunately soaked up more scenery with my eyes than my camera lens. However, I did manage to capture a few pictures before we reached the snowy mountain tops.
The roads we took were icy and full of treacherously tight turns on unguarded cliff edges. We could look straight down out the window and see only a few inches of icy road between the car and the ground miles below us. As frightening as it was to drive on, the dozens of other cars making the same climb up the mountain with us made it seem much more casual. And honestly, even though I had to pay close attention and hold tight to the wheel the entire length of the trip, it was the most fun drive I've ever experienced.
We stopped in Silverton, CO in the heart of the Rockies to check out the local culture and purchase some Colorado souvenirs. I immediately fell in love with the quaint mountain town. Everything about the place was colorful, inviting, and cozy, especially since it was nestled in the thickest part of the mountains.
From Silverton we finally got on US Route 550, which is known as the Million Dollar Highway, a stretch of road characterized by steep cliffs, narrow roads, and no guardrails (luckily no different than what we had experienced most of the drive already). The road's sheer existence and incredible condition despite being a challenging location to repair and upkeep was amazing, thanks Obama for the funding! It provided an absolutely breathtaking view of the landscape as the sun slowly fell and the area was bathed in the most beautiful sunset colors I've ever experienced.
There was no way for our cameras to capture the surreal colors and the magical feeling of being in that place at that moment. We gave up quickly and simply sat in reverent silence as we soaked up the experience until night fell.
It was pitch black outside after we paused for a quick meal in Durango, CO. With no streetlights guiding our path, we had to keep the car's brights on the entire drive to Farmington, NM where we planned to sleep for the night.
It was a beautiful day.