Road Tripping Through the West, Part Three

As our road trip through Colorado continued, brilliant fall colors were already on display on the very first day of fall. After leaving Great Sand Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, we drove the entire length of the Silver Thread Scenic Byway on our way to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The Byway wound along the banks of the Rio Grande River, tracing the routes of old stagecoach lines and railways of the late 1800s. Named after a time when silver mining and ranching were the main industries in a land that was still part of the Wild West, the Silver Thread passes through beautiful mountains that are swallowing up the remains of old ghost towns and mines.

Brilliant fall colors along the Silver Thread Scenic Byway in Colorado

We stopped in the rain to look out at the Weminuche Wilderness of Colorado, where the Rio Grande River originates in the heart of the San Juan Mountains at 13,821 ft elevation. This overlook was too pretty to pass by!

Weminuche Wilderness

When we reached the Gunnison River, which has been dammed to create Blue Mesa Reservior in the Curecanti National Recreation Area, we stopped to admire the Dillon Pinnacles across the river. 

Dillon Pinnacles across the Gunnison River in Colorado

A short distance later, we arrived at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park - known for being "deep, steep and narrow." It has been carved over the course of 2 million years by the Gunnison River, which used to flow with a force as much as 2.75 million horsepower, rushing through the canyon at 12,000 cubic feet during its flood stage. Today dams upstream make the process of erosion happen more slowly.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

The park lands below the canyon rim are also designated wilderness, with no maintained or marked trails leading down to the inner canyon. Poison ivy is also abundant along the way down, so I opted to do a series of shorter hikes near the rim during this visit. Maybe if I make it back again I will try dropping 1,800 vertical feet in one mile down to the river while hanging on chains and scrambling over boulders, and then climbing back out again. Or not. :)

Our next planned destination was Mesa Verde. While driving along Highway 145 on the way there, we passed by Telluride and decided that it was too beautiful a place not to stop and explore. Telluride is surrounded by the highest concentration of 13,000 and 14,000 foot peaks in North America - how could we not take a little detour to check it out?

Telluride, Colorado

We spent the night in a pretty little campground in the Uncompahgre National Forest, surrounded by aspens with leaves in brilliant shades of yellow and orange. 

The next day we rode the tram and hiked the See Forever Trail up above 12,000 ft elevation, both to take in the beautiful vistas all around, and to check out how amazing it would be to come back in the winter and ski Telluride!

Riding the Telluride Tram in autumn
The view from the See Forever Trail at Telluride

The view from the See Forever Trail at Telluride

Telluride is definitely on my Must Ski list!

Telluride is definitely on my Must Ski list!

Then we were back on the road again, headed for Morefield Campground in Mesa Verde. After a restful night at camp (and a hot shower! what a treat!), we spent the day exploring the fascinating ruins of Mesa Verde. The Ancestral Pueblo people (Anasazi) lived in Mesa Verde from 550 AD until the late 13th century. Many of the dwellings in the park are located below natural overhanging cliffs, and are very sophisticated in their construction and design. 

The view from inside Balcony House, a cliff dwelling that requires a steep climb up a ladder to enter. The round chambers are called kivas. Kivas are still included as central places within the community in many modern pueblos.

The view from inside Balcony House, a cliff dwelling that requires a steep climb up a ladder to enter. The round chambers are called kivas. Kivas are still included as central places within the community in many modern pueblos.

Stones used for grinding corn inside Balcony House

Stones used for grinding corn inside Balcony House

Spruce Tree House, the third largest and best preserved cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. Circa 1200-1280 AD.

Spruce Tree House, the third largest and best preserved cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. Circa 1200-1280 AD.

Another view inside the Spruce Tree House

Another view inside the Spruce Tree House

Square Tower House

Square Tower House

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde. Sadly, it was closed to exploration inside the dwellings for the season.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde. Sadly, it was closed to exploration inside the dwellings for the season.

After a full day of exploring Mesa Verde, we spent a second night at Morefield Campground, and then set out for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Our first stop was at the Anasazi Heritage Center, which serves as the Canyons of the Ancients headquarters, to pick up maps and visitor information and to visit the museum inside. We then set out into the remote and rugged desert to explore Painted Hand Pueblo. The road to the trailhead was rough and rutted, making us glad to be driving it in a high-clearance truck. It was a hot, dry early autumn day as we took the short hike to the pueblo - such very different weather from the freezing cold and howling wind that nearly blew me off my feet in Rocky Mountain National Park just a week earlier.

Painted Hand Pueblo, Canyon of the Ancients, Colorado

Painted Hand Pueblo, Canyon of the Ancients, Colorado

Painted Hand Pueblo is in the middle of the Great Sage Plain, where deep soils hold winter moisture and have been used for dryland farming for hundreds of years. Painted Hand Pubelo was built in the 13th century, and was originally a small village of about 20 rooms. Some remaining structures, like the one above, still include faint hand print paintings and petroglyphs.

"K'amagshe is 'White Hands.' He was a leader of Ship'app who led the people across the landscape and left white handprint marks. His hands were white. He leads the Follow the Leader Dance." --Victor Sarracino, Water Clan, Pueblo of Laguna

Final stops: Hovenweep National Monument and Valley of the Gods in Utah, Monument Valley in Arizona, and Antelope Island State Park in Utah.