Friday, November 4, 2011

Wild West Wander in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, Part I

The San Juan Skyway extends through sage-littered plains, up verdant river valleys to lofty peaks streaked with snow and alpine cirques glistening in the sun. The 236-mile loop in southwest Colorado can be done on less than a tank of gas in a day, but it deserves a lifetime of exploration. In this two-piece series, I share how a person of average fitness can get into the heart-catching scenery without tapping their 401K. The best ways to take in the rugged terrain are on foot, horseback, 4×4 vehicle, or on a turn-of the-century steam train.
The journey through this soul-stirring stretch of the Rockies begins in Durango, the gateway to the Four Corners region. There are stops in Mancos, Mesa Verde, Telluride the glamour girl of the mountains, Ouray the sweet spot in the San Juans, and Silverton the heart of the high country.

A whistle blast from the Durango-Silverton train signaled all aboard. The longest continuous running line in the country was completed in 1878 at a cost of $1,000 per foot.

Men were lowered over the cliffs on ropes to plant sticks of dynamite into the rock face, and then had to be lifted out just before the blasts. I gazed out over the heart-catching chasm where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their famous leap into the churning Animas River.

Two hours into the rugged canyon aboard the rockabilly train brought us to Needleton (9,000 ft) where well marked trails radiate deep into the mountains. Backpackers headed for Chicago Basin on a steady bun-burning climb to campsites in the Weminuche Wilderness. I opted for a day hike on Purgatory Trail that sticks close to the bottle-green river. It leads through a shady grove of aspen lined with asters and gold capped mushrooms.

After enjoying a ham and brie sandwich from Bread, the local bakery in Durango,

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