Surrounded by mountains and crisp, fresh air, I embarked on one of the most exciting and memorable travel experiences. We flew directly into Durango and rented a little red Toyota RAV4. With map in hand, we set out on the premier Scenic and Historic San Juan Skyway, designated as the All American Road. I coined it “not for the faint of heart.” We planned on covering the 236-mile loop through the San Juan Mountains in four days.
Our first stop was the old 1800s mining town of Silverton. With quite a sordid and lascivious past and rumors that there’s still gold and silver in those mountains, I felt as if I rode into a movie set from the Old West. We took a stroll down the streets and indulged in little shopping. Back on the 550, we winded through the shadow of impressive 14,000-foot peaks. This segment from Silverton to Ouray is called the Million Dollar Highway. Breathtaking to almost hyperventilating as the hairpin turns wind precipitously up through those gorgeous views and unbelievable nature in the raw.
As the town of Ouray approached, I experienced why it is known as the Switzerland of America. Ouray is famous for its mining heritage, mineral hot springs and incomparable beauty. It is also known as the Jeep Capital of the World. San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours is located in the lobby of the Historic Western Hotel and Saloon. The hotel was constructed as a miner’s palace in 1891, the richest year of the sliver boom. We made plans with Greg Pieper, the owner of the Jeep Tour, to take a ride on the next day. After a great lunch we headed on about 10 miles on 550 to Ridgeway in the heart of the Uncompaghre Valley, to Chipeta Solar Springs Resort where we would be staying for the next two evenings. Chipeta Resort is centrally located on the San Juan Skyway.
The Chipeta Solar Springs Lodge has 25 Southwest-style boutique hotel rooms and condos. We were given a tour of the spa, yoga and fitness center before going into our private two-story suite. The dramatic rooms are all individually designed in adobe style.
Chipeta Lodge was perfect for our health-conscious ideals. An intimate courtyard, large outdoor pool and waterfall welcomed me for a swim and a few steps above was the thermal soaking pool with mountain views.
Dinner plans were just a few steps from our suite at the Four Corners Café inside the lodge, offering fresh local and organic cuisine. It was an easy choice to decide to dine on the Rooftop Deck Skybar with spectacular views. Chef Adrian had been just awarded Top Chef in the Taste of Ouray, and we were delighted to meet him at our table.
We also enjoyed visiting with resort owner Jack Young and manager Roger Gardner during dinner as they shared so much about the area and also of their resort in Fiji, Koro Sun Resort. Some of the favorite summer things to do around Ridgeway include hot air ballooning, rafting, fishing, mountain biking and hiking, day trips to Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park or Mesa Verde Park. Winter season has an extensive list as well. The sun began to set as the musician began to play; I only wished I had planned another week to enjoy area as this was just the first evening.
True Grit Café was just a short walk for breakfast. Locals love to dine at this legendary café decorated with western movie memorabilia, which is also the location where the John Wayne movie “True Grit” was filmed. A two mile hike on an easy path from town led us to the new Dennis Weaver Memorial Park.
San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours back in Ouray was our adventure destination for the afternoon. Keith Gerry, our guide, a family from Louisiana and a fellow from Arizona made up our group. I was glad we decided to go with the guided tour instead of solo rental because we garnered so much history and information.
We headed out into the grandest ride with high cliff-hanging roads that the 1880s prospectors, adventurers and mountaineers used, viewing old mining ghost towns above Ouray, Silverton and Telluride.
This touring company was featured twice in National Geographic, and I felt as if I were on a filming crew as we climbed up the steep hairpin turns into the snow caps. Our guide, Keith, was exceptional, and I began relax on the way down taking in remote valleys, wild flowers and the rugged beauty. (Don’t worry there was a comfort station perched on a mountain) If I had rented a solo Jeep, I most certainly would have gotten lost out there.
The spa at Chipeta Solar Lodge welcomed me with the ultimate in a heavenly therapeutic massage for my beleaguered muscles. After an hour of bliss it was time to get back on the road, heading out to the bustling ski resort of Telluride. Off season you can ride the gondola over the mountain and take in the views.
Back on the road we headed to Dolores and stopped at the Anasazi Heritage Center, dedicated to the ancestral Puebloan- also called the Anasazi- culture, as well as other Native American cultures represented in the Four Corners region. The Mesa Verde National park would be another choice if you have at least four hours to spend exploring. We continued on to Durango as we had exciting plans for the next day.
Once in Historic Downtown Durango, we checked into the lobby of the Rochester Hotel. This distinctive property was built in 1892 and inspired by the many Western movies filmed in and around Durango. Nancy led us across the quaint street to The Leland House, which offers 10 charming rooms and suites.
We had a lovely complete suite with historic décor. Both inns offer a complimentary gourmet breakfast each morning in the lobby of the Rochester, and homemade cookies and tea are served every afternoon. Old-fashioned bicycles with baskets are complimentary for guests. In the morning we walked the couple of short blocks to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad station.
As the iconic coal-fired, steam-powered engine blew its whistle, goose bumps rose on my arms before I even entered the train. National Geographic Traveler in 2010 named the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad as the No. 1 North American Train Trip. This was our transportation to Soaring Tree Top Adventures our destination via this private first class train car. Phillip (last name) was our private attendant representing Soaring Tree Top Adventures, an extreme zip line adventure and the only one of its kind in the continental United States. The adventure was rated the top attraction in the United States on TripAdvisor.com.
We were experiencing two unique adventures in one day. This five-star experience began the moment we embarked on the train. The train came to the private station of Soaring, and we were greeted by expert Soaring Sky ranger guides, the management team and Eco Tour specialists. An informative briefing and personal equipment fitting for our group of 30 was professionally expedited.
Open to the public in 2004, Soaring has been enjoyed by guests since April 1991. The company holds several patents, including an ecologically sound, non-invasive system to attach the cables and lacey stainless steel platforms to the old-growth Ponderosa pine trees without a single bolt, nail or screw penetration the trees. Soaring consist of more than 34 eco-friendly platforms with 27 spans ranging from 56-1400 feet and several unique elements to get into and out of the trees.
I soared through old-growth forest, Aspen glens and several times over the Animas River. I loved going over the river as it rushed below me. A unique non-braking system allows guests to ride hands-free. I overcame a small fear of heights by the middle of the adventure and enjoyed exhilaration never experienced before, soaring from platform to platform with guides aiding each guest and thoroughly checking equipment at each site.
An incredible four-course gourmet lunch was served in the trees overlooking the river, keeping with the five-star quality of the experience. The entire staff of Soaring Tree Top Adventures was first class. The train picked us up after our five-and-a-half hour adventure, and we headed back to Durango on the same car we arrived in. The whole experience was surreal. I could not believe I had just soared up in those mountains and over the Animas River. Riding back aboard the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, I felt part of the living history of a true American treasure that has been continuous for more than 130 years. Every time a train whistles blow, memories return of this uniquely American excursion and the historical significance to our heritage.