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From cliffs to the clouds: Southwestern Colorado


Photo Courtesy Grand Junction VCB

Between the cliffs and canyons of southwest Colorado, adventure and surprise seem to linger around every turn.

Amid surroundings that bear more resemblance to neighboring New Mexico than the ski resorts of Aspen or Vail, the towns of southwest Colorado harbor some of the state’s great treasures. One of the best known is Mesa Verde National Park, ancestral home to one of the country’s oldest native groups. But beyond the park is much more to explore, including cattle ranches and chuck wagons, a thriving wine community, a historic railroad and a bevy of outdoor adventure activities.

For groups on their way to see the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, spending some time in the nearby towns will bring a number of pleasant surprises. On your next trip through the area, make sure to stop and take advantage of what Grand Junction, Durango and the surrounding area have to offer.

Ancient cliff dwellings

“This whole area is the archaeological center of America,” said Lynn Dyer, tourism director at the Mesa Verde Country Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There are more archaeological sites per square mile here than you’ll find anywhere else.”

Courtesy Grand Junction VCB

Some 4,000 of those archaeological sites can be found within Mesa Verde National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the first U.S. national park set aside to preserve the work of humans. Starting in the first century, the land preserved by the park was the home of the Anasazi people, the ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indians, who eventually built impressive dwellings into the sides of the area’s cliffs.

“They lived there for quite an extensive period of time, starting out as hunters and gatherers and then building rudimentary pit houses,” Dyer said. “Eventually, they built the spectacular cliff dwellings, which are now called Cliff Palace, Long House and Spruce Tree.”

The Anasazi abandoned the area by around 1300, but the homes they carved for themselves in the sides of the cliffs are remarkably well preserved. Today, visitors to the park can take up-close tours of the cliff dwellings, in addition to admiring the high desert mesas and wildlife in the park.

The most iconic of the sites, now called Cliff Palace, is the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Groups can take photos and see the impressive site from the outside or venture into rocks with a guide.

“There are guided tours where you go into these cliff dwellings,” Dyer said. “There’s a concessionaire in the park that can provide a step-on guide for a half-day interpretive tour. So you’re not just looking at the cliff dwellings from afar — you’re actually going down into them.”

After visiting the cliff dwellings, groups can learn more about the native people of Colorado’s past and present at other attractions in the area. The Anasazi Heritage Center features two educational films and a number of hands-on exhibits that tell about the history and culture of the Anasazi, Pueblo and other indigenous peoples from the Four Corners Area.

At the Cortez Cultural Center, visitors can attend free Indian dances that are held throughout the summer.

The Western experience
In nearby Durango, groups can take advantage of numerous opportunities to enjoy the wide-open landscape and relive some of the old Western experiences that make this area of the country so memorable.

Courtesy Grand Junction VCB

Adventure seekers can book jeep tours into the aspens and old mining towns around Durango, or take rafting and floating trips on the Animas River, which runs through downtown.

From downtown hotels, visitors are just steps away from a number of trailheads for scenic hiking; outfitters can also teach travelers to fly-fish in the river as well. During the winter, groups can venture out on snowmobiles, dog sleds or sleigh rides.

Several Western experiences in town are ideal stops for groups as well. Sleeping Beauty Ranch offers groups a scenic hayride and campfire dinner.

“They serve a wonderful Western-style dinner that they customize for you,” said Carrie Whitely, group sales manager at the Durango Area Tourism Office. “It’s just for your group, on the banks of the Animas River in front of these wonderful red cliffs. With dinner, you’re entertained by some cowboy poetry and some songs, as well as old Western yodeling.”

More music and Western food are in store at the Bar D Chuckwagon and Supper Show. The evening starts with traditional cowboy dinner staples, like barbecued chicken, steak, cornbread and beans, and ends with performances of historic cowboy songs under the stars.

Groups can learn more about the old Western life in Durango at the Animas Museum.

“It’s in a little old brick schoolhouse, and it’s full of history from our area,” Whitely said. “They start the tours in a 1905 classroom and finish in a restored 1870s pioneer log cabin.”

The area’s newest attraction, the Durango Discovery Museum, is slated to open this fall. The museum is housed in an old coal power plant and will feature a historic riverfront plaza and hands-on science exhibits.

Historic railroad
One of the most popular activities for groups traveling in the area is a train ride on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which connects Durango to the historic mining town of Silverton 45 miles away.

Courtesy Durango Area Tourist Office

“The railroad was founded in 1881 and started going into Silverton in 1882,” said Andrea Seid, marketing manager for the railroad. “They mined for silver and ore, so the line was originally created to haul the ore between the two towns. But within a short time, people started realizing that there were amazing views, so it became a tourist railroad too, and we’ve been in operation ever since.”

One of the notable aspects of the railroad is its narrow gauge. The tracks are 3 feet apart, as opposed to 4 feet 8 inches on a traditional train track, which allows the train to go around very tight corners, traversing the rocky terrain and the 2,800-foot climb in elevation.

At different points during the three-and-a-half-hour journey, passengers find themselves cutting through narrow rock passages or hugging the edges of cliffs perched 400 feet above the floor of the Animas River canyon.

“We go through what we call the Rockwood Cut, a place that was used in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Seid said. “If you reached out of either side of the train, you could touch the rocks; it’s that narrow.”

As the train climbs from Durango to Silverton, the landscape begins to change, and visitors may spot elk, bears and bighorn sheep among the aspen and pine trees. Once the train reaches Silverton, visitors have two hours to explore the old mining town, which still looks much as it did when it was active.

“It’s an absolutely beautiful town surrounded by huge mountains,” Seid said. “Most of the streets are still made of dirt. There’s still a mine that you can go and tour.”

From Silverton, groups can make the return journey to Durango by train or board their motorcoach to continue on to their next destination.

Wildlife and wine
A few hours’ drive north of Durango is Grand Junction, where one of the most visited attractions is the Colorado National Monument, with a 23-mile scenic drive that cuts through 11 canyons, where visitors are likely to see bighorn sheep and other wildlife.

Courtesy Mesa Verde County CVB

Agriculture also booms in the Grand Junction area, along with a thriving wine scene.

“The thing that makes us really different from the rest of the state is that we have a population of wineries,” said Jennifer Harris, marketing and public relations coordinator at the Grand Junction Visitors and Convention Bureau. “The Colorado wine industry really started here. We’ve got about 20 wineries, and 18 of them have tasting rooms.”

A number of the wineries are well suited for group visits. At Varaison Vineyards, groups can do a wine tasting and then take a tour of the large rose garden on the premises. Two Rivers Winery specializes in wine dinners for groups, and Grand River Vineyards takes visitors on tours through the winery’s production area.

Whichever winery your group visits, you’re likely to enjoy a distinctly Colorado experience.

“It’s a very young industry here, and it’s very Colorado style,” Harris said. “If you pull up at a winery, you might feel like you’re pulling up at someone’s house. Oftentimes the winemaker is pouring the wine for you himself, so you get a really intimate experience.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.