In The Rockies – Exploring Colorado

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This blogpost is the third of a series telling the tales of my road trip through the American South West. If you’ve missed the previous ones, feel free to catch up: here’s Arizona and Utah.

Ready for yet another blogpost about my roadtrip adventures in the American South-West? Thought so!
After a week driving in desert landscapes of all colors, it was time for us to cross the border to Colorado and conquer the Rockies, this famous mountain range whose southern end is roughly where we were going.

Cortez Retro Inn

Quite excited to take a few meters of altitude and to see a little more greenery, we stopped in Cortez, a small town near the border with Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, to spend the night. By the way, if you’re a kitschy motel enthusiast, I recommend the Retro Inn Mesa Verde, where I had breakfast next to Elvis (an offer one certainly cannot refuse) and slept in a spacious, comfortable room.

Before we set off to our next destination, we took a detour at the most famous tourist attraction of the area: the Mesa Verde National Park, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the only places where you can see troglodyte dwellings of the Anasazis (the ancestors of the Pueblos). Needless to say, this was a very rare testimony of a population that remains very mysterious. Unfortunately, the buildings themselves were not accessible at this time of the year; the park ranger explained us that the weather conditions in March can change suddenly, which can cause potential hazards, which is why they only open the ladder and platform course among the ruins in the summer. Nonetheless, we were happy to be able to contemplate them from the different viewpoints.

mesa verde national park

While we were driving around, we couldn’t help but notice that all the vegetation along the roads was dead, which was giving the park a mysterious vibe, and also a bit of a sad look… after doing some research, we learned that the park had been devastated by two fires in the 1990’s, and that nature was only just beginning to reclaim its rights.

mesa verde national park

It’s a nice excursion, completed in two to three hours (a majority of the time spent taking very short turns to go up and down in the mountains, better be wide awake and nausea-resistant). Don’t forget to start your day at the Visitor Center, you might learn some interesting facts about the places you’ll visit and the culture of the Anasazis!

 

One more hour of driving, and we finally arrived – right on time for some lunch! – at our next stop: Durango, a small mountain town where we were going to spend two nights.

 

Durango

Durango is petty much what I was expecting from Colorado: old buildings (obviously, we’re speaking in terms of American history, but some of the facades on the main street were still from the Far West times), friendly faces everywhere, a very present and wild nature …

In Durango, everyone seems to be active and happy. People go kayaking, cycling, they build their own garden shed on a Sunday afternoon and eat T-bone steaks or pulled pork-sandwiches with potato chips in a cowboy decor. And then of course, since we are in Colorado… many, many people get high. Personally, I hadn’t really touched a joint in a long time, but since it’s one of the most popular “attractions” in the area (at least that’s what our waiter Mike told us as we were ordering our food), curious as I am, I just had to go and see what it was all about. Still on Mike’s advice, we went to a specialized ‘dispensary’ around the corner. One door for customers who benefit from medical marijuana, the other for recreational users. Once inside, the first thing you are asked to do is present a valid ID to verify that you are old enough to consume. Then, you are led to another room with a big counter and a few windows, behind which stoners of all ages welcome you with a smile and a “so what kind of high are we looking for today?”

Weed, oils, edibles… the choice here is almost overwhelming, and even though it’s not really my thing, I must admit that it’s pretty fun and kind of surreal to be there. After a conversation with our hostess, an adorable old lady, about the benefits of the legalisation on the economy of Colorado, and the impact it has on the people (turns out EVERYONE smokes when you stop punishing people for it), we went back to our hotel with a mini sample. At this point, maybe it’s important I tell you that, even if the sale and consumption are legal, it is “frowned upon” (I can’t think of a more American thing to say, seriously!) to smoke on the street or in any other public space. People are supposed to consume at home or at their friends’. Or in the woods, or on their kayak (and suddenly, that obsession for nature totally makes sense 😂).

Durango Best Western

Turns out our hotel had a ‘smokers’ terrace next to the pool, so I inhaled a little puff before taking a dip in the water.

What next? I finished the day lying on the bed like a freaking couch potato (yeah yeah, have a good laugh, I told you it had been a long time!) doing a Breaking Bad marathon. And to live up to the cliché, we ordered a pizza and got it delivered to our room before falling asleep. A beautiful, productive afternoon 😅 isn’t it? All joking aside though, I think we really needed some rest and I’m glad I could experience this popular and typically local activity 😉

Little tip: don’t forget that in some neighboring states, you can go to jail for possession, so make sure you get rid of your purchases before crossing the border.

Oh by the way, we stayed at the Best Western Mountain Shadows and we were very satisfied. The rooms are spacious and clean, the breakfast is okay and the pool is a nice extra, even if it’s a bit old. If you’re looking for something a little more typical and you can afford it, I would recommend booking a stay at the General Palmer, which is THE famous place here (it’s the building you can see on the picture if you scroll back up a little).

Durango Best Western

Anyway! As you can guess, there is a pretty good reason why we had decided to stop in Durango, and it had nothing to do with weed.

Durango cascade canyon train

While I was preparing our trip, I came across an organisation that was operating an authentic steam train ride through the mountains. Call me a nerd if you want, but I think this was one of the activities I was looking froward to the most. It reminded me of the excursions I used to do with my grandpa, who worked for the Belgian railway during his lifetime and was fascinated by trains. He used to take us watch the passing of the old steam train in his area, and I loved it.

Durango cascade canyon train

In order to avoid any bad surprise, we had booked our tickets upfront, although I’m not sure it’s really necessary during the off-season. It’s a little expensive, but it’s a unique experience and personally, I think it was worth it.

Depending on the season, several different excursions are offered. In March, it was still the winter excursion through Cascade Canyon, a mountainside route through the woods, passing by otherwise inaccessible places. Pinetrees, rocks, lake, torrents … it was beautiful and impressive, especially sitting in a centennial wagon. As we were reaching the top, we even saw snow!

Durango cascade canyon train

Once the train has arrived at the end of the tracks, before heading back, you get an hour-long break to walk around Cascade Canyon, have lunch and… take pictures with the train, OBVI. I couldn’t help playing the damsel in distress… #sorrynotsorry

Durango cascade canyon train   Durango cascade canyon train

The excursion took about a half day, but once again this depends on the season so check their website if you’re planning yourself a lil’ train ride. It’s chill, pretty, relaxing and it fits all ages and profiles.

Durango cascade canyon train

Once we got back in town, we went for a bite and a walk in the center, but it was Sunday so most of the shops were unfortunately closed. And since we had a big drinking day ahead, we decided it would be wiser to have one last dip in the pool and recharge our batteries! Next step: a true journey to the North, through the Rocky Mountains.

After all this nature, our urban brains were longing for culture, big streets, agitation. So instead of going down to New Mexico as we had originally planned, we decided to make a detour through Denver, Colorado’s capital and largest city in the region – that’s about a 6 hours drive into the mountains. It was a hell of an adventure, with constant turns and steep roads – and the snow melting did not help. But we arrived safely, just in time to do some groceries and cook dinner in our Airbnb, before falling asleep way before our bed time.

denver art museum

The day after, we decided to go visit the Denver Art Museum, as it was one of the recurrent recommendations we’d found.

denver art museum17424970_10154495255826375_4037079391586693732_n-2

It’s a nice museum, with a focus on regional art (Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado), which we really liked because it was a nice change from what we’re used to see in most of Europe’s art museums.

denver art museum17426223_10154495255976375_4518073483619080891_n-2

The museum also features more ‘historical’ collections, both colonial and native, in a sumptuous decor with an impressive play on colours.

denver art museum

Cherry on the cake: while we were visiting, they were showing an exhibition on japanese androgynous fashion, centred on Red Kawakubo – aka one of my all time heroes. Clothing from her different eras, video documents, quotes of all sorts…

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Let’s be honest, it ain’t no MoMa (after all, we’re in Denver), but this little trip to the museum turned out to be quite inspiring and made us feel pretty good.

And the day after, it was the boyfriend’s turn to choose, so he picked… the museum of natural history!😝

denver museum minerals

My favorite part? The exhibition dedicated to minerals and precious stones from the region. A magnificent collection, presented in a sober and didactic way.

The museum also presents a series of fossils and reconstructions, and very well-made dioramas of animals of the region and Native American tribes. Plus a whole interactive wing dedicated to the human body, where you can, thanks to some simple experiments, understand certain scientific concepts by applying them to yourself.

denver natural history museum  17426100_10154495256081375_7078056251472692627_n-2

Our third and final day in Denver was spent in a fashion mall, doing some window-shopping and attending the early evening session of the Beauty and the Beast :)

Honestly, overall, Denver did not really impress me. I found the city rather dirty and messy, people weren’t really friendly as they were in Durango. Maybe it was because our city trip was kind of improvised, and that we didn’t really know where to go or what to do, but I also just had the feeling that there just wasn’t much to do. In the end, I am glad we made the detour and had this somewhat more intellectual hiatus, but I wouldn’t really recommend it to someone who doesn’t have that time.

Colorado march

Early the next day, we were off again for a long drive, this time we were heading South to New Mexico! I will tell you all about soon (and probably in two different blogposts because that’s how much there is to say), but for now, I’ll leave you with a few pictures taken along the way. A desert in the mountain, sometimes arid, sometimes snowy…pretty surreal as you can see!

Colorado march Colorado march

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