Progressive and increasingly multicultural, COLORADO is the snowboarding, outdoorsy mountain state that produces more beer than any other, gave us South Park in 1997, and in 2012, legalized marijuana – its culture is often more Californian than cowboy, albeit without the ocean. Yet Colorado remains proud of its traditional Western roots, and it’s not all mountains; a third of the state is covered by plains as flat as Nebraska, and in the south the dry, desert terrain resembles New Mexico. And it’s only liberal to a point; parts are still very conservative (Obama won the state in 2012, but 46 percent voted Republican), and it was here that horrific mass shootings took place in Columbine (1999) and Aurora (2012).
Beyond the trendy capital Denver, the obvious attraction for travellers are the Rocky Mountains, littered with ski resorts such as Aspen that double as hiking and biking nirvanas in the summer, and with old silver towns like Leadville and Crested Butte. The most spectacular terrain and wildlife is protected within Rocky Mountain National Park and around Pikes Peak, which towers over the state’s second largest city, Colorado Springs. The far west of the state stretches onto the red-rock deserts of the Colorado Plateau, where the dry climate has preserved the extraordinary natural sculptures of Colorado National Monument, while the southwest boasts Mesa Verde National Park, home to remarkable cliff cities left by the ancient Ancestral Puebloans.
The only US national park devoted exclusively to archeological remains, MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK is set high on a densely wooded plateau, so remote that its extensive Ancestral Puebloan ruins were not fully explored until 1888, when a local rancher discovered them on his land.
During the thousand or so years up to 1300 AD, Ancestral Puebloan peoples expanded to cover much of the area now known as the “Four Corners”. While their earliest dwellings were simple pits in the ground, they ultimately developed the architectural sophistication needed to build the spectacular multistorey apartments that characterize Mesa Verde, nestled in rocky alcoves high above the sheer canyons that bisect the southern edge of the Mesa Verde plateau. The region’s inhabitants eventually migrated into what’s now New Mexico to establish the pueblos where their descendants still live.
All the park’s ruins are located twenty or more tortuous miles up from the roadside visitor centre. The access road forks to reach the two main constellations of remains: Chapin Mesa to the south, and Wetherill Mesa to the west.
Between May and October, the steam trains of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad make up to three daily return trips along a spectacular route through the mountains. All trains leave the depot at 479 Main Ave, Durango, in the morning, with the first at 8am, and allow time for lunch in Silverton.
Reserve via 970 247 2733 or durangotrain.com. Basic summer fares are $85, $51 for kids 5–11; for shorter winter excursions they drop to $59 and $34 respectively.