South to Durango
by Axel Heller
After spending three nights in Yellowstone, we headed south along
US 191 into Colorado. Near I-80, we observed four smoke plumes coming from the Rocky Mountain range. We learned that these fires had been burning for at least two weeks but we were going to bypass the fires to the west.
We passed the east side of Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah; the reds were just awesome. Mother Nature just outdid herself with the landscaping that we were driving through. Our goal was to spend the night in Grand Junction, but the smoke from the fires looked denser further south, so we pulled into a Colorado State Park, Highline Lake for the night. About 9:00 p.m. we looked out and saw the red glow of fire. Our thoughts were that it was really close, but our depth perception was poor in the night and it turned out to be about 40 miles away in the mountains. Our decision to camp about five miles out of Grand Junction turned out to be the best choice. Grand Junction had a dense haze/smoke layer, and later they actually closed I-70 due to smoke/visibility. Our real adventure for the day started when we took US-550 from Ouray to Red Mountain pass.
Ouray Named after Chief Ouray of the Ute Nation. Chief Ouray tried to settle peacefully with the settlers and made several treaties with the US and he met with Presidents Lincoln and Grant in those endeavors. Chief Ouray realized that fighting the US was not beneficial for the Ute Nation and gave up
several million acres of prime real estate and not lose his people in battle.
What gets your attention is the Historic Main Street District, US-550. The town was incorporated in 1876 and had over thirty active mines. The Camp Bird Mine was the second largest mine in Colorado and by 1906 produced over one million troy ounces of gold and four million troy ounces of silver. Ouray also has several developed hot springs pools. The town bills itself as the Switzerland of America, due to climate and environment and being surrounded by three walls of the canyon. I do plan sometime in the future to return without COVID and my RV hindering my ability to park.
Million Dollar Highway Leaving Ouray, we took US-550, the Million Dollar Highway. The disputed name comes from legends that it cost $1,000,000 per mile to build in the 1920’s, or that $1,000,000 of gold ore was used as fill. I can also add that it may cost over $1,000,000 to maintain per mile each year.
The road is about twelve miles to the Red Mountain Pass of 11,018 feet, but there is a 10% grade, narrow two lane road with hairpin turns and NO guardrails!! There was construction to repair many areas where the road bed fell down the canyon. Prior to becoming US 550 in the 1920s, there were two toll roads built in 1880s towards Silverton. The road after Red Mountain Pass was smooth to Silverton, total mileage from Ouray to Silverton is 23 miles. We bypassed Silverton and continued onwards to Durango.
Durango I will call Durango a “Modern Historic Town.” Modern because it has all of the conveniences of a city (Walmart & TRAFFIC), but has a section of the 1880’s preserved. This historic section is where the Durango-Silverton Train Depot is located.
I took the Durango-Silverton Railroad in August 1978. I was leading a group of Explorer Scouts on a backpack into the San Juan Mountains. We exited the train at one of two designated spots for backpackers and disappeared into the wilderness. Our tickets were open ended and we could be picked up
anywhere along the line, just need to be sighted by the track inspector to radio back for pick-up. This year, due to COVID, the train only ran about one-third of the track, so Silverton will again be part of a future trip.
The train museum is not just about the train system, but a history of the town. There are two train engines, luxurious train cars (owned by the president of the railroad), and rail maintenance cars, with an operating HO train model of the local area and Diorama displays of the early mines and smaller towns. I enjoyed the recruiting poster for Pancho Villa. Overhead was
a replica of the first airplane that landed in Durango. There was lot of small-town history crammed into a small space.
When the day comes that things finally get back to the “Old Normal”,
I hope to return to this scenic area, take the train on a round trip to Silverton and be a tourist in Ouray. ~ Axel