The next day put our (Leo’s) driving skills to the test! Climbing out of Ouray into the mountains, we entered the fabled ‘Million-Dollar Highway’ named, presumably, for its gorgeous scenery. For eight miles between Ouray and Silverton, we zigzagged through treacherous hairpin turns and endless switchbacks. Normally, the drive would be scenic and pleasant, if approached cautiously but we were dealing with late May CO weather – snow and ice – and a two wheel drive Camry to plow through it. Taking the hairpin turns at 10 mph and never exceeding 35 mph for the whole stretch, we made it to Silverton carefully and safely with no close calls but a few less-than-comfortable moments.
In Silverton, another cute ex-mining-now-skiing town, we broke fast at a place called Brown Bag Café. True to their name, they served us breakfast sandwiches in brown bags (odd – but tasty). Letting out a sigh of relief, we got back on the highway toward Durango knowing it would be plowed the whole way. Durango has an old Western feel to it but we didn’t get a chance to feel much of it. We just picked up our tickets to the Mesa Verde cliff dwelling tour and shipped out. The tour is a VERY hot commodity. Of the entire days’ worth of hourly tours of three cliff dwelling sights that must be purchased in person either in Durango or at the park itself, we had the last two options of the hardest dwelling to get to. Should I mention that we purchased tickets 30 minutes after the visitors’ center opened! We took what we could get and started the drive toward Mesa Verde National Park. Of course, the park was spectacular!
These dwellings were built in the 12th century A.D. by the Ancestral Puebloans after living above ground for about 600 years. We don’t know exactly why the tribes decided to move into the cliffs but it provided ample protection from the elements. Staples of the Ancestral Puebloans’ communities included these circular huts tunneled into the ground (and cliffs) which provided space for religious and social activities. They were also a cozy place to gather in the winters. It might be 70 degrees in these spaces and -20 outside. The particular site we entered, Balcony House, had 38 rooms and two courtyards, most likely inhabited by two extended families. It also served as a gathering space for other tribe members living nearby. As a special treat for braving the weather, we got to see a massive rainbow from Balcony House.
After a day visiting the cliff dwellings and other parts of the park, we headed toward Cortez, a nearby town, for dinner, and most importantly the BLUES GAME!! Our favorite team punched its ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals that night in a commanding fashion!!
Rather than camp out in CO as we planned, we decided that nothing was holding us back and we could inch our way toward the National Parks in Utah that we were next up for us. Sarah begged me into avoiding our plan of camping for a second night in a row. We stayed in a cute-sy inn called the Gristmill Inn in Monticello, UT. Fun fact, that place was the bar in county, though we got in too late to partake. The way there, however, proved more treacherous than the Million Dollar Highway in a snowstorm! Massive flakes of snow were coming down and I’m not sure if any of you had the experience but it is TERRIFYING! Apparently, when your headlights are the only lights on the road (i.e. no streetlights or oncoming headlights), the snow reflects right back at you. Rather than appearing as small flakes, it appears as massive streams and it disorients the heck out of you! At times I felt like I was moving backwards or sideways given the fluffy white meteor shower pummeling me from all sides. Unlike the Million Dollar Highway, I had to pull over for a minute to let my eyes rest. After about 20-30 minutes driving through the optical illusion, we finally cleared the storm. We did not take a video because the experience was too terrifying but check out this youtube video for a sense:
After a good nights’ rest, we started out to the East-most of UT’s 5 famous national parks: Canyonlands. Canyonlands is divided into three districts. We started with the Needles district, named so for the interesting rock formations that abound here: needles. Needles are formed when prehistoric oceans dried up, leaving gratuitous salt deposits on the surface. Over time, the salt scraped off the smooth sandstone in checkerboard patterns. Then wind and water took over and before you know it (over hundreds of millions of years), the elements had withered the rock all the way down until the residuals jetted out dozens of feet high.
Here, we embarked on our most ambitious hike, distance-wise, an 11-miler. What was fascinating during the hike is how many different landscapes we came to in the high desert.
And of course, no hike is complete without Leo’s time-consuming attempts to captures pretty flowers and cool desert birds.
The weather was quite erratic alternating between hail, rain, and gorgeous sunshine over our 8 hours on site. We made it out just before the worst of it though. Totally zonked, we mustered up the energy to ‘eat fresh’ at Subway, and that only barely. Well-deserved slumber awaited us back at Moab, UT’s Motel 6!
After making use of Motel 6’s generous free coffee and tea breakfast, we set sail toward our second Canyonlands district: Island in the Sky. A radical change of pace from the day before, we saw most of Island in the Sky via car, stopping over at two sites for quick hikes and a few more overlooks. Our first stop was Mesa Arch. Here was the main attraction (the landscape and the photo-model, of course).
If you’re a fan of arches, keep reading! (Who am I kidding, you’re our family and probably have too much free time if you’ve gotten this far, you’ll keep reading anyway). After Mesa Arch, we proceeded to the district’s namesake, Grand View Point. From there, it really looks like you’re standing atop an island in the sky:
With ample time to spare before our next activity, we indulged ourselves in some primo napping. Upon awakening, we made our way toward Desert Bistro, and AMAZING fine dining establishment plopped hopelessly in remote, outdoorsy Moab. We split elk steak and stuffed Poblanos, washing them down with local wine and a tasty desert treat.
A fine way to cap an adventurous couple days! After checking out of our motel, we proceeded to a more touristed Utah park, Arches, named so because it has one of the world’s highest concentration of arches. No, not the St. Louis kind. Natural ones carved into sandstone by wind, water, and Father Time. Behold these gorgeous beasts:
Upon returning, Sarah munched at Moab Brewery as Leo strolled through town. We returned to the campsite we claimed earlier in the day for a nice bonfire and a gorgeous view of the stars!