Road trip through Colorado and New Mexico: hot springs, Native American ruins, mountains...
To truly appreciate the Rockies, start with some prairie driving. Georgio's, in Salina, Kansas, is almost worth the miles of flatlands: fine Italian food, first class atmosphere, moderate prices.
The mountains begin just past Denver, but don't go through without stopping at the Tattered Cover bookshop, 2955 E. First Avenue. Some claim it's the largest bookstore in the world. Three full-block floors, all with plenty of browsing couches and chairs. If you have kids with you, aim for story times (Tuesday at 11 and Saturday at 10:30).Make sure to hit the bargain section, which fills half the second floor--it features markdowns up to 80%. Then have lunch across town at the Panda Cafe, 1098 S. Federal Blvd., for Chinese cuisine that will even impress New Yorkers.
Leave Denver via highway 285, to route 24, past the 14,000+ foot Collegiate Peaks at Buena Vista, then turn through the San Isabel National Forest. A dirt road takes you through spectacular Cottonwood Pass and into Gunnison National Forest. Camp at the third campground, Dinner Station, along the river with a good mountain view.
Follow U.S. 50 toward Montrose, and take in the magnificent view crossing the Blue Mesa Reservoir. Outside of Montrose, follow signs for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Relatively little known outside the Southwest, this majestic gorge is uncrowded and offers vistas as interesting as those in the Grand Canyon. If your car is running low, gas up now or else wait for reasonable prices in Durango.
Head south on U.S. 550 to Ouray, the self-styled "Switzerland of America." Plan a couple of hours in this pleasant resort town: shop the Indian craft boutiques, soak in the municipal hot spring swimming pool, and hike the towering mountains overhead. Eat at the Bon Ton for elegant yuppie fare, or take in a hearty homestyle meal at the Alpine Cafe.
550 from Ouray to Durango is known as the Million Dollar Highway, and the views justify the hype. Just south of town is magnificent Red Mountain Pass. From there, it's basic but still scenic mountain driving to Silverton, a more working class, American West style tourist town. If you're tired of driving, take the steam train to Durango.
If you don't mind crowds, turn at Durango to go to Mesa Verde's Anasazi ruins--but don't expect any privacy! You'd probably have to see the cliff dwellings at 4 a.m. to avoid the tourist mobs.
Go back to U.S. 550 and head south into New Mexico. Stop at Aztec Ruins, a relatively undiscovered national monument featuring a wonderful fully restored kiva (Indian ceremonial pit). Pick up N.M. 544 to 44 and turn at NageeziÑif it hasn't rained in the last 24 hours or you have four wheel driveÑand head for Chaco Canyon. Chaco is a series of abandoned Anasazi villages, apparently the cultural and governmental center of an ancient civilization that spread out over several hundred square miles. Hike the trail at Una Vida, right behind the visitors' center; its ruins aren't particularly impressive, but the short hike takes you right up the canyon wall.Then head to the huge ruins at Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito. Go back out the park the same way you came in (the south road is a car killer).
After all that dirt road driving, you're ready to take N.M. 44 all the way to Albuquerque. Take a short hike in Petroglyph State Park, on the western end of the city, and a longer one at Sandia Peak across town. It's eight hours walk to the top, or half an hour on the tramway. You cross five life zones and feel like you landed in a Chinese brush painting of fog swirling around jagged rocks. When you come down, have an inexpensive and tasty meal at Cocina de Montoya, just off the plaza in Old Town.
Or, if you're sick of Mexican food by this time, dip up to Santa Fe for an Italian meal at Julian's. Check out the scene in the Plaza: hackysackers, bikers doing wheelies, frisbee throwers trying to find room for their stunts among the tourists. Go half a block down San Francisco Street for take-out dessert from the Santa Fe Cookie CompanyÑit's a hole in the wall across the street from the big movie marquee advertising the ever present Indian crafts. There's a nice children's museum in town, too.
You're tired. Your car is tired. Finish the trip in Taos and enjoy some R&R. Stay at the Laughing Horse Inn, a hippie paradise. All the rooms are different, but each one has a VCR and a stereo. Borrow a bike, then relax with a video and a soak in the hot tub. Make sure to spot the shrine to John Lennon, and check out the bargains in imported Zapotec tapestries that fill the courtyard. The inn's motto is "D.H. Lawrence May Have Slept Here."
Taos Pueblo, 1 1/2 miles up the road, is one of two pueblos that claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the U.S. Nearby is a 600 foot high bridge across the Rio Grande Gorge; take a canoe trip through the canyon if you're still feeling adventurous.
Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.
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