Adopting the Spanish word for “rich,” this once-booming mining town is lined with stone and brick Victorian structures from the 1880s. For the next 30 miles or so past Rico, the route follows the Dolores River, which takes a leisurely, meandering course through a valley of aspens and spreading cottonwoods.
The pleasant town of Dolores is perched above McPhee Reservoir, popular for recreation and the site of ancient ancestral Puebloan settlements. Some of the remains that were excavated here before the gorge was flooded are on display in the Anasazi Heritage Center, located on a bluff overlooking the Montezuma Valley about four miles south of town on Rte. 145. The center also features a 25-room ruin and a full-scale replica of a pit house dwelling.
Descending past ranches and farms, the drive reaches the strip town of Cortez. Nearby are scenic desertscapes backed by the La Plata Mountains and unique Mesa Verde National Park.
12. Mesa Verde National Park
More than 700 years have passed since the ancient pueblo peoples occupied cliff dwellings along Mesa Verde’s precipitous walls. Even so, when visiting crowds dissipate in late autumn and snow dusts the distant peaks, you can almost sense the presence of “the Ancient Ones,” the name given to them by the Navajos. One imagines these cliff-dwelling people shaping pots, harvesting corn and storing it in preparation for winter, telling fireside stories passed down from their ancestors, or chanting prayers from the depths of ceremonial kivas.
The dwellings were first discovered in 1888 when two ranchers, Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason, set off in a snowstorm in search of cattle that had strayed away and stumbled instead upon the perfectly preserved Cliff Palace —a large dwelling that was once the home of more than 200 ancient pueblo people. The next day they found Spruce Tree House, naming it for the tree that grew beside the ruin, and Square Tower House, the tallest structure in the park.
Today, visitors can experience a similar sense of discovery as they roam through these apartment-like cliff dwellings, most built in the middle of the 12th century. The majority were tucked into alcoves facing south-southwest to let in low winter sun but not the searing overhead rays of summer. They range in size from one-room “studios” to structures containing hundreds of rooms.
At the Chapin Mesa Museum, lifelike dioramas and various exhibits on basket weaving, pottery, masonry, and other skills trace the evolution of Puebloan culture from its beginnings in settlements along the Colorado River to its demise nearly eight centuries later.
Many have speculated about the reasons this ancient people abandoned their homes, but no one knows for sure. Some suggest the soil became exhausted from overfarming. Others claim a period of relentless cold drove them away. One of the more plausible explanations suggests that, beginning one summer in the 13th century, the rain stopped and did not return for more than 20 years. By then, the cliff dwellings had become ghostly ruins where nothing moved but the wind.
With no written language to tell their story, we can only guess at the fate of these people, but it is likely that they dispersed throughout the Southwest and that some of the Indians who now live in northern Arizona and New Mexico are among their descendants.
From Mesa Verde National Park, the drive continues east on Rte. 160 to a lush valley occupied by the ranching town of Mancos, which exudes Old West ambience. Nearby Mancos Lake State Park has a lovely campground in the midst of a ponderosa pine forest, and the lake itself is a paradise for boaters and anglers.
Heading east again, the road passes through ranchland and aromatic sagebrush flats to Cherry Creek, the locale where novelist Louis L’Amour penned the westerns that immortalized southwestern Colorado. The wide-open spaces continue all the way to Durango, the drive’s point of origin. Thrilled by the captivating views throughout the San Juan Mountains area, many a motorist has simply turned around and driven the entire route back in the opposite direction.