(Written on Sunday, November 3rd at 9am)
Total Days: 30
Total Mileage: 7,000
The next morning we got our first real glimpse of the town of Taos. This place is a true hidden gem. We were only going through it on our way to Durango because I had heard from one person that it was a “neat little place” and it made for a nice stopping point at 13 hours past Austin. I had pictured an old one-horse town in the desolate high desert. What we found instead was a charming tourist town that skirted the edge between high desert and beautiful mountains. It felt like a more “gritty” version of Truckee, California, and we loved it. It was made even more beautiful by the few inches of snow that coated everything in white. Using a complimentary map of the town, I plotted out a route that would best orient us with Taos and we were on our way. Our first stop was at the most impressive Visitor Center I’ve ever seen. This place gave the Yellowstone Visitor Center a run for its money. My favorite part was the map room where laminated maps of the surrounding forests were hung all over the walls, and at least 30 different hikes were described in detail on pamphlets that were free to take. We then drove through a nice town park and made our way northwest about 10 miles to check out the famous Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. The bridge is 565 feet above the ground, making it the 7th highest bridge in the country. The views were astonishing and the locals selling wares at the end of the bridge were full of helpful information. From there we made the 20-mile drive out to Taos Ski Valley.
Don and I are drawn into mountains like moths to a flame. For most people, being near mountains is the same as being in them. For us, when we are near mountains we can’t help but keep driving until we are completely surrounded by them. That’s what happened in Taos. We could see those beautiful Taos Mountains in the distance and so that’s where we headed. Within 20 minutes the fresh air, flowing streams, and huge pine trees were making us as giddy as schoolchildren. We hadn’t realized how much we missed the mountains until we were back in them (it had been almost a month since we had been in Montana!) Even once we got to the ski resort we kept driving and were eventually rewarded with incredible views of snow-capped Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico at over 13,000ft. Our drive ended at the Wheeler Peak trailhead and it took a bit of rationalizing to convince ourselves that we weren’t prepared to hike to the top. We vowed to come back someday and drove back toward town. When we do make it back we’ll probably stay at the Abominable Snowmansion, a great hostel in the quaint town of Arroyo Seco, halfway between Taos and Taos Ski Valley.
For lunch we decided to try a Latin-French fusion restaurant in town called Gutiz. Our food was delicious until Don bit down on something, found another something on his plate, rushed over to show the waitress and then headed straight to the bathroom. It took me a minute to realize he had found broken glass in his food and when he came back he described the feeling of a glass shard being stuck inside him. It all turned out okay, without any internal bleeding, and the waitress felt so bad she comped our whole meal. Oh well, mistakes happen! We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Historic Taos, checking out shops (we always like to see the local bike and outdoor gear stores), and drinking coffee. One of the best things about small towns is the amount of trust everyone has in one another. When we first got to our hotel the night before our key didn’t work so that manager just gave us her key, the skeleton key, and asked us to return it the next day. Then when we got coffee in the afternoon, we had started drinking it before realizing that the place only took cash. We offered to go to the ATM across the street, but the barista assured us that she was in no hurry and we could bring the money we owed anytime before they closed that evening. I’d much rather live in a place where the default is to trust and it is the exception that someone wrongs you, rather than always being on guard and never trusting anyone. After relaxing a bit at the hotel (we decided to stay another night) we drove over to the Taos Inn, a sort of center-of-town catch-all consisting of a hotel, bar, live music venue, and restaurant. That night they were having a Halloween costume party so we had a drink in the bar and marveled at the intensity with which the people of Taos approached Halloween. We of course finished off the night in the hot tub, planning to finally make it to Durango the next day.
A scenic 4-hour drive brought us into the town of Durango, where we took in the surrounding desert, gazed out the windshield at the beckoning mountains in the distance and made the instinctive decision to keep driving north. The whole purpose of our visit to Durango was to see if it was a place that we might someday call home. We had heard from hundreds of people that it was a great mountain town and it seemed to have a lot of what we were looking for. We are sure it is a great city, but we knew in an instant it was too far out of the mountains for us and we were so eager to get to those snowy behemoths that we couldn’t imagine staying away for another day. The result was another 2 hours of driving through the most magnificent scenery Don and I have ever experienced. The road, US 550, is called the San Juan Skyway and it plows straight through the San Juan Mountains. The portion between the mining towns of Silverton and Ouray is called the “Million Dollar Highway” and while history dictates it is because it cost that much to build, we think the name perfectly describes the views the route offers. We stopped for lunch in the small town of Silverton, which was basically closed for the fall season, and then continued on to Ouray.
Ouray calls itself the “Switzerland of America,” and the fact that it is surrounded by at least 8 14,000ft peaks proves its worthiness of the title. The town only has about 1,000 residents and it sits inside a small valley with towering mountains on all sides. Once here, we settled in for a couple days of mountain living. We spent the first night sleeping in our car, after meeting a bunch of kind locals at the Ouray Brewery and making a plan for the following day. It got pretty cold at night, but we only needed to turn on the car once to heat up and we both slept well knowing that we had mountains all around and stars overhead.
We got up yesterday eager to hike and explore. There is a 5-mile loop called the Ouray Perimeter Trail that goes all the way around town (through the forest) and highlights many of the town’s crown jewels. 5 miles may not seem like much, but we are at 9,000ft elevation and some of the hiking was almost straight uphill. We took our time exploring waterfalls, mountain vistas, snow-covered ground, and deep canyons. Ouray is home to the best ice climbing in the Americas and every year the town hosts the Ouray Ice Festival, where climbers come from all over the world to climb in the manmade Ouray Ice Park. After our hike, we found a great little cabin that we decided to stay in for the night. We checked in early, enjoyed happy hour at a local pub, spent more time in a hot tub (this time surrounded by mountains) and then spent a cozy evening inside. Today we will leave Ouray, drive through the famous ski town of Telluride, and then head over to Moab, Utah. The trip is coming to a close, but we feel ready for the transition. Traveling in the US is expensive, and we really do feel like we’ve gotten everything we hoped out of this trip. Don’s Spanish is coming along nicely (I’m so proud of him!) so soon it will be time to head south and explore another part of the world.