By Lori Erickson
The bright lights of the Mile High City and majesty of Rocky Mountain National Park tend to get top billing in Colorado, but a tour of the southwestern corner of the state offers equally stellar attractions.
A tour bookended by a national park and a national monument — Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Chimney Rock — offers groups spectacular mountain scenery, intriguing history and world-class outdoor recreation.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Designated a national park in 1999, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a 48-mile formation of steep, jagged cliffs cut over millions of years by the rushing waters of the Gunnison River. Little light can penetrate its narrow walls, giving the canyon its name. Shrouded in shadows for much of the day, each morning and evening the sun’s slanting light beautifully illuminates one facet of the canyon after another.
The best viewing spots are along the top, including the South Rim Visitor Center, where groups can see birds riding the updrafts created by the canyon walls. For a different angle on the region’s beauty, take a National Park Service boat tour, which travels 7 miles into the Black Canyon from the Morrow Point Reservoir.
A three-hour drive leads to Mesa Verde, which is both a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It includes more than 4,500 archaeological sites left by the Ancestral Pueblo people, who lived at Mesa Verde for seven centuries beginning around A.D. 550. At first they lived in shallow pit houses excavated from the soil, but over the centuries they became master builders, constructing elaborate complexes tucked into the sandstone cliffs of this dry region.
Because these structures blend so seamlessly with their surroundings, you may not even see them when you first scan the landscape. As you look more closely, you will see how cleverly they are built into the rocks.
A variety of ranger-led tours offer insights into the history and culture of the people who once lived in these aerial dwellings.
The charming mountain town of Durango lies 35 miles east of Mesa Verde. Bisected by the Animas River, Durango attracts outdoor enthusiasts from around the world for skiing, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing and river rafting.
Travelers who prefer their recreation a little tamer can wander Durango’s vibrant downtown, which has an up-and-coming reputation as a foodie destination. Dubbed the “Napa Valley of Beer,” the city has six microbreweries and brewpubs, and two distilleries, plus destination restaurants that include Seasons Rotisserie & Grill, Chimayo Stone Fired Kitchen and Grassburger.
“Durango is full of people who are passionate about local, sustainably raised food,” said Anne Klein, public relations contractor for Durango. “We have more than 120 restaurants, many of them serving produce and meats from the area, from lamb and artisan cheeses to fresh melons, apples and asparagus.”
Groups also will love an excursion on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a steam-powered locomotive built in the 1880s to haul silver and gold ore from the high mountains. Today, it travels through a landscape little changed from the Gold Rush era, chugging through canyons and forests, across bridges and along a narrow cliff edge 400 feet above the Animas River.
Chimney Rock National Monument
The tour ends 50 miles to the east at Chimney Rock National Monument, which preserves an ancient astronomical site on top of a high mesa surrounded by mountains. About 1,000 years ago, the mesa was occupied by the Ancestral Pueblo people (the same civilization that lived at Mesa Verde). Its two jagged rock spires perfectly frame the full moon rising during a lunar standstill, a phenomenon occurring every 18 years.
Elaborate buildings were constructed atop the mesa in the 11th century, though only ruins remain today. Visitors reach the site by driving up a winding road and then hiking the final quarter mile. At the entry to the mesa stand the ruins of what was probably a guard tower. Nearby are the remains of the Great House Pueblo, which once contained 35 rooms and two ceremonial kivas. From there, the narrow causeway leads to the twin spires, a dramatic ending to this tour amid the treasures of Colorado’s southwest.