fort_garland_colorado_road_trip_travelYou’re Riding Shotgun With…








thomas_j_noel_colorado_author_professor_historyThomas J. Noel, who is truly “Dr. Colorado.” He has written more than 40 books on Colorado, he is a professor of history at the University of Colorado in Denver and he conducts tours for the Colorado Historical Society and the Smithsonian Institution.
He also appears as “Dr. Colorado” on Denver’s Channel 9, as well as writes a Sunday history
column for The Denver Post.

Dr. Colorado guides us through his favorite spots in western Colorado on a tour that will take you back to the days of Doc Holliday, Teddy Roosevelt, Alferd Packer and other Old West pioneers who trekked to these Colorado slopes.

Fly into Grand Junction, coast in on Amtrak, whiz in on I-70 or raft or kayak in on the Colorado River to its grand junction with the Gunnison River.

Stay at the Spring Hill Suites, which is located in the downtown historic district dressed up with engaging sidewalk sculpture. Among many dining options in this Main Street, pedestrian-friendly district are the upscale Il Bistro Italiano and the popular Rockslide Brewery.

As the largest city in western Colorado, Grand Junction has a crackerjack Museum of Western Colorado, the Cross Orchards Living History Farm, the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens & Butterfly House, plus nearby Fruita offers the Dinosaur Journey Museum and Colorado National Monument, while Mesa is home to Powderhorn Ski Resort. The biggest and tastiest draws, however, are the Grand Valley’s two dozen wineries, which are slowly sneaking up on California vintners.

About 100 miles east on I-70, Glenwood Springs is famed for the country’s largest outdoor hot springs pool. Try a curative soak. Doc Holliday tried the hot springs cure for his tuberculosis, but he wound up under a tombstone in Linwood Cemetery. A Main Street saloon is named for the gunslinging dentist.

Best to stay next door in the grand old Hotel Colorado, President Theodore Roosevelt’s home base for one of his Colorado bear hunts. You can head for the well named Exclamation Point Restaurant & Bar with a breathtaking view of the Colorado and Roaring Fork River valleys.

Aspen, Colorado’s most glamorous resort town, is only 40 miles away, but consider the road less taken and head for the much cheaper, more real silver city of Leadville. At two miles high, the country’s highest city never recovered from the silver crash of  1893—it is still a raw, blue collar town so unlike glitzy Aspen, Crested Butte, Breckenridge and Telluride.

The 1886 Delaware Hotel is the place to stay while you visit the intriguing  National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum, ride the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad, visit the Healy House Museum & Dexter Cabin and tour the Matchless Mine. There, Baby Doe Tabor’s frozen body was found one icy March, 1935 morning. The most beautiful woman in Colorado came to an ugly end.

Fifty miles south of Leadville on scenic U.S. 24, Salida is one of Colorado’s up-and-coming havens. An old railroad and smelter town with a marvelous red brick historic district, it has become a haven for rafters, artists and the younger generation.

Salida sits on the Arkansas, which boasts of being “American’s Most Rafted River.” Get wet in white water thrills rushing you through the awesome 1,000-foot deep Royal Gorge.

The Gorge is also visible by the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, an incline railroad (the only one of seven to survive in Colorado), which runs under the world’s highest suspension bridge. President Theodore Roosevelt—here he is again—rode this train where you can now enjoy a champagne brunch or murder mystery dinners aboard the elegantly restored rail relic.

To see a grungy coal town reborn as one of the best restored mining towns and slickest new ski resorts, head for Crested Butte. This is the “Mountain Bike Capital of America,” with no shortage of rentals, not to mention the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and Museum. History buffs will appreciate the life-size mining tunnel at the city’s Mountain Heritage Museum, which gives you a feel for the working conditions of the town’s early-day coal miners.

After Wyatt Earp’s infamous Vendetta Ride in Arizona in March 1882, he and his posse departed Arizona for New Mexico and eventually Colorado. The group split with Doc Holliday, heading to Pueblo and then Denver. Wyatt and his brother Warren, along with Dan Tipton and Texas Jack Vermillion, landed in Gunnison, where Wyatt briefly took over a faro game at a local saloon. Wyatt took the train to get here, and the best place to learn about the region’s rail history is at the Pioneer Museum. It even houses an 1882 Denver & Rio Grande steam locomotive! Picture Wyatt standing on it, when you visit.

Colorado’s grisliest tale unfolds in the still remote, isolated town of Lake City. The antique frame courthouse there is now a veritable museum to Alfred (a.k.a. Alferd) Packer, the Hinsdale County Museum. He led five prospectors into the blizzard-blasted San Juan Mountains during the winter of 1873. Packer had wild tales of what happened to his companions. When the snow finally melted, the butchered bodies were found. Packer was sentenced to hang, supposedly with the judge’s pronouncement, “Packer, you voracious, man-eating, son-of-a-bitch, there was [sic] seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, and you ate five of them!”

Spectacularly situated in a narrow canyon is Creede, with its unique Underground Mining Museum. Creede’s Silver Thread Scenic Byway takes you to some of the best mining ruins in Colorado, and evenings offer first-rate summer repertory theatre.

Creede lies on the headwaters of the Rio Grande, which you can follow down to the San Luis Valley. Here lie the state’s oldest towns, sleepy adobe villages with picturesque churches and chapels. Valley attractions include the restored Fort Garland, an adobe outpost commanded by Kit Carson in 1866-67.

On the reservation in Ignacio, you will find one of Colorado’s most spectacular new marvels. The $32-million, tipi-shaped Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum is a high-tech tribute to the state’s oldest residents. The Ute Mountain Utes offer guided tours of their Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park.

If you have already visited adjacent Mesa Verde National Park, the Ute tour offers  a native perspective on Mesa Verde, the first United Nation-designated World Cultural Heritage Site in the United States.

Even more popular is the Durango & Silverton narrow gauge steam train which has been running ever since 1882 through the spectacular canyons of El Rio de las Animas de los Perditos (River of Lost Souls). At the end of the line, the postcard  town of Silverton lies like a movie set high in the silvery San Juan Mountains.

Back in Durango, treat yourself to shops galore, great brewpubs like Steamworks and the fabulous Strater Hotel with its Diamond Belle Saloon. Therein you will find the warning: “Work is the curse of the drinking classes!”

From Silverton, the scary Million Dollar Highway snakes over Red Mountain Pass and down into the “Switzerland of America,” the mountain hamlet of Ouray. Ouray’s fabulously-restored Beaumont Hotel, jeep tours of nearby ghost towns and large outdoor hot springs pool are the essentials of many options.

In nearby Ridgway, see the crackerjack railroad museum and grab a meal at the True Grit Café, a relic of John Wayne’s True Grit filmed in Ridgway.

North of Ouray, you will leave mountains for the canyon lands and Montrose, with its first-rate Ute Indian Museum & Chief Ouray Memorial Park and nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. North of Montrose, fruit orchards and vineyards start to adorn the landscape on your way back to Grand Junction.

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