“When was the last time you climbed the stairs in a Lexus?”
These words were uttered by my devil-may-care driver as we ascended one of the toughest off-roading trails in Moab, Utah, and up Elephant Hill. This was one of the many white-knuckle moments I had during a tour of the Grand Circle, a region as beautiful and fierce as its resident mountain lions.
Encompassing portions of five states: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada, the Grand Circle contains America’s largest concentration of national parks and monuments, and can be a quite challenging terrain to navigate if you are a desert novice (like me).
Upon arriving in Albuquerque, we were met by our guide for the week, Jason Murray, an expert on the area and founder of Southwest Adventure Tours.
Turtle, our guide, gave us a tour of the “res” including the on-site church, and burial ground, and afterward, we were treated to a very special tribal dance performance and feast.
When we arrived at the Sky City Casino Hotel, we immediately settled in our rooms and then had a quick breakfast the following morning before embarking on the (near) four-hour journey to Chaco Canyon, our first feat of strength.
After learning about the incredible history of the ruins, we were given the option to take a short hike up to see the entire Chaco expanse.
Tip: Most of the hike was closer to a casual walk, but within the first minute of the trail, most of us were crawling up the large rocks to reach the flattened plateau (be aware of this before ascending).
One fearful friend vowed not to hike at this altitude for the rest of the trip, but little did we know, this was only the beginning of our ‘heightened’ journey.
Following lunch, we jumped back in the Mercedes van (used for all Southwest Tours excursions) and drove for another three hours to Aztec, NM.
Tip: It was on this drive that I was made aware of the complete lack of amenities. This is vitally important: if you should venture out alone (read: without a guide), be certain that you have more than enough gas, water, and food (in that order) to last you several hours, and a strong bladder. Many of the surrounding areas have few or no rest stop areas, and we saw many shuttered gas stations scattered along the highway – so I cannot stress this enough.
Following a night’s rest, and breakfast, we toured the Aztec Ruins National Monument with a local archaeologist for a few hours.
While the grandeur of Chaco can’t be replicated, I preferred this site because we were able to walk into the rooms and go underground to get a better sense of what it was like living there at the time.
A short drive this time followed our tour, and we participated in the most relaxing activity of the week: a day trip to Pagosa Springs for a tour, brewery hop, and dinner.
Tip: Guests of the Pagosa Springs resort have free access to the springs (the deepest geothermal springs in the world), however, if you are in the area just for the day (or staying elsewhere) you can purchase a day pass that includes usage of pools and locker room.
Feeling light as a feather after our soak, we drifted to the first brewery of the evening, Riff Raff Brewing Company, one of only two geothermally run breweries in the country.
Southwesterners seem to love using the green chili in just about everything (including ice cream), and it seems beer is no exception. Riff Raff’s El Duende Green Chile Ale is refreshing, smooth, and with a slight kick of spice in the finish, it was my favorite from all three of the breweries.
Next was dinner at Wolfe Brewing Company. They have such a wide range of choices for both food and beer lovers, that I was presented with a tasting platter of sixteen different styles, appetizers, and a large pizza and, suffice it to say, I didn’t finish any of the plates: beer or food.
Tip: Pagosa Brewing Company doesn’t have quite as many choices as Wolfe, but in addition to their seasonal beer selections, they offer other spirit and wine choices for the brew shy.
Our overnight accommodations were arranged in Durango, Colorado at the historic Strater Hotel, which, by far was the most entertaining part of the trip – for everyone but me.
The hotel is beautiful, and has a fun, Old West-themed saloon called the Diamond Belle (with appropriately dressed wait staff), and 93 unique guest rooms decorated with original Victorian period pieces.
While it’s rumored that the hotel is haunted, I thought no hotel could scare me more than The Stanley (in Estes Park), which I visited in early June, but I was sorely wrong.
When I entered my room, I saw a floral journal on the bed and thought it was a gift from the staff. I opened it and saw that someone had written in it. It said “Great room, but kind of creepy that the lady’s eyes follow you around all night”. Strange, I thought, until I looked up and saw what was the scariest portrait I have ever seen directly over the bed.
I immediately ran down to the hallway and pulled a very reluctant Dorian in my room. She took one look at the painting, grabbed my suitcase and said: “You’re staying with me”.
Laughing, I called the front desk to request the removal of the picture, but they said it was bolted to the wall. “A room change?” I asked, “Sorry, we’re booked up”.
So, after some cocktails at the Diamond Belle, I took Dorian up on her offer and slept (somewhat) soundly.
Tip: Most of the rooms do not have as frightening decor as mine, so if you’re inclined to get scared or have children, request a slightly less historic room when booking.
As you can imagine, my story was a hit during breakfast the next day, and I seemed to be the only one that had that experience (per usual).
Downtown Durango seemed lively, even at 8 a.m., but instead of exploring the town this time, we embarked on my favorite portion of the trip: the Durango-Silverton Railroad.
We were treated to first class tickets in the Knight Sky car, which offers an overhead panorama view of the San Juan Mountains (through the UV-protected glass-paneled roof), comfortable reclining seats, complimentary in-seat beverage service by an attendant (alcohol is extra), fresh baked pastries, a souvenir tote and refillable mug (very high quality – I now use it daily). And, depending on the season, the car is either open air or in our case, heated.
Our attendant, Dakota, was very knowledgeable about the train and the natural elements along the way and lived up to his title by being extremely attentive to us.
I sipped on hot coffee and peppermint tea and indulged in a delicious “warm apple pie” cocktail made with Tuaca liquor, as I enjoyed the spectacular vistas of the Animas River and Cascade Canyon until arriving at our final destination, Silverton, CO.
Tip: The Durango train is by no means a budget activity, but the price difference between the basic and first class tickets is not a significant amount, and absolutely worth it. If you go, request the Knight Sky for stunning views along the railway.
While this shouldn’t affect your choice to ride the train (again, it is so worth it in my opinion), Silverton isn’t what I would call a destination.
It’s a former prospecting town that has few permanent residents, and most of the businesses were closed for the season when we arrived.
One of the more bustling options in town is Grumpy’s Saloon and Restaurant, where we had lunch and enjoyed the live pianist.
There are a few hotel options in town, including the Grand Imperial Hotel (where Grumpy’s is located), should you want to spend the night, but I would recommend booking a same day return on the train.
We made the decision to head out a little earlier than planned to savor more time on scenic Molas and Coal Banks Pass. The road height is just over 10,000 ft in elevation and led us up to home for the evening, the Far View Lodge.
The Lodge is located within Mesa Verde National Park and offers what they call “nothing fancy”, but other than not having a TV (which I didn’t miss), it has all of the comforts of a basic hotel with a wonderful on-site restaurant with a great menu and wine selection, and like a lot of our perfectly planned destinations, amazing views.
At dinner, we were informed that there was a slight change to our itinerary, and we would be going to Balcony House, an ancient Native American site.
Our guide, Jason, seemed to be smiling in a slightly sinister way, and had I seen the description on the website, I might’ve known why:
“The one-hour Balcony House tour is one of the most intimate yet adventurous tours at Mesa Verde. A visit to Balcony House will challenge your fear of ladders, heights, and small spaces, and will give you the opportunity to explore the common areas of a mid-sized, 40-room dwelling.
The Balcony House tour requires visitors to descend a 100-foot staircase into the canyon; climb a 32-foot ladder; crawl through a 12 foot, 18 inches wide tunnel; and clamber up an additional 60 feet on ladders and stone steps.
Gee, I wonder why we were nervous…
Despite the fear that the group collectively felt, we all successfully climbed the cliffside ladder (some of us, with a smile, like Liz) and felt a camaraderie with the ancestral Pueblos in the moments afterward.
Tip: Fear of heights? Try a self-guided tour of the Step House instead.
Exhilarated and exhausted, we drove three hours for a quick tour of the Natural Bridges National Monument. This park contains three of the largest natural bridges in the world, and it is truly a beautiful sight.
After driving a bit longer, we settled in Bluff, Utah for the night. At this point, our group of strangers had bonded so much during the adventurous aspects of the trip, that we felt more like friends, and shared some drinks on the patio at the Desert Rose Inn blissfully unaware of the challenges the next day would present.
When we reached the Canyonlands (the real-life site of 127 Hours), the following day, we were placed in the very capable hands of the guides from NAVTEC Expeditions.
These two wonderful men did everything in their power (by expertise or care) to make us feel safe on the treacherous terrain, and, as a self-proclaimed ‘city kid’, I was floored at their impressive driving skills.
But, just as in the beginning of the story, we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Before the off-roading (and foreshadowing: using first aid kit), we stopped at Newspaper Rock, a landmark with hundreds of ancient Puebloan petroglyphs.
Seeing as we are all journalists (though few work at newspapers) I saw it fitting to take a group photo in front of the rock.
There are three districts of Canyonlands National Park: the Needles District, Island District, and the Maze.
For the start of the off-roading journey, we began in the Needles section and were separated into two Lexus SUVs from the 90’s (the gold standard for off-roading, I’m told).
Elephant Hill (mentioned above) is the most difficult of the off-roading trail obstacles, and by far, the most thrilling – and in my case, terrifying.
After ascending the hill and some intense switchbacks, we got out of the vehicles for a photo break, and I played ocean sounds on my phone to calm my nerves as Dorian spritzed a floral mist on my face.
And, here comes the irony: I was terrified of being in the car, or rather falling off a cliff in the car, but I never thought I’d be injured by the car.
We had little room to navigate when exiting/entering, so I left the door open as I climbed to the other side when I heard a whack! Karl, another journalist on the trip, shut the door on my wrist, and I was wailing in pain.
So – for those paying attention earlier on – the first aid kit was retrieved and I was given a makeshift “cast”. Fortunately, nothing was seriously injured or broken, just swollen and strained. I took some ibuprofen, ate a wrap Donna (another journalist) so lovingly made me for me at lunch, bucked up and went on our final hike of the trip.
Tip: Don’t leave your hands, arms, or any other dangling participles (bad writers’ joke) in car doors. Or any doors. Just don’t.
To view some of the crazy footage of off-roading, see the video below.
I love hiking. It’s one of my favorite ways to explore a new place and keep in shape while at home. This hike was no different, offering – you guessed it – amazing views, but I was shaken up from the fear and injury that when we reached some slippery sandstone at the peak, and my feet slipped (even in trail runners), I lost it.
Our angel of a guide comforted me (my wife has shed tears here too!) and assisted in getting me (and several others) past the sandy ridge to the peak.
When you are faced with a hurdle in life and manage to overcome it relatively unscathed, it instills a healthy dose of confidence that all of the ladies were feeling at the summit.
The euphoric feeling that we soaked up for a few minutes quickly dissipated as we realized what goes up, must come down – including us and the cars.
The descent was far less theatrical, and for the most part, I was able to just sit back and take in my surroundings.
Tip: I can’t speak of the other guides in the area, but IMHO, go with NAVTEC.
Sleep came quickly at the Big Horn Lodge, and it wasn’t until breakfast that I realized it was our last day on the trip.
We also visited our last natural wonder, the Colorado National Monument and set up a picnic near the edge.
This was the only day that the weather wasn’t perfectly sunny, so we opted for a tour and tasting at Two Rivers Winery & Chateau – only to see a rainbow there at the end of the day!
Our final group dinner was held at 626 on Rood, an upscale American bistro, and by far, the best meal of the trip. Steaks, salads, and creative vegetable dishes pepper the menu, and I even got to share a piece of New England with our guide, Jason by showing him how to properly eat an oyster.
Tip: There is a $140, 40-ounce steak on the menu at 626. Jason ordered and finished it. Proceed with caution.
We said our goodbyes post-dinner, and while most of my new friends were returning home, I ventured further west for a new escapade – but for that story, you’ll have to wait until next time…
While this exact itinerary is not yet available through Southwest Tours, you can book a similar experience called the Trail of the Ancients by clicking here.