Better Days Are Coming

Set 6: Raton, New Mexico, to Durango, Colorado

Text and Photos Copyright ©2002 by Carolyne Butler

Views Through the Windshield Index
PREVIOUS - SET 5: Amarillo, Texas, to Raton, New Mexico
NEXT - SET 7: Silver Thread Scenic Byway - South Fork to Lake City, Colorado

Colorado Highway 160 crosses the lower part of the entire state of Colorado, from the Kansas state line on the east to the Four Corners region in western Colorado. From the Great Plains on the east, it climbs into the Rocky Mountains near Walsenburg and crosses the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at La Veta Pass (9,413 ft.), continues across the 60-mile wide and almost flat San Luis Valley, then climbs back into the mountains and crosses the San Juan Mountains at Wolf Creek Pass. The road then heads west through hills and valleys, ranchland, farmland, and small towns until it reaches Durango, the largest town in that section of Southwest Colorado. Between Durango and Cortes, Mesa Verde National Park lures a multitude of visitors to view various Indian ruins and cliff dwellings. Highway 160 exits Colorado at Four Corners, where four corners of the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona square off, and you get a chance to stand in four states at once. Parts of Highway 160 are marked on road maps as "Scenic," and anyone who has ever driven there can attest to the truthfulness of that designation.

I've included pictures from our entire route across Colorado 160 here; however, we made the first half only as far as the South Fork area the first week, then picked up again at South Fork the next week and continued on west to Durango. We spent the week in between camping on the Silver Thread Scenic Byway, a less-traveled road that angles northwestward from Highway 160 up into the area where the Rio Grande River begins. (Those pictures can be seen in the next set.)

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Interstate 25, near Trinidad.

Interstate 25, south of Trinidad, Colorado

Interstate 25 heads north from Raton, New Mexico, toward Trinidad, Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, and points beyond. I don't know what mountain that is ahead, but it loomed ahead of us for many miles and we never reached it. We were only going as far as Walsenburg and then turning west on scenic Colorado Highway 160.

In this picture, you can see where the Great Plains meet the mountains.


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Spanish Peaks, looking south or southeast.

Spanish Peaks, looking south or southeast, from Colorado Highway 160

The Indian name for these mountains is as descriptive as any of the names given these beautiful mountains: Breast of the Earth. (Some people use more earthy terms.) They are some of the first mountains seen when crossing north over Raton Pass, and continue in view when we turn west toward the San Luis Valley. This picture doesn't do these mountains justice, but is an example of how things looked out our van windows.

Lots more pictures, and something about the geology of the Spanish Peaks can be found here:


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Rain clouds loam over the San Luis Valley.

Rain clouds loom over the San Luis Valley

The San Luis Valley is entirely ringed by mountains. To see it all from wherever you are, your head needs to be mounted on a swivel. This picture is looking at the mountains on the west side of the valley, where we're headed. The entire valley is roughly about 60 miles across, east to west, and 120 miles long, from north to south—quite a chunk of geography.

This valley ranks in the top five potato-producing areas of the United. Most people in the United States have probably eaten potatoes raised here. I especially like the Yukon Golds: Here's some more information about the various sights to be seen in "The Famous San Luis Valley," such as Great Sand Dunes and the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad:


— 4 of 15 —

Advertisement for the Colorado Gators Wildlife Refuge.

Advertisement for the Colorado Gators Wildlife Refuge

We've never visited this place. We're usually rushed for time to get further down the road when we've been through here before, plus we're from Florida where alligators live in their native habitat, so these giant armored lizards with the big teeth aren't exactly a novelty for us. And yes, I have eaten alligator meat. Kinda tastes like chicken. (Doesn't everything? Except when it tastes like steak.)

Check out this interesting interview ("Alligator Anomaly," by Judith Fein, with text and audio) from the Savvy Traveler about a visit with these critters:


— 5 of 15 —

Alamosa, Colorado.

Downtown Alamosa

Alamosa is the largest town in the Sun Luis Valley. It was a good place to shop for gas, ice, and groceries before heading into the outback places in a National Forest campground that would no doubt be many miles from supplies. We had no idea where we would be camping, because the Silver Thread Byway where we were headed was a new route to us, an area where we'd never been before.


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The Rio Grande waters this area.

The Rio Grande flows through the area where the San Luis Valley ends and the mountains begin

The Rio Grande, the third longest river in the United States, bisects New Mexico (to the south of Colorado) north to south before it heads toward the Gulf of Mexico as the border between the US and Mexico. But here in Colorado—if you're following the river to its headwaters—it takes a westward turn. The route of the Rio Grande from the Gulf up to its headwaters shows up nicely in this weather map picture: In the above picture, looking north, the river is flowing from left to right (west to east) somewhere in that low line of trees below the hills. Human habitation is scattered. Those storm clouds may look dramatic in a picture, and be a welcome sight to farmers, but they weren't exactly what we would have wished for when it was getting close to time for us to find a place to camp.


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Wooden water tank for trains from a bygone era.

Wooden water tank for trains from a bygone era

Those old steam engines required lots of water. This wooden water tank is one of many still to be seen along the old narrow gauge railroad lines.


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Fun City, a camper park on Colorado Hightway 160.

Fun City, a camper park we bypassed

We decided it was too late in the day to start up the Silver Thread Scenic Byway in search of a campsite 50 or more miles away, so we started looking for an overnight campsite near South Fork. Several small National Forest campgrounds (which we prefer) were already full, including one located on the way up to Wolf Creek Pass that had several hundred campsites. The above picture of Fun City is one place we might have been able to camp—and from the looks of it, it was a place for a fun vacation for lots of folks—but it epitomized exactly what we had come to Colorado to avoid. We retraced our route toward South Fork, then found a small campsite next to the highway at Highway Springs, which cost a whopping $3 for the night. It was a dry camp, which means BYOB—of water, that is.

CLICK HERE to see one view we had from our hilltop campsite at Highway Springs. (And yes, I do worry about pine trees such as these attracting lightning.)


— 9 of 15 —

One touch of civilization, a laptop.

At Highway Springs campsite

How about a view of our windshield, rather than out our windshield? Here we are at Highway Springs campground, driven inside by the rain.

You get a peek at my make-shift on-the-road office, where I used our son's laptop for checking road maps, writing a travelogue, and downloading digital pictures from the camera.

At night we can put up curtains all around for privacy (note the black Velcro strips around the windows for attaching them), although occasionally we leave them off when it's not too cold and there are no other campers nearby. When we do that, and the sky is clear, the stars we see through the window just inches above our heads look as if they are hanging there within arm's reach. Not many nights on this trip were clear though, due to the seasonal "monsoon" rains and persistent clouds.

Sure, it ain't the Hilton, but with only a few amenities like these, plus our platform bed at the back of the van—under which we store stuff like clothing and a spare tire—we have an ultra simple but comfortable arrangement for camping out without the bother of putting up a tent or expense of owning a dedicated camper. We're just simple folks, and we like it just fine, thank you. (Addendum: Late in 2002, we found a just-right Class-C RV that we liked and bought it, and now I have to add, we like it even better ... much better, thank you!)


— 10 of 15 —

Road construction near Wolf Creek Pass.

Road construction near Wolf Creek Pass

Road construction crews working near Wolf Creek Pass worked all night, when the road over the pass was closed to traffic. During the day, traffic was halted periodically, with about a 15-minute wait at some points, and allowing only one lane through at a time.

If you look closely at the road that goes uphill on the left, you can see two people walking near the top.


— 11 of 15 —

Just west of Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado.

Just past Wolf Creek Pass, road still under construction

This is a seven percent grade downhill from Wolf Creek Pass, but the views are great. Wolf Creek Pass is where the highway crosses the Continental Divide. Rain falling from the same cloud might end up in both the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, depending on which slope of the mountain it falls on.

See some more pictures here:
and here: .


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If your brakes fail, the truck stops here.

Runaway truck ramp, west of Wolf Creek Pass

If your brakes fail, the truck stops here.

Wolf Creek Pass received its 15-minutes when C.W. McCall (Bill Fries) put the Pass on the map with his catchy ditty, "Wolf Creek Pass." See lyrics here:


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Going west down from Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado.

The view going down west from Wolf Creek Pass

Along this section of Highway 160, the westward wiew of the San Juan River Valley is impressive.

See more information about the Wolf Creek Pass area (with pictures) here:


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Houses on water, Pagosa Springs, Colorado.

Homes on lake near Pagosa Springs, Colorado

The Pagosa Springs Chamber of Commerce says their mineral springs "are reputed to be the world's hottest mineral springs." The water reaches the surface at about 150 degrees. (Some hot tub.) The lake in the picture above is located in the outlying area around Pagosa Springs and isn't connected to the famous springs, which are located right smack in the middle of downtown Pagosa Springs.

See more about Pagosa Springs here:
and here:


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Chimney Rock, Colorado.

Chimney Rock, Colorado

There are Indian archaeological ruins located here, although we've never visited them, mostly due to being in the area at an inconvenient time. We have, however, visited Mesa Verde several times in the past. Mesa Verde, with its oft-photographed cliff dwellings, is located about another hour's drive to the west, and is well worth a visit, or several.

More about Chimney Rock, including pictures, can be found here:
and here:
and here:


Views Through the Windshield Index
PREVIOUS - SET 5: Amarillo, Texas, to Raton, New Mexico
NEXT - SET 7: Silver Thread Scenic Byway - South Fork to Lake City, Colorado