We awoke to drizzle, which became rain quickly so we opted to take a drive around Vallecito Lake. Within a mile or two we were dismayed to discover that the pine beetles, which were destroying the Rockies, had also infested this area. To add to the problems, the lake had been reduced by a third. Large stretches of muck took up miles of shoreline and the marina was now stranded inland.
Apparently, low water levels have plagued the lake for several years. In early 2008 three agencies partnered up with the idea to "seed" the clouds. Basically a minute amount of silver iodide is sprayed across a propane flame which helps the particles to rise into the clouds where it causes moisture to freeze, forming ice crystals. With any luck these crystals fall over the southwest Colorado area as snow.
Silver Iodide is also used in photography for processing and in antiseptic medicines. Approximately 50,000 kiligrams a year are used for rainmaking in the U.S. Under the guidelines of the Clean Water Act by the EPA, silver iodide is considered a hazardous substance, a priority pollutant, and as a toxic pollutant. After some research it appears that cloud seeding may -- or may not -- work, and may -- or may not -- be harmful to the environment.
Next, we headed towards Durango, a city much larger than anticipated (population 15,501). Originally, we thought the city a wash as we ran into quite the construction mess and took a detour seemingly to nowhere. Finally, after several circles and backtracking we found the visitors center where an elderly gentleman directed us to the "historic area" where all of the shops and restaurants are located (roughly Main to 3rd and College to 9th. On a sidenote: there are numbered streets running east to west and north to south.). I also grabbed a handful of brochures and maps.
Scanning our literature we decided that there wasn’t much to do in Durango on a rainy day with two small dogs. We opted to find a take-out lunch and eat it at a park. Main Avenue is a wonderful area in which to locate amazing restaurants, cafes and Mexican eateries, a pub and steakhouse all line up to offer great cuisine. I chose to run into Jean Pierre’s Bakery & Wine Bar (601 Main Ave.) While I was awaiting our order, my better half stayed in the car with the dogs to browse through maps to find us a lovely park (Buckley Park, down the street on Main) in which to picnic in the car.
When we return to Durango next, we’ve found our spot. Jean Pierre’s truly French cuisine was divine. I had hot piping hot tomato-Chevre soup and one of the best ham quiches that I’ve ever sunk my teeth into. My better half had the veggie sandwich. She cooed over the croissant. For dessert, both a lemon and chocolate tart. We were fully satisfied.
She had also found a scenic drive nearby called the "Million Dollar Highway" or route 550 from Silverton to Ouray. It roughly runs parrellel with the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad for 25 miles. The original road was built as a toll road in 1883 by Otto Mears. In the early 1920s the road was rebuilt under the federal highway system. The nickname allegedly stems from the fact that it took a million dollars to build or another legend claims that the road was built with fill dirt containing gold ore.
The highway passes through an area known as the "Switzerland of America" and was the backdrop for such John Wayne films as "True Grit" and "How the West was Won". It passes over three 10,000+ foot peaks with nary a guardrail and numerous "S" curves. Many of the brochures state simply: "Bring a camera." I would add, "Bring nerves of steel."
The fall foliage report states that we are passing through the area at 30% change in Aspens. (The peak of change should occur within the next few days). The result are bursts of yellow, orange and red popping out of the forest of pines. This is intermixed with gurgling mineral springs which change the color of the streams to yellow, decaying mining implements and structures and waterfalls too numerous to count (we stopped at 20).
We turn around in Ouray, a Victorian town restored to its mining boom glory after stopping in Mouse’s Chocolates (520 Main St.) for something to nibble on, and rich, creamy cocoa. You can watch truffles being made by hand, and for chocolate lovers, this is a must stop. (Try the toffee-covered chocolates).
Then, back towards Red Mountain, which are actually three peaks covered in reddish iron ore. The change of direction revealed a whole new vista of views. The Million Dollar Highway is part of the San Juan Highway System and if you have time to drive the entire 236-mile loop, we recommend driving from Ouray to Silverton.
One of the highlights of the trip was a family of deer crossing the highway. I pulled the car over and grabbed the camera to gently slide out for a few photos -- hopefully. I scared the leader back towards the woods for a moment. Then, he stepped forward, watched me and approached the road again. No one was coming so he bounded across, followed by a doe and youngster. All of this occurred just yards away.
As we made our way back to the cabin, we stopped at Honeyville (33633 Hwy 550, Durango). Since 1918 they have been producing honey, jams, syrups and chocolates mixed with honey, as well as honey wine, beauty products and candles. Their bumbleberry (a mixture of blackberries, raspberries and blueberries) jam with honey is delicious.
Once back to the cabin we opened the "King Arthur" honey wine (or mead) made by the Meadery of the Rockies. The wine was to offer an aroma of wildflowers, the taste was of orange blossoms and honeysuckle and the finish dry. At least thats what we were supposed to feel (according to one wine magazine) but we never could decide what food to serve it with or if we actually liked it. Instead, we toasted a spectacular sunset over the lake from our porch.