We left Durango mid-morning on Thursday and headed for Silverton and the Old Hundred Gold Mine. Now if you know anything about Durango you probably are thinking, "Did they take the train to Silverton?" It is the biggest attraction in Durango, a three-hour train ride through the San Juan Mountains. However, since we were heading to Ouray (pronounce Your-RAY) and had to drive through Silverton to get there, it didn’t make sense to take the train ride to the same location we had to drive to anyway. It isn’t cheap, either...would have cost our family close to $200. We debated about having some of us ride the train and some of us ride in the car to get to Silverton, but in the end most of us were into the one-hour car trip rather than the three-hour train ride. I’ve heard you see beautiful scenery on the way there, since it goes along the rivers and you see lots of waterfalls. On the highway, we were so high up that to see the streams we had to pull over and look down. Way down. Which was breathtaking not only for the beauty for also for the fear it struck in us!
Anyway, we drove over what is called the Million Dollar Highway, or the San Juan Skyway. The drive was really pretty and not too treacherous, at least not yet. More about that later. We came upon a stream rushing down the mountainside which was a highlight. We wanted a family picture there so pulled over. A family was already there taking pictures of their kids and Alan thought they might like a family picture (because of course, we wanted one) and asked, "Could I take a picture?" And the father looked at him kind of crazy and said, "Well, if you really want one!"
Anyway, we moved on and got into Silverton, an old western-looking town full of what else...lots of tourist shops. We wanted to shop but thought we would come back later after we’d toured the highly touted Old Hundred Gold Mine. This was five miles outside of town on a dirt road, and is a tour into an actual former gold mine. Mining is obviously huge in this region. (Hence the name "Silverton" because they got "silver by the ton.") On the mine tour you ride a third of a mile into the mountain and learn how the prospectors mined the gold. I had made it clear to Alan that I would not be going along on the tour...after nearly hyperventilating going through the one mile mountain tunnel at Zion, I knew my claustrophobia would do me in going into a dark mountain passage for an hour.
So we got there and were met by a burly old prospector, looking exactly the way you would imagine. We got to pan for gold and silver while waiting for the tour. They "salt" the mine with jeweler’s silver so we had fun discovering all kinds of small pieces of silver. Soon it was time for everyone to put on their raincoats and hardhats and head into the mines. The kids were very disappointed that I wasn’t going along, but I was not about to be talked into it.
The tour was less than an hour, and when they came out I saw few smiles. Any I did see must have been smiles of relief that the tour was over! As they told me how bad it was to go into that wet, dark place with water dripping all over them, I knew I’d made a wise decision. Alan said I would have flipped out with the tight confines they had to go through to get into the mine. When we got in the car, Elly said, "Daddy, did you tip the guy?" When he said no, she said, "Well, there was a sign that said, ‘If you liked the tour, tip your guide.’" And he said, "Well, I didn’t like the tour!" They were all feeling sick and hungry so we headed into Silverton for something to eat.
On the way, they told funny stories about the guide. For example, at one point he called all the kids over and told them to look way down in a hole while he shone a light down. When they finished looking, he said, "Know what that was? That’s the miner’s portapotty!" And then went into peals of laughter. You can imagine how amused the girls were!
They had a cute sign hanging up in the miner’s shop. It said, "We gladly remove Kerry/Edwards bumper stickers here...just .95 cents + $5.00 tax!" Anyway, we left the gold mine and arrived in Silverton at 4:30 PM to find that the town pretty much closes down at 4 PM when the last train leaves to go back to Durango. Whoops, guess we weren’t going to do much shopping after all. We ate soup & sandwiches at the Brown Bear Café, which was said to have the "world’s best" French Onion soup. Turns out maybe it was "Brown Bear’s best" anyway...they are legends in their own minds. I never trust places that ask if you want "brown or white gravy," anyway, as they asked the kids what color gravy they wanted on their mashed potatoes. If they can’t even call it beef or chicken gravy, I’ll pass!
Since the town was pretty much closed down, we headed on our way to Ouray. I was glad to see a sign that showed it was only 20 miles away, a quick trip. Wrong! This twenty-mile trip took us almost 90 minutes over the Million Dollar Highway. Hairpin turns like you’ve never seen before. You really couldn’t get going much faster than 20 miles an hour or so. This was treacherous driving! I kept telling Alan, "Hug that center line!" I couldn’t even enjoy the views because I didn’t want to chance saying, "Oh look at that!" and have him take his eyes off the road even for one nanosecond...there is just no margin for error. I know it was named the Million Dollar Highway because of the views, and yet in my mind it is named that because after people drive over it, they say "I wouldn’t drive that again for a Million Dollars!"
Ouray is a beautiful town nestled in the middle of a huge mountains, and is referred to as the "Switzerland of America." Evening was approaching when we arrived into town, and the whole town is lit up with lots of white Christmas lights on many buildings. We stayed at the Best Western Twin Peaks, whose big claim to fame is that John Wayne stayed there for 40 days while filming "True Grit." In fact, they assigned our family to the actual room he stayed in. This meant nothing to the kids...their only concern was that they were not sleeping in his actual bed!
One thing Ouray is famous for is jeep tours onto mountain passages inaccessible by car. After risking our lives driving the Million Dollar Highway, this tour option did not appeal to any of us! We did some hiking, though, and saw some gorgeous waterfalls. Then we enjoyed soaking in the hot springs at our hotel.