Here are five fun ways for kids (and grownups) to catch ahold of these story lines and experience the living, breathing history and heritage of the San Juans.
1. Explore the Cliff Dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans
A millennia ago, the Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloans, inhabited a great swath of land across the Four Corners region. Mesa Verde National Park is one of the best places to discover the astonishing cliff dwellings these ancient people left behind.
The world-renowned park between Cortez and Durango contains nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, several of which can be explored on foot – either on your own or by joining a guided park ranger tour.
The dwellings, ranging in size from one-room storage units to villages of more than 150 rooms, fit organically into their surroundings, tucked into recesses at the base of billowing sandstone cliffs stained with desert varnish. It is possible here to sense the life that once filled these spaces – grandfathers telling stories by firelight, the earthy drumbeat of the manos on the metate as the women ground corn for the evening meal, the fragrance of burning piñon and juniper in the air.
At the expansive Cliff Palace ruins near park headquarters, children love clambering down the ladder into a sacred underground ceremonial structure called a kiva. Once inside, look for a small hole or indentation in the floor called a sipapu – a sort of symbolic belly-button or time travel portal through which it was believed that the ancestors first emerged into the present world.
Special events at Mesa Verde this summer include traditional Hopi dancing June 29-30 and Santa Clara Pueblo pottery demonstrations on Sept. 21. A museum, guided tours, campgrounds and lodging are available.
Nearby related attractions for your young Indiana Jones include Ute Mountain Tribal Park, near Cortez, offering unique opportunities to explore remote Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings with a Ute guide; Hovenweep National Monument’s mysterious towers; the well-preserved multi-tiered Puebloan village of Aztec ruins near Farmington, N.M.; the Anasazi Heritage Center on Highway 145 near Dolores with its extensive collection of Anasazi relics plucked from an area now inundated by a reservoir; and Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, where kids and families can participate in week-long excavation programs. (800/253-1616; mesaverdecountry.com)
2. Ride the Railroad From Durango to Silverton
Continue your adventure aboard a real time machine: the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This historic train has been in continuous operation for 130 years! It once carried $300 million in gold and silver ore from Silverton to Durango. Today, it hauls visitors on a journey through time, behind vintage coal-powered steam locomotives and tender cars indigenous to the line.
With a wistful wail of the whistle and a belch of coal smoke, the steam engine pulls out of the depot in picturesque downtown Durango and heads for the bucolic riverside pastures of the Animas River Valley. As the landscape gets steeper, rougher, narrower, riders find themselves chugging into the wilds of the Animas River Gorge. For train buffs, one of the most exciting parts of the ride is the highline, a stretch of track cut into the cliff face several hundred feet above the river.
The rhythm and rocking of the train is womblike, gently lulling you back in time as the engine strains up the steep grade of the canyon, crosses an old trestle bridge and finally emerges three or four hours later into Silverton – a rugged, scrappy little town perched in the caldera of an ancient extinct volcano and surrounded by stunning glacier-carved wilderness.
The train clickety-clacks its way past the old Silverton Depot, where the station-mistress (dressed in period costume) and a handful of local kids gleefully wave. It eases to a stop in the center of town for an immersion in an earlier era — a time of wide dusty streets and colorfully painted timber-frame storefronts that still retain the aura of their days as saloons and bordellos (although they now house restaurants, galleries and souvenir shops).
Before venturing away from the train to explore the town, be sure to say “hi” to the engineer, who sometimes lets children peer inside the engine’s brightly burning fiery belly.
Silverton is a place that fully embraces its history. While in town, enjoy a stagecoach ride or catch a gunfight reenactment, courtesy of the Silverton Gunfighters Association. They open fire Thursdays through Saturdays, at 5:30 p.m., throughout the summer in downtown Silverton.
Daily tours on the D&SNGRR go from Durango to Silverton and back throughout the summer (there is also an overnight or one-way option). The railroad offers package deals with local tour operators, making it easy to take in such regional attractions as the Old Hundred mine tour during the Silverton stopover, even on a tight schedule. (888/TRAIN-07; durangotrain.com)
3. Tour a Real Historic Mine & Mill (Then Zip Through Time)
Imagine being deep inside the innards of a real historic hard rock mine. There’s the imponderable weight of the mountain pressing in all around; the musty mineral scent of the cold darkling breeze riding through miles of unseen tunnel; the sound of trickling water and the occasional glimpse of a glittering vein cutting through the native country rock.
And then too there is the knowledge that all of this was made by the hands of men, well over a century ago, chasing the elusive dream of gold, some striking it rich, others dying of silicosis and the unspeakable accidents known to happen in the mines.
The Old Hundred Mine, like most in the Silverton mining district, dates back to the last quarter of the 19th century. Although investors poured millions into the mine over the years, it ultimately never made a dime. Today, the Old Hundred is home to one of the best mine tours of the Rocky Mountains.
It’s easy to get to – just a few minutes’ drive north of Silverton on State Highway 110 (a well-maintained dirt road), then a short way up another dirt road toward Cunningham Gulch.
Upon arriving, visitors don hard hats and slickers, squeeze side-by-side into a real trammer to ride the rails 1,500 feet straight into the guts of Galena Mountain, as the light from the portal shrinks into a pinprick and finally disappears. At the end of the line, passengers disembark for a short walk around a portion of the mine’s interior, as a guide demonstrates various equipment and tells tales of hard rock mining in the San Juans.
Most of the guides are former miners, so when they operate the drill, skip or mucker, they know what they are doing.
Tours are offered several times daily, May through September. Pan for gold (the sand in the sluice box is “salted” with small gemstones, so you’re guaranteed to find something to take back home) while waiting for your tour to begin. Also, be sure to tilt your head back and look way up the mountain to catch a glimpse of the Old Hundred boarding house perched on the cliff 2,000 feet above, where miners once lived year-round. (800/872-3009; minetour.com)
The flip-side of mining is milling – the process by which large chunks of raw ore are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces by mechanical and chemical means to eventually extract the precious and base metals inside. Learn all about this process at the Mayflower Mill, a National Historic Landmark two miles north of Silverton, now owned by the San Juan County Historical Society and open to the public for tours. (970/387-5838; silvertonhistoricsociety.org)
Starting this summer, if permitting is complete in time, the mill will be the headquarters for a totally unique, two-mile-long zip-line course that blends history with high adventure. Durango-based zip line developer Cameron Winters of Full Blast Adventures has entered into a unique partnership with SJCHS to use the historic Mayflower Mill tramline and its easement for the project.
The Mayflower Mill tram is one of the most-intact historic tramlines still in existence in the American West, and the only all-metal tramline ever built in the San Juans. The tram delivered ore from the Mayflower Mine high in Arastra Gulch to the mill near the Animas River far below.
In the old days, people rode in ore buckets up to the mine. Now, instead of riding up, they’ll be zipping down, sometimes suspended up to 100 feet from the ground and going at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour, ending with a thrilling flight across the Animas River.
The adventure concludes with a guided tour of the Mayflower Mill. Children as young as 4 can ride ... if they have the guts for it. Ten dollars from every $99 ticket sale will go to SJCHS. Winters hopes to have the zip line operating by summer. Check with the Silverton Visitor Center for details. (800/752-4494; silvertoncolorado.com)
Get another perspective on mining in the San Juans by visiting the Bachelor-Syracuse Mine tour northeast of Ouray. “Not a sanitized amusement park ride, the Bachelor-Syracuse mine tour looks and feels like the real thing because it is the real thing,” writes Jane Bennett, author of Tales of the Bachelor Mine.
Above ground activities available at the Bachelor-Syracuse Mine include gold-panning, horseback riding, and a turn-of-the-century blacksmith shop. An outdoor café serves up breakfast and lunch. (970/325-0220; bachelorsyracusemine.com)
4. Stay in a Haunted Hotel
Ouray’s historic Beaumont Hotel (505 Main St.) has morphed many times over the years, from the magnificent centerpiece of an aspiring mining town in the 1880s to a shabby “pink elephant” with boarded-up windows and moldering façade to an exquisitely renovated hotel and spa that last year won a coveted listing on Condé Nast Traveler’s annual Gold List of the best hotels and resorts in the world.
The Gothic, brick-clad behemoth with its tower gables and mansard roof is said to be haunted by the ghost of Eller Day, a maid who was murdered by a black pastry cook named Joe Dixon in the hotel’s kitchen not long after it opened. Dixon was subsequently jailed and killed by an outraged mob. Stories abound of ghostly sightings at the Beaumont. Many feature Day and Dixon, but some reflect happier times, such as one story told by a couple living adjacent to the hotel, who would often watch a ghostly couple dancing upon the rooftop at dusk. At Buckskin Books, a business located within the hotel, proprietors tell of books floating off the shelves of their own accord. (970/325-7000; beaumonthotel.com)
The Historic Western Hotel (210 7th Ave.), perhaps more than any other building in Ouray, brims over with the character of the Wild West. For more than a century, a colorful string of owners and guests have come and gone, yet the rambling, three-story structure remains largely unchanged, still standing proudly as one of Colorado’s few remaining examples of a historic, wood‑frame hotel and saloon.
The hotel was built in 1891 at the height of Ouray’s mining boom as a “miner’s palace” with high tin ceilings, stained glass windows, an ornate saloon and lobby, simple rooms for miners, and lavish suites for well-to-do travelers who would arrive by stagecoach at the grand entrance beneath the second-floor veranda.
Hotel guest-books retain amazing accounts of paranormal encounters guests have had while staying here. Ghosts seem to prefer Room 1, also known as the “Blue Room” because of its ornate blue velvet wallpaper dating back to 1891, and the tiny “Room 18” at the end of a long, narrow hallway at the back of the hotel. (970/325-4645, historicwesternhotel.com)
The St. Elmo Hotel (426 Main St.) was built in 1898 by Catherine “Kittie” Heit, and is another of Ouray’s “top haunts.” The historic inn is like a time capsule; its guest rooms and Victorian lobby have been restored back to their original wallpapers and fixtures and contain many early furnishings, making you feel like you’re standing in the middle of a history book.
A well-known psychic from Tuscon, Ariz., who visited Ouray in the 1990s, described in a newspaper interview how she encountered a virtual parade of ghosts through her room at the St. Elmo, due in part, she said, to the fact that the town’s old morgue was located adjacent to the hotel.
The hotel also comes with its own resident ghost, Freddie (Heit’s son who hung himself in what is now room #5). From time to time, folks who work and stay there have described weird little things that happen to them that are attributed to Freddie.
Heit owned and operated the Queen Anne-style hotel well into the 20th century. Her ghost is also sometimes seen on the second floor of the hotel, sitting by the window, knitting.
Families with aspiring ghost busters should definitely take the Ouray’s Haunted History walking tour while they are in town. During the tour, you will visit Ouray’s most haunted locations and learn of the ghosts who continue to reside in them. Stories are based on historical facts, research on the paranormal and people’s experiences. (866/583-7775; or visit on Facebook
5. Attend a Pow Wow
A pow wow is just like it sounds – a swirl of colorful regalia, jingle dresses, fancy shawls and thumping drums – as people come together in an intertribal celebration of music, dance, feasting and friendship.
Interestingly, the tradition of pow wows only dates back to the mid-19th century or so. “One of the things the federal government did in the dog days of adverse Indian policy was to separate us Indian communities from one another,” said Richard West, Director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). “Pow wows are a powerful contemporary device for getting together as Indians; and, in that respect, they are a potent cultural and social connector among contemporary Indian communities.”
For non-Natives, said Ute elder Roland McCook, who traces his roots to Chipeta and Chief Ouray, the pow wow serves to help banish stereotypes while giving the larger community the chance to experience an American Indian gathering firsthand.
The need for dispelling stereotypes goes both ways.
McCook recalls of his childhood in a place called Desolation Canyon on the Northern Ute Reservation in Utah: “When my mother wanted to get me to come inside, she would say, ‘Come in, or the white man’s gonna getcha!’” He laughed. “I got curious what a white man would be – a person with white skin and a hairy face? I thought to myself, ‘My horse and dog have a hairy face....’ It preyed upon my mind somewhat.”
There came a day when the white man did come, and took McCook away from his family, pet prairie dogs, and the canyon he knew so well, to the White Rocks boarding school, 130 miles away. Here he successfully resisted a systematic attempted to snuff the Ute culture out of his being.
Yet he went on to have a distinguished career in the white man’s world, first with the Bureau of Land Management, which frequently used him as a go-between when its projects encroached upon tribal lands and later as Vice-Chairman of the Smithsonian Institution’s Native American Repatriation Review Committee, returning Indian artifacts and human remains to native peoples of the Americas.
McCook, who now lives in Montrose, has devoted himself in recent years to being an ambassador of Native American cultures, and as such is eager to extend an open invitation to the greater community for the upcoming fourth annual Montrose Indian Nations Pow Wow on Sept. 20-22, taking place at Friendship Hall at the Montrose County Fairgrounds.
Natives and non-Natives alike are invited to join in the celebration, see old friends and teach the traditional ways to a younger generation. (westernslopepowwows.com)
McCook is also bringing the Ute Mountain hoop dancers and drummers to perform in Ridgway on Sunday, June 16 (Father’s Day) as part of the inaugural Ridgway Heritage Days & Ranch Rodeo. “We will have a tipi there, and educational activities, and I will be speaking about Ute history and answering questions,” McCook said.