Million Dollar Highway Day 1: Scottsdale to Durango
Odometer (ILX): 39,696
Daily Distance: 465 Miles
A couple of hours ago, I opened the front door at home to a Dish Network salesman whose first question, pointing to the ILX in the driveway, was “What’s with the bug graveyard on the car?” I told him I’d just gotten back from a 3-day trip to Colorado and he offered to clean the bugs off for $5. I thanked him, but declined his offer.
Saddle up, pardners. This weekend’s roughly 1,300-mile trip was so extensive, I’ll be breaking it up into 3 separate blog entries. It would be a shame to let a holiday weekend go to waste, so I took advantage of the opportunity to get out of town and explore some new territory in a neighboring state. Ever since I published my post on my Road Bucket List back in September 2012, I’ve been itching to make it to Colorado to check out the so-called Million Dollar Highway.
My drive started out on Saturday morning with an ascent from the Phoenix area to Flagstaff, Arizona via Interstate 17.
In Flag, I headed north on Highway 89 toward Page.
Flagstaff, established in 1882, prides itself for being the “World’s First International Dark Sky City.” It was designated on October 24, 2001. Here’s what I’ve learned about the meaning of this title:
The International Dark Sky City designation is given to identify towns and cities “with exceptional commitment to and success in implementing the ideals of dark sky preservation and/or restoration, and their promotion through quality outdoor lighting.
Based on this, my guess would be that Flagstaff is a great place to view constellations!
North of town, I crested a summit and began to drop to the desert valley floor below.
There’s an abandoned stretch of old Highway 89 just to the east of the existing, newer, road. It’s about 4-5 miles long and it’s still serviceable, though being overgrown by weeds and with flaking paint stripes.
I always like to take this side road because of a small bridge at the north end of it. It didn’t cost me any extra time since it parallels the other highway and reconnects at the other end.
Cameron, Arizona is a small community located where Highway 89 and Highway 64 intersect. It’s the gateway to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Gas prices at the local service station were not clearly communicated. $1.41 for unleaded? I’ll take it!
I branched east on Highway 160 toward Tuba City, Arizona. This tall wooden building on the north side of the highway caught my eye, so I pulled over for a closer look.
This appears to be a schoolhouse and it dates back to the late 1800’s. The town of Tuba City was named after Tuuvi, a Hopi Indian leader. Tuba City was founded in 1872 my members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Tuuvi converted to the LDS religion and various members of the local Indian tribes migrated to the area because of its natural springs. Inside the schoolhouse, there’s not much left except a place for birds to nest.
Playing around with color contrast makes this an eery place. I probably wouldn’t go crawling around in there after dark.
I spent most of the remainder of the afternoon continuing through the Indian reservation. Various roadside attractions dotted the highway, including this Anasazi Inn which backs right up to some magnificent red rocks.
I’d soon be crossing through all 3 of these next milestones.
I’ve said it before, but I absolutely love the color contrast between bright red sandstone rock formations and a blue sky. Landscapes like these are a great opportunity for pictures. I can only imagine how awesome this background would look at sunset.
The ILX’s Silver Moon Metallic paint job reflected the sunlight with a glare. It’s a good thing I was wearing shades. At 80 degrees Fahrenheit, it was an absolutely perfect day to be out on the road.
Next up: Four Corners
Open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., the Four Corners Monument is the only place in the United States were visitors may stand (kneel) simultaneously in 4 states at one time. I was disappointed to learn that this was a cash-only operation ($3), and I didn’t have any on me. However, I’d already seen this before on a prior trip in the Legend.
The attendant at the booth was nice enough to let me loop around in the ILX and grab a picture in the meantime.
I should’ve left those sunglasses on; that sun was BRIGHT!
Just up the road on Hwy 160, I entered “Colorful Colorado.” Wouldn’t that sign make a great photo opportunity?
I thought so, too. But you might’ve noticed that my Michelin tires look awfully messy there. And that’s because….
… I got stuck in the sand. Hopelessly, unmistakably stuck. What began as an attempt to simply loop around the sign ended in my front end digging itself endlessly into a hole. By the time I realized what was happening, the quicksand had already done its job. I pondered next steps. The Four Corners monument was just 1/2 mile up the road, so I threw on a baseball cap and got ready to hike up the road and ask for help. Miraculously at that very second, I saw this guy pull in:
A good samaritan saved the day! This was “Joe,” who’d seen me trying to free the ILX from the sand. He said he had chains and offered to pull me out. Talk about timing. As I helped him get the chain hooked up, I quickly snapped this picture with my phone. The ILX has a conveniently located tow hook right underneath the rear bumper.
Just minutes later, he’d freed me from the sand and I gave him a hearty handshake and a thank you. Joe, if you ever read this, I owe you one! Grateful to be back on my way, I stopped just a moment at the Indian Trading Co just south of Cortez. There were two classic / matching Ford Thunderbirds sitting on the south side of the building.
Cortez is home to only about 9,000 people.
And one humongous cow. The now-closed “Purple Sage Rib Company & Saloon” was a great opportunity for a picture. It reminded me a little of the Longhorn Grill I visited a couple of weeks ago in Amado, Arizona.
Just east of Cortez lies Mesa Verde National Park. It comprises over 52,000 acres, making it the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. It is best known for its cliff dwellings that date back to the years 600-1300. I didn’t pit stop there; I’ll save it for a future trip.
I breezed past this Sinclair gas station on Hwy 160 and noticed a giant orange banner covering the entrance sign. It read: TOXIC SITE, and in smaller letters just above that, “Massive Petroleum Spill.” Yikes.
Soon I arrived at The Hogan Trading Post in Mancos, Colorado — home to one of the coolest roadside attractions I’ve seen.
Massive arrows made out of telephone poles! These poles have been outfitted with arrowheads and lodged in the ground at an angle.
I happened to stop by at the very moment when the teepee and the poles were being repainted.
I asked the guy, “How are you getting those lines so perfect?” “Just eyeballing it,” he said. Impressive!
Mancos is situated in a beautiful green valley. Pictured below on Business Loop 160 through the historic part of town is the Wes Potts Memorial Theatre. It was originally the Mancos Opera House, dating back to 1910.
Beef: It’s so satisfying. Spotted on a building alongside Hwy 160.
I made it! Entering Durango: Elevation 6,512 feet.
Here’s where I first saw a sign denoting Hwy 550 – the famed “Million Dollar Highway.”
Main Avenue was bustling with bicyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians, and automobile traffic. Durango’s history dates back to 1881 when it was established by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Today, it’s home to fewer than 20,000 people.
One of my favorite buildings was this historic Strater Hotel. It opened in 1887 and is an example of American Victorian architecture. Author Louis L’Amour stayed here frequently in room 222 when he was working on his western novels.
Inside, the front desk probably looks a lot like it would have looked back then. The owners have tried to preserve the historic integrity of the facility, and I say they succeeded brilliantly. I met up with my mom and step-dad at this time, and we checked the place out.
Adjacent to the hotel lies the Mahogany Grille where we ended up getting dinner.
I went for the pan-seared Salmon, one of several delicious sounding entrees.
Todd, Tia, Tyson
Before sundown, I had a few minutes to wander around town. At the south end of Main Avenue lies the station for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Originally put in place to haul ore, it’s now a passenger train line that runs 45 miles between Durango and Silverton. Someday I’d like to go back and ride this.
As day 1 drew to a close, I headed north 26 miles from Durango to the Durango Mountain Resort. Steep canyon roads offer plenty of passing lanes, thank goodness. Cooler temperatures were a relief from the Arizona heat that I’ve been used to.
I entered the San Juan National Forest which covers over 2,900 square miles of western Colorado.
The following day, I’d be experiencing the real adventure. For that, you’ll have to tune in next time.