September, 1986

Mesa Verde
La Junta

This was a weekend trip (with the Labor Day holiday) with the general goal of seeing Mesa Verde National Park, and then to return via some different way than I went out. Considering the length and the time, I didn't have the option to wander too very far from the route.

It wasn't until Tuesday that I even realized that there was a three day weekend coming up and I didn't really start thinking of where I might want to go until Thursday.

I had pretty much decided to head west into either Colorado or New Mexico as I had already been to many places worth seeing in Arkansas and Missouri, and besides, I sometimes prefer the Rocky Mountains to the Ozark Mountains.

A person at work had suggested that I go to Mesa Verde, and since I had never been there--and the distance seemed about right--that's where I decided to go.

Before I left I had intended to change the engine oil, but Ron's shop was closed early, and as I didn't have any oil on hand I just let it go for another week. I generally try to change the oil every 2,300 miles or so, but with all the trips I've been taking (most every weekend) that isn't always possible. In any event, the bike has never used any oil between changes and I hardly even bother to check it any more. The past several trips (quite a few in fact) I haven't used my tent or sleeping bag, preferring, instead, to spend the night indoors in a nice comfortable motel room. For this trip, however, I decided to get some use out of my camping equipment--I'm glad I did.

By the time I had packed my saddlebags and gotten together all the stuff that I take on these smaller trips (tools, rudimentary first aid kit, electrical tape, wire, etc.) and strapped my sleeping bag and tent, it was around 7:00 Friday evening. Still, my fuel tank was full and I was able to make pretty good time getting on down the highway.


My initial route was over what has become very familiar territory--Kansas Highway 54, west toward Dodge City.

I had to stop at a rest stop just short of Pratt in order to tighten up the straps (bungee cords, really) that held my sleeping bag on the back rack. I never had any more trouble with it after that. The sun had just started to set when I pulled into a Pratt restaurant for the dinner that I had missed having back in Wichita. I didn't bother with my cooking equipment this trip, and in any case I really wouldn't have the time.

After eating dinner I headed back out on the highway for a rest area to set up camp for the night (just short of Greensburg). This rest stop (as with all rest stops everywhere) had signs posted that camping was prohibited. However, it doesn't really seem fair, somehow, that large motor homes are allowed to park there all night yet mere tenters are prohibited. So I did what I have always done in this situation and just ignored the signs. I have never been questioned even though the rest stops are monitored by the highway patrol. After setting up my tent I rolled the bike right up next to it so that I could keep an eye out on it. Considering the circumstances, there's really no point in being fussy about parking your motorcycle on the grass.

I haven't had this Guzzi long enough (purchased just the year before), but more than once after a very long and hard ride on my previous bike (also a Guzzi) I remember getting off and shutting the engine down for the night and giving the motorcycle a little job-well-done pat on the gas tank.

One big advantage of sleeping in a tent is that you are assured of waking up with the sun. My tent is forest green around the sides with a cream colored roof that lets a great deal of light in, although it is quite opaque to anyone trying to look in from the outside. So, before the sun had actually peeked over the horizon I was on the road again and traveling toward Dodge City on Highway 50.

I stayed on that highway, passing through Garden City, Syracuse, Lamar and on into La Junta. La Junta was my turning off point for southern Colorado so I stayed here for lunch before heading out. Just to the west of town I turned left and onto Colorado Highway 10.


This highway is one of the most desolate highways in the country and is very similar in terrain to Highway 350 and 160 just to the south. I've been on all of these roads a number of times and I know enough to make sure I've got plenty of fuel and at least a little food to last me until a rare car might come along just in case I did have a problem. There are no towns along the road nor are there even any farm houses. As a matter of fact you would be hard pressed to find much of anything alive in this part of the country except maybe a few scrubby desert plants. The creeks and rivers that are shown on maps might exist in the spring time, but not in late summer.

At Walsenburg I made a quick left, then right, through the town to hook up with Highway 160. Walsenburg, itself, is in the high desert, but just to the west of town the Rocky Mountains, proper, begin.

Once past the town, the road begins to climb almost immediately and very soon all the trees make you forget the hot desert that you've been through. La Veta Pass is really one of the easiest passes to cross as the road stays four lanes over just about the entire route. My bike has more than enough power to maintain highway speed in 5th gear all the way up the pass and I passed up dozens of cars belching out dark smoke. The high altitude tends to make engines tuned for lower altitudes run much richer. I noticed a little of this problem when starting out from a stop, but once up to speed the bike ran just fine. Once over the summit all the cars that I passed seemed intent on passing me. I just kept the same speed going down that I had going up, but many drivers seemed to think that they had to make up for their slow speed going up by screaming down the hill. Fair enough.

I rode on past Fort Garland where I had spent the night only just a few weeks ago.  In fact this was my third time in the general area in only a month. 

From Fort Garland to Alamosa the road crosses the San Luis Valley. The town of San Luis, which is south and east of Alamosa, is the oldest town in Colorado. The Great Sand Dunes National Monument lies just north of the highway, and before I reached Alamosa I could look over my right shoulder and see what appeared to be enormous sand dunes up against the mountains several miles away.

Even though I didn't really need it, I fueled up in Alamosa. Climbing long grades such as I had just done can drop the gas mileage way down, and since my motorcycle doesnít have a fuel gauge I decided to get gas just in case I might be using more gas than I normally count on. On flat roads I average around 50 miles per gallon which with the (nearly) 6 gallon gas tank means I can travel for about 300 miles before running dry. I normally ride for about 200 to 250 miles before I start looking for fuel. I don't think I have ever ridden much more than 290 miles non-stop before, although it might be interesting some time to see just how far I really could go on a tank of fuel.

From Alamosa through Monte Vista the road climbs fairly gently up the mountain. However, once past Del Norte things begin to get serious.

Wolf Creek Pass is one of the more famous of all the major Colorado passes. It doesnít matter what time of the year it is, you should always count on the worst sort of weather at the summit. About six miles from the top the pavement ended and I had to ride on dirt (!) the rest of the way up.

Apparently, Colorado is widening this highway to a full four lanes all the way up the grade. I'm sure this change over the twisty two lane will make for a much safer road, but I don't think it will be as fun to ride in the future. That's too bad as this has always been a good motorcycle road. If it had been raining I would have been in deep trouble riding off pavement. And, even though it was dry, it still wasn't too easy what with all the rocks and ruts and layers of loose dirt combined with the dust raised by other cars.

At the summit I pulled over to the south side of the road to a rest stop. This being a holiday, many rest stops throughout my trip were being staffed by civic organizations (in this case it was the V. F. W. ladies auxiliary) who were giving away coffee and cookies. I didn't want to offend anybody there who might have made some cookies so I made a point of having one of each type... They seemed quite happy that people appreciated their work. I know I did.

From Wolf Creek Pass the road descends down the western slope of the Rockies to Pagosa Springs. This is an area of dense forests and huge mountain peaks on either side of the road. Just beyond Pagosa Springs and off to my left I was able to spot Chimney Rock. The Rock looks like one of those formations that were always visible in old movie westerns except this tall thin spire was not in Arizona, but in Colorado.

The road skirts around the south side of Durango and after climbing yet another mountain, descends down into the Mancos Valley.

Past the town of Mancos I turned south into Mesa Verde National Park. The park entrance is about a mile from the highway. The people there were getting ready to go home so one of them told me to drive on through and pay the entrance fee when I departed the next day. Once past the main entrance, the road begins to climb up the very (very) steep walls of the Mesa.

About three miles further I came to the campground. There is only one campground in the park although it is really quite large (and mainly intended for RVs). Mesa Verde is undergoing an experiment of sorts and is allowing a private company to manage and accept the fees to run the campground. From what I could tell it was no different than campgrounds run by the park service.

I set up my tent and then walked about a half mile to the park visitors center where I had dinner and browsed around in the gift shop (buying only a six-pack of V8 juice).  By the time I got back to my tent, the sun had gone down, so I climbed into my bag and called it a night.

The next morning I drank a couple of cans of V-8 juice for breakfast and packed everything up. When traveling on a motorcycle, whenever I leave a camp itís always with the feeling that I will not be back. Therefore, I always pack everything up before riding anywhere--no matter how short a distance.

The park headquarters is about 20 miles further to the south from the campgrounds. I stopped in at a lodge and restaurant complex near the headquarters and inquired about guided tours. Apparently it is necessary to arrive even earlier than I did because the morning tour was already sold out and only the afternoon tour was open. As I didn't have a great deal of time I decided to forget the tour and strike out on my own. Certainly if I were to come back I would make every effort to take one of the guided tours.

At the park headquarters I went through the museum for about 30 minutes before hiking down to the Spruce Tree House ruins. The cliff houses built into the large caves on the sides of the mesa are called ruins. I was a little surprised by how small the houses actually were. Photographs tend to make them seem much larger as we tend to have an image in our mind as to just how big windows should be in relation to the rest of the building. The windows in the ruins are quite small (for heat reasons) and tend to make the buildings appear larger than they really are.

From Spruce Tree House I rode further on and stopped to look at Square Tower House. Square Tower is a three or four story house that extends all the way to the ceiling of the "cave". Although called caves they are more like large indentations in the cliffs.

From here I circled around the road to Sun Point from where several more ruins were visible across the canyon.

After a bit I was back on the bike and headed north to the main highway. I returned the way I came, back to Durango where I then turned north on Highway 550 (the Million Dollar Highway). 

At the north end of Durango I stopped for lunch as it was that time of day already.

The road from Durango to Silverton is absolutely incredible. This is one of the most scenic roads I have ever been on. It's a two-lane road that passes over several very high passes before descending down into the Silverton Valley.

Here I stopped for a time and watched some hang gliders leaping off of the mountain peaks and sailing around for up to two hours before gently gliding back to earth. There were quite a few of them there and they were all very bright and colorful.

Two hours hanging from one of these?

The Durango-Silverton narrow-gauge arrived when I was in Silverton.

The highway from Silverton to Ouray was only a little less dramatic than the road I had just been on. Ouray lies in the southern tip of a long valley that extends north through Montrose. About ten miles from Montrose I hit a brief, but heavy, rain shower. I was to hit a few of these during the trip but they never lasted long enough to be anything but an annoyance. Not a problem.

I stopped at a waterfall alongside the highway.

From Montrose I headed west on Highway 50 and followed for some distance the Blue Mesa Reservoir. This is mostly high desert country with forests in the passes. It wasn't until I was beyond Gunnison that I again entered the high Rockies. The road up Monarch Pass is a three lane road with only a single lane going down hill. I stopped at the summit long enough to take a picture and then headed on down the other side.

Past Salida the road follows the Arkansas River into Pueblo. After the river reaches Kansas (and continues on to Wichita) it is called the ar-KANSAS river. But until that time it is called the AR-kansas river. The road shares the same steep canyon with the river and the Denver Rio Grande Railroad. Just west of the town of Canon City the canyon becomes too narrow for all three so the road breaks out to the north and the railroad continues on passing through Royal Gorge and under the Royal Gorge Bridge (the world's highest).

I had planned to camp out once more, but as I rode toward Pueblo I could see an enormous thunderstorm brewing. And, as I continued on there was a tremendous amount of lighting. All in all it made sense to stay in a motel that night.  I did. 


The next morning I left Pueblo around 7:30 and rode east on Highway 50. I was now on the same highway that I had traveled on the way out just a couple of days before. I stopped in Lakin for an early dinner and bought gas there as well. Lakin was to be the last place I stopped until I rolled into Wichita again.

At around 1,600 miles, this was a pretty good trip for a three-day weekend, but there were some very nice roads (US-550 being the best) and Mesa Verde was spectacular.


last edit: 3/6/2007