Travel Blog: Denver to El Paso Road Trip

Denver: the Mile High City

With an elevation of over 5000 feet, Denver is known as the mile high city. Nestling in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, it is one of the fastest growing American cities reflecting its prominence in the hi-tech boom and its reputation as a centre of progressive liberal values (Colorado recently legalised marijuana). Like many American cities, its downtown area is undergoing a rejuvenation as reflected in new business towers, colourful murals and investment in public transport, such as the 16th St Mall bus service – a conveyor belt of free electric buses

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Some older buildings have survived such as the Paramount, an art deco cinema which opened in 1930

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Other buildings have been redeveloped – most notably the fabulous Denver Union Station which originates from 1914. It has become a hub of commuter services.

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Denver is also home to a range of art museums including one devoted to the relatively unknown abstract expressionist painter Clyfford Still  

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Change US foreign policy?

Whilst in the Denver Museum of Art we encountered a charming museum guide who very kindly offered to drive us up to Red Rocks Amphitheatre a historic and atmospheric music arena in the hills overlooking Denver. Its illustrious list of performers includes The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Tom Petty. Many thanks to ‘Paunch’ who is testimony to the enduring spirit of bohemianism.

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DSCF6229 On our journey south from Denver we passed through Walsenberg, an unassuming small town complete with faded main street. It was a pleasant surprise to see the old (dating from 1917) town cinema, The Fox, being restored. As a bonus, following our enquiry as to why the redecoration was proceeding, we were given a short tour of the cinema and a couple of souvenir t-shirts. Here is a brief history of the Fox cinema 

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Great Sand Dunes National Park

Containing the tallest sand dunes in the USA, the area was only given national park status in 2000, and so is relatively unknown compared to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain or Mesa Verde National Parks. Visiting in early November meant the temperature was near perfect for scaling the huge dunes as well as having the park much to ourselves.

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Taos

Situated in northern New Mexico, Taos Pueblo is the site of what is claimed to be the oldest continuous settlement in the USA, dating from between 1000-1450. The distinctive buildings are made of adobe – a mixture of baked earth, water and straw.

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Since being conquered by the Spanish, the Taos Indians who still occupy the village, are mostly Catholic but also retain ancient religious rites and beliefs.

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The most significant economic activity is now tourism, especially selling jewellery, although the turquoise jewellery for which New Mexico is famous, is now mostly imported from China.

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Taos itself is small town renowned for its art and bohemian legacy, including several hippie communes in the 1960s and 1970s. It still retains an air of laid back charm

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A frequent visitor to Taos was the film actor Dennis Hopper. Easy Rider, which Hopper directed, included some location shooting nearby, and Hopper’s funeral in 2010 was held at the St Francis of Assisi Mission church dating from the 18th century

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Hopper is buried in nearby Jesus Nazareno cemetery. His grave is suitably bedecked with Easy Rider regalia

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Tent Rock National Monument

New Mexico is blessed with a huge diversity of landscape. Using Santa Fe as a base enabled us to experience some of the state’s most striking scenery, not least Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. The name derives from the cone shaped volcanic rocks formed by erosion over the past 6-7 million years. A 1.5 mile hike takes you to the top of the mesa for superb views of the surrounding mountains.

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Even the plains below looked attractive in the Autumn colours

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Santa Fe

At over 7000 feet the state capital enjoys bright blue sunshine and chilly nights during the Autumn. The city’s architecture reflects its native American/Spanish historical roots, an attractive aesthetic which has drawn legions of artists – there are over 200 galleries, including one devoted to the most famous artist who established her home there, Georgia O’Keefe

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Santa Fe is also the town where Billy the Kid was finally captured (but later escaped)

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Santa Fe still has the splendid Lensic cinema dating from 1931 alongside other attractions

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The city also benefits from a new railway station with a commuter line to Albequerque which has revitalised the area of the city formerly dominated by freight yards

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We took adavanatge of the new commuter line to pay a day trip to Abuquerque.

Here are two contrasting views from the carriage window

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Albuquerque

Most recently Albuquerque has been the beneficiary of being the loaction for the celebrated tv series Breaking Bad. Prior to that, its reputation was due more to its location on the mythic Route 66 an association which is being exploited long after the demise of the famous cross country highway,

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Downtown Albuquerque like many other American cities is a mixture of poverty, homelessness, business towers, old warehouses converted into loft apartments and some long standing original shops such as the Man’s Hat Shop

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Better Call Saul

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Los Alamos and Bandalier National Monument

North of Santa Fe lies Los Alamos, the once secret site selected as the centre for the Manhattan Project between 1942-5. From this select scientific community led by Robert Oppenheimer, emerged the world’s first atomic bomb which was tested further south in the new Mexico desert. The bomb was subsequently dropped on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hastening the end of the Second World War, and ushering in the nuclear age.

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Close to Los Alamos is Bandelier National Monument an area where there is evidence of human settlements dating back over 10,000 years. This is evident from the numerous sculpted caves which can be inspected along the canyon walls, some of which require ascending a series of rope ladders.

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Leaving Santa Fe, we drove through freezing fog for a couple of hundred miles, but as we neared southern New Mexico the fog cleared and the temperature quickly rose from 0º to 20º C. There were few settlements along route 54, and little sign of human life in places such as Corona in Lincoln County (Billy the Kid territory) and Carrizozo, although the latter had a colourful ice cream parlour (closed)

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Abandoned cars and trucks gathering rust and weeds were a frequent sight in fields and enclosures

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Eventually we reached our next destination

White Sands National Monument

The world’s largest gypsum dunefield is a beguiling sight, especially as the sun is setting. Despite the harsh landscape vegetation manages to survive and reputedly over 800 species of animals. Fortunately, in November there was no need to carry extra water as the temperature was a balmy 20º

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We left as the sun set on the dunes with the Sacremento mountains in the distance

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El Paso

From the sublime solitude of White Sands we drove across the Texas state line to encounter the frenetic evening rush hour traffic in El Paso. A night at the Comfort Inn besides Interstate 10, within sight of the city’s refineries, is not the most tranquil scenario. However, a bus ride to the downtown area proved a pleasant surprise. We alighted in El Segunda Barrio a square mile of the city which is right on the US-Mexican border. The historic area is unsurprisingly domiated by Hispanic culture including the remarkable murals

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The area is not very affluent as reflected in some of the shops and services

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Nevertheless, El Segunda Barrio is a colourful and vibrant neighbourhood and deserves the case which has been made for preserving its historical status

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Adjacent to El Segunda Barrio, the central business district contains some striking buildings including the Convention Centre as well as signs of its commercial legacy before suburban shopping malls intervened

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We departed El Paso via The Sunset Limited, the historic rail service which links Los Angeles to New Orleans and now run by Amtrak.

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Waiting patiently for the Sunset Limited – it was 90 minutes late

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