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Travel Stories

Canyons and Vines in Southwestern Colorado


Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

At Sand Canyon

Vines and farmhouse at Sutcliffe Vineyards
by Leigh Gozigian

[From Summer 2011] Colorado is known for its natural beauty – jagged, snow-capped peaks, clear alpine lakes, rushing mountain creeks, lush river valleys. It is her contrasts – particularly in Southwest Colorado – that have kept me enamored. Amidst the beauty and desolation of this region, a visitor can find hidden and unanticipated pockets of culture, both ancient and modern. On a recent day trip with my family, I stumbled upon just such finds and was left feeling like a modern-day pioneer.

My husband, ten-year old son, and Labrador retriever had decided to explore an area that we had somehow neglected in our 15 years in Durango, Colorado. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, southwest of Cortez, Colorado, is the less popular sister of Mesa Verde National Park. Like the latter, it has an abundance of cliff dwellings and other antiquities left by the Ancient Puebloans. Unlike Mesa Verde, Canyon of the Ancients is less developed and restricted. There are no interpretive rangers, entrance fees, or facilities (other than a lonely port-a-potty at the trailhead). But this lack of development and restrictions allows visitors to experience this area on their own terms – on mountain bike or foot with a happy dog in tow. Around every corner on the Sand Canyon Trail, we found yet another ruin; because we were alone we felt a bit like the intrepid archeologists who first discovered this area. The Sand Canyon Trail was amazing and well worth the one-hour drive from Durango. But it was a nearby, modern cultural find that really capped the day.

Canyon of the Ancients is reachable via a lovely two-lane road along McElmo Creek. The river valley is surprisingly lush (as a result of irrigation) given the desert landscape of the surrounding escarpments. It is the perfect environment for small, independent wineries that have cropped up in the Southwest. A quarter mile before the Sand Canyon trailhead, I noticed a sign indicating: “Sutcliffe Vineyards” and “Wine Tasting Daily.” After our hike we agreed this offer was too enticing to disregard so, sweaty and gritty, we presented ourselves at the winery. The facilities looked like something out of a movie: the owner’s northern New Mexico farmhouse with the bright blue doors; wine making and tasting outbuildings ; trellised terraces overlooking the vineyards and McElmo Creek. The folks we encountered were equally captivating.

The first person to greet us was an unexpected surprise. Thaddine Swift Eagle Johnson is a classically trained ballerina, formerly with the Alvin Ailey Ballet Company. She now makes her living as a self-taught artist and female boxer. On this beautiful Saturday, she was on site beginning work on a new mural for the wine-tasting room. Thaddine directed us to John Sutcliffe, the owner. For the next hour Sutcliffe, an urbane and hospitable Englishman, entertained us on the trellised terrace with stories of his recent and past adventures, as he generously poured wine. He treated us like expected and honored guests rather than the gritty interlopers we were.

As we drove away with a case of delicious Sutcliffe wine in our pickup’s bed, we were once again reminded of the unanticipated cultural contrasts that continue to enchant us in our Colorado home.

If You Go:
Sutcliffe Vineyards, in Cortez Colorado, is open daily at noon for tours and wine tastings. Call in advance.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is located between Cortez and Dolores, in southwestern Colorado.

Photograph above of farmhouse and vineyards courtesy of Sutcliffe Vineyards.

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