San Francisco—On the Other Side of the Bridge

Plenty of walkway is provided both for walkers and cyclists.

We were told it would be memorable to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. Having factored it into our schedule, when the designated day arrived it was unfortunately the worse weather day of our stay.  By far.  Temps in the 50s, and wind gusts pushing near 30 mph. Get closer to the waterfront and that wind picked up considerably.  Blustery doesn’t begin to describe it.  Throw in some serious wind chills too.  So instead of taking what would have been a impressive experience, we settled for driving our rented car across the bridge on the day we left the city.  It would have to suffice.

The Golden Gate is a one-mile-wide strait between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay.  When consideration for building a bridge to span the Gate back around 1915 many experts said that a bridge could not be built across the 6,700-foot strait, which had strong, swirling tides and currents, with water 372 feet deep at the center of the channel, and frequent strong winds.  Experts said that ferocious winds and blinding fogs would prevent construction and operation.

But several engineers combined their expertise and came up with a structural design.  Bonds were sold to help finance it, and construction began in early January of 1933.  The final cost was more than $35 million ($493 million in 2016 dollars), finished ahead of schedule and $1.3 million dollars under budget. It was opened May 27, 1937 with festive celebrations that lasted for one week.  The first day was closed to vehicle traffic while 200,000 people crossed either on foot or on roller skates.

At the time of its opening, it was both the longest and the tallest suspension bridge in the world, with a main span of 4,200 feet and a total height of 746 feet.  The Frommer’s travel guide described the Golden Gate Bridge as “possibly the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world.”

Unfortunately, the Bridge has been known for something not so pleasant.  Since its opening nearly 1,700 people have jumped off it.  The deck is about 245’ above the water and after a fall of 4 seconds jumpers hit the water at around 75 mph.  Most of them die from impact trauma.  Those that survive the impact either drown or die of hypothermia in the cold water.  Actually, it is estimated that 26 people have survived after jumping, at least two of whom tried it a second time and perished.  After years of debate, suicide barriers began to be installed in April 2017.  Construction will take about 4 years at a cost of over $200 million.

Once crossing over to the northern side, take the first road to the left and soon find yourself at one of the best possible bridge viewpoints.  Follow the short path to a breezy (blustery) overlook and you’ll be at the Golden Gate Vista Point.

It was a fitting spot to have our last look at the spectacular bridge and the city skyline behind it.

Two days left in our week’s tour and Chris had them carefully choreographed—even down to reserving a parking spot at the nearby national monument (yes! reservations are a MUST!)

In the rugged hills just 12 miles north of San Francisco, 554 acres are protected by our national park service.  Safely tucked away in an isolated canyon stands an ancient coastal redwood forest known the world over as Muir Woods.

Coast Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are among the oldest living things on Earth.  Before commercial logging and clearing began by the 1850s, these massive trees grew naturally in about 2 million acres stretching from central California to the southwestern corner of Oregon on a narrow strip of land near to the Pacific Coast, from 5-47 miles inland.

They had been growing there for 1,200-1,800 years or more.

By the early 20th century nearly all of these trees had been cut down.  Just north of the San Francisco Bay there was one valley, Redwood Canyon, that remained uncut due to its relative inaccessibility.  This came to the attention of William Kent, a rising California politician who would soon be elected to the U.S. Congress. He and his wife Elizabeth purchased 611 acres of land from the Tamalpais Land and Water Company for $45,000 with the intention of protecting the trees and the mountain above them.  In 1907, a water company in the nearby town of Sausalito planned to dam the creek running through their land, thereby flooding the canyon, submerging the redwoods. When the Kents objected to the plan, the water company was prepared to use eminent domain and took him to court to attempt to force the project to move ahead.  Kent outmaneuvered the water company’s plan by donating the land to the federal government, thus bypassing the local courts.

Shortly thereafter, on January 9, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the land a national monument, the seventh to be created and the first to come from land donated by a private individual.  The original suggested name of the new monument was to be the Kent Monument, but Kent insisted the monument be named after the naturalist John Muir, whose environmental campaigns helped to establish our national park system.  Responding to Kent’s suggestion, President Roosevelt agreed, replying in a written letter:

MY DEAR MR. KENT:  By George! You are right!

Last year’s total visitation to Muir Woods exceeded one million people, and one day alone had 6,000 visitors flocking in.  More than 80% arrive by car, necessitating a parking lot reservation system.

The height of Coast Redwoods is closely tied to fog availability;  taller trees become less frequent as fog becomes less frequent.  Even in areas receiving high rainfall amounts, the leaves in the upper canopy can be perpetually stressed for water.  As the tree grows taller, transporting water to the leaves becomes increasingly difficult due to gravity.

There are times when all you can say is “WOW”.

The tallest and oldest redwoods are found in deep valleys, gullies and canyons, where year-round streams can flow, and fog drip is regular.  Above the fog layer, trees are shorter and smaller.  Few redwoods grow near to the ocean, due to intense salt spray.

Having already visited Redwood National and State Parks in far northern California, we wondered if our visit to Muir Woods would be anticlimactic.  Much smaller in size, and definitely more people, but once on the trails and away from the masses, we soon were overtaken by the serenity and majesty of the forest environment.

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than one seeks.”   –John Muir

There are only 6 miles of trails in Muir Woods and the most popular one follows Redwood Creek as it winds through the dense forest.  Easy to follow, by contrast the trails up on the canyon walls are dirt, narrow, steep in places and rutted with tree roots.  But from above you gain a different perspective of the trees as well as leaving the majority of strolling tourists below.

Redwoods must endure various environmental disturbances to attain such great ages.  In response to forest fires, the trees have developed various adaptations.  The thick, fibrous bark of coast redwoods is extremely fire-resistant; it grows to at least a foot thick and protects mature trees from fire damage.  What’s more, the redwoods contain little flammable pitch or resin.  If damaged by fire, a redwood readily sprouts new branches or even an entirely new crown, and if the parent tree is killed, new buds sprout from its base.  Moreover, fires appear to actually benefit a redwood by causing the competing species around it to die, while only having minor effects on the redwood.  Added to all that, burned areas are favorable to the successful germination of redwood seeds.  Pretty darn cool.

Before you drift away, losing interest in all things redwood, there was more aspect to this forest setting than just these giant trees.  If you’ve come to learn anything about me from past blogs, maybe you’ve caught on that I’m a sucker for flowers.  All kinds .  .  . wild .  .  .  homegrown .  .  . on bushes or trees .  .  .  even potted.  I just can’t seem to pass them by .  .  . without pulling out my camera.  And so, as we move on from Muir Woods, I’ll leave you with some images of the various blooms we passed along the trails.  Small and dainty as they might seem, they added that special punch to this majestic forest setting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t think I’d care much for the Napa Valley.  Having an image of being a hang-out for the very rich and famous, it would be an entirely too chichi experience for me, I thought.  A land of grand estates, expansive tasting rooms, and pricey lodgings—get the picture?  But Chris saw its other potential.  His image was more on the bucolic side.  A postcard image of vineyards and fruit tree fields, with quaint, small towns to explore.  Perhaps a reminder of the beautiful Tuscan scenery in Italy (where I knew a piece of his heart remained).  And so, with me trying to keep an open mind, we left Muir Woods to drive the short distance east to the town of Napa.

Just as I had preconceived ideas about the whole Napa region, my image of the town of Napa was following along those same lines.  From first sight as we drove past the city limits, I began having the first of many second thoughts.

It was the flower gardens I noticed first.  Lining the streets, hanging from lampposts, accenting their parks and filling just about every home’s yard.  It was as attractive as it was colorful, and it really set off the town, IMO.

From modest homes to the more upscale, everyone seemed to have their own flower gardens.  Just amazing!

Napa has every look of being a quaint, small town, albeit quite well kept up.  Neat in appearance, it also displays a variety of architectural character.  The downtown area is very walkable, bordering the banks of the clear-flowing Napa River.  Main Street is a mixture of cafes and restaurants, galleries and small boutiques—admittedly all with an upscale look to them.  With several well-manicured public areas and a riverwalk close by, it all comes together in a very pleasant ambiance.  It might not be a place I’d go to shop for my own couture, but I’ll readily admit Chris found two great eating spots I’d highly recommend.

Located in an old historic landmark bank, Ristorante Allegria with its Northern Italian cuisine is a great place for lunch or dinner.  The food–both delicious Italian and California fresh—really sells the place, as well as its beautifully renovated atmosphere.  And its prices didn’t shock this Midwesterner to her core either.  A real find, we’d both say.

If you’re looking for a good breakfast out, the Alexis Baking Company & Cafe (locals call it The ABC) can’t be passed by.  It is simply one of the best breakfast spots we’ve had the good fortune of finding on our travels—it’s no wonder it gets such high ratings and reviews.

A small little place, it fills up every morning, but I’ll tell you it’s definitely worth the wait.  BTW, their cinnamon toast is much more than you’d imagine—it’s truly out-of-this-world and absolutely scrumptious!!

Our only full day in Napa dawned fresh and clear.  It was a great day to hit the road and sightsee our way up that famous valley. If you do some research before heading here, then you might discover there’s a two-lane country road, trimmed with shady oaks, bordered by the world-class vineyards with mountains rising up all around, that winds through that valley.

The Silverado Trail runs parallel to Route 29, the main (and often clogged) traffic artery through the Napa Valley for nearly 30 miles, connecting the towns of Napa and Calistoga with other small villages in between.  This quieter back road offers glimpses of the nation’s foremost wine region as it was perhaps 30 years ago.  Because the roadway dips and curves along the foothills, it offers gorgeous views of vineyards and mountains.  An added benefit are the wide shoulders adjacent to the road, marked as dedicated bike lanes.  Scenery such as this is made for a slower mode of travel.  Even on a weekday we passed a multitude of cyclists.

The Silverado Trail was established in 1852, when floods swamped the valley’s main road.  By the late 1800s it was the wagon route from the cinnabar mines on Mount St. Helena (not to be confused with Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington), which marks the valley’s north end, to the docks of San Pablo Bay to the south.  Along the drive it’s easy to grasp a picture of the Napa Valley’s setting, cradled between high ridges.  The mountains rise 1,500 to 2,000 feet on both sides of the valley, part of the Coast Range.  The mountains were created when sedimentary rocks buckled upward under great pressure, then were covered with volcanic lava and ash.  Alluvial deposits that washed down the slopes made the rich soil that’s perfect for wine grapes.

Settlement in Napa Valley began with Spanish missions and Mexican land grants.  When George Yount  obtained a Mexican grant in 1836, he settled in the valley, built a log house for himself, followed by a sawmill and grain mill.  He was the first reported person to plant a vineyard.  A few other settlers soon came to the area, all possessing land grants from Mexico.  Following the Mexican—American War, settlers were granted deeds from the original ranchos and grantees; California joined the Union in 1850.

By mid-century, the population began to grow with pioneers, prospectors, and entrepreneurs moving in and setting up residences.  Settlers raised cattle and primarily grew grain; prospectors headed into the eastern hills searching for gold and silver deposits, and entrepreneurs  earned a healthy living providing supplies and services to them all.  The first commercial winery in Napa County was opened in 1859.  By the 1880s, the valley was transforming from wilderness to wine country.

Everything pointed to the valley becoming one of the world’s great wine producing regions, but Nature and Man both threw in major glitches.  The following story I found quite absorbing, but if you’re not too interested in the nitty-gritty of the role these factors played in devastating the vines, feel free to just skip over.

Living in the soil in places east of the Rockies was a louse called phylloxera that destroys the root system of grapevines. Over the centuries, many grapevine species native to North America had become resistant to phylloxera, but the Old World Vitis vinifera vines were defenseless.

Phylloxera had begun to infest the mission vines brought in by the Spanish priests as well as the other European varietals planted by the early California viticulturists. Of even greater consequence (pay attention here!), native American species of grapevines sent to Europe took with them their deadly cargo of phylloxera lice. The phylloxera epidemic was discovered in French vineyards in the late 1860s, it hit Napa in 1872.

Phylloxera infestation now threatened to destroy Vitis vinifera viticulture throughout the world. Every type of remedy was tried, including the flooding of the vineyards and the use of poisonous gases, but nothing worked.

So what was the vines’ salvation?  American ingenuity discovered that a Vitis vinifera grapevine grafted to the root stalk of a North American species retained its own desirable fruit characteristics while the stock and root system of the American varietal below the graft protected it from the phylloxera lice in the soil.  A solution was found, but fewer than half of the grapevines planted in the 1800s survived into the 1900s.  What’s more, many Napa vintners had either already given up and left, or ripped out their vineyards and planted other crops.

Then came WWI which challenged the entire economy of our nation, doing little to help a wine industry trying to regain its footing.  But the biggest challenge of all came in the form of the 18th Amendment when Prohibition began in 1920.  More wineries closed down and only about 60 Napa wineries or vineyards survived past the repeal in 1933.  Since then, the Napa wine-making industry has had nowhere to go but up to where it is today—one of the most coveted wine growing areas in the world, boasting more than 400 wineries in Napa Valley alone.

To cap off this entire story, I must mention the 1976 Judgment of Paris, for that was where and when a chardonnay and a cabernet sauvignon from the Napa region trounced France’s best vintners in a blind tasting by some of the most respected names in French gastronomy in Paris. At the time, France was considered the world’s forerunning wine region, far superior to all others, but this American triumph forever changed the international perception of Northern California’s wines, Napa Valley in particular. Napa Valley literally exploded into the global spotlight following this huge achievement.  A bottle of both of the winners now resides at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Touring wineries is the primary activity that attract most visitors to Napa.  Obviously you can take them in by driving to any of the hundreds you’ll have to choose from, which most tourists do.  You’ll also have other options that might make your experience less overwhelming, definitely more interesting, and maybe considerably safer if you plan on imbibing.

There’s the wine trolley, the limousine tours, the biking tours, and even a wine train tour. For the ‘really out-there’ experience, what about a hot-air balloon tour?  With the varied topography of the valley, a balloon ride could be memorable (no, we let this tour get by us).  There are 3 different companies offering this special option.

Whether touring by car or another mode, you can’t help but notice the that the landscape has a distinctive feeling of Italy to it,

from the architecture .  .  .

.  .  .  to the setting.

I’d wager that Chris was more than a little nostalgic.

Besides touring through the countryside and lunching in one of the small towns, we did manage to take in one impressive tour.  Near the small town of Calistoga you’ll find the most unique winery of them all—a 13th-century Tuscan castle nestled at the base of the valley’s tallest hills.  Open for touring daily (reservations are well-advised),  an all-inclusive ticket will get you a tour of the castle’s public rooms, a complete tour of the winery operations and end with a personalized wine tasting experience.  It’s a popular attraction that pulls in the tourists all day long .  .  .  on the weekends it’s known to be pretty crazy with the crowds.

Castello di Amorosa is nestled in the western hills on 171 acres just south of the small town of Calistoga in the Napa Valley.  After several years of visiting and studying construction of medieval castles throughout Italy and Europe, Dario Sattui, a 4th-generation winemaker and entrepreneur, began building the castello in 1994.  It is the only authentic medieval Italian Tuscan castle and winery in America and has evolved to include over 136,000 square feet, including 107 rooms (95 of which are devoted to winemaking and wine storage), 8 levels with 4 underground.  It took 15 years to complete.

All the ironwork was hand-forged by Italian artisans.

To say this is a unique winery would be a huge understatement.  And it’s quite the tourist draw. For good reason.  Just to tour the castle and see details up close, is quite an impressive experience.  You can take a self-guided tour, or go for the whole enchilada and take a guided tour, complete with a wine tasting.

The hand-hewn,
2,000 lb. doors came from Italy.

 

 

 

 

Dario wanted every detail—from the drawbridge to the dungeon—to be as authentic as possible.  He hired master builders from 5 countries to bring his vision to life.

You pass by a roadside chapel as you enter the Castello grounds.

Round a curve, and then there before you rises the Castello across the vineyard fields.

We learned many facts, both in key details and building techniques, from our very personable guide.  Architecturally faithful to the 12th and 13th centuries, there are features such as a moat, a drawbridge, defensive towers and an interior courtyard.

But it’s the interior rooms that are truly amazing.  From the authentically-designed chapel .  .  .

.  .  .  to the spectacular Great Hall.

Kinda takes your breath away .  .  .  impressive doesn’t quite cover it.

It took two Italian artists about a year and a half to paint the colorful frescoes.

We saw French oak barrels around every corner.  The underground caves offer an ideal environment for aging wine with cool, constant temperatures and high humidity.  The barrels are from trees at least 150 years old, and are only used once or twice before they are sold.

The Grand Barrel Room, located 3 levels below ground, is overwhelming and huge (12,000 sq.feet huge).  The centerpiece is the 40 cross-vaults ribbing design made of hundreds of years old brick.  This design, invented by the Romans, distributes the weight of the ceiling to the side walls or pillars so that it can support substantial weight without collapsing.  It took over two years just to construct.

Okay, some might call the castle a little hokey, others might say it’s a tourist trap, but to us it was a marvel and something that totally fit in with the Napa picture.

That pretty much ended our day, as well as our stay here in the pastoral Napa Valley.  One last look over the castello’s vineyard and then it was time to take that long drive back to the San Francisco Airport.

Tomorrow we’d be back in Hoosier Land, but with good memories still fresh in our thoughts.

Until we travel again,

Airstream Travelers,  Melinda & Chris

 

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SAN FRANCISCO—A Whirlwind Trip . . . how to see it all in one short week.

We were stepping outside our customary routine.  We were embarking on a markedly different kind of trip.    Definitely working outside our typical comfort zone. It was not our usual modus operandi.  And it was not doing one of our extended, stop-to-smell-the-roses kind of itineraries.  Blocking out a week’s stay, this would be our first look at the San Francisco scene.  We were thinking of it as a ‘scout-it-out, hit-the-highpoints’ kind of tour. And we were leaving our Airstream parked back at home.

A quick breakfast at the Indy Airport . . .

.  .  .  a 2-hour delay at our gate,

and at last we were San Francisco bound.

Between the flight delays and a 3-hour time zone change, we had spent our first full day just getting there.

Finally. Two tired travelers have their first look at the San Francisco skyline!!

For a change, Chris had done the planning of this entire trip.  All the scheduling, arranging, selecting and reserving fell fully upon his broad, but capable shoulders.  What a job . . . but it all paid off—as hindsight would prove.  Asked if it was ever stressful and I think he would quickly answer “You could say that!”

Day One began bright and early.  From our traveling experiences, we’ve found the best way to get an overall feel for a city and to learn about its various districts is on one of the hop-on, hop-off tour buses.   We started early and toured most of the day.

Being able to jump off for closer looks at various stops was very worthwhile.  And a great way to stretch our legs and get in some walking too.

One of the best weather days of our week, it was fun to be seated up on top and out in the open—views from that perspective don’t get any better!

San Francisco is definitely a tourist town .  .  . and why wouldn’t it be?  Known for its cool summers, foggy days, steep rolling hills, eclectic mix of architecture and landmarks, cable cars, Alcatraz and that Golden Gate Bridge, it pulls in the people.  The world over, as we soon learned.  Foreign languages were nearly as commonly overheard as English.

And many of these tourists seem to be found at Pier 39—one of the tour bus stops where we chose to hop off.

Actually, about 45 piers line the northeast shoreline of San Francisco, jutting out from the Embarcadero–the waterfront of the Port of San Francisco.  Once a bustling hub of the city, its working heyday is in the past.  WWII  brought troop and supply ships bound for the Pacific into the harbor and kept things busy.  Today, commercial shipping has moved to the Port of Oakland across the bay, which better handles the large container ships.

credit: San Francisco History Center, circa 1930

Today, some of these piers serve as a hub for all the ferries coming in from around the bay.  Another is the site of the new cruise ship terminal.   Others are used by the tour boats and water taxis, another for free public docking. Yet, some piers sit sadly empty and deteriorating, their warehouses now derelict.  But others have been revitalized and are utilized for public attractions, becoming quite the popular places.  A science museum on one, an art gallery on another, one is a dedicated fishing pier, while others are places to stroll and have great views looking back at the city.

And then, there’s Pier 39, perhaps the Tourist Mecca of the entire city.  It’s a great place to show that shops, restaurants, street performances and video arcades will draw in the people.  We’re talking big numbers.  Throw in a 2-story carousel and an Aquarium of the Bay won’t hurt either.  Add to that a few hundred California sea lions and you’ll have a sure bet that the hordes will flock in.  It’s a sight that can’t be missed—at least once—but definitely not our kind of place for long.

A good lunch at Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company with a great view of the Bay managed to meet our expectations.

And then, we certainly couldn’t pass up the Star Attraction of Pier 39 .  .  .

Actually, no one can explain how the seals happened to come here.  Shortly after a minor earthquake rocked the city back in 1989, a few California sea lions began to haul themselves out on a floating dock at Pier 39.  A year later, more started to arrive and in a short time it seemed apparent that these guys were here to stay. By 2009 their numbers had nearly reached 2,000 at a peak time in November.  That’s a whole lot of boisterous barking!

It’s quite the sight to see.  And smell–it puts a whooole new meaning into fish breath!

Still doing the touristy things, we hopped back on a bus and rode to another well-known San Francisco destination.

It’s been called America’s Crookedest Street (but actually isn’t).  It certainly has character and appeal.  It all came about back in the 1920s when the steep grade of Lombard  Street was beginning to pose a hazard to vehicles going down,  When a nearby property owner suggested adding scenic switchbacks instead, the idea caught on.  Today it’s another spot that draws in the crowds (come early!).  The beautiful landscaping and stately townhouses help to set it all off quite nicely.

At day’s end, tired and hungry, we made our last stop at yet another city landmark.

Sourdough bread and San Francisco—it’s another iconic match up.

And Boudin Bakery is the definitive home of this legendary bread.

It all began in the early years of mining mayhem when bread was like a lifeline to the miners.  French bakers brought the sourdough technique to town during the Gold Rush and it became so popular with the prospectors that their nickname “sourdoughs” caught on.

Initially is was thought that San Francisco was the only place where this type of bread could be made because the moist climate cultivated this specific type of yeast.  Scientists have since identified the particular strain of bacteria needed for the sour flavor and proven it isn’t limited to this area.  Still, the tradition has remained.

Despite the introduction and widespread use of Fleischman’s yeast, the Boudin family still uses this method of leavening the bread with a wild yeast starter—cultivated from a gold miner’s sourdough batch.  It’s their mother dough and they use it every day to bake their breads .  .  .  which are distributed all over the city as well as sold inside their stores.

We soon would come to learn that it was unavoidable.  If you’re going to eat out here in San Francisco, you’re going to be eating sourdough bread.  Sourdough pizza.  Sourdough cookies.  And especially sourdough bread bowls.  Add to that another San Francisco staple—clam chowder—and you’ve got yourself a great lunch!  Boudin Bakery will serve you both.

And the line of perspective buyers testifies to the popularity of their products.  I guess you can’t leave town without buying a sourdough souvenir.

.   .   .  and we didn’t.

 

If you’d ever survey those who’ve been to San Francisco (as we did), asking what attraction would they put first on their list of ‘must sees’, I’d be surprised if you don’t discover that the majority would reply with the same answer (as they did).  “Take in Alcatraz” was the nearly universal response.  And, savvy travelers as we are, of course we did!

Alcatraz is part of our national park system, but you must purchase ferry tickets through a concessionaire.  You can do that online and up to 90 days in advance.  Good advice to heed:  buy ASAP—the times fill up fast!

The morning fog was dissipating as we made the short ferry ride across the water.

Early is better, as we were told.  We managed to get on the second boat over.  Still we found the island full of people and most were headed for the prison tour.  We joined in.

You’ll see this message upon first entering the prison.

It was a very informative and enlightening experience .  .  .  beyond my expectations.  Sure, we all know the basic story . . . if you’ve seen the movie Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood, maybe you know a little more than others.  Still, between the audio tour through the prison and walking the pathways around the island afterwards, I gained considerably more insights.  And we both had a few good hours on a very fine day on Alcatraz.

 

 

 

 

Alcatraz closed its doors as a prison in 1963, operating expenses being much higher than those of other federal facilities as well as buildings suffering deterioration due to the salty sea air exposure.

In 1969, a group of Native Indians arrived on Alcatraz Island and claimed the land on behalf of “Indians of all tribes”.  In hopes of creating a free Indian nation for all to see and to create a university and a museum on the island, they attempted to sustain themselves there with few amenities.  Over the course of the two years they remained, they defaced  or destroyed some structures and buildings (namely the warden’s home as well as the employees’ residential housing).  In 1971 they were removed by order of President Nixon.  The island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 and was opened to the public a year later. Today, over a million tourists visit Alcatraz each year.

It was the flowering gardens that caught me by total surprise.  Thinking Alcatraz would be a stark and rocky island, I was totally blown away with the abundance of colorful displays.  Flowers were everywhere .  .  .  along walkways, between buildings, sloping down to the water’s edge and up the hillsides.  It was truly astounding.

Some grew wild, but most had survived from the prison days when the administrators’ and guards’ families lived on Alcatraz.  The wives would create these garden areas and prisoners would tend to them.  After the island was deserted, the favorable climate helped to keep most flowers living on.  Some of them even thrived.

 

 

It was an incredible contrast—from prison grimness to colorful blooms was truly soul-cleansing  .  .  .  

and the distant hills and sunlit water added all the more.

By the time we were boating away, we had a whole lot of thoughts to ruminate over.

Yes, Alcatraz is definitely the tour to take.

Coit Tower is one of the most notable landmarks of San Francisco, seen from almost any perspective in the city.  Crowning the summit of Telegraph Hill, it stands in memory of very colorful, somewhat eccentric San Franciscan.  Lillie Hitchcock Coit liked to smoke cigars and wear trousers, not so socially acceptable back in the early 1900s.  She was a wealthy socialite who had a penchant for gambling and pursued this interest in males-only establishments.  And moreover, she had a particular fondness for fighting city fires, and at an early age began joining in with firefighting crews.  She eventually was recognized as an honorary firefighter of one of the Engine Companies.

At her death in 1929, she left one third of her fortune “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.”  And as a result, Telegraph Hill was chosen to be the site of this graceful observation tower, offering panoramic views over the entire city.

 

 

You can drive up to the tower, or climb the 400+ steps of stairs.  You’ll have a great sense of accomplishment doing it on foot (our personal opinion), as well as savoring the views along the way.  Winding past homes stacked above homes, that have some of the best views of the city.  On clear days the views are quite spectacular.

The city’s skyline spreads out to the east,

. . . while Alcatraz rises from the water,

. . . and the Golden Gate Bridge floats in the mist to the west.

We had a lot of ground to cover on our last full day in the city.  What better way to get around than on the cable cars—that iconic attraction San Francisco is so famous for.  We purchased all-day Muni Transit tickets, allowing us unlimited ons and offs.  To get the most out of riding the hills of the city, you’ll want to be sure to take the Hyde Street line.  Its terminus was just a few blocks from our hotel.  We got another early start.

You’ll have the best perspectives of San Francisco when riding these cars—grab a pole and hang on for incredible views coming your way!

 

 

 

Cable cars were invented in 1873 by Andrew Hallidie to climb the hills of San Francisco.  Many cities once had them, but today these are the only ones still operating in the traditional manner running in street traffic.  The cars run on steel rails with a slot between the tracks where an underground cable runs at a continuous 9 mph.  These cables come from a central powerhouse, driven by huge winding wheels.  In order to move forward, the underground cable is grabbed by a grip on the car that works like a pair of pliers.  Take in the free Cable Car Museum, conveniently located along a cable car route and see the operation firsthand.

The Muni Transit Ticket that we had purchased also allowed us unlimited rides on all the city’s streetcars.  Also running on steel rails, but unlike cable cars, the streetcars are propelled by onboard electric motors, requiring a trolley pole to draw power from an overhead wire.  Streetcars

Our ride was on a car built when Chris was born—now that’s what I call a vintage model!

quickly surpassed cable cars and horsecars as America’s choice for public transit in the first half of the 20th century.

 

San Francisco has the world’s most diverse collection of streetcars in regular transit service today, and some are quite unique.  Dating from the 1940s and 50s, many are vintage streetcars.  They have been meticulously restored and are signed with their city-of-origin as well as the year they began service.

That last day wasn’t just about cable and streetcar rides, with a museum thrown in too.  I had my eye on one particular destination . . . a certain district held in high distinction by a city known for more than a few of those.  Ever heard of Nob Hill?  I was anxious to see if it lived up to my high expectations.

 

 

 

 

Nob Hill is one of San Francisco’s signature neighborhoods dating back to the Gold Rush days.  Once cable car lines made the hilltops more readily accessible, the railroad barons and silver bonanza kings built their mansions there, far above the rowdiness of the bawdy waterfront.

Most of the original ‘palaces’ were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires, and today they have been replaced with genteel apartment buildings with their wedding-cake facades.

One of those few remaining mansions, the home of silver baron James C. Flood, was built in 1886.  It was the first brownstone building west of the Mississippi River and the only Nob Hill home to structurally survive the earthquake.

Huntington Square is a small park located in what could be considered the heart of the Nob Hill district.  To the east stands the historic and impressive Fairmont Hotel, where room rates begin at more than $400 a night.  Nearly completed when the earthquake hit, it had extensive interior damage that took more than a year to restore.

On the west side of Huntington Square rises the imposing and breathtaking edifice of Grace Cathedral.  This cathedral church of the Episcopal Diocese of California is famed for its mosaics, two labyrinths, varied stained glass windows, medieval and modern furnishings, as well as its 44 bell carillon, three organs and one of the few remaining Episcopal men and boys choirs.  Perhaps its pièce de résistance is the pair of large bronze doors that are reproductions of the doors of the Florence Bapistery in Italy, known as the “Gates of Paradise”.

All in all, this is one impressive church and a definite landmark of the city.

We would spend the remainder of our week outside the city.  There are many worthwhile areas within a mere day’s drive of San Francisco, but we only had a couple of days left.  Part Two of this blog will reveal where we went, but a clue to the direction we took lies in my last photo.

If you managed to make it through this extensive Part One, let me assure you Part Two won’t be so weighty.  But if you’ve never had the chance to take in San Francisco, this blog could be a help in getting you started (if not an inspiration).  Indeed, once we recovered from all of our sightseeing activities, I felt we had made a good start on getting to know the city much better.

On a typical misty morning,

Airstream Travelers–sans Airstream

Chris & Melinda

Posted in California, San Francisco | Tagged , | 2 Comments

ESCAPE FROM WINTER’S BITE, Part III—Gulf Coast Gems

Our days were getting warmer, and not by just a little.  Actually pushing against my comfort level.  We were heading further north along the Gulf Coast, seeing temps rise into the 80s—actually approaching record highs.  Not quite what we’d expect for early February, but you wouldn’t hear us complaining.

The Clearwater area was to be our next destination—where we planned to hang out a week or more.  When we weren’t able to reserve a spot at our first choice in campgrounds, we were forced to choose a campground new to us.

The first site that Hickory Point RV Park assigned to us was far from satisfactory.  Without going into details, suffice it to say we were moved to a much more acceptable site the following day.  Two nearby live oaks gave us lots of shade, with a nice view looking out over an adjacent horse farm, the ambiance was much more to our liking. We settled in.

Sometimes, complaining can pay off.

With Chris’ brother and family living just a few miles away, a lot of our time was spent hanging out with them, having plenty to do in the area.  Given perfect weather every day (you gotta love Florida in the winter!), lots of activities were spent out-of-doors.  Boating was fun with the Walls living on Tarpon Lake, their boat provided some good hours of fun.  There’s nothing quite like boating up to a great lakeside restaurant, and the Tarpon Turtle fits that description perfectly.  Water views . . . delicious food . . . breezy, open-air eating . . . what a way to spend a winter’s day!

And then there was the biking.  The wonderful Pinellas Bike Trail, mentioned in my last blog, has its northern terminus at Tarpon Springs and you can be sure we made more good use of it!  One of our favorite stretches of the trail—and a segment we know well—runs from Tarpon Springs down to Dunedin, Florida, an easy 9 miles in distance.  One morning we made a breakfast run.

If you like good food (we can vouch for the breakfasts!) while eating al fresco and the friendliest of service thrown in too, we’ve had all three at Kelly’s.  Advertised as “Kellys . . . 25 Years of Just About Anything” that about covers it all.  It’s a fun place, a place that probably rocks as evening comes on (they’ve just added a martini bar), and there’s a huge live oak spreading its branches out over the entire back patio, strung with lights as well as seating arrangements grouped around fire pit tables—I hear it’s a hot gathering spot in late afternoons.

Afterwards, there’s always the mandatory ‘put-it-on, work-it-off’ bike ride to do!  We spent many enjoyable rides around Dunedin, mostly exploring areas we’d never seen.  A tucked away, non-descript dirt road took us past some very charming (and yes, I admit–pretty pricey) homes.  Looking out over the water of Dunedin Channel, with idyllic Caladesi Island on the horizon and sailboats moored in between, it was the epitome of a peaceful Florida scene.  Hey, I think I could see living here!

Truth be told, we both feel an attraction for Dunedin.  A smallish Gulf Coast town sandwiched between much larger Clearwater to the south with Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs to the north, it’s far enough removed from that mega-speedway thoroughfare known as Hwy.19 to feel off-the-beaten-track.  It has cute shops, a wide variety of different eateries from bistros to upscale restaurants and a surprising number of local breweries popping up.  But it’s the ambiance you pick up after staying awhile . . . the quiet residential streets and the number of waterfront parks strung out, that tends to encourage you to just stroll around.  With the Pinellas Bike Trail running straight through town, Dunedin seemed to strike all the right notes for us.  And so, we keep returning.

The perfect place for any meal, Cafe Alfresco is adjacent to the bike trail and has really good food—their  desserts are irresistible!

Lest you begin to think I’m all about good food and eating, let me get back to focusing on the natural surroundings.  Hickory Point did have its location going for it, situated right on the riverfront near to where the Anclote River flows into the Gulf, offering nice views and a few select waterfront campsites (which we didn’t have).  Oh, and just up the road not a half-mile away, you’ll find the rustic and popular Miss Vicki’s on the River with oh-so-good fresh fish on the menu, as well as really scrumptious She-Crab soup (and their Key Lime pie is the real deal too!).  Tucked away back from the road, it’s worth searching out.   But again, I digress.

And now, back on the road going past Miss Vickie’s, it’s a short drive to Anclote River Park where we found a scenic setting of tree-lined riverfront views.  A good place to sit back and soak in the atmosphere, I returned at the end of many days.  And that was where I would get my sunset ‘fix’.

A few others were drawn in too.

There aren’t many better ways to end one’s day.

Along the coastline west of Tarpon Springs was another park, who’s name had caught our interest.  It wasn’t until our last afternoon that we set out to learn if Sunset Beach Park would live up to its name.

 

 

 

With no bridge crossing the Anclote River near its mouth, there’s no real direct route to reach Sunset Beach from Hickory Point.  We needed to swing way east to the highway, then wind our route through Tarpon Springs as best we could.  By the time we reached that little tongue of land jutting out into the gulf, the sun was sitting low above the horizon.  Not a good time to be scoping out new territory for photo ops.  Grabbing my camera and hopefully the appropriate lens, I would be flying by the seat of my pants.

At one time I’m guessing this spit of land was separate from the mainland because in 1926 a connecting causeway was built. Today the park is still pristine, with the landscape left pretty much au naturel.  The following photos will do more to describe what I was seeing while scurrying about than any words I could possibly use.  In fact, I was amazed to discover a more pristine, unpopulated spot than I could hope for—it wasn’t your ordinary crowded Florida gulf coast beach!   Palm trees lining the beach . . . dune grasses swaying in the gentle breeze . . . no hordes of people . . . and a cloud-filled sky to reflect the golden light of sunset—was this a well-kept secret or what???  Feast your eyes on a beautiful Florida  evening .  .  .

Our itinerary had us moving onward . . . continuing around the gulf coastline.  By now it was late February and local predictions were forecasting a coming end to the abnormally high temps.  In fact, the outlook was calling for a major cool down—dropping way below the average highs.  Not such good news to us, heading as we were further north.  But plans were laid, and the fact remained, Florida in the winter is no time to make amends to  campground reservations.  We were locked in.

There’s a dichotomy in choosing to spend winter weeks in Florida’s Panhandle.  On one side, you risk inclement weather—usually in the form of days too cool to spend on the beach and nights that are downright chilly.  Add even a slight breeze to those conditions, and biking isn’t a fun option.  On the other hand, certain segments of the Panhandle have some of the best qualities in all of the whole state of Florida. Less crowds and busy roads, no major developments or commercial centers, except for limited areas you won’t see high-rises lining the water.  Instead you’ll find small mom-and-pop businesses, lots of local eateries, nature  preserves and wildlife sanctuaries and the pièce de résistance—the most pristine perfect, outstandingly luscious beaches in all of Florida.  Not to forget the color of the water .  .  .  on a sunny day, it’s guaranteed to give you pause!

To say that we like Florida’s Panhandle might be something of an understatement.  For us, knowing it’s waiting there at the end of our trip helps to take some of the pain off of it being the end of our trip—if you can follow that line of reasoning.  Maybe that’s why, as we lay the plans for each Florida hiatus, we seem to add more weeks to our Panhandle stay.  This year being no exception.

So officially you could define the Panhandle by what’s included on this map.  In our previous two winter sojourns (2014 and 2016) we’ve covered many of the highlights of this area.  For some places, one visit sufficed, for others, we could see returning.  And then, there’s those singular ones—the spots that hit a chord in both of us, places that grabbed us and were actually unforgettable.  This year we’d sink our teeth in and settle on those special spots—giving ample time for kicking back and soaking up.

Captivated as I am with this area, I won’t embellish more than I already have.  Suffice my other blogs to provide the background, the nitty-gritty information you might find helpful.  For now, I’ll show the highlights of this year’s stay, giving a feel for how we passed our days away.  And the centerpiece was Grayton Beach State Park.

I hesitate to confide in the qualities of this park’s campground—it’s already too popular to suit us.  IMO, it’s one of Florida’s best   campgrounds . . . nice layout, great setting, decently separated sites, and coming by next winter season–FHUs for every site.  What more would you require?  (Just don’t spread the word far-and-wide!)

And so, we nestled in to one of the current FHU sites, prepared to stay just about the maximum time allowed—2 weeks. We immediately got down to the business of enjoying this chunk of heaven, taking in its beautiful natural setting.

Occasionally, we did venture out.  After all, lazing about does become, eh-hem—rather boring.

Grayton Beach is about midway between the towns of Destin and Panama City, on a strip of land that’s not quite a barrier island, attached as it is to the mainland on its eastern end.  Stretching along this tongue of land is a 24-mile scenic road known as Highway-30A.  Hugging the gulf coast, it connects a handful of small towns, each having a distinct personality.  A great drive to take, it’s even better when you bike it—and a superb bike trail does just that!

Officially it’s called the Timpoochee Trail, named after an influential Euchee Indian Chief, but everyone calls it the 30A Bike Trail.  Running for nearly 20 miles, it passes through a dozen coastal communities as well as winding past four state parks and several beach accesses, through hardwood hammocks and coastal pine forests, with sporadic views of snowy white sand dunes and shimmering waters of the gulf.  To simply bike it is a destination in itself, but the trail is also a means that leads to morning lattes, afternoon lunches and good anytime shopping.  Best of all, we could access it right at the entrance to the campground. For a mile-by-mile guide to the 30A Trail running from west to east, click here.

Needless to say, we spent a big chunk of our days ‘doing the trail’.  It was just so darn nice to be out in the sunshine, checking out the neighborhoods.  We took in lots of interesting developments, seeing all types of architecture to match each beach community’s aesthetic, whether it’s the Old Florida shingled traditional style with wrap-around porches or the pastel-colored summer cottages with white picket fences.  And then, of course, there were those ubiquitous, ostentatious, humongous, jaw-dropping mansions.

A scenic stretch of trail crosses over Western Lake.

Along 30A you’ll find 15 coastal dune lakes, a unique and very rare ecosystem, and the bike trail takes you past most of them.  Considered globally rare, they are only found in a few places around the world.  Classified as “critically imperiled” because of their extreme rarity, dune lakes are salt water combined with fresh water, and are within 2 miles of the coastline. They are extremely important to migrating birds and certain beach critters.  For scenic appeal, they can hold their own with any of Florida’s natural attributes.  And the bike trail will give you up close and personal views.

And on the fringes of the day, one of the most scenic of the dune lakes, Western Lake, is a photographer’s destination .  .  .

Tall, elegant, coastal pine forests and the century-old community of Grayton Beach border 220-acre Western Lake.  Army Major Charles T. Gray and his wife Elizabeth built a home here in 1885, which later burned down.  In 1913, Grayton Beach became a resort community when the Butler family settled in, adding rental cottages and a general store.  Even as it grows with each passing year, with upscale shops, beachy kiosks and restaurants that range from the fun ‘n funky to award-winning cuisine, Grayton Beach still seems to have a small-town flavor.  It hasn’t lost its appeal to us.  Yet.

Lest you think it’s all about what surrounds Grayton Beach State Park, I need to assure you that I haven’t finished with my story.  Campground aside, the real jewel of this park has to be its swath of pristine beach. The biking, the camping, the scenic lake .  .  .  they’re all preludes to the main act.  A mile-long road takes you through the wind-swept dunes, stretching between Western Lake and the Gulf.  Postcard pretty at any time, I often began my day with a walk to the beach.

And what a way to welcome a new day!

It should come as no surprise to learn that the coastline between Panama City and Pensacola is known as ‘The Emerald Coast.’  Yes, the water really is that turquoise green, a hue that always seems to amaze us, no matter how often we see it.  Pure white sand as well as clear river waters feeding into the gulf, help to keep the gulf  waters crystal clear.

Yes, we had our share of sunny beach time!

 

But as glorious as this water was, it was the evenings that really glowed.  Late afternoon when the sun began dropping, a whole new flock of beach-goers came out.  All photographers know, as well as savvy beach lovers, this isn’t called The Golden Hour for no good reason!

And the sugar sand beach reflects the colors in the sky.

Each sunset has its own special look .  .  .

.  .  .  and hardy folks hang around ‘til the sun slips away.

We didn’t want to leave .  .  .  we wondered why . . . but life does go on.  With engagements set, and appointments made, we pulled out the third week of March.  Too soon, we thought, but then again, shouldn’t we leave while still wanting more?

Thanks for traveling with us!

Airstream Travelers,  Melinda & Chris

Moving on to other destinations, so stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ESCAPE FROM WINTER’S BITE, PART II–Helloooo Key West!!

We had arrived.  The place that we’re coming to know oh so well.  And love most everything about it.  It has a siren’s call, an enticement to us, an attraction that we find hard to describe, but know it can’t be denied.  Some might call it the ends of the earth .  .  .  for us, it’s more like the end of the rainbow.

Boyd’s Key West Campground is pretty much the only place to make camp close to town.  Located about 5 miles from the heart of things, it’s an easy drive or a scenic bike ride away.  With parking around town being problematic, biking is really the most ideal way to go.  We wouldn’t mind that at all.

Not being our first (or even second)  time here at Key West, we had camped here before, but I must admit never in such a premium site.  Yes, we splurged—more than a little—and managed to snag one of the few waterfront sites.  Talk about being in Paradise!  Yes, we were spoiled (and boy, was it ever special).

Speaking of special, Chris spontaneously suggested we head to Mallory Square to make it a special first night.  Far be it for me to put up an objection .  .  . I grabbed my camera and jumped in the truck.

It’s something of a ritual when in Key West to head down to the waterfront at Mallory Square.  It’s a special time when the crowds turn out and the performers get going, and artists set up their booths.  But those are just the side shows .  .  .  the main act is the setting sun.  Crowds begin gathering along the dock (get in position early!), sailing ships embark loaded with partying people and the cruise ships head back out to sea. Then everyone waits, holding their breaths, to see if the sun and sky will do their part.  It’s not a given for sure, but we were lucky this time—the colors began to pop!

 

 

 

 

 

It might just be the best memory you’ll have of Key West.

A whole week wasn’t even enough to satisfy our attraction to this place.  Although we didn’t go back for another sunset, we found plenty of pleasures just kicking back and soaking in .  .  .  the atmosphere .  .  .  the ambiance .  .  .  the joie de vivre.  Yes, we did the touristy things—walked Duval Street, ate out in local places, and bought a few mementos.

And just like the times before, we had fun just exploring back streets and residential areas.  The homes really are full of character.  And give an insight into what life is like here in remote Key West.

Most of all, we did a whoooooole lot of biking—the conditions couldn’t have been better!

Our last morning at Boyd’s seem to cap off how our whole Key West experience went.   The golden glow of an early sunrise compelled me to hurry from my bed and capture one last dazzling moment.  Yes, that says it all!

The after effects of Hurricane Irma made a change to our next destination.  Due to storm damage, the Everglades’ campgrounds cancelled out our reservation, compelling us to make other last-minute camping plans.  That is not an easy thing to accomplish in Florida in the winter.  Be that as it may, we managed to find a spot in a Naples campground for the coming several days.  Although the town itself is not exactly our ‘cup of tea’, we found something to our liking at nearby Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

You’ll find Florida’s best and most extensive boardwalk hike here, winding 2.3 miles through an old-growth cypress forest.  Managed by the National Audubon Society since 1912, the Sanctuary is one of the most important breeding grounds for wood storks and one of the few places you can see a ghost orchid bloom.  Corkscrew Swamp contains the largest stand of virgin Bald Cypress in the world, with trees up to 600 years old.

Relatives of the redwood, these impressive trees tower 130 feet into the sky and can have a girth of 25 feet.  Their massive branches are draped with mosses, lichens, bromeliads and ferns.  Unfortunately for us, the cypress trees lose their foliage in winter months, creating more of a bare, sparse look than we’d have liked.  Still, it was a beautiful trail.

Although we never caught a glimpse of the rare wood storks rumored to be wintering here, we did see a few of the not-so-rare Anhingas.  They also are found nesting and breeding at this time of the year and that’s what we found so fascinating.  Having already birthed their offspring, we could observe close up how the adults feed their young.  Fortunate to catch the scene with my camera, the pictures tell the story.  Take a look .  .  .

When one thinks of Naples perhaps the first images coming to mind are high-rise condos, over-the-top mansions, classy and expensive boutiques, posh restaurants and you wouldn’t be much off the mark.  Not exactly our kind of scene.  But just beyond the outskirts of this city one can find a more natural place.  When evenings come on we would head out of town, to soak up a more authentic Florida scene.  Hardwood hammocks, stands of royal palms, bald cypress marshes all offering refuge for wildlife and birds.  That’s our kind of place and those are the images we’ll carry with us.

Continuing up the Gulf Coast, we had a nice long stay in the popular Sarasota/Venice area, another location we’d highly recommend.  To get the most out of both towns, we chose Oscar Scherer State Park—just about midway between the two—as our campground destination.

Once set up in the shaded campsite under a canopy of live oak branches, you’d never know that just outside the park gates there are cars whizzing by on the Tamiami Trail.  You’re a world apart.

A significant selling point for us was the 11-mile paved Legacy Bike Trail cutting through the park atop an old railroad bed.  Running from Sarasota to Venice you can be sure we used it a time or two.  Occasionally going past backyard suburbia, more often we were biking through pine forests and wetland prairies—more like an authentic Florida landscape.

When the southern terminus ends at the Venice Train Depot you can continue your biking fun by picking up the Venetian Waterway Trail and take it even further!  Lining both side of the Intracoastal Waterway, the trail takes you all the way out to the Casperson Beach on the Gulf Coast just south of downtown Venice.  Make a day of it, stopping for lunch at Sharkey’s on the Pier with outdoor eating, then swing back through Venice on the return leg.  Two distinct bike trails, both totally enjoyable and rewarding.  We were in Biking 7th Heaven!

But there was another attraction in this neighborhood that also piqued our interest.  I had read about the Venice Rookery many years before, filing it away in my memory but never forgotten.  Our stay here gave us plenty of time to check it out . . . more than a time or two.

As it would turn out, Chris quickly got caught up in the photography part and before the week was over he was really absorbed in the whole bird experience.  What fun we had!

Managed by the Venice Area Audubon Society, the Venice Rookery is the site of a small island rookery in the middle of a small lake. If you don’t feel like walking much to get to your destination, this is the place for you. Just pull up, walk a few yards, and you’re right there. And it’s free! No parking or admission fees.  For those of you not so familiar with the birding world, a rookery is a nesting and breeding place for a colony of (in this case) birds.  A mound of land covered in dense shrubbery located in a small lake is where birds such as White Ibises, Great Egrets, Anhingas and Blue Herons flock in great numbers.  Building their nests and roosting safely from land predators while alligators patrol the water at night, the rookery is abuzz with the cackle and calls of birds.  Quite the sight to see!

Besides catching their nesting activity, the rookery is an excellent place to capture birds in flight.  Morning brings a flurry of activity as birds leave the island to bring back food and nesting materials.  The winter months are the time to see the most going on, both on the rookery as well as the shoreline.

On any given morning, casual bird-watchers to hard-core nature photographers line the edge of the lake with spotting scopes, binoculars, telephoto lenses and tripods.

Credit: VeniceAudubon.org

Maybe, to have a full appreciation of this sight, you must be here to witness the whole thing up close and personal .  .  .  so take it from me—it’s truly something you won’t soon forget.  Who knows, the bird watcher bug might even bite you and soon you’ll be standing transfixed on that shore.

Airstreamer friends, Randy and Teresa Cook, were spending most of the winter here in Sarasota and we had been looking forward to sharing more good times with them once we arrived.  I must confess (and thereby take the blame) for suggesting we plan a Segway Tour of Sarasota together.  Chris and I were veterans of sort, having done Segway tours a couple times in the past.  A great way to explore a new place, I admit to being hooked on Segways (there’s really nothing at all quite like one!).  It never occurred to me that it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.  Good sports as the Cooks are, they [willingly?] went along.  Shortly after the instructions were given and we all had a chance to demonstrate our skill, a little mishap occurred literally knocking poor Teresa off her machine.  Consequentially, she opted out.

And so ended another good day.

Moving on .  .  .  ever so slowly northward .  .  .  we came to another delightful highlight (as it turned out) of this trip.

If you happen to ever cross over the magnificent Skyway Bridge that spans Tampa Bay, you might notice a string of heavily vegetated islands strung out on the western side.  Connected to the mainland by a causeway, these keys (or islands) make up a popular county park, Fort DeSoto.  Hidden away under thick tropical vegetation are beautiful beaches, a bustling campground, kayak and canoe trails, a paved bike trail, nature trails, picnic areas, even a dog beach.  Not widely publicized, still it’s heavily utilized by locals and is becoming a popular stop for winter travelers.  We were extremely lucky to snag a campsite.

Passing through the park’s entrance, you’re immediately transported into a world of green—literally enveloped by vegetation.  It’s like roads were carved out of a wilderness (and maybe they were) understory so thick you can’t see beyond a few yards in.  The traffic you recently left behind, the outskirts of St. Petersburg’s sprawl, is a whole world away and soon forgotten.

I think this place is a well-kept secret, not talked about much at all.  Those who know about this tucked-away oasis are reluctant to share it with the outside world.  They want it all to themselves .  .  .  kept pristine .  .  .  never overcrowded—and no one could ever blame them.

Residents who live in Pinellas County get a whole month’s advantage reserving campsites.  Only then, 6 months prior to arrival, is the system opened to all us others.  A total of 238 sites—water and electricity, extremely deep and nicely private—are taken up in the blink of an eye.  At least in the prime winter season.  And we were one of the fortunate few.

And I do mean fortunate!!  These sites are really incredible—from their ample size to their privacy.  And the ones backing up to the water are simply delightful.  We spent many hours reading by the water, having lunch in the sunshine and balmy breezes, watching the sun set every evening from the comfort of our ‘backyard’. 

And as yet another added benefit, without any effort at all Chris had a handy place to observe all sorts of wading birds.  They dropped by to check things out . . . like the little crabs burrowing in the sand.    Mmmmmmm, so good!

 

As it turns out, Fort De Soto is incredible for bird photography.   A natural waypoint for migrating birds, they spend winter months here while breeding.  Fort DeSoto comes alive for birdwatchers in the spring and fall.  It didn’t take long for us to realize that it’s a favorite nesting grounds for osprey too.  They were just about everywhere—a common hangout for their nests were the platforms built on top of utility poles.

The park has thoughtfully provided for biking enthusiasts such as ourselves.  You can easily bike anywhere through the park.  With more than 6 miles of paved trail, it makes for easy access any location.  Beginning at the boat ramp near the entrance, going past the campgrounds, it eventually connects to East and North Beaches.

As an added benefit, you’ll find an extension of the Pinellas Bike Trail running into nearby Tierra Verde from the mainland.  Once accessed, cyclists have a scenic ride into St. Petersburg, or north to Clearwater and beyond.

One perfect day we headed out and took that Pinellas Trail into downtown St. Petersburg.  Once reaching the Trail’s southern terminus at Demens Landing Historical Park on the edge of Tampa Bay, we continued on around the shore of Tampa Bay on the Bayshore Drive dedicated paved walkway and bikeway.  A perfect weather day for biking, it was a great way to see the sights. . . the shops, the outdoor cafes, the marina and a huge public park . . . making for one very scenic route.

After all the accolades I’ve given this park, would you believe I’ve saved the best for last?  Fort DeSoto is known for its outstanding beaches.  Indeed, they are consistently ranked among the best of Florida’s beaches—even among the best in our country!  Fort DeSoto Park is wrapped in 3 miles of beautiful sand beaches.  Needing to give a firsthand seal of approval to this claim, we logged more than a few hours putting those beaches to the test.

Not being the most savvy of beach-goers, nevertheless Fort DeSoto passed our critical review.

For now, I’ll leave you here .  .  .  imagining how it feels on these Florida beaches.  While much of the country is contending with winter, basking in the sunshine could be easily construed as a guilty pleasure—but please don’t .  Who knows, maybe some year down the road . . . this could be you.

Soaking up all that healthy sunshine .  .  .  Airstream Travelers,  Melinda & Chris            Stay tune—there’s one more Part to come!

 

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FLORIDA 2018–Escape from Winter’s Bite

There are worse places to while away the winter weeks than where we’ve been these past couple of months and more.  Far worse.  In fact, this year in particular, Florida might have been one of the best.  Consistently.  Week after week.  Despite a chilly start in early January, which some even called frigid.  And worse.  But Florida finally got it together and headed down the right track.  Temperatures leveled out and remained at respectable and very acceptable numbers.  Not only seeing the normal highs, by February much of the state was experiencing record highs.  Day after day.  The way the Sunshine State is suppose to be.  Its reputation was restored and we were reveling in it!  Every day .  .  .  never boring.  With winds, rains and cold dreary weather sweeping across the Midwest, how could we complain about the monotony of constantly sunny days and warm, balmy temps?  Never!

But we earned this reward only after a retched start.  First, Chris needed to de-winterize the Airstream in bitter conditions.  Water circulating through the plumbing system would freeze immediately upon flush out.  His hands were numb and stiff with cold.  It was not a pleasant scene.  At least there was no snow to compound the agony.  We left Indiana in sub-freezing temps, our course set for due south.

We wouldn’t experience anything that approached acceptable warmth until our second day on the road.  But when it happened, it was divine.  We basked in warmth and sunshine.  Our life was back on the right track as we pulled into our first destination.  We had high hopes for Savannah, Georgia and were anxious to put recent experiences in our past.

It would turn out to be fleeting, but nevertheless we were filled with optimism as we pulled into a wonderful campground on the outskirts of this historic town.  Skidaway Island State Park is a nature-lovers place—and it has a campground with equal appeal!  With nature trails winding past salt marshes and through maritime forests of live oaks, cabbage-palmettos and longleaf pines, the park borders Skidaway Narrows, a part of Georgia’s Intracoastal Waterway.  Just a short 30-minute drive from downtown Savannah and surrounded by commercial and residential areas, the park is a natural haven preserving a segment of native land.  

And what’s more—the campground is equally lovely!  Nestled in a grove of live oaks draped in Spanish moss,  the sites are unusually large and well-spaced for privacy.  Mostly pull-throughs, all have water and electricity, with some having sewer hookups and 50-amp—a rarity in state parks!  All set up and happy, as the warm evening came on we took a stroll through the campground .  .  .  in mere shirt sleeves, no less.  Yes, we were going to like it here a lot!

Our good time would be short-lived, as it turned out.  Even shorter than the three days planned.  But when our first full day dawned balmy and bright, we were oblivious of that as we made a bee-line into Savannah to begin a glorious day of exploration and sight-seeing.

We began with a great breakfast at a popular, highly-rated cafe in an old restored home.  We both would highly recommend B. Matthews Eatery if you’re looking for good food in a cozy, home atmosphere (and who wouldn’t be?).  Walking off all those added calories was just as enjoyable as it was putting them on .  .  . when you have old cobblestone streets and bricked-paved walkways spanned by heavy oak branches to take you past the historic buildings and stunning mansions.  And so our day began.

Savannah is a gorgeous town—full of history and charming homes.  Platted out in the unique English style of precise grids by its founder General James Oglethorpe back in 1733, it’s enjoyable to just wander through or choose a trolley tour if you want some background history and insider’s scoops thrown in.  Having just finished reading the best-selling novel Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil from a few year’s back, I was primed and ready to soak up some authentic Southern charm!

I love wandering residential districts of historic old towns and Savannah has got to be among one of the best.  An added bonus to our timely visit is capturing these old homes and mansions still decked out in their festive holiday finery.  Now that’s what I call a coup—and Chris gave me free rein to roam!  What a day!

What really sets this town apart and adds a unique look to its layout are the 22 park-like historic squares interspersed throughout the historic district, the centerpieces of the grid system.  Nicely landscaped and meticulously groomed, most have commemorative statues or attractive fountains as their centerpieces.  They are all wonderful places to seek beauty and respite in one’s day, adding focal points in a city brimming with charm.

We soon learned that the weather was due to crash on the following day—cold temps with sleet and possible snow to follow.  Although we hadn’t accomplished all we had hoped, not covered Savannah to our hearts’ content nor hiked the scenic trails here at Skidaway, if ever there was a time when discretion was the better part of valor, this might be it.  Firm in the belief that one day we’d be returning, we packed up and headed out.  Dire weather forecasts were pushing us south .  .  .  where we hoped to escape the worst of the weather.

Amelia Island, just off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida was our next destination.  It was an easy 134-mile drive to Fort Clinch State Park, where once again overhanging live oaks and sabal palmettos lined the entrance road.  The oceanfront setting was the perfect camping site, but would we escape the worst of the impending winter storm?  That was the thousand dollar question.

And so, we settled in, enjoyed a pastel-colored sunset from our windows, and then drove in to Fernandina Beach for a late supper.  The weather was holding.

But it wouldn’t last.  During that night we began rocking and rolling.  The wind howled outside and the rain began pelting our aluminum rooftop.  Buffeted by strong winds as a new day dawned, we realized that an oceanfront site was not the ideal place to be under these conditions.  We made a few calls to find a site in yet another campground,  and then packed up and continued our southbound drive.

How about weathering the storm  near St. Augustine Florida?  Having fond memories of times  spent there, we decided to give it a try.  An easy hour’s drive took us to North Beach Camp Resort where they managed to find us a site on a day’s notice.   Thirty wooded acres located on a barrier island, it would be a short 5-mile drive into historic St. Augustine.  With the North River on one side of the camp and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, it has an ideal location for all beach lovers.  And the campsites are nicely private with plenty of surrounding vegetation. It was a good refuge for riding out the storm.

We lasted another two nights here.  Hoping for more, as well as a chance to enjoy the surroundings, the miserable weather once again threw a glitch in our plans.  The precipitation passed through and we were high and dry, but then came the cold front to add insult to our injuries.  How do you handle sub-freezing temperatures while camped on a tropical barrier island?  By packing up and heading south.  This time in a much longer leap.

This time we hit pay dirt.  Cape Canaveral was part of our itinerary and by the time we were pulling in to Jetty Park Campground the sun was shining and the temps were rising.  And so were our spirits.

Jetty Park was an ideal place to camp.  Besides having a pleasant environment—FHUs in a park-like setting (grassy sites mostly open with trees interspersed), it was located next to the waterway that cruise ships passed through on their way out to sea.  Each morning and evening we’d watch as yet another behemoth ship went by, filled with happy passengers.

The draw for us was the convenient location for taking in the Kennedy Space Center, our focus for this interim stay. An easy, 30-minute drive had us pulling in to the complex on our first full day there.

The Kennedy Space Center can be a bit overwhelming for the first-time visitor.  I came prepared aided by thorough research as well as helpful suggestions gleaned from a blogger I regularly follow.  I knew some tricks to help make our visit go smoothly—here they are in a nutshell:

1.  Download the free KSC App. Besides providing essential info, you’ll have the map complex instantly at hand on your phone.  A really big convenience!

2.  Purchase your tickets ahead; online or at the self-serve kiosks upon arrival.

3.  Arrive at opening time—9am; weekdays are much preferable!

4.  After entering, get yourself on a Bus Tour.  There is a bus tour included with daily admission, but the Special Interest Tours will take you to some different places that you might find well-worth your time.  We took the one that takes you out to on-site launch pads, including the SpaceX pad—only accessible by bus.

The bus tour is popular, but if you make it to the first bus of the day the line to board will be a shorter wait.  Once back at the main complex you’ll have the rest of the center to explore at your own time.

4.  Take in the Atlantis Space Shuttle Exhibit, which is also very popular and fills up with people as the day progresses. If you’ve taken the first bus tour you’ll probably get back before the peak hits.

It was a big day, no doubt about it, but a very satisfying one.  With the best of Florida weather finally back, we were rejuvenated and full of energy.  It was definitely a highlight of our entire winter hiatus and we actually were one of the last visitors to leave that evening.  Time well spent .  .  .  we came away with good memories and lots of new knowledge.  And one more thing—be sure to snag at least one of the IMAX movies (we took in two)!

Photo credit: FloridaRambler.com

While you’re in the area there’s more to keep you occupied.  If you head back to the mainland and turn south, it’s a short drive to the small town of Cocoa Village.  With its redeveloped historic downtown, you’ll find unique shops, small boutiques and cafes lining the narrow, tree-lined streets.  After our busy, info-cramming KSC experience from the day before, it was a nice change-of-pace for us to kick back and do some easy strolling with maybe a little shopping spree thrown in.  A pleasant few hours, however you look at it.

Photo credit: FloridaRambler.com

BTW, if you do find yourself back on the mainland I would highly recommend you swing by Dixie Crossroads—and bring a healthy appetite with you! Where some might see it as a tourist trap, the locals will tell you it’s just plain good home-cooked food—having the freshest of seafood.  Unpretentious on the outside, it’s huge on the inside, with shaded areas, fish ponds and fountains to offer a nice ambiance outdoors if you find there’s a wait.  When it comes to the main attraction, you can’t beat any of the seafood choices.  We’ll testify for their rock shrimp (tasting more like lobster when served with melted butter) and the complimentary cornball fritters dusted with powdered sugar are positively addictive!   You’ll find this culinary jewel along the main drag in Titusville—easy access, large parking area.

For one more total change of pace I’d like to recommend the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge that takes you off the beaten tracks to a pristine place reminiscent of the original Florida when Calusa Indians roamed this land.  Having its origins back in the 1960s when NASA was buying up land surrounding its space center to be a buffer zone of restricted area.  With this land being beneath the Atlantic flyway for migratory birds, the refuge establishment seemed the answer for both birds and government project.  Today you’ll find trails, boat ramps, picnic areas and a 7-mile auto tour that is especially popular with photographers and bird lovers.  There’s a small entrance fee, a visitors center and 6 hiking trails varying in length from 0.25 to 5 miles.  You could spend an entire day here enjoying the sights, but early morning and late afternoon are the prime photographing times. 

 

 

 

 

 

With Florida weather now back on its anticipated track, we were ready to get down to some serious basking in the warmth of sunny days.  What better place to spend them but in one of my husband’s all-time favorite tropical spots—the Florida Keys (and a big draw for myself as well). We headed out for one of our longer days of Florida driving.

Once you make that drive across the causeway on Hwy. 1 be prepared to enter a whole different dimension—both in time and space, as they say.  Real time slows down, waaaaaay down—they call it ‘Island Time’ here.  And the colors of your surrounding world seem to become more pastel, tinged in Easter-egged hues. It’ll hit you as soon as you’re crossing that first bridge.

Yes, the water really is a shade of aquamarine.  Actually, it really seems to have a glow . . . like a neon light.  Photos just can’t capture it.  But take my word—I’ve never seen anything that comes close to this!  It all has to do with being super clean water—filtered by the mangroves that cover nearly all of the coast of the Keys.  A miracle of nature I’d say.  A sight to behold to be sure.

If there’s a downside to our attraction to the Florida Keys, it’s gotta be the sharing it with the masses.  Indeed, the Keys hold an allure not just for a few fans, but for the many who come here for a variety of reasons.  Some spend the winter, others (like us) travel through, and a surprising number come and end up staying.  You’ll be sharing this chunk of Paradise with them all.  You learn to take it in stride, or choose not to return at all.

This wasn’t our first time through the Keys, not even our second.  Yes, we were smitten and will easily admit it undoubtedly won’t be our last.  Sights might not be new to us, but could never become boring.  Not yet.  We were ready to kick back and absorb the magic we find in the Florida Keys.

To put the layout of the Keys into simple illustration, they are divided into four main sections .  .  .

Credit: WheelingIt.com

Our time here would be divided into three stays—Key Largo in the Upper Keys, Marathon in the Middle Keys, and the pièce de résistance—Key West.  With quite a bit of effort and even more luck just reserving the sites, we would be camping in two state parks along the route, and the one-and-only Boyd’s RV Resort at the end. With reservations set at least a year in advance, we had slightly more than two glorious weeks set aside for the Keys.

Despite the perfect weather, the clear skies and ubiquitous Tiki bars we remembered, we were quick to discern not everything was as we remembered.  And it wasn’t for the better.  Misfortune had come to the Keys and more or less had left its impact through all of them, marring the landscape.  Misfortune now referred to as Irma.  From the moment we entered John Pennekamp State Park where the campground was decidedly bare and void of tropical vegetation to the roadside debris lining the Overseas Highway.  This hurricane of last September had definitely left her mark.  And the cleanup was still ongoing.

Considering this string of islands endured the heart of the storm, they recovered amazingly well.  Yes, there was damage all around, some homes and businesses might never recover, a few precious campgrounds are still closed, but the resilience of its people is showing through.  The evidence yet remaining gives some proof of what devastation occurred here.

But the island vibe was still all around and what remained in Irma’s wake wouldn’t distract us from what made the Keys so special.  A few days first spent in Key Largo got us groovin’ and soon we were caught up in island life.

Biking is a perfect way to get around in the Keys.  With the Overseas Highway the main artery, it’s often congested with fast-moving cars.  You need to sloooooow down when you’re in the Keys.

It’s 106 miles through the entire length of the Keys along Highway 1 (aka, the Overseas Hwy.) and more than 90 miles of the Overseas Heritage Bike Trail now exist.  With plans for the remaining miles now in design or under construction, the longest continuous section now exists in the Upper Keys, from Key Largo through Islamorada, MM106 to MM72.  Tracing the course of Henry Flagler’s old railroad line, parts of the trail are adjacent to the busy highway while other sections become scenic pathways.  Crossing over 23 of the old rail bridges still in existence, the trail links a number of superb natural areas and historic sites.  It’s one of the big attractions for us down here, and biking fills a big chunk of our time.

Sometimes the trail is just a shoulder along the highway, other times it strikes out through the scenery.

Marathon, smack dab in the Middle Keys, was our second stop here, specifically Curry Hammock State Park campground.  One of the prettiest state parks in the Keys, it’s also one of the most difficult to get a reservation in.  Reservations begin 11 months ahead of arrival and mere seconds later any available sites are gone.  But if you luck out you’ll be in for one special stay.  We’ve been here before and we’ll always return—located right on the beautiful water, sunrises and sunsets are right outside your door.

Sunrises can absolutely GLOW here!

While sunsets can light the sky on fire.

While most of the shoreline along the Keys is edged with coral rock and mangrove thickets, sandy beaches are few and far between.

 

 

But here at Curry Hammock you’ll find one of the longest stretches of sandy beaches…

… making an ideal place for a sunset stroll.

And speaking of its beaches, most days can be somewhat windy.  Throwing waves around and stirring the water, it’s a popular kite-surfing area.  Not a sport that we personally get into, we become captivated as observers.  It can be a great beach activity.

Taking in more of that neon green water along our way.

 

But biking is our favorite sport, and another appeal is having the Heritage Trail pass right by Curry Hammock’s entrance.  We can pick it up and peddle the few miles into Marathon .  .  .  for lunch or a morning latte.

Very close to where the eye of Irma passed over the land, Curry Hammock managed to survive with minimal damage.  Completely submerged by nearly 20 feet of tidal surge, the campsites were rebuilt and electric pedestals replaced.  Fortunately for us we didn’t lose out on our reservation and what’s more, the loss of vegetation helped to give oceanside sites like ours a more open view of the water.  Sometimes things can work out for the better.

And what a beautiful view it can be!

From here we traveled further south, our destination being MileMarker One —  Key West.  We’re halfway there when leaving Marathon,  and the scenery only gets better.  I’ll close out Part One of this Florida blog, to be continued with our arrival at Key West.

You gotta love that water!!

 

 

And one very long, 7-mile bridge will see us on our way there!

 

 

 

Leaving you with one last fabulous Curry Hammock sunset,

Airstream Travelers,  Melinda & Chris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY—A Fall Interlude

Sometimes there are places that just don’t grow old for us.  To the outsider, it might appear that we’re in a rut, stuck in the same routine.  I see it as more like a rejuvenation, a restoration of our spirit.  Call it what you will, the Fall Season was upon us and here we were, for maybe the sixth or seventh time, back on the Blue Ridge Parkway, to make the most of this special time of the year.  And that would be mid-October—when the days are crisp, the nights downright chilly, and the foliage aflame in brilliant colors.  It is the Parkway’s showiest time of the year—IMHO.

We were doing things a little different this time around—a slight change of locations along the parkway.  After hooking up with Airstream friends, Randy and Teresa Cook, we found ourselves near the college town of Boone, NC, a couple hours’ drive north of our usual  North Carolina haunts.  After our paths diverged from them, we were hoping to snag one of the unreserveable sites in the parkway’s largest campground.  At this most popular time of the year, that might be expecting too much.  We did have a fall-back plan, but we REALLY were hoping to kick back and hang out for a few days here, camping along the parkway.

Blessed with unseasonably warm days, bright bluebird skies and soft, gentle breezes, we were experiencing fall days at their best.

The locals were calling it a disappointing fall.  Colors too faded, foliage too bare.  Just before the leaves were to begin turning, the winds of two Florida hurricanes had blown through, taking down a considerable quantity of branches, stripping too many leaves from the trees, we were told.  For a time, it necessitated closing segments of the parkway; the clean-up was such a big deal.

Yet, even under unusually dry conditions and that windy impact, I’ll readily stack the fall colors of this parkway up against any other area of our country notable for autumn color.  Even under these less-than-desirable circumstances, the Blue Ridge Parkway in October can easily hold its own premier place.   Just check out these photos to come—they will exhibit the unvarnished truth.

Julian Price Campground has more available campsites than any of the Parkway’s other seven campgrounds. Yet, just like the others, despite having nearly 300 sites, the campground was laid out decades ago when tent camping was the custom, and RVs weren’t nearly the size they are today.  Having 78 designated RV sites, many of them are merely pull-offs along the camp road; back-ins aren’t generally deep and pull-throughs don’t exist. Nevertheless, most of the back-ins are double-wide and allow for a tow vehicle to park next to your trailer.  In situations like this, Airstreams and other mid-size trailers have a huge edge.  There were several sites that were adequate for us, and if push came to shove, without any slide-outs, we could have just as well taken one of the roadside sites.

But, we lucked out with a nice, totally acceptable non-reserveable site.  Situated in a deep forest of hardwoods, the sunlight through fall foliage was like light through stained glass, while encircled with rhododendrons gave us a private, tucked-away and nestled-in-the-forest feel.

Just hanging out at our campsite might be the best part of this autumn interlude.

We might not have hookups, and would need to conserve our water usage, but ahhhh—this is a true camping experience.

You could say that we were camped right in the thick of things.  Location . . . location . . . location.  With the quaint town of Blowing Rock a couple miles away and the college town of Boone only 20 or so miles, there’s plenty of sightseeing possibilities. Julian Price, with its 4,200 acres of rolling mountain land smack along the Parkway, is a destination in itself.  With several trailheads to choose from, and many more just a handful of miles away, outdoor lovers won’t need to move far afield.  Everything one could enjoy doing on beautiful fall days is right here literally at your doorstep.

The Green Knob Trail was our first hike.  What it lacked in length it more than made up for in its elevation changes.  Just down the road from our campground, we hiked through a diversity of environments, from old growth timber to open pastures.  Our reward was standing on the top of Green Knob, giving distant views of Price Lake far below.

The trail leads where??? Chris has a stand-off
with a stubborn cow.

 

 

Moses Cone Memorial Park is another popular visitor attraction of the Parkway, and it too was just a couple miles away.  If the high quality Craft Center located there isn’t enough of a draw for you (Chris was captivated by the featured craftsman, a woodcarver with his fine handiwork on display), then you’ll surely find some interest in the history of the place.

Moses Cone was a self-made man, making a fortune with his textile mills that produced high quality denim fabric.  Fond of nature and plagued by poor health, he was drawn to the mountainous region around Blowing Rock.  Buying up 3,500 acres, he subsequently designed and built Flat Top Manor, a gleaming white 20-room, 13,000 square foot mansion in the grand Colonial Revival style.  Today, the first floor houses the Craft Center, while the second floor is open for touring on weekends.  You will find it to be a very popular stop on the Parkway.

But that’s not all of the story!  The Cones were “naturalists” before the term became popular, working to preserve and enrich their land.  They planted acres of white pines and hemlocks and transported sugar maples directly from New England.  He built several lakes, stocking them with bass and trout and planted 32,000 apple trees which produced prize-winning apples.

To help him appreciate the fruits of his labors and planning, Moses had 25 miles of carriage roads laid out through his property.  Open for hiking and horseback riding, perhaps this is the feature that visitors find most appealing.  Winding through pastoral settings, many of the pathways are lined with stonewalls or bushes of mountain laurel and rhododendrons.  Spring and early summer here must be a glorious sight to see.

Although we have yet to travel all 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, I’d say we have a more than average familiarity with the stretch from Asheville to its terminus at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Just a few months ago we spent some perfectly stunning days camped near Mt. Pisgah, catching the early summer bloom.

Two years ago I wrote an extensive post about our fall experience on the southern sections of the parkway where I provided more written information about the parkway than you really needed to know.  When caught up in a captivating experience, I sometimes get overly zealous in my writings and pictorial essays.

Here I am, seven years ago,
taking in the views for the first time.

It has been seven years since we ventured this far north along the parkway.  Back then, we spent more than a few days along this stretch, covering more ground and taking in more sights than we would have time for on this occasion.  Back then, I wasn’t posting these travel blogs, not even recording our experiences in writing.  Only my photos taken at that time illustrate what we saw and did.  But from those pictures I have come to see that we once again walked trails taken those years ago.  A good trail, we came to discover, can be taken more than once or twice.  And Rough Ridge Trail is more than a good trail .  .  . it is one of the parkway’s most outstanding.

When you first see the stepping stone rocks leading steeply up the mountainside at the trailhead you might be somewhat intimidated.  If you’re not a veteran hiker, you might even have some doubts.  But don’t be dissuaded—take your time and you’ll be fine.  Trust me, in a short while the views open up and the boardwalk begins and there’s even benches to rest on.  The panoramic scenery makes you forget all the effort expended.  In any season, under any conditions, the views are amazing.  And at this time of the year . . . it’ll take your breath away–if the hike hasn’t done that already.

Today, with the scenery unchanged, you see the famous Linn Cove Viaduct stretching around the flanks of Grandfather Mountain.

The only downside to this spectacular trail might be the Congo line of hikers.  Yes, during leaf season you’re bound to share it with others.  But take it from me, it’s worth it.

With the Blue Ridge mountains stretching to the horizon, it’s worth the effort to get here.

Another trail you shouldn’t miss is Beacon Heights, only a few more miles south of Rough Ridge.  Another popular trail during the day, this is a sunrise or sunset destination, in my book.  Sure, you’ll still find some intrepid souls up there late or early in the day . . . but no Congo line of hikers to contend with.  As far as this segment of the Parkway goes, Beacon Heights is not to be missed.

Evening light warms the colors and accentuates the flow of undulating mountain ridges.

Another uphill climb over rocks and roots leads to two large rocky shelves—one facing to the west, the other to the east—from which to look out over a pristine setting of the remnants of these ancient mountains. It’s a thought-provoking place you’ll feel privileged to have found.

I knew I had found my sunrise place.  And so, early next morning saw me bundled up in layers, flashlight in hand and headlight illuminated, trudging back up that bouldered trail.  My efforts were not in vain.

And the afterglow wasn’t too shabby either.  Sunrises on mountaintops can be a wondrous experience.

During the leaf season, the Parkway oftentimes is nearly bumper-to-bumper traffic. But shortly after sunrise, you’ll feel you own the road.  So it was as I was heading back, passing by the Rough Ridge pull-off.  What??? No cars parked here???  Incredible!  And definitely not to be ignored.  What credible photographer could pass up this photo op?  Certainly not me.  With gear in hand, I made my second up mountain slog of the day.

Yes, I had the perfect spot all to myself.  A panoramic shot was in order first.

Grandfather Mountain, an icon of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the focal point of this part of the Parkway, stands out prominently in my photo.

Composing a second shot, I was dismayed to see a young couple walk straight into my scene.  On second thought, I saw a kismet moment as they added life and direction to my picture. And so, I took the shot.

And then, I was witnessing a very special moment as unbelievable as it seemed.  In the space of a click of the shutter, I was capturing one of life’s most intimate scenes.

Their names were Thomas and Ashley.  He had his GoPro filming the moment, and as he came to retrieve it, I was able to offer my congratulations.  They were both giddy and still caught up in the moment.  Thomas admitted that he had never been so nervous and still was shaking, while Ashley said after six years of being together, this still came as the shock of her life!  They asked me to take their picture, which of course I was honored to do.  More than just one or two, rest assured.  With hugs all around, I soon left them to bask in a private moment as I packed up and headed back down the trail.

With Grandfather Mountain lording over the landscape, the morning seemed to take on even more of a special glow.  Our time here was closing down, but for Ashley and Thomas this golden morning would be their new beginning.

Chris had things all stowed away and was waiting to hitch up the truck (some things never change).  After a quick breakfast, we were pulling out to make our way down to more familiar parts of the Parkway.  Oh beautiful drive, how many different looks you have!

Until the next time .  .  .

Airstream Travelers,  Melinda & Chris

We’ll be returning.

 

 

 

 

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COLORADO SPRINGS—Was This To Be the End?

We had literally come full circle.  It had been just two months ago that we were pulling through Colorado Springs on our way to our first destination—the town of Manitou Springs.  I had really wanted to stay here in the Springs (as locals refer to the town) at a particular state park that had received outstanding reviews, but as is so often the case with highly rated campgrounds, it was booked up solid.  Thus we ended up nearby, with Manitou Springs having enough attractions to keep us occupied and well-satisfied.  BUT, clever planner of trips that I am, why not tack it on at the end of our travels? Kids would be heading back to school and campgrounds were mostly left to us retirees (except on weekends, that is).  Plenty of good sites to choose from.  Worked out just fine!  Approaching the end of another epic trip is always a bittersweet time, but with this campground waiting up ahead, our anticipations were far outweighing the sadness of the impending end.

Cheyenne Mountain State Park didn’t disappoint, even in view of my high expectations.  One of Colorado’s newest state parks, it is a jewel.  Just on the outskirts of The Springs, the park is positioned on the northern flanks of Cheyenne Mountain (yes, THAT mountain of NORAD fame).

With careful consideration when selecting a campsite, you might be fortunate enough to have the mountain rising behind you while the expanse of the Great Plains spreads out before you.  It’s the very best of both worlds.

The newness of this park really shows up in its campground.  Paved roads and pads, gravel picnic areas and spacious, well-separated sites.  And best of all and a rarity as state parks usually go—full hookup sites!  Yes, we were in a camper’s 7th Heaven!

Added to all this was the bonus (and it was a BIG one)—a field of sunflowers graced our surroundings!  A sight to behold, spreading out below the mountain was a glorious meadow of those yellow beauties!

With everything so good in this most excellent site, we wasted little time making ourselves quite comfortable here.  Even though The Springs was temptingly close with all it had to offer, we rarely went far away. Settling in to smell the sunflowers—something we rarely take the time to do.

Have I mentioned the outstanding trail system this park has?  Well marked, with a wide diversity of topographies covered, you had your choice of flatland prairies or uphill, more strenuous hikes.  A great way to begin the day!  Or spend it, for that matter.

But we did venture out for a little outing, to hobnob with the ‘upper crust’.

When the Broadmoor Hotel was built in 1918, Colorado Springs was instantly put on the map—the map of the rich and famous, that is.  More of a supply and railroad town in the past, the hotel helped to turn the city into a desired tourist destination.  Businessman, entrepreneur and philanthropist Spencer Penrose (who had amassed his considerable wealth from copper mining) bought the property at the base of Cheyenne Mountain in 1916 and began to build the resort two years later.  With the intention of having it be the “Grand Dame of the Rockies”, he expected it to be “the finest hotel in the United States.”  He employed architects who had designed Ritz-Carlton and Biltmore Hotels, as well as Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture (who designed Central Park) to design the landscape for the Broadmoor’s 3,000 acres.   A dismantled English pub was even brought over and reassembled at the resort.  The shooting school was run by Annie Oakley.  Far Eastern and European artwork and antiques were purchased for the hotel.  It cost a total of $2 million to build, which is equivalent to $31,845,133 in 2016.

The architecture and the color is like the grand hotels that would be found on the coast of the Mediterranean, in an Italian Renaissance style The pink stucco of the facade also helps to blend into the Pikes Peak area landscape.

A short drive from the park, we arrived to have a nice morning tea and scrumptious pastry, and then strolled the well-manicured grounds.  Several different buildings plus many smaller units make up the Broadmoor compound.

A nice, paved path nearly a mile around is a great way to stretch your legs while getting a full perspective of this impressive place.  It’s quite the grand old lady that’s been well-cared for and obviously updated.

Colorado Springs was the conclusion of our planned trip .  .  .  but we weren’t ready to call it quits.  With August nearly over, we felt we could drain at least several more days from this summer’s travels.  We thought it sounded reasonable to hang around until Labor Day Weekend–after all, that’s the official end to the summer season.  It made good sense to us!

And so, we began improvising .  .  . something we rarely do.  Where to go from here, we wondered.  Where could we get a site, seemed the more pertinent question.  We got to work with the map spread out.

Just west of the Springs and at a much higher elevation are a handful of forest service campgrounds.  With a few sites still available at South Meadows Campground, we quickly snagged one of the largest.  A typical FS campsite (read: no hookups or amenities), but a place to hang out over a long weekend, and then we’d move on to one last potentially perfect place.

Best of all, we went back into the mountains.  Just west of the Springs, the elevation goes up and the air temperatures go down.  Ahhhh, smell that mountain air!

Yes! Once again Pikes Peak dominated our horizon.

Hang a right hand turn out of the small town of Woodland Park and you’re on the way to a landscape of scenic roads and great Blue Ribbon fishing waters.  It’s an area we know well and have begun many of our Colorado adventures here .  .   .  there’s plenty of outdoor activities to choose from.  And the camping is pretty darn good too.

South Meadows Campground is just one of a whole handful where the camping is primitive but divine (if you’re interested in more natural but less civilized sardine-packed sites).  In a Ponderosa pines forest, the sites are very well spaced and come in a diversity of sizes.  You’ll even find some extremely deep ones—fit for the biggest of RV rigs.

No nearby neighbors in view, it was all about the sweet scents of a pine forest.

And so, we hung out here, just relishing Colorado camping au naturelle.  Chris tried his hand at fishing in the nearby scenic lake, while I attempted to catch up on some much delinquent posts.  All the while just soaking up an environment soon to be sorely missed.  It was among the best three days of our entire trip.

But we did have one last destination remaining ahead–another spontaneous, unscheduled spot.  Very popular on weekends, we had been able to reserve a site on Monday, and a scenic drive would take us there.

Designated in 1918, the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway is Colorado’s oldest Scenic Byway.  Its curvy road winds its way through national forests, past the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, ending up at Rocky Mountain National Park.  Connecting the western flanks of the Front Range, it leads to the peaks along the Continental Divide, from which its namesake is derived. With high mountains bookcasing the drive, the scenery doesn’t get any better than this.  Truly a Rocky Mountain High.

Views such as this along the drive made it hard to keep one’s attention on the road.

Way back when we were first becoming acquainted with the towns and scenic areas of Colorado, I had heard of the town of Golden.  Who hasn’t? Being the hometown of Coors Beer.  Located just a stone’s throw from I-70, we had passed by its turnoff several times.  Positioned on the cusp of the Front Range, it has the Great Plains stretched out on one side while the town is backddropped by the full splendor of the Rockies to the west.  Sounds pretty ideal to me.  But still, it was one of the few Colorado mountain towns we had yet to set our eyes on.  Until now.

Golden Canyon State Park isn’t exactly on the outskirts of its town, yet only 16 scenic miles away.  Established in 1960, this 12,000-acre state park is another jewel that IMHO makes a good rival to Cheyenne Mountain.  As state parks go, these two easily hold their place near the highest rating.  Reverend Ridge Campground is an excellent place to start.  What it might lack in full hookups—only electricity is offered on 60 of its 100 sites—it more than compensates for with its layout.  Nicely separated and private sites with many being pull-throughs, you’ll feel more a part of the natural setting than you would expect to find in a public campground.  We were absolutely amazed at the privacy of our site.  Another spot where just hanging out in camp can suffice for your whole time here.

For our last taste of Colorado camping, it doesn’t get any better than this!

Of course, we did have to leave and take a day trip once or twice.  Not having ever passed through the town of Golden, we made that our first outing.  And, despite high expectations, it didn’t disappoint.  First off, the drive to get there is one incredibly scenic road.  Stretching through Golden Gate Canyon, the road is 15 miles of curvy driving while the views are non-stop awe-inspiring.

Golden, Colorado is an authentic Rocky Mountain town.  Not duded up or with put-on airs, it’s a genuine pleasant place to visit.  With a downtown that’s been renovated to showcase the glories of its past, you’ll find western shops and galleries, mixed in with cafes and coffeehouses, with lots of al fresco eating to go along.  All-in-all, a very pleasant place to stroll away your afternoon hours, or just hang out and people watch.

For a change of scenery on the outskirts of town, take a drive up to the summit of Lookout Mountain.  Those in better shape or of a different inclination, might choose to bike it up.  Whatever mode you choose, the summit is worth your time and effort.  The views are nothing short of breathtaking.

With the town spread out below you, the far-reaching views are amazing.  The centerpiece of the town is easily seen—Coors Brewery is a massive complex of buildings, the largest single brewery facility in the world.

Before the brewery came along, the views were always there.  Standing on this very   promontory of the Front Range, the scene before you has always been overwhelming.  So much so that when he visited here in his later years, Buffalo Bill Cody declared this was where he wanted to be buried.  And so he was.  Today, his grave is easily visited, with a museum nearby that commemorates his full and varied life.  While it might have some merit to it, after visiting the museum dedicated to him in Cody, Wyoming, it was not all that impressive.  Take it from us, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West is the museum you’ll want to be sure to take in.  Worth your time and money, for sure!

Aside from that one visit to Golden, we relished our remaining time closer to camp.  We spent one day just hiking—over 36 miles of trails spread out on this 12,000-acre park.

Covering a wide diversity of landscapes, you’ll find trails of every length and difficulty.  Whatever your spirit is desiring, you’ll find some trail to please you here.  We soon discovered that despite the rugged rating, the park trails were laid out well and very easy to follow.  You can easily move from the more intimate, closed-in, forest trails to the wide open, long ranging views of mountain peaks.  We never got bored hiking these park trails.  And so we spent our day.

But then, with our last day here in Golden Canyon, we did leave the park for greater glories.  Another asset to this particular park is its proximity to nearby landmark locations.  Following that same Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway, you’ll soon come to the boundary of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area.  And that’s a place that can truly get even the most staid and unemotional hiker’s heart beating faster.  Indian Peaks is one supremely glorious place to hike the mountain trails.  Just as many years ago, we had to take it in.

Lying just to the south of Rocky Mountain National Park, this wilderness area might be overlooked by many who are more attracted to the lure of the national park.  But the Indian Peaks can easily hold its own in comparison.  Straddling the Continental Divide, the area contains 7 peaks over 13,000’ in elevation.  Carved by the glaciers, you’ll find high cirques, U-shaped valleys and numerous pristine alpine lakes within its boundaries.  Having the largest glacier remaining today in Colorado, as well as a few other smaller ones, the landscape is pure Colorado beauty.  And a place that called me back.

I couldn’t think of a better place to spend our last full day in Colorado.  We headed out to Brainard Lake Recreation Area where we would find the trailhead for Lake Isabelle, the place where I’d left a piece of my heart.

Near the start of the trail, Saint Vrain Creek leads your eye to the scenery ahead.

Our first full sight of three mountains of the Indian Peaks is a view that’ll give you pause.

First comes the fields of wildflowers, still blooming this late in the summer .  .  .

.   .  .  and then Lake Isabelle comes into view and those incredible peaks are reflected in shimmering water.

This is a place that can hold its own against any Colorado calendar scene. It’s a place to spend some time, peaceful, quiet time, while soaking in the grandeur of nature’s creation.

Chris’ MO on our Departure Day has always been “Get UP and GO!”  I tend more to the dragging-one’s-feet group.  Unless there’s a photo to be had—then it’s a different story.  While he did the final packing, I slipped away for one last shot.

The aptly named Panorama Point offers great views of the Indian Peaks along the Continental Divide, stretching up to take in Long’s Peak rising to the north.  A beautiful spot any time of the day, it was memorable in the first light of dawn.  A sight to take home with me.

And then, we were on our way.

With those peaks now at our backs, our route led straight east.  Dropping down from the high elevations, the Great Plains of eastern Colorado stretched out to the horizon.  Miles and miles of flat, grassy grazing land.

Throw in some hay fields too.

Those mountains would be a memory now, as our trip was nearing its end.

Yes, Colorado is a place we’ll continue to hold dear to our hearts and souls, no matter where else we travel.

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

with more good travels to come.

Posted in Colorado, Golden | Leave a comment

WESTCLIFFE—A Colorado Gem

–but don’t spread the word

“OFF THE BEATEN PATH” is a common phrase; you might even think it’s overused.  I could be guilty of doing that, every now and then.  Although, In the case of our next destination, it just might be totally appropriate.

Leaving the Great Sand Dunes, we took a circuitous route through Walsenburg to make our way into Westcliffe.

Not that the place is particularly hard to get to, rather more like it’s not on the way to ANYWHERE.  No major highways will take you there, just your average comfortable country roads.  With the Front Range mountains within easy reach to the east, the town isn’t exactly isolated from some of Colorado’s largest cities, and yet Westcliffe is a small town set apart.  Located in a beautiful but remote valley in the southern part of Colorado, perhaps that very seclusion is the reason it’s off the beaten path; remaining unknown to many outside of Colorado.  I suspect the locals like it that way, and truth be told, I find it a big part of my attraction to this place.

“Quite a few people find this valley by accident and end up returning by design” we were told by the personable volunteer at Westcliffe’s Chamber of Commerce.  That summed up our own scenario to a “T”, having passed through here a full 14 years ago.  Crossing over the valley on one of our daily adventures, we had pulled into Westcliffe for a bite of lunch.  You might say it turned out to be love at first sight—for me, at least.  With one last backward, lingering look, I made a mental note to one day return.  Never one to forget a memorable place, I put it on this year’s itinerary.  Better late than never, I always say!

In a setting such as this, who wouldn’t be coming back???

It’s all about mountains when spending time in Westcliffe, with a sweet little valley stretched in between two ranges.  In the early 1870s, ranching drew a small number of settlers to the Wet Mountain Valley, where the prairie grasses provided natural pastureland.  It was the discovery of silver, however, that sparked a population boom.  When high-grade ore yielding 75% silver was unearthed, thousands of people streamed into the valley, establishing the town of Silver Cliff, which rapidly became the third most populous city in Colorado, right behind Denver and Leadville.  Then the railroad moved in, but instead of laying tracks into Silver Cliff, they ended one mile away where the Denver & Rio Grande built its own community (as the company was apt to do, buying up cheap land on which to build their own town).  Silver went bust in the Crash of 1893, and so did the town of Silver Cliff.  Cattle ranching and hay farming held on in the rural valley and Westcliffe survived, even prospered.  Today agriculture and a developing tourist industry are the economic mainstays of Westcliffe—where mercantiles and feed stores share the small downtown with gift shops and galleries.

With a backdrop of high mountain peaks, Westcliffe’s quaint business district has a quiet start to the day.

“The glamour of lost history – dim memories of Indian bands, of French explorers and Spanish troops; they have the spell of the remote, the mystery of recesses that are little known; they are the kind of mountains one’s imagination builds.”   

  – Albert Ellingwood after completing the first ascent of the Crestone Peaks in 1916

So what really gets my blood flowing here?  The mountains, of course.  And here, in this sublime place, we’re not just talking ordinary mountains.  Even by Rocky Mountain standards, these peaks aren’t run-of-the-mill.  We’re talking sharply uplifted blocks .  .  .  jagged ridges .  .  .  and soaring pinnacles.  Real mountains—formidable peaks—with summits to challenge even the most experienced of mountain climbers.  These are the Sangre de Cristos and they create one of the most stunning landscapes in the southern Rocky Mountains.  A superlative statement to match such spectacular peaks.  Moreover, they are right at Westcliffe’s back door.

Just to throw in a little mountain geology here, the Sangres are fault-block mountains, similar to the Tetons in Wyoming and the Wasatch Range in Utah.  There are major fault lines running along both the east and west sides of the range and, in places, cutting through the range.  Due to the fault block geology, the Sangre de Cristo wilderness is crisscrossed east to west by short and narrow drainages that end at impassable ridges and cliffs. Many, if not all, of the hiking trails in the wilderness follow these drainages to high altitude lakes or the several fourteen thousand foot high peaks. Like all fault block mountain ranges, the Sangres lack foothills which means the highest peaks rise straight up from the valleys both to the east and west, abruptly rising 7,000’ feet above the valley in some places.  Another reason they look so formidable. And they take my breath away.

Lying below, homes and ranches are dwarfed by these gargantuan mountains.

One of the longest mountain chains on Earth, it is the youngest and most abrupt range in Colorado.  Presenting a saw-toothed silhouette, it is one continuous succession of jagged peak after another.  Within the range there are 10 peaks over 14,000’ high and 25 more that are over 13,000’.  The Crestone Group—4 prominent fourteeners—were some of the last of the fourteeners to be ascended. Two of North America’s most classic climbs—Crestone Needle and Kit Carson Peak—are among those four.

Opposing these great Sangres, across the valley to the east lie the Wet Mountains.  Diminutive in comparison, their peaks range from 9,000’ to slightly over 12,000’ in elevation.  A southern vestige of the Front Range with only two summits reaching above timberline, their flanks are colored in myriad shades of green vegetation.  After their months-long journey across what was then called “The Great American Desert”, the early Mormon emigrants saw the distant blue-tinged mountains floating in a mist of clouds and called them the Wet Mountains.  Ironically, it was a similar name also given by the Spanish explorers and native Indians.

Sandwiched between these two ranges lies the bucolic Wet Mountain Valley. It seems to be the epitome of a beautiful, unspoiled intermountain valley, where remnants of old homesteads, barns and one-room schoolhouses stand amid some of the state’s most lush country, dominated by more updated ranches and farms.

Considered one of the state’s prime ranch lands, the valley stretches below the Sangres for over 30 miles.  Reaching 15 miles in width, its history goes way back.  The Ute Indians frequented the valley, where they found plentiful game and a mild summer climate.  Zebulon Pike and his expedition traversed the valley in 1806, as did a Spanish expedition nearly a century before.  German immigrants came later, colonizing the valley and farming the land.  With little experience at irrigation or high-altitude farming, most of them eventually moved on.  Those who remained and learned from the land, prospered.

And together, both old and newer, seem to mesh quite nicely together.

It presents many good opportunities for capturing picturesque landscape photos.  I found myself enthralled with the scenery, spending many hours driving along back roads and rutted dirt tracks.

I soon came to see that the predominant (perhaps only) crop was hay.  Acres and acres of hay fields.  All in the process of being harvested.  The farmers were certainly out in force, working from dawn ‘til dark.

With views like this, a farmer’s life in the Valley doesn’t look too bad!

The hallmark of these older ranches has to be found in the history of the Beckwith Ranch.  Still standing today just north of Westcliffe, it’s being preserved and restored to the pinnacle of its prosperous days.

Two brothers from Maine had come west in the later years of the 19th century to seek their fortunes.  One went to Denver to engage in the stock business, while the other came to this area, now Custer County, to homestead 160 acres.  Edwin and Elton Beckwith eventually formed a ranching partnership, which at its peak was one of the largest cattle operations in all of Colorado.

Elton married a wealthy local widow and built this fine Victorian mansion to be their home.  Edwin never married, and died soon after his brother’s home was finished.  While the ranching operation continued, Elton was elected to the state senate, serving for many years as Chairman of the Stock Committee.  He died in 1907, but Elsie would live for another 24 years.  Soon after Elton’s death, she had sold the ranch and its mansion, living out her later years in Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel.

In 1966, the new owners donated the main house and outbuildings, as well as 3.5 acres of land to the non-profit group, Friends of the Beckwith Ranch.  Years were devoted to restoration work, over $700,000 spent.  Today it’s listed on the National Register and while work is being completed on rooms in the mansion, the premises are free for the public to enjoy.

The ranch and its buildings are a prime example of prosperous times in the Wet Mountain Valley.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that we’d settled into one of our favorite campgrounds.  This destination .  .  . and the whole entire setting .  .  . was definitely ringing our bells.  Whether basking in the beauty from under our awning, or exploring the trails in the mountains, we’d relish the time we were here.

And Grape Creek RV Park was the perfect spot to do all of that and more.

Now THIS is a room with a view!!

. . . and the view from my galley window wasn’t too shabby either!!

But it wasn’t until later that evening would we come to realize the full extent of what this campground had to offer.  Just on the outskirts of town, close enough for easy access, but out in the wide open valley, the Sangres spread out in both directions as far as the eye could see.  But the view would take on even more impact as the sun dropped below those mountain peaks.  For a fleeting few moments of time, we would witness a fire in the sky.    –­Yes indeed, I think we’re going to like this place a lot.

That was only the beginning.  Early morning shots were still to come.  With alarm set for early rising—it’s still agony pulling myself out of a warm bed—I dressed in layers to prepare for the shock of predawn cold and took off in an equally cold and sluggish truck (diesels don’t like the cold much either).

I had my shoot already lined up.  The beauty of having opposing mountain ranges is that from the foothills of one you can have a great straight-on, across-the-valley look at the other.  And when the foreground is filled with a field of flowers, it makes the shot all the better.  The rising sun added a golden glow, and painted the mountains in a fuchsia stain.

And that’s full compensation for the travails of an early morning.

It wasn’t all about picture-taking—there were hiking trails around to provide a good workout and those mountains had many to choose from.

Most notable of all is the Rainbow Trail, a real asset to the area.  Whether its name is derived from its arc-like shape as it parallels the Sangres’ eastern flank, or from the colorful variety of wildflowers spreading across the mountain meadows in early summer or the aspens’ golden hues in late September, no one seems to know.  Name origins aside, locals do know it offers easy access to the many alpine lakes and to connecting trails that end on mountain summits.

If longer hikes with hefty elevation gains isn’t on your hiking agenda, a segment of the Rainbow Trail is perfect for an easier time.  Having 10 different access points, you might choose to hike along its route, staying well below treeline while avoiding any steep climbs.

Moving in and out of forested areas, we had glimpses of the Sangre peaks while easily seeing across the valley to the distant Wet Mountain Range.

At an average elevation of 9,000 feet and just over 100 miles long, the trail spans 4 counties.  Initially constructed to create a passage for cattle moving to high mountain meadows for summer grazing, as well as gaining easier access for fishing the high mountain lakes, it was completed by 1930.  With several forest service campgrounds near the trail, today it’s a hiker and mountain biker thoroughfare.

And the views over the Wet Mountain valley are just one of the trail’s perks.

Another activity that we found appealing and something quite out-of-the-ordinary was just a short drive away.  Along a well-traveled highway in the middle of the San Isabel National Forest is one of the strangest attractions a tourist might find.  The large roadside sign reading “Castle Under Construction” is the first clue.

With turrets and towers, spires, winding staircases, flying buttresses and stained glass windows, Bishop’s Castle appears to be right out of a fairytale storybook.  Actually, its origins are more down-to-earth.

In 1969 Jim Bishop started building a simple stone cottage. Caught up in the spontaneity of it all (no blueprints, not even a predrawn design), its construction soon seemed out of control.   He admits to having a flourishing imagination which is still his driving force today.  Yes, he’s still at it—at least during warm seasonal conditions.  Older now for sure, yet he admits he still does the hauling of the tons of rock needed, and then handsets each stone.

The guy had a little setback a few years ago when local zoning officials attempted to halt construction on this dubious building.  As a result of court hearings and cease work orders, it seems that Mr. Bishop came out the winner.  But the ordeal left a bad taste in his mouth for the authorities.

Consequently, as you tour the castle grounds you’ll come across multiple hand-lettered signs complaining about the government..  If you bring up the subject to him personally, he’ll probably give you an earful.  Chris had a firsthand experience.

Chris gets the personal scoops when he catches Mr. Bishop on one of his breaks.

Politics aside, it’s truly a sight to behold.  The castle is huge, extending more than 150 feet high  We started on the ground floor and climbed a circular staircase up to the second floor.  We entered a huge room where arched, stained-glass windows soared two-stories high.  Several small nooks on the sides of this room contained smaller spiral stairways leading up to the third floor.  This floor was even bigger, more open and airy.  Huge leaded glass windows flanked each end of the room, with a large skylight window running down the length of its peak.

Sometimes, all one can do is stand in silent awe when confronted by something nearly too incredible to digest.  “One man built ALL this???” you’ll be thinking.  Bathed in brilliant sunlight cascading through all the windows, it made sense to learn that Mr. Bishop was a welder by vocation.

Wrapped around this floor on the exterior was a wrought-iron balcony, which connected to other towers and spires.  For those who were daring and had little fear of heights (it should go without saying), Mr. Bishop had made it possible to reach the very pinnacles of his creation.  And of course, some people did.  But not us.

Perhaps the dragon’s head was the centerpiece of it all—as if something this fantastic needs one particular standout.  I had read that this was actually a chimney of sorts and when wood was burned in the massive medieval fireplace below, the smoke would be expelled through the dragon’s open mouth.  Very cool, eh?

So if you ever find yourself in the area, give thought to checking it out.  It’s truly a one-of-a-kind, amazing experience.

For those not well-versed in the Spanish language, maybe the translation of Sangre de Cristo isn’t clear.  Originally referred to as La Sierra Nevada, that all changed with the advent of Spanish explorers.  As one story is told, the leader of a Spanish expedition coming through this area in the early 1700s gave a different name to these mountains .  Impressed by the reddish hue of the snowy peaks at sunrise—we call that alpenglow today—he named them Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) and it seems to have caught on.  Whether the story is true, it certainly held on and that name has been used ever since.  The Sangres, as seen from the east, would become famous for their red alpenglow as well as their 14,000-foot peaks.  As for the alpenglow part, I was eager to see for myself.  So eager, in fact, that once more I set my faithful alarm to another ungodly early hour.

Even earlier than before, regretfully.  The plain, undeniable fact about alpenglow is you must catch it BEFORE sunrise.  The fleeting glow (blink, and you’ll probably miss it) occurs before sunlight breaks the opposing horizon.  Translated, that means you’ve gotta be THERE,  all set up with camera in hand, waiting for the light to happen.  If it does.  You see, it’s not always a given.

I made it in time and was there at the start.  It begins with a faint tinge in a certain spot–

.  .  .  and then slowly sweeps over the tops of the peaks .  .  .

Ending up in a wash of a reddish glow.

Those Spaniards might have nailed the name right on its head.

Early morning isn’t just the only time of the day to catch a show here in the Sangres.  We had learned early on before we even began this trip, that Westcliffe was a certified Dark Sky Community—the very first in Colorado and the ninth in the entire world.  So impressed we were with that information, we began studying nighttime photography, more specifically how to capture the Milky Way.  With Chris ramroding our endeavors, but having no experience or opportunity to attempt it sooner (the Black Canyon having had consecutive overcast night skies), we headed out into the dark of night outside our campsite full of high hopes and expectations.

Living east of the Mississippi River (that is, when we aren’t out on the road), we don’t really comprehend just how dark a night sky can be.  It’s only when you can distance yourself away from the glow of cities can you begin to see more of the stars.  Being at higher elevations and in a drier climate will accentuate those stars even better.  That’s asking a lot when you live in the Midwest; for sure if you’re in the East.  Four out of five Americans live in places where they can no longer see the Milky Way.

Thanks to the efforts and passion of a local rancher, for more than a decade Westcliffe has been dialing down the dimmer switch. Forming a small group of people with similar interest, their work has been rewarded.  Streetlights replaced, and ordinances passed, requiring outdoor lights point down or be shielded.  They took it even further by providing funds to construct a small community observatory.  Westcliffe is a great example of how a town earns Dark Sky recognition.  You might say they have just the right Altitude and Attitude to pull it off.  This designation has been a proven asset to the town.

Westcliffe’s city park overlooks the Sangres and provide the perfect place to look out over the valley into the night sky. Photo credit: The NY Times

There are 15 Dark Sky communities in the world—10 of which are in our country.  Colorado has two Dark Sky parks—Hovenweep National Monument and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.   That’s 2 out of 39 Dark Sky parks in our country.  There are 55 worldwide.

So, did we see the stars of the Milky Way?  You betcha—and the proof is in the photo.  And what an incredible experience!  Definitely a first for us.  Back in Indiana, sure we see the stars .  .  .  but NOTHING like this, I’m telling you!  It is a rare thing anymore, as statistics will tell you, for people to see the natural night sky.  And it is our sad loss as a people, to realize that it wasn’t so long ago that a pure dark sky was probably taken for granted.  Nowadays, how many of our kids will ever see the Milky Way firsthand—out in the open?  it’s a wondrous sight to see.

Take it from me .  .  . a Dark Sky community is worth tracking down to experience.  Take the kids.  Pack the car.  Find one of these places and see it for yourselves.

It will be a memorable sight for all of you .  .  .  something never to be forgotten.

Dark skies aside, when it comes to all kinds of skies, Westcliffe has got it hands down.  Nestled here in this valley they have mountain views throughout the day.  In just our short time here we had some of the best shows in the sky of the trip.  Enough to impress even the most blasé sky viewers amongst us.  And when I say it’s worth getting out of bed for .  .  .  well, you should know that’s saying a WHOLE lot!

Sunrises over the Wet Mountains in the morning . . .

. . . capped off with sunsets over the Sangres in the evening.

Can it get any better than this?  (But please don’t spread the word).

And that’s the appeal of seeing new places,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Whether colored by the rising sun or in their own naked beauty, this range is a sight to see.

With one more post to come.

Posted in Colorado, Westcliffe, Westcliffe | 2 Comments

GREAT SAND DUNES NAT’L PARK—A Whooooole Lotta Sand!!

Their appearance was exactly that of the sea in a storm [except as to color] . . . not the least sign of vegetation existing thereon.

–Zebulon Pike, 1807

during his expedition to take possession of the Southwest for the United States government.

It was time we got closer to the great outdoors—and by that I mean primitive camping.  True, in the past several weeks we’ve camped in some pretty nice places, most having their own scenic views.  But FHU campgrounds—usually the privately-owned ones—still mean less privacy, tighter sites and not much natural flora and fauna. We both found ourselves yearning for a campsite where we’d feel actually part of the landscape, where hiking trails were an easy walk away and those night skies would be truly dark and star-studded.  It’s a dichotomy for sure and to be completely honest, we find both types have their selling points.  It was time we had a taste of the other.

Places like this remind us why we camp in the first place.

But first we had to cross the broad San Luis Valley.

At first sight, it looks like a pretty barren place.  “Lots of booooring miles ahead,” one might be thinking as they come upon it.  But sometimes, first sights can be deceiving.  Elevated above 7,000 feet, the San Luis Valley is technically a high intermountain desert that receives only about 7 inches of rainfall each year.  But (and that’s a big BUT), below its surface lies a huge, shallow aquifer (that’s an underground lake of sorts, for those of you not in-the-know), and in places there are even seasonal lakes, marshlands and warm springs.  Early settlers in the mid-1800s soon learned they could make this land flourish with certain crops.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Back then, they mostly dug canals to bring water to their crops.  Today, more than 6,000 wells pump that aquifer water into irrigation systems, supporting the livelihoods of 46,000 residents.  It’s not all an arid wasteland, by any means.  What’s more—the cold winters and cool summer nights help to eliminate or reduce pests and disease problems that many crops would otherwise face.

The main crops you’ll likely come across include potatoes, head lettuce, spinach and barley (which is used by the Coors Beer Company).  Lately, quinoa was successfully grown here, for the first time outside of South America.  In areas with less access to water rights, the land grows alfalfa or is used for grazing.

But the best sight was yet to come.  Before we had put this valley behind us, there was one more change of scenery to come.  Starting out as a meager border along the road soon became a field of sunflowers.

Correction.  Make that FIELDS of sunflowers.  A whole landscape filled with yellow!  Incredible expanses.  Seemingly unending expanses.  All blooming in their prime.  And that was a totally unexpected treat.

And the flowers led us straight to the boundary of our next destination .  .  .  it had been no boring drive this day.

Welcome to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve!  A first for us (with hopes of getting another park sticker for the Airstream) and our country’s most recent national park.

Originally created as a national monument, the Park and Preserve was established by Congress on September 13, 2004.  The park itself mainly encompasses the sand dunes, while the preserve protects the surrounding areas—ranchlands to the west and the mountains to the east. It takes in a diverse landscape of grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes, tundra and 6 peaks over 13,000 feet in elevation.

The Visitors Center is awesome—filled with books, exhibits and a good video of what it’s like out there on the sand.

It’s the dunes that are the centerpiece, the biggest draw to this park—a sandbox of epic proportions.  A 10-mile-long stretch of shifting sands, these dunes are one of the geologic and scenic wonders of our planet—there’s nothing quite like them anywhere else.  The dunes are both the tallest (up to 750’ high) and the highest (8,000’ above sea level) in North America.  That’s a whopping lot of sand and visitors are free to roam over its entire expanse.

So, why here?  In Colorado???  Rather than in some sandier spot—like a desert perhaps. It’s really quite easy to explain if you can just picture the lay of the surrounding land.  Here you have the jagged Sangre de Cristos mountains to the east and the San Juans rising up to the west, in between lies the San Luis Valley, which, eons ago, was once mostly covered by a huge lake.  Over time, accumulating sediment and erosion caused that lake to fill in.  Smaller lakes came and went over the millennia, leaving behind an area of wetlands and a larger area of loose sand called a sand sheet.  Got the picture?

Then we have the prevailing southwesterly winds.  Picking up that loose sand, it was blown into a conveniently-located depressed bend in the Sangres, which obviously would trap it.  Still following?

Now we have the storm winds, gusting down from those high Sangres into the valley.  That caused the deposited sand to blow back on itself, forcing the dunes to grow vertically.

Then comes along these two mountain streams—Medano and Sand creeks—which collect sand from the Sangre side of the dunefield and carry it to the valley side.  That’s where the creek water disappears underground into the sand sheet, leaving the transported sand to dry up and accumulate.

From here, it starts all over again.  Winds from the west re-depositing the sand back up against the Sangres.  “The wind is an artist,” says a former park ranger.  “It renews the dunes every day.”  I’d say it’s a perfect balance of nature’s forces.

Chris contemplates whether or not to attempt a climb.

In the end, he gives it a go!

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s an interesting phenomenon that’s part of Medano Creek and although it’s most prominent in early summer, we lucked out to find it still around for us, despite it being the first week of August.  It’s called surge flow and it happens as the waters roll across the sandy creek bottom in rhythmic waves like those found in the ocean. It exists in only a few places on our planet and this is the best place to experience it.


Only ankle deep, still it was COLD, snowmelt water!

When spring snowmelt gushes down from the Sangres, Medano Creek swells from a thin ribbon to a wide stream that skirts the dune field.  As water flows across the sand, small dams build up in the creek bed, forming temporary reservoirs where water pools. When the water pressure becomes too great, the ‘dams’ fail, sending a gush of water downstream about every 20 seconds more or less (depending on how long it takes for the pressure to build up).  When the water flows faster and stronger—in early summer—these waves can be as high as a foot.  As waterflow diminishes—as it was when we were there—the ‘waves’ were more like ripples.  Nevertheless, it was still quite obvious that there was a ‘tide flow’ to Medano Creek.

Activities galore abound here—good clean (errr, should I say ‘sandy’) fun can be found.  Besides the regular hiking trails and ranger talks you’d find at most national parks, you can also take a scenic backroads drive up into the cool elevations of the Sangres.  Be sure to let some air out of your tires, so as to not get stuck in the lower sandy road.  Having 4WD would also be a requirement, but the views can really be worth it.  And then, there’s everything you can do on the sand, including downhill sledding.  Yes! You read correctly—rent those sleds here at the park, or bring your own boogie board!.  Then climb those dunes and have some fun—after earning it on the trudging, updune hike!

Or how about a day at the beach .  .  . yes, that really brings in the crowds!  Families set up on their personal sandbar, complete with sun umbrellas, beach chairs and coolers.  You might even catch the aroma of hamburgers grilling.

Be sure not to forget those inner tubes, rubber rafts!  and skimboards.  Your kids will have endless hours of fun here—and I haven’t even mentioned the sandcastle constructions!

Needless to say, as the word gets around (as it obviously is doing), park visitation has been steadily rising.  In 2015 a record-breaking 300,000 people pulled in.  With a clear 50% increase in visitation over the Memorial Day weekend alone, park officials project the 2016 attendance will easily go over last year’s.

An undiscovered national park it no longer is.

Which isn’t to say that one can’t possibly find her own private landscape, when I went out searching for the true essence of this place.  It helps to get way back .  .  .  to see the dunes at a distance.  To see how they fit into the landscape.  Timing helps too.  On the fringes of the day is best, but dark skies that portend the coming afternoon storms (yes, they’re still with us, I’m sorry to say) can set the dunes off in a softer light and add a little drama.

In early mornings—I’m talking pre-sunrise time—you’ll own this park.  Wherever you might go, be it the most popular place or not.  Maybe you’ll pass the occasional park ranger, and perhaps another lone camera-toting person, but mainly you’ve got it to yourself.  That’s when I would head out, my destinations having been previously decided.  The field of Rocky Mountain Bee Balm hadn’t escaped my notice on our first day, and it was perfectly situated for the sunrise light. It was just me and the multitude of butterflies that seemed particularly attracted to this unusual wildflower.

The other end of the day can have its own rewards too.  If conditions all come to together and fall into place, that is.  Sometimes, that can be a VERY big ‘if’.

So, did we get our ‘outdoor fix’?  Was the camping all that we had hoped for? Well, for starters we were lucky to snag a site, having reserved one of only 4 remaining.  Crossing fingers and toes that we’d fit in (the larger sites tend to be taken first), we barely made it. But fit we did, and best of all, our ‘window-on-the-world’—our Airstream’s open hatchback—had a view to the dunes beyond.  And, it turned out (dumb luck) that we had great separation on both sides from other campers.  Not bad, all the way around.

Pinion Flats Campground has a total of 88 campsites, only 44 of them that make up Loop B are reserveable.  Loop A, also with 44 sites, are all on a first-come basis.  Despite what you might read to the contrary, this campground does fill up fast in the summer.  We pulled in just after noon on a Sunday expecting some non-reserveable sites to be free with the weekenders leaving.  There were NO available sites.  Reserving our site 3 months ahead only to find 4 available sites during the weekdays.  It’s no kidding you’ve gotta plan ahead for this campground, sad to say.

These great sand dunes are probably Colorado’s most unexpected natural wonder.  With a bounty of outdoor features here, there’s a wide range of activities to choose from.  Our time here surely proved that—we never lacked for things to get out and do or see.  Not even the summer monsoons could dampen our enthusiasm (but they were becoming a bit TIRESOME), although we never did make it to the highest dune (or even come close).  But the views from below and from afar were nothing I would make short shrift of.

From America’s newest national park .  .  .

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Still streamin’ on.

 

Posted in Colorado, Great Sand Dunes Nat'l Park | 1 Comment

AROUND PAGOSA SPRINGS, being chased by summer monsoons

We were dragging our feet as we made our way east.  True, we were still in Colorado, but east meant putting more mountains behind us rather than ahead .  .  .  east meant that much closer to Indiana.  Sooner or later we knew we’d have to bite the bullet and leave this state, but we weren’t at the end of our itinerary yet.  We decided to anticipate what was to come rather than regret what was being left behind. And there was a stop or two ahead that was getting my blood flowing.  Starting with some more great mountain scenery and a pretty little town known for its healing waters.

Pagosa, a Ute word meaning “healing waters”, gets its name from the hot mineral springs that were long coveted by the Indians.  Today, the town uses that geothermal water to heat many of its buildings.  In recent years a local entrepreneur has built a cluster of surrealistic-looking steaming pools at the river’s edge, finally taking full advantage of this natural occurrence for purely recreational purposes.  It seems to be a popular draw, with people congregating there everyday, despite some rather cool and cloudy days.

Photo courtesy of Pagosa Chamber of Commerce

The San Juan River crashes down from the Continental Divide to the northeast, making its way through Pagosa Springs and then down to the Navajo Reservoir on the New Mexico border.  A city park right in the town center features a pleasant riverwalk.  The strongest plus of Pagosa Springs, sandwiched between the San Juan mountains and the great Weminuche Wilderness Area, has to be its exceptional mountain views and easy backcountry access.  Prized fishing waters might have caught our attention too.

We had plans to hang around here for a few days of exploring. Unfortunately, Mother Nature put some crimps into those plans.

We were camping just west of town near the San Juan National Forest boundary, where high peaks to the north caught our attention (and pulled me in their direction, of course).  Passing right by our campground, the Piedra Road soon turns to a graded dirt road and heads to interesting places.  Giving access to the Weminuche Wilderness, it leads to popular trailheads, promising trout waters, the mountain-ringed Williams Creek Reservoir and a handful of great forest service campgrounds.  It is an ideal scenic drive along the entire stretch with outstanding photo ops almost around every curve.  It was no wonder I headed out and up the road shortly after setting up camp.

Soon after the start of the drive, one outstanding peak comes into view, lording over the valley.  Whoa!  I’m sure to have gasped, now that’s one breathtaking sight!  Being not yet familiar with the neighborhood, I would later learn I was looking at 12,600’ Pagosa Peak.

See the somewhat foreboding clouds above that peak?  Experience had taught me what they foreshadowed.  Although I continued ahead on that drive, I learned there was no escaping.  Aaargh!! With so much photographic potential ahead .  .  .  talk about being sorely disappointed!!!  With all hope gone, I gave up the ghost, turned tail and retreated.  By now I had learned to face the reality of those summer monsoons in the mountains.  BUT EVERYDAY???  REALLY???

When you see this coming your way, you learn to turn around or take cover!

The mountains would have to wait for another day.

Another draw to this Pagosa Springs area that warrants a stay is Chimney Rocks National Monument.  A little less than 20 miles from downtown Pagosa Springs, the monument’s namesake is easily seen when driving along the highway.  Rising with the roosters the following day (the better to beat those afternoon storms), we made sure to get an early start taking in this historic site.

Ever heard of the Ancestral Puebloans of Chaco Canyon?  Whether or not, this archaeo-logical site is sure to impress.  Thought to be an isolated outlier of the Chacoan Culture that thrived more than 1,000 years ago, Chimney Rock covers 4,100 acres and preserves 200 ancient ridge houses, guard sites, pit dwellings and ceremonial buildings.

At the base of the mesa are the ruins of the Great Kiva, a large, circular semi-subterranean chamber used for ritualistic and secular activities.Perhaps used as a celestial observatory for these ancient peoples, you can only reach the mesa top as part of a guided ranger tour along a 200-foot elevation gain rocky trail.  Really worth the effort, you’ll have awe-inspiring views of the San Juan Mountain Range and the twin spires.  The ruins of the Great House , several multi-family dwellings and countless unexcavated structures are there for exploring.  It’s a thought-provoking place, as you try to comprehend what went in to constructing this place so many centuries ago.

As expected (but definitely not desired), the afternoon turned cloudy.  Too risky for a hike and too overcast for pictures, what other alternative but to find some falling water (yep, we were still in waterfall country).  Of course, I was at the ready with a list of a few select ones! (PHOTO ALERT:  First came the overload of wildflower pictures, now prepare for the waterfall ones!).

The road in to Silver Falls gets rather rough and rocky, but the scenery along the cascading East Fork River is surely worth it.  And a jewel of a waterfall is waiting like a reward after driving a few (maybe seemingly unending) short miles.  Best of all, the trail leading up to the fall’s base is easy and less than a mile long.

But to get the shot I wanted required considerably more effort.  While Chris found a rocky perch at trail’s end where he would read on his iPhone, I scaled over rocks and precarious ledges to attain the perspective I wanted.  When it comes to waterfall photos, no effort is considered too much for me to handle!

The view from below is a whole different look.

With the time remaining and after returning from that backroads drive, we only had daylight remaining to bag one last waterfall.  I made sure it was a good one.

You must drive nearly to the top of 11,000-foot Wolf Creek Pass.  Having almost an 8% grade, the road is twisty and curvy.  But it’s paved and extremely picturesque, so the drive was part of the reward.  No dirt track leading to this beauty, and the trail to its base is a well-worn ¼-mile dirt path.  Very civilized.  Except for the continually switchbacking, 300-foot elevation gain, that is.  But you will have a VERY up-close and personal view at the base of these falls, albeit a breezy, spray-in-your-face one.  In the end, from a photographic point of view at least, the perspective from the observation deck near the parking lot gives a fuller, more complete and straight-on view, to say nothing about being a bit drier.

Spilling 105-feet from the western base of Wolf Creek Pass, Treasure Falls thunders into Falls Creek which will soon flow into the San Juan River.  Framed with the tallest of pines growing from that same mountain slope, the foliage helps to soften the granite-framed falls and the greens help to warm the scene of bare rocks and cold clear water.  My money is on that view.

Its name comes from accounts suggesting that a chest full of gold was buried in the area after a group of Frenchmen was captured by either Spaniards or Indians.  While there have been some searches made by all sorts of treasure seekers, there has been no rumors of gold discovered (at least none have been recorded).

Our short stay here in the area FINALLY resulted in one clear evening.  More than eager to make every potentially perfect minute count, once more I drove up that same Piedra Road.  I was determined to capture that impressive mountain in the best possible sunset light.  And sometimes .  .  .  good things do come to those who wait.

Occasionally there can be an encore when you might least be expecting it.  As I was returning to camp after that successful shoot, the darkness was almost complete.  I was just coming over a rise in the road when suddenly I was struck head-on by a glorious sight!  The biggest, brightest full moon of this trip was just breaking over the horizon!  OMGosh—what a sight!  It was a scene I knew I HAD to capture!  At nearly breakneck speed while nervously shaking, I desperately searched for some acceptable foreground to complete it (not an easy task when you’re the driver and the landscape is all but blacked out)!  What’s more, that darn moon was rising higher with each passing moment and soon would be above the trees—too high in the composition.  Conserving time was more important than the best location, so I stopped in my tracks and jumped out.  This spot (whatever it was) would have to do!

Considering the circumstances and the flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, I can’t say that the shot came out badly.  Kismet sometimes has its rewards.

Next day we were streamin’ on.  Under those ubiquitous overcast skies, we passed over Wolf Creek Pass and beyond.  The devastation of pine beetle kill sure puts a pall over an otherwise wonderful view.

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

on the road crossing the wide San Luis Valley.

 

Posted in Colorado, Pagosa Springs | 2 Comments