THE SAN JUAN MOUNTAINS—Talk About Splendiferous Peaks!

“If you should, in your imagination, put together in one small group, perhaps 12 miles square, all the heights and depths, the rugged precipices and polished faces of rock, and all the sharp pinnacles and deeply-indented crests, and twenty times the inaccessible summits that both of us have ever seen, you would not have a picture equal to this . . . “

~W.H. Holmes, U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey, describing the San Juan Mountains, September 7, 1876.

“I forgot how much I liked Colorado,” remarked Chris as we were approaching Ridgway State Park, located on the northern fringes of the San Juan Mountain Range.  Just beginning to get a taste of some of the most picturesque and perfect peaks in the Colorado Rockies, we both were enthralled with what lay ahead of us.  It was times such as this when words can’t fully describe what we were seeing .  .  .  when all we can do is sit back and bask in the wonders of nature’s creation.  And try to keep one’s attention on the driving down the road.  Such is the impact of these mountains.

Each of the destinations on this Colorado trip has a special significance to us, has its own attractions.  Each place is memorable in its own right, having features worthy of our time to stay awhile.  But when it came to the planning of this Colorado itinerary, the first thing that came to my mind, the part of Colorado that must be included, I knew without a doubt, the San Juans would be part of this trip .  .  .  and a big part, at that. Driving south of I-70, we would make a big loop encircling the mountains of southwestern Colorado.  Included in that loop would be the towns most prominent in the San Juans, places we would stop, stay several days, and literally soak up as much of the scenery as we could.  I saw it as being the highlight of our two-month tour of the state.  I intended to savor every minute we spent here.

The San Juan Mountains encompass almost all of the southwestern part of Colorado.  This area comprises more than 10,000 square miles of mountains, about an eighth of the state and an area roughly equal in size to the state of Massachusetts. It is said to be the largest mountain system in America. It is a juxtaposition of many distinct ranges, no less than ten which are named, and the additional ones are more blurred in their definition and less distinct. With a mean elevation of 10,000 feet, this range has over 100 peaks topping 13,000 feet, and has 14 of the state’s fifty-four 14,000-foot peaks.   Of all the outstanding features of Colorado’s mountains, this range stands out . . . they are the youngest of the Rocky Mountains—at 35 million years old they are positively junvenile in geologic time (nearly half the age of the other Colorado ranges), which means that with less eons of erosion they have a more rugged and breath-taking appearance.  They are the most highly mineralized mountains in Colorado, and that is a mixed blessing of sorts.  The mineral content adds brilliant colors to the mountain peaks, but it also contains the precious metals that brought the hordes of miners into this area, wreaking devestation upon the land.  The San Juans were originally proposed to be the site of Rocky Mountain National Park, but the abundance of private land holdings in the form of old mining claims prevented national park status.  Today, the deserted towns and mines have become a part of the character of this area.

To showcase this outstanding mountain range you’ll find the San Juan Skyway takes in the best views along its 336-mile route.  Looping around and passing by some of the range’s most prominent peaks, it is simply a dramatic drive from start to finish.  Although it is possible to drive the entire loop in a long day’s drive , it really deserves a more leisurely tour.  We have driven many segments of it through our years here, eventually taking it all in, but never having done any lengthy stretch at one time.  With its sharp switchbacks, steep grades and world-class views, it is a breathtaking drive with Kodak views you’ll want to stop and photograph continuously.  No matter the season . . . gushing waterfalls cascade down the slopes in the spring as the mountain peaks retain their snow-covered crowns, wildflowers garnish the alpine forests and rocky alpine tundra in the summer months, the gilded amber, bronze, and gold of the aspens cover the mountainsides in the brief autumn days and glistening snow blankets all of the countryside in the long winter months.  A family could easily spend an entire 2-week vacation along its route and never become bored.  Not only would you find a wide range of recreational activities to enjoy along the way, but also there are the wonderful mountain towns full of character from their past glory days that can be explored.  There is history wrapped up in its route, stories of hardship as well as human ingenuity, helping to add a more meaningful depth to the scenic beauty found along every mile of the roadway’s loop.

The historic railroad town of Ridgway is the northern gateway to the San Juans as well as being a short drive from the popular mountain towns of Ouray, Telluride and Silverton.  Ridgway State Park had received accolades for its campground and finally we’d be seeing for ourselves how deserving it was.  Pa-Co-Chu-Puk was one of three of the park’s camping areas—the only one with full hookups.  It would be our home for the coming 6 days.  We set up at a spacious, albeit not very private site, and quickly made ourselves at home.  Although no shade was provided, the days were pleasant, the cooling breeze nearly constant, the views outstanding and, if need be, we could switch on our AC.  We rarely did.

The attractions at Ridgway State Park are numerous. The park is centered upon Ridgway Reservoir, a 1,000 surface-acre lake, which is stocked with rainbow and brown trout. There are over 2,000 acres of land within the park boundaries. With 300 campsites divided between three different areas, there’s a site for every taste.  Elk Ridge and Dakota Terraces are adjacent to the reservoir, while Pa-Co-Chu-Puk campground is adjacent to the Uncompahgre River (good trout fishing) and full hookup sites.  There is also a marina where you can dock your own boat or rent a kayak, canoe or paddleboat as well as a fly shop that provides guide services.  But the real selling point of this park is location, location, location.  It is surrounded by spectacular scenery.  Rising to the south are the rugged pinnacles of the Sneffels Range, while to the eat loom Chimney Rock, Courthouse Mountain, and Turret Ridge in the Cimarron Range.  To the west, the Uncompahgre Plateau stretches 70 miles toward Grand Junction.  People come from all over to this park for camping, fishing hiking, boating and swimming.  You can reserve any of the campsites and it is highly advised that you do—at least at the height of the season.

Magnificent mountains rise up as soon as you leave the park’s entrance headed south.  We wasted no time heading out to explore and see them in their best light.  We weren’t the only ones . . . and I’m certain there was a whole different look to those mountains from waaaaaaay up there!

We were headed to the Dallas Divide which affords an iconic view of the Sneffels Range.  Leaving Ridgway, we were headed east, following the northern flanks of the Sneffels Range.  A magnificently scenic drive, it was all mine to take in as Chris was keen to stay on the road.  We passed by three turnoffs where county roads led in to other spectacularly scenic vistas—ours to take in on the return drive.

People well-acquainted with the mountains of Colorado know Mount Sneffels from calendar photographs taken from Dallas Divide.  It ranks as one of the five most-often photographed mountains in the state, which include Pike’s Peak, Long’s Peak, Mt. Evans, and the Maroon Bells.  The mountain was named in 1874 by the Hayden Survey for a mountain in Jules Verne’s novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” which was popular at the time.  The Hayden team, which included pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran, intensively studied western Colorado from 1873 through 1876.  The team climbed, measured, and named the major mountains and ranges, followed the rivers and traversed the high passes, gathered data on climate, plants, animals, and future mining and agricultural possibilities.

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing?  I think not (at least when it comes to scenery).  This view of the Sneffels Range was just the appetizer . . . I was greedy for more.  Heading back towards Ridgway, I encouraged Chris to take county roads that would afford me closer, more intimate views.  How could I pass them by???

There are three improved dirt roads that head south from the highway heading east out of Ridgway.  All three end close to perhaps the most scenic mountains in Colorado, the Sneffels Range. All three wind through hillsides and valleys of aspen and scrub oak, enjoy unsurpassed views of the range, and provide public access to the Uncompahgre National Forest.

I was in Seventh Heaven.  And Chris made it all possible.  As he maneuvered over the muddy tracks and rough roads, I was hanging out the window looking for the ideal photo ops.  I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

And that was just the beginning.  Next came Yankee Boy Basin—and the bar was raised a level higher.

Yankee Boy Basin is an alpine basin, more specifically a glacially-carved cirque just south of Ouray’s town limits. Sitting at an elevation between 11,500 and 12,000 feet, the basin contains some of the most prolific stands of wildflowers in the state. Monument plant, paintbrush (of varying colors), columbine, larkspur, chiming bluebells, orange sneezeweed, cow parsnip, and dwarf sunflowers are some of the wildflowers found growing here, just to name a few of the more common ones. The basin itself is surrounded by several breathtaking peaks.  Most are 13,500’ or higher, standing high above the green-carpeted valley, the surrounding fields are filled with some of the most amazing flowers.  The basin is also home to several waterfalls of varying sizes, the most obvious of them being the famous Twin Falls, running right near the main road into the basin. Access is provided by a dirt 4WD road.  And therein lies the catch.

The start of the road offers tantalizing glimpses of what is waiting . . .

.  .  .  but first you’ll have some dicey “road” to navigate over.  It was as thrilling as it was rough .  .  .  we didn’t quite make it all the way in.

But fortunately my intrepid driver managed to deliver me to the trail leading on to Twin Falls—one of the notable features here in Yankee Boy Basin.

At one time, this double waterfall has been pictured on Coors Beer cans, representing the pure Colorado water.

The farther into the basin you go, the more magnificent the scenery becomes.

Wildflowers might be the single most outstanding feature of the basin, but when thunder rumbles and afternoon storms threaten, there’s not much time for exploring further.  One quick shot was all that was possible, and then I was scurrying back to our truck.

If Ridgway is the northern gateway to the San Juan Byway, the town of Ouray is where things really get interesting. Nestled at the base of the San Juans, this is one picturesque town, often called the Little Switzerland of America.  Named after the famous Ute chief, Ouray is an old mining town lined with colorful Victorian homes and surrounded by sheer rock walls.

 The awesome but breathtaking Million Dollar Highway (a.k.a.,US-550), begins just south of town. A segment of the San Juan Skyway, this scenic drive (the unsuspecting traveler might call it perilous) that goes through the Uncompahgre Gorge, stretches for about 25 miles heading south.  This road winds up a glacial valley past once-thriving mines to the 12,217-foot summit of Red Mountain Pass.  Towering peaks, abrupt cliff walls and thick stands of aspen and pine dominate the scenery.  A narrow, two-lane road without guardrails—a significant fact—twists and curves around a precipitous mountainside, with drop-offs that are quite severe.  It’s enough to give a driver cold feet and sweaty hands .  .  .  especially those with even a slight fear of heights.  (Not that I’m naming names).

The original portion of the Million Dollar Highway was a toll road built in 1883 to connect Ouray to the mining town of Ironton.  Another toll road was built over Red Mountain Pass from Ironton to Silverton.  In the late 1880’s Otto Mears, so-called “Pathfinder of the San Juans,” turned to building railroads and built the Silverton Railroad north from Silverton over Red Mountain Pass to reach the lucrative mining districts around Red Mountain, terminating at Albany just eight miles south of Ouray.  The remaining eight miles into Ouray were considered too difficult and steep for a railroad.  At one point a cog railroad was proposed, but it never made it beyond the planning stage.

Consequently, the Million Dollar Highway was constructed.  The original toll road out of Ouray charged $3.75 per vehicle pulled by two horses, or $.75 if pulled by a single horse.  The road operated as a mail, stage, and freight line until the Rainbow Route Railway from Silverton opened.

In the early 1920’s, the original toll road was rebuilt at considerable cost and became the present day Us-550 (see photo below for today’s actual road).  The entire route is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway.  There are many explanations for its name . . . perhaps it comes from the “Million Dollar Views” along the route, or more probable, refers to the cost of improving the original road for automobile use.

Before leaving the gorge, the byway passes through a snow shed under the Riverside Slide avalanche zone.  A monument stands near here honoring those who have lost their lives in the many avalanches, including several snowplow operators.  The Slide drops 3,200 vertical feet down abrupt chutes, making this highway Colorado’s deadliest crossing.  Today a snow shed protects the road from rockslides and avalanches.

After leaving the gorge the road passes through a nice flat valley (stressed-out drivers get a short reprieve).  Aspens blanket the mountainside around here and Crystal Lake lies just adjacent to the road. Take the trail that encircles the water for great views of the three peaks of Red Mountains #1, #2 and #3 (yes, that’s their official names).  A setting with lots of potential, I knew I’d be back on a better day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the short breather, the road begins a serious climb, culminating at 11,000+foot Red Mountain Pass.  Spectacular scenery for the passengers, another harrowing road for the driver.  You gotta love the view!!

The view from the pass makes up for all the stress some people experience to get here.  From here you’ll see the tallest of the Red Mountains—it’s the reddest mountain on our planet.  The bright reds, yellows, and oranges that make up the mountain are the result of iron oxides, a mineral widespread in this area.

In the coming days, we’d do much more than take driving tours the area.  Seeing the scenery was just one facet of what brought us here.  There were trails to take, mountain air to breathe and wildflower meadows to revel in.  Spiritual renewal for sure.  And, by the way, I did make it back to Crystal Lake .  .  .  under much better photographic conditions.

From the very picturesque San Juan peaks,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

 

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BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON—Another NPS Jewel

“Some are longer, some are deeper, some are narrower, and a few have walls just as steep. But no other canyon in North America combines the depth, narrowness, sheerness and somber countenance of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.”

~Wallace Hansen, geologist, from his book “Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Depth”

Courtesy of the National Park Service

          The Black Canyon is an impressive crack in the shrub-covered plains of Western Colorado. The rolling landscape suddenly plunges down rocky cliffs to the Gunnison River below. The steep walls leave the canyon in “black” shadows for most of the day. I had read “If the Grand Canyon was chiseled out with a blunt instrument; then Black Canyon was cut with a thin sharp blade”—which pretty much summarizes what we were about to set our eyes on.

          In all of our trips to Colorado through the years,  we had never taken time or the opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon of the Gunnison.  Ironically, we had even driven by the entrance on more than one occasion .  .  .  curious as to what lay beyond its entrance gates, but always on a set timetable with places to get to and no time for improvising.  Until now, that is.  Time was no longer a constraint.  Curiosity was more of a driving force.  Being national park aficionados as we now are, this was a definite draw.  Certainly not to be passed by.  The Black Canyon of the Gunnison would be another notch in our national park belt.  We couldn’t resist.  Nor did we want to.  Leaving Crested Butte, it would be a short drive, first through the town of Gunnison and then a little farther west.  We were about to bag another destination to add to our national park collection.

Sheer walls of dark gray stone rise more than 2,700 feet above the swift and turbulent Gunnison River to create one of the most dramatic canyons in our country. Deeper than it is wide in some places, this great slit in the Earth is so narrow that sunlight penetrates to the bottom only at midday. The national park protects the deepest, most thrilling 14 miles of the gorge, about 75 miles upstream of the Gunnison River’s junction with the Colorado.

The old adage is true—seeing is believing.  All the reading I had done previously, all the research and published images perused, what I perceived in my mind’s eye could not have possibly prepared me for the reality of this place.  I knew it was steep, with precipitous walls; I understood that the blackness came from little light filtering in; but there was nothing in my previous experiences and observations that could have prepared me for this canyon.  It was, simply, all and more than what had been advertised.  It was an impossibly abrupt, knife-cut gorge through the earth.  And first sight was a sudden and abrupt realization of exactly what my research was attempting to prepare me for.

Until you find yourself standing before the chasm there’s no way to convey the actual sight.  It is deep, extremely so, with precipitous walls dropping abruptly down into the dark depths, and yes, those walls are dark as coal . . . it’s a veritable chasm reaching down to the seemingly core of the earth.

It is black because it is so deep, so sheer, and so narrow that very little sunlight can penetrate it.  What a spectacular sight, so different than all the canyons we’ve seen so far.  So hard to believe that the rushing water of one river created this precipitous canyon.  It is one of those places where words are insignificant, a place where you can do no more than admire and gasp at nature’s creation .  .  .  it almost goes beyond a human’s capabilities to comprehend. Timelessness is a word that comes to mind.

Most rivers of the Southwest cut through relatively soft sedimentary rock, forming canyons that tend to be quite wide, colorful and stepped—descending in a series of cliffs and ledges through layers of differing hardness. When rivers flow across harder igneous rock they produce steeper gorges, spectacular in different ways, such as Hell’s Canyon in Idaho, the deepest in the US, or the multicolored Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Wyoming.  One of the steepest, darkest and most rugged of these canyons is formed by the Gunnison River as it flows through hard ancient rocks at the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, on its way to joining the Colorado River at Grand Junction. The canyon walls are composed of volcanic schist, predominantly black in color, and as the gorge reaches depths of over 2,000 feet while often being only 1,500 feet across, sunlight illuminates the walls only briefly, hence the name ‘Black Canyon’. It is unsettling, almost frightening to stand at the very edge of one of the canyon overlooks, such is the menace and sheerness of the jagged rocks below.

Some of the hardest and oldest rocks on earth form the sheer walls of this canyon, the deepest and most impressive gorge in the state. The river cutting through the Black Canyon falls faster than any other in North America—dropping 2,150 feet in under 50 miles—and the canyon bottom is so rugged that there are no trails along it.  Unlike the Grand Canyon with its layers of exposed rock, the Black Canyon is basically one solid hunk of stone, a half-mile-thick chunk of two-billion-year-old Precambrian rock.

Our first sighting came at an extremely opportune moment.  One of the rare Colorado summer afternoons with clear skies, there was warm, low-angle lighting just coming on as evening approached.  We had settled into our camp, only to turn around and go exploring.  The start of the Rim Drive begins just at the exit to our campground—the opportunity was too tempting to ignore.  With the greatest of anticipations, we headed out.

Gunnison Point presents the perfect introduction to the features of the canyon.  Down a short trail from the Visitor Center, the river below is barely visible, but it’s the incredible walls of the canyon so in-your-face up close and personal that are what make this viewpoint so memorable.  Standing on the overlook platform, the opposing walls of the canyon are so close you can see every crack and crevice within them.  It is here where you might begin to comprehend what makes this canyon different—it’s undoubtedly something you’ve not encountered before.  A place you need time to digest, to allow the reality to sink in.

Native Indians referred to it as “much rocks, big water”.  In 1853, Capt. Gunnison who was leading an exploratory expedition referred to it as “the roughest, most hilly and most cut up” and declared it too formidable to pass through.  The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was established as a National Monument in 1933.  It became a National Park in 1999.  During 1933-35, the CCC built five miles of roadway and five overlooks.  It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places today.

The canyon was originally over 50 miles long, but three dams have been built along the eastern (upstream) section flooding two thirds of the gorge, which is now part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area and offers many recreational opportunities based around the artificial lakes. Only the lower 14 miles of the canyon remain unspoilt, but this includes the deepest and most scenic section. The canyon may be approached from the north or the south, but most visitor services are along the south rim and are reached by the short spur road, CO 347, which joins US 50, a few miles east of the town of Montrose. Here, the terrain is quite flat, but CO 347 climbs steadily through scrub-covered foothills to an elevation of 8,500 feet near the canyon rim, yet with no indication of the great gorge ahead.

Making our approach from the South Entrance, our first stop was the campground.  Typical of most national park campgrounds we’ve encountered, many of the campsites were smallish—intended more for tents, pop-ups and small RVs, although there were some sites that proved ample for even larger motor homes.  Some sites were set out as parallel to the camp road—their version of a pull-through site, while others backed in quite a good distance. Three loops for a total of 88 sites make up the South Rim Campground, with the added benefit of the 23 sites in Loop B having electrical hookups.  With the advantage of having reserveable sites through Recreation.gov, come during mid-week usually gets you a site.  Obviously, Loop B goes fast, so reserve early.

With minimal water available (fill your tanks before coming), the trade-off you’ll get for the campground lacking amenities and extras, are private sites well-separated by juniper bushes and scrub oaks.  Pleasant surroundings and nightly ranger talks in the summer will give you a very enjoyable camping experience.

The days can get quite warm, but the higher elevations ensure cool evenings. Perfect campfire conditions!

Photo courtesy of the NPS

The South Rim Drive is a spectacular feature of the park.  Spanning a little over 7 miles in length, it connects 12 overlooks which give excellent opportunities for peering into the magnificent canyon and marveling at its cliffs and towers of stone.  Each overlook has a different view—no two having the same perspective.  Moreover, ravens, eagles and falcons soar on the currents of air above the canyon, nearly at eye-level with you.

Sometime, Chris will do about anything to pose for one of my photos!

A little history, if you care .  .  .  An expedition led by Capt. John W. Gunnison, whose name was given to the river, bypassed the gorge in its search for a river crossing.  The first written record came from the Hayden Expedition of 1873-74.  The Hayden and later, Denver & Rio Grande Railroad survey parties deemed the Black Canyon inaccessible. These early travelers found it shadow-shrouded and foreboding.  By 1900 the nearby Uncompahgre Valley wanted to take Gunnison River water for irrigation via a diversion tunnel.  Consequently, five residents hazarded an exploratory float of the river but gave up after a month….losing their boat the first week and everything along with it.  (Why they stuck it out that long begs the question, I think.)  Then, in 1901, here comes Abraham Lincoln Fellows and William Torrence, running 33 miles of the river in 10 days on rubber air mattresses, no less!  (Maybe that’s how these river rafting companies got their idea). Upon their return they nevertheless reported that an irrigation tunnel was feasible.

“Our surroundings were of the wildest possible description.  The roar of the water … was constantly in our ears, and the walls of the canyon, towering half mile in height above us, we’re seemingly vertical.  Occasionally a rock would fall from one side or the other, with a roar and crash, exploding like a ton of dynamite when it struck bottom, making us think our last day has come.”        ~ Abraham Lincoln Fellows

The longest irrigation tunnel in the world when it was dedicated in 1909, Colorado’s Gunnison Tunnel was an engineering marvel. The 5.8-mile tunnel cut right through the sheer cliffs of the famed Black Canyon, taking water from the Gunnison River and funneling it to the semiarid Uncompahgre Valley to the west.

Courtesy of the Montrose County Historical Society

On September 23, President William Howard Taft dedicated the tunnel in Montrose. The East Portal of the Gunnison Tunnel is accessible via East Portal Road which is on the South Rim of the canyon. Although the tunnel itself is not visible, the diversion dam can be seen from the campground.

Of course we had to go down.  We had seen plenty of perspectives from above in canyon, now it was time to take in the view from BELOW.   Early one morning we set out—fortunately a paved road (however steep and winding with hairpin turns) would take us there.  We dropped 2,000 feet in elevation and it was a thrilling ride.

Once down, the river flows surprisingly calm, almost placid.  The canyon opens up and is much less narrow and precipitous than the inner canyon. With a foot trail running alongside it, the river is a popular fishing hole.  Chris gave it a try while I captured its different looks.

With only two or three possible rim-to-river routes within the park, few experienced hikers even attempt to make the trek.  You must have a permit from the park

Photo courtesy of the NPS

if you try it.  The one most popular trail leads down from the North Rim to reach what’s known as The Narrows.  Appropriately named, the canyon narrows from only 1,300 feet at the rim to as little as 40 feet wide at the river.  Running through the park’s boundaries, the 12-mile stretch of river drops an average of 95 feet per mile, but drops 240 feet per mile at The Narrows.  By comparison, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon National Park drops an average of 7.5 feet per mile.  That Gunnison is one ripping river!

If there is one iconic image of this Black Canyon, it would have to be a view of the Painted Wall.  It is simply one of nature’s masterpieces.  Here you’ll see threads of brightly-colored pegmatit intruding through the black rock of volcanic schist.  These sinuous strands that are white to rose in color, were they to be examined up close would reveal lustrous crystals of quartz and sheets of mica up to 6 feet across.

It’s an early morning view that puts the Wall in its best light, accentuating its patterns and colors.

Two especially great hikes will provide views you just won’t have from the overlooks.  One trail, the Oak Flat Loop, will dip beneath the rim of the canyon without going all the way to the river.  The hike will take you through groves of quaking aspen as well as thickets of Gambel oak.  A welcome shade from the exposure you have on the rim.  And the views get even better.

 

We saved the Warner Point Trail for our last evening in the park.  Located at the far western edge of the park, the trail leads to a promontory where the canyon is deepest and from this point begins to widen.

With an awe-inspiring view, it’s a place that can fill you with reverence and wonder, as only those unique things in life can deliver. It’s simply a place I felt privileged to see.

From a small but dazzling jewel of our national parks,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

 heading back into the Colorado mountains.

First light kisses the Painted Wall.

Posted in Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, Colorado | 2 Comments

CRESTED BUTTE—Nestled within a Wildflower Heaven

The town bills itself as Colorado’s Wildflower Capital and that’s no idle boast.  Online and in travel brochures, Crested Butte advertises its claim to fame.  Nearly daring travelers to the state, come here and see for yourself!  This town isn’t selling itself short.  Moreover, this title has been made official by a resolution passed in 1990 by the State Senate.

Just to lay proof to what it so daringly flaunts, Crested Butte backs it all up with an annual, full-fledged and official Wildflower Festival, ongoing since 1986.  Always set with a full week of activities, it takes place in early July.  A full schedule of events covering all things flowery, you’ll find guided wildflower hikes—both on outlying trails as well as town gardens, wildflower photography sessions, wildflower identification and even some wildflower art classes.  Workshops on medicinal plants, cooking with native plants, and landscaping are also offered. It’s definitely the place to find wildflower memorabilia, as well as wildflower posters, note cards and the ubiquitous T-shirts.  Souvenirs there are aplenty.

It’s no fluke and definitely not propaganda . . . this place literally explodes with colorful wildflowers—even compared to other Colorado locations known for their blooming beauty.  So, what’s the explanation?  In a sentence—it’s all about accessibility and habitat diversity (local botanists will tell you).  Before you even leave the town’s borders, you’ll be confronted by flowering meadows and wildflower-lined pathways.  Maintained dirt backroads can transport bikers as well as motorized vehicles up into the higher elevations.  Along the way, blankets of wildflowers can be seen from your car windows (but the scenery gets even better along the mountain trails).

Situated in the Gunnison Basin, Crested Butte has a high elevation (nearly 9,000’ in town) and a cold climate (even by Colorado standards). The combination of a high elevation range, abundant snowfall, varied geology, and a relatively undisturbed landscape creates a diversity and abundance of native flora rivaling any other Colorado mountain town.  The Crested Butte area has 8 major distinct habitats or plant communities, within which are dozens of microhabitats that explain the broad variety of flowers.  In just a relatively small area, a wildflower seeker can access sagebrush, aspen, spruce-fir, and alpine tundra zones, as well as mountain meadows, lodgepole pine, Douglas fir and riparian wetlands, to find the flora distinctive to each place.

Thus it was no fluke that my Colorado itinerary included this special haven .  .  .  we had 6 glorious days set aside for a wildflower orgy of sorts . . . undoubtedly too short for Melinda, but pushing the limits for Chris (so call our tenure a compromise).

Our arrival in Crested Butte was less than auspicious.  Despite its spectacularly scenic location, nestled deep within the high Rockies literally miles off any well-beaten, major road, we were making our approach on a mid-afternoon as storm clouds were looming overhead.  Summer monsoon season was well underway in all of the high country of Colorado.  Crested Butte was no exception.

Yes, we were soon to learn that the rainy summer season was upon us.  Not exactly music to the ears of one not accustomed to early mornings such as I, the plain fact was more often than not, afternoons would bring on sudden deluges of rain.  To see the best of skies and bountiful sunshine, one best be up and out soon after sunrise.  Day One didn’t prove to be such a hurdle . . . but could I hold out?

Early on our first morning found me retracing our final approach made the previous afternoon.  Today the view was seen in a much more favorable light.  Now this is an iconic Crested Butte setting!

Early risers also receive the benefit of having popular trails all to themselves.  A pre-breakfast hike along Brush Creek Road known for its profusion of flower-carpeted hillsides was a perfect beginning to our time here at Crested Butte.

Complimentary colors of yellow and purple will add brilliance to a landscape scene.  An explosion of color is definitely not an understatement.

 

 

 

Sunflowers, Mule’s Ears and Purple Larkspur were the dominant flowers covering the landscape here.

Even blasé hikers sometimes have to stop and take a quick photo or two! Chris isn’t as immune to flowers as I might have thought.

And this was just the beginning . . . the start of an incredible experience in Crested Butte.  The coming days would be filled with hikes and high country scenic drives.  Each outing brought on a crescendo of sensory overload—be it a spectacle in flowers or a postcard-perfect landscape.  Too often I was pulling out my camera—would I ever manage to sift through the myriad of images I was recording?  But oftentimes, the scenery was of so pure and unadulterated beauty, all one could do was stand in reverence and awe.  Six days . . . six heavenly days . . . six unbeatable, insurmountably gorgeous days.  The coming destinations still remaining in our travels will be hard-pressed to exceed what Crested Butte had to offer.

Drives through the high country and over the back roads offered another kind of awesome scenery.  Add a touch of adventure and a little rough-and-tumble, it gives us the ingredients for an exhilarating experience. We might be getting older, but we’re still young at heart and looking for some fun!

Ooooo-weee!  Chris gets a little tense on some of these drives, but my enthusiasm keeps him making the sacrifice.

Trails are a more reasonable mode of exploring—slower than driving, but you can smell the roses along the way.  More wonderful vistas open up . . . more Sound of Music moments.

And the flowers .  .  .  well, they can speak for themselves.  No embellishments needed.

 

 

 

 

The town is a great attraction in its own right.  With the wildflower theme being carried throughout its streets, we found it full of character, colorful and quaint.  Although real estate prices can soar to prices way beyond practicalities, we found pleasure just walking its streets and admiring the scenes.

Like so many other Colorado mountain communities, Crested Butte was founded as a supply town for gold and silver mines.  A year after its incorporation in 1880, the town was assured a future when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad arrived from Gunnison.  Even the bust of its silver mines after the 1893 Crash did not deter Crested Butte, which was buffered by vast stores of coal discovered in 1880.  Coal mining sustained the local economy until 1952, when the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. closed its Big Mine.

You won’t find many remnants
of Crested Butte’s past still standing . . .
prime real estate is being taken over
by homes much more elaborate than this one.

Still, the town hung on, as Crested Butte’s remote beauty encouraged newcomers to invest in real estate.  When the Crested Butte Mountain Resort opened in the 1960s, the town’s languishing economy began to bounce back.  People were drawn to both the historic town and the pristine forests surrounding it, and Crested Butte began to see ski cabins and second homes pop up in its outskirts.

The prosperity of the ski resort and the efforts of environmentalists and historic preservationists have given new life to this quaint old town. Residents today remain joined in their lengthy and successful battle with the huge AMAX molybdenum mine to retain the character and dignity of their town and its surroundings.  And the people of Crested Butte haven’t allowed their town to be compromised by either the ski industry or water interests, as they continue to fight for their wetlands, their wildflowers, and some of the most gorgeous landscapes in Colorado. It might be a town off the beaten road, but those lucky enough to have found it, don’t soon forget its charms.  They, like us, will continue to return.

Perhaps the one big drawback to Crested Butte (at least from our perspective) is the lack of camping space near town.  Two primitive campgrounds lie several miles outside the city limits—having camped in both before.  As national forest campgrounds go, both Lake Irwin and Rosy Lane Campground trade amenities like hookups and paved roads for being in wonderfully scenic locations. Now there’s another choice—with water and electrical hookups and proximity to town its biggest selling points.  Crested Butte RV Resort does have hookups, along with rather stiff prices. A small place with about 18 sites, it’s definitely a mixed bag.  A few sites face extremely nice views of mountains, but the majority face a rather rundown area of ramshackle buildings.  And all sites are pretty closely packed in, with very little privacy surrounding them.  Most inconvenient of all is the lack of sewer hookups, as well as not having a sanitary station on site.  Wifi is very weak and iffy to boot.  Nevertheless, the owners are friendly and the location can’t be beat.  Our first few days there had us making friends with a nice lady, Robin, who was traveling solo in her new 28’ Airstream.  We were lucky to be her neighbors as we shared road stories and Airstream travel tips.

Our last day was planned with one final hike (no surprise there) located in the high country around Lake Irwin.  We got an early start and snagged one of the few parking spaces high above the lake with tremendous far-reaching views over mountaintops.  Scarp Ridge Trail is about a 6-mile loop that climbs well over 1,000 feet in elevation to a ridgeline with panoramic views of mountain ranges and high alpine tarns.  The climb has some steep places, but the path is well-worn.  Our advice—take some lunch and be ready to stretch out at the top, taking a well-earned rest in the sunshine looking out over snow-dabbled mountains receding to the horizon.  Perhaps it will be the time when John Muir’s words will come to mind .  .  .

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.  Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.  The winds will blow their own freshness into you  and the storms their energy; while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. 

 

Truly a place to treasure–

as well as to nourish our spirits,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

 

Just where do you find this magical town in Colorado???

From Buena Vista, we traveled south on Hwy. 285 (aka, The Highway of the Fourteeners) to Salida (a good place to make a Walmart stop). Then travel west on Hwy. 50 crossing over Monarch Pass (a Jake-brake would be a help on this one), and cruise on down to the old west town of Gunnison.  After a last stop for provisions and gas, take the final leg on Hwy.135, making your very scenic approach into Crested Butte.  It’s a drive of slightly over 100 miles in all.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

BUENA VISTA—Land of the Fourteeners

Go West, young man, go West!  The Colorado Front Range was a small taste of what was to come for us.  Pikes Peak was just the first of the Fourteeners .  .  .  soon we would encounter a whole string of these gargantuan mountains.  Only a short drive away, heading due west from Manitou Springs.  But first we would need to cross the wide expanse of a high mountain basin, a barren land with few signs of habitation.  We had a bird’s eye view of sorts standing on the lofty elevation of Wilkerson Pass, at the eastern edge of what is known as South Park.

It’s a broad, high, grassy, mountain-rimmed basin 40 miles long by 30 miles wide, sandwiched between Pikes Peak and the Collegiate Mountains.  The area was once a traditional hunting ground for the Utes, and sometimes certain Plains tribes migrated here seasonally to hunt.  It was first visited as early as 1803 by a Kentucky trapper, James Purcell.  In 1806, the Zebulon Pike expedition entered the valley.  In the ensuing decades it was traversed by occasional fur trappers and other explorers, including the Fremont Expedition.  In 1879 the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railway entered South Park, and the area became a shipping and transportation center, servicing the mining districts to the west.  Today, it is still mostly empty land, with the occasional ranch dotting the landscape.  Mostly, it is utilized as grazing land primarily for cattle.  With the exception being the gold medal fishing waters of three major reservoirs all connected by the well-known South Platte River, which has its headwaters in the mountains on South Park’s western edge.

The view from wind-swept Wilkerson Pass is memorable.  With the clear dry atmosphere compressing the distance, from this high perch you can easily see the snow-capped mountains of the Collegiate Range on the horizon—all reaching more than 14,000’ of elevation.

Today evidence of habitation in South Park is sparse.  Preserved from a time when hardy settlers managed to eke out a living on this empty stretch of land, the Buffalo Peaks Ranch gives a view of what life was like out here.  There are a number of buildings still standing, including a main ranch house, 3 bunkhouses, various corrals and livestock pens, a barn and other utility buildings.  No doubt, all decaying shadows now of their former selves.

With South Park behind, the elevation begins to climb ever so subtly.  Highway 24 passes through the small settlement of Hartsel, skims past Antero Reservoir and then crests Trout Creek Pass.  That’s when things really start to get interesting.  You suspect something is on the horizon, but nothing has yet materialized.  Even though you know you’re close, something awaits on the other side, there’s nothing that can prepare you for the view that’s up ahead.

“Massive” is an appropriate word that might come to mind at first sight.  “Holy Moley” might be your words of exclamation.  Whatever you’re thinking or saying out loud, it’s a good idea to take the turnoff for the Scenic Overlook–you’ll need a place to pause and soak in the view .  .  .  scenes like this need some time to digest.

It’s simply overwhelming.

Standing there, perhaps with mouths gaping open, you can see a fair section of the Collegiate Range, a successive wall of peaks from north to south.  Most astounding of all, Mt. Princeton with its two immense shoulders, is literally in your face.  Welcome to the Arkansas River Valley!

Sometimes referred to as “the backbone of the Continent”, the Sawatch Range towers above the Arkansas valley.  The early surveyor Dr. Ferdinand Hayden called the range one of the grandest of eruptive masses on the continent. Fifteen fourteeners rise in the Sawatch—more than California and more than any other Colorado range, including the three highest peaks of the Rockies.  It is the highest mountain range in the contiguous 48 states. The Range averages about 20 miles in width and stretches for 90 miles. The Continental Divide is an integral part of this portion of the Rocky Mountains. More impressive for their massiveness and altitude than their ruggedness, the name “sawatch” comes from the Indian word meaning “blue earth”—a very appropriate and fitting appellation.  They knew how to name their landmarks!

Literally in the shadow of Mt. Princeton with a population of about 3,000 lies the small town of Buena Vista.  Established as a supply town in 1864 to serve the rich mining camps north toward Leadville and south up the Chalk Creek Canyon that cuts between Mounts Princeton and Antero, this Upper Arkansas Valley town also brought in farmers and ranchers, attracted to the availability of a year-round water source.  In its heyday, Buena Vista was a Saturday-night town, home to dozens of saloons, as well as the Palace of Joy.  Things have taken a dramatic turn from those bygone days—today Buena Vista has a wholesome character, a town of families and retiree.

And that’s what sold two good friends from our college days to make Buena Vista their new home.  Living in a small Illinois town, Alex and Joan Ware were always the mountain lovers.  Having spent many summers in Colorado throughout their married life, in recent years they began focusing on Buena Vista as their possible full-time residence.  Last fall they finally bit the bullet, found a house to their liking, packed up their worldly possessions, and landed here for good.  They have not once looked back.  Buena Vista has won them over and they, along with their little dog Gracie, seem to be ecstatically happy living here.

We couldn’t resist stopping by for a day or three to share in some of that joy.

It turned out that those three days were much too short—as they introduced us to some favorite trails—big hikers as they are.  (Gracie even being the most enthusiastic one of the three!)

If you’re ever looking for a great place to enjoy the Colorado mountains, I’d highly recommend you think about choosing Buena Vista as a base.  Plenty of campgrounds to choose from,  great views to go along with them.  There’s great fishing in the Arkansas River, and white water rafting is quite the popular draw.  Scenery to set any photographer’s spirit soaring, with an endless variety of views to choose from.  But the hiking trails were what got our juices flowing—Alex and Joan knew just what we would like.  Chris and Alex headed out for a little leg-warmer the first afternoon of our arrival.  Two more fantastic trails awaited on each of the days we were here.

The Alpine Tunnel Trail takes you up in the elevations, after driving some high country rough roads to get there.  But the views afforded from this trail are proportionate to the effort expended to get there.  It’s a trail to set your spirit soaring . . . as our lungs worked overtime adjusting to the thin air at this high elevation. Still, there’s nothing to compare to the Colorado high country!

The Alpine Tunnel was a true wonder of its time. Built in 1880-82 at an altitude of 11,500 feet, it tunneled under the Continental Divide and is at an even greater altitude than the great, modern Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70. The Alpine Tunnel is 1,830 feet in length, 14 feet wide and 7 feet high. In these mountains this was the only way for the railroad to reach Gunnison, which then became the railhead of the Denver, South Park, & Pacific.  It was used until 1910, and today both entrances are closed off.  From our side, the opening appeared to be a big pile of rocks.

As the road to the Alpine Tunnel is recommended for 4WD, the route of the trail is, however, a good high altitude hike of 3 miles (one way, out-and-back) at about 11,500’ elevation.

Another early rising next morning had us driving north toward the old mining town of Leadville.  Joan had recently learned about a great hiking trail through wildflower meadows and was anxious to try it out.  Being a wildflower fanatic myself, I was more than a little grateful that she had waited to hike it with us.  By 9am we were on the well-trod path.

Wildflowers weren’t the only asset that this trail had to offer.  In short order we rounded a turn and then took a moment to look back from where we’d come.  What an incredible sight we saw!

The mountains of the Sawatch Range wrapped in pillows of clouds.

Now this is the Colorado we know and love!

For its second act, the trail entered  wildflower meadows and our emotions reached even higher crescendos. It was as if we had entered someone’s secret garden . . . the variety and abundance of these flowers was so amazing.  Bountiful species .  .  .  a confetti of colors .  .  .  a delight for the eyes and spirit.  There would be no fast-paced hiking through this scenery!

So I warn you now, if flowers aren’t exactly your “thing”, then perhaps you’d best just skim through the rest and head to the end of this post.  In truth of an explanation, no words are necessary from here on .  .  .  I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.  And give evidence of the day we had here on this high mountain trail at the base of the Mosquito Range.

Flowers aside (as if that could be true), it was a wonderful trail with a gentle grade and mountain peaks in every direction.  As elevations increased, the variety of flowers changed, keeping our interest along the route.  We followed the path as it led higher up, we determined to set our sights on a high mountain basin just under a 12,000’ elevation.  Once there, we saw what was typical of this entire area around Leadville—evidence of the mining activity from the late 1800s.  Amazing that relics such as this old mine can withstand the ravages of harsh winter conditions for well over 100 years.

The only thing better than finding a great trail is having good friends to share it with.  Many thanks, Alex and Joan—looking forward to more hikes to come!I couldn’t depart this beautiful part of Colorado without at least one early morning outing.  Convenient to our campground—just a short drive away—was the Heckendorf Wildlife Viewing Area.  A wonderful location having acres of meadowlands, and with Mt. Princeton and Mt. Yale rising beyond. It was a favorite grazing area for elk in the winter months.  With hopes of finding good light as the sun rose over the Buffalo Peaks to the east, I rousted myself up before dawn and made the supreme effort to be at that meadow at sunrise.

A field of buttercups accentuated the golden light of early morning striking Mt. Princeton.

While just down the road stood an old wooden house from times long gone ideally backdropped by fourteener Mt. Yale.  Just one more iconic Colorado scene.

If it isn’t a field of wildflowers that gets my heart beating faster, then I would say it’s those high mountain peaks.  Whether seeing them from a great distance, or rising up near where I stand, mountains continue to mesmerize and fill me with awe.  To be actually in them . . . to stand on a high alpine meadow . . . well, there’s just nothing that compares with being there.

So that was what motivated me to take the truck and head up to Cottonwood Pass.  Leaving from the center of BV, the road is paved all the way up to the Continental Divide at an elevation near 12,000 feet.  If you don’t mind lots of curves and some switchbacking, then this is one easy way to reach the Divide.  Once there, you’ll have a panorama of mountain peaks as well as wildflowered tundra and alpine lakes.  It is an amazing location, a place that I could never tire of.  A place deserving of making the effort, a place to find serenity and wonder.

Even on dreary, rain-clouded evenings, it can be a place of ineffable beauty.

With more to come,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

.  .  .  on our way to another superb mountain town.

 

Posted in Buena Vista, Colorado | 4 Comments

HEADED TO COLORADO—It’s Like Going Home

Asked once to describe Colorado, Teddy Roosevelt demurred, saying, “The scenery bankrupts the English language.” Postcards come to life here; landscapes overpower the senses and register somewhere deeper. This is the type of beauty that is not only perceived, but felt.

The mountains of Colorado seem to keep pulling us back.  I guess that we both respond to the natural elements we find here . . . cool, crisp morning air, crystal blue skies, the magnificent mountain scenery, rushing streams and clear lakes, and, not the least, the ubiquitous summer wildflowers.  Although recent years have taken us far from this state we first visited 20 years ago, its attractions have always elicited fond memories.  It was time to renew those recollections, time to reconnect to some special places.  For us, this summer’s destination would be the best of all possible reunions.

He likes the fishing, and I like the flowers.  And we both think that the awesome mountain scenery makes for the perfect backdrop as we pursue our respective interests.  That is why we keep returning . . . in July, when the fish are frisky and the flowers are flourishing.  It has been more than twenty years since we made our first trip here and discovered we had a strong connection with this place.  Although we have traveled to other awe-inspiring places in the intervening summers, it is Colorado that we chose to return to.  We are full of eager anticipation.

There’s a whole lot of rolling farmland and prairie scenery between Indiana and the Colorado Rocky Mountains . . . slightly more than 1,000 miles to be exact. After 3 long days of driving, we were more than ready to see some mountain peaks.

Eastern Colorado is the antithesis of the west side of the state.  About half of Colorado lies within the Rockies.  Approaching from the eastern plains, the profile of peaks seems to encompass the entire horizon, a continuous, impenetrable barrier.  It begins as if a mirage on the horizon . . . you’re not quite sure of what you’re seeing.  Slowly the profile of peaks starts to take form as you realize it’s not your imagination.  You get a clear idea of why these first mountains are better known as The Front Range.

Extending north-to-south from Casper, Wyoming down to Pueblo, Colorado, the mountains of the Front Range rise nearly 10,000 feet above the Great Plains, containing some prominent peaks with distinctive profiles visible from the I-25 Corridor that more or less runs parallel on the range’s eastern side. With our course set for the Front Range city of Colorado Springs, our first destination was the small town of Manitou Springs.

 

 

Laying claim to being situated “at the foot of Pikes Peak”, it was no surprise to see that distinctive mountain profile framed in our truck’s windshield for many miles as we were making our final approach to our first Colorado destination.

Six miles west of Colorado Springs, at the base of Pikes Peak, is Manitou Springs.  It has been the quintessential tourist town since the 1870s when visitors discovered the healing waters that the Ute Indians had been drinking for generations.  Many of the town’s mineral springs still function today and the water is free.  Besides healing waters, the cool mountain air was thought to be good for tuberculosis sufferers.  Today you’ll find a quaint downtown lined with small cafes and coffeehouses, eclectic shops and a variety of small art and  handmade crafts galleries.  Pikes Peak RV Park was a scenic mile stroll from the heart of town.

So, why stop at Manitou Springs?  What brought us here to make it a 4-day stay?  For one thing, it is a gateway of sorts.  The mountains take off from here and there’s plenty of hiking trails that will take you into some pretty great scenery.  There’s easy access to the ‘big’ city of Colorado Springs (locals just call it The Springs) where you’ll find a huge variety of eateries and stores of every kind of venue.  But maybe most importantly, there’s a great city-owned park and an imposing mountain difficult to ignore, both within a short drive.  And that’s where we spent most of the time.

We made a bee-line to Garden of the Gods shortly after arrival.  Late afternoon, I had read, was one of the two most desirable times to see this landscape’s best side.

“You wind among rocks of every conceivable and inconceivable shape and size . . . all bright red, all motionless and silent, with a strange look of having been just stopped and held back in the very climax of some supernatural catastrophe.”

~Helen Hunt Jackson, American writer and poet

Starting in the 16th century, Spanish explorers left records of having been here.  Later, European and American explorers and trappers traveled through the area, calling the place Red Rock Corral.  Then, in 1859, one of two surveyors who were working in the area thought it would make a great place to open a beer garden (something that must have been dear to his heart or at least, sorely missed).  His companion, awestruck by the impressive rock formations, thought better.  Thinking it a place fit for the gods, he came up with the title Garden of the Gods.  And it stuck.

Fast forward a couple of decades, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that someone came along in 1879 and purchased the land—480 acres in all.  Fortunately for all of the public, when Charles Elliott Perkins died, his family gave the land to the City of Colorado Springs in 1909, with the provision that it would be a free public park.  Since then, the city has purchased additional land and the park has grown to about 1,400 acres.  In 1995 the Visitor and Nature Center was opened just outside the park.

It’s a spectacular place . . . an incredible landscape . . . on par with southern Utah and its red rock formations, but even more unique.  Vertical sandstone spires, red in color that seem to glow in the warm light of early and late day.  Surrounded by the green vegetation of pine and fir trees, with Pikes Peak towering above the whole scene, it’s an eye-opening setting to experience, so exceptionally beautiful that you’ll wonder why it isn’t a national monument.

Early morning is the other time of day when this park can really shine.  Once again, the warm light of the newly risen sun puts a golden cast on all those rock formations.  In summertime the cool temps of a new day brings in another selling point.  A pre-breakfast hike on one of the park’s most popular trails was what we chose to do with our last day in Manitou Springs.

This park is interlaced with some really terrific trails . . . some paved and very civilized, winding through and around the rocks; while others roam over the outlying land where the perspective is more all-encompassing.  The Loop Trail that we took combined five outstanding trails that encircled the rocks, eventually leading to a high ridge where we were given a bird’s eye view of the whole enchilada.  It was a trail deserving of its high rating and a magnificent start to our day.

Pikes Peak is the backdrop to the aptly named Gateway Rocks. Sunrise puts the setting in its best light.

The heat that was hitting the West Coast was making its presence felt all the way to the Colorado Rockies.  With afternoon temperatures reaching into the low 90s, even the locals were complaining a little.  Shady areas brought relief, but out on the trails in the direct sunlight it could be pretty brutal.  What a perfect time to seek relief in higher elevations!  The answer was literally right at our back door.  When the gates opened one early morning, we were among the first to pass through the portal of the Pikes Peak Highway.

Perhaps as embedded in American folklore as the Brooklyn Bridge, Pike’s Peak is America’s easternmost Fourteener (a mountain with an elevation of 14,000 feet or higher). The sentinel rises suddenly, as if to declare this is where the prairie ends, and has greeted settlers heading west much in the same way that the Statue of Liberty greeted immigrants into New York Harbor. Fifty years later, during the gold rush and the movement of settlers heading west, the mountain gained notoriety in the slogan “Pike’s Peak or Bust.”

Crystal Creek Reservoir, along the scenic Pikes Peak Drive, gives a good perspective of the mountain.

At an elevation of 14,110 feet, Pike’s Peak towers above the Front Range, dominating the setting.  The Ute Indians called it “The Long One.”  Zebulon Pike, seeing it in 1806 during an expedition, wanted to name it Great White Peak.  It finally ended up being his namesake.  Interestingly, he didn’t make it to the top.  Attempting to summit it along with a group of his men, he turned around within 15 miles of the summit, declaring that no human could ascend its pinnacle.  Fourteen years later, Dr. Edwin James, a botanist with Major Long’s Expedition, succeeded.  The summit of Pikes Peak is now reached by a paved automobile road which ascends to the very crest.

Getting an early start practically guarantees you’ll have a less crowded and pleasant drive.

Hiking trails, picnic areas and side roads leading to scenic lakes are the supplemental benefits you’ll find along the road.  But, at least from my perspective, it’s the views along the drive that are its prime selling point.  It wasn’t long before we turned AC off, rolled down our windows and took deep breaths of fragrant pine-scented air.  Gotta love that natural air conditioning.

Treeline on Pikes Peak is reached at about Mile Marker 14 and then it becomes a whole different picture.  Views open up and the road turns slightly dicey.  Grades become much steeper and turns even sharper.  Now you’re really climbing up the flanks of this behemoth mountain.

Don’t be in a rush to make the summit . . . this drive is meant to savor.  Chris was generous with his pull-overs while I bagged more than a few scenic photos.  Looking back to the route we followed, those switchbacks are known as the “Ws”.  (I think that is pretty self-explanatory).

A few more switchbacks, one last steep grade and we found ourselves on the summit.  Welcome to Pikes Peak!  You’ll find a weather station, a high altitude research center and the Summit House, where all the people tend to gather.  We took the customary photo ops, and gaped at all the tremendous views.  Exploring the farther reaches of the Peak—it’s amazing how spacious the summit really is.  And yes, it was a VERY refreshing 44 degrees!

We weren’t the only ones to appreciate the views.

In the late 1880s, inventor Zalmon Simmons made an arduous trip on muleback to the summit of Pikes Peak that he never forgot.  He made plans, raised money and in 1889 founded the Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway Co.  In June of 1891, the company’s first passenger train, carrying a church choir, made it to the summit.  The cog railway moves by the meshing of a cog wheel on the locomotive with a special rail mounted between the tracks.  Conventional trains can only climb grades up to 6%, but the cog system allows trains to tackle grades up to 38%.  The 3-hour, 8.9-mile trip on the railway is a picturesque journey (so they say), and the railway guides provide a running history of the region as you ride.

For a whole different perspective, many choose to ride the Cog Railway.

The experience doesn’t end once you reach the top of Pikes Peak.  The drive down is not simply a Repeat Performance .  .  .  it’s a whole different perspective.  Sit back and enjoy–unless, of course, you happen to be the driver!

From a magnificent mountain peak,

  Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris,

     just beginning our mountain adventures.

 

Posted in Colorado, Manitou Springs | Leave a comment

A SPECTACULAR DRIVE—High on the Blue Ridge Parkway

It was too much to hope for .  .  .  but I just couldn’t help it.  It would be close, but the calendar was telling me it was just too soon.  It was one of those things where timing would make all the difference—in this case, the difference between early buds to full-blown blooms.  It was hope against hope that the latter would be true, but past experience said it needed a couple more weeks.  So, as we were approaching the parkway, I forced myself to sit back, take deep breaths, and repeat the mantra “What will be, will be.”

The Blue Ridge Parkway is an incredible drive in any season, but there are a couple times of the year when it really comes alive.  In the fall this is one of our country’s most outstanding roads for experiencing the change of foliage.  The eastern hardwood forests simply can’t be beat for the brilliant colors that cloak the mountainsides.  The road is a Technicolor tunnel, resplendent in dozens of shades of scarlet, rose, burgundy, orange, yellow and bronze.  And those that turn out for the show know it—the leaf peepers (as they’re known) can become glutted with the sensational color.  We should know—we were one of them just a couple years ago.

But there is another season on the Parkway that is fast catching on with the sight-seekers .  .  .  fortunately, not quite as well-known.  Yet.  Spring comes late to the high elevations, and while most of the country is feeling the first heat of summer weather, the days are still pleasantly cool in the mountains.  And the nights can be downright chilly.  The first delicate greens of the forest have begun to turn to their deeper emerald shades, but by May you’ll find showy blooms popping out in the landscape . . . all shades of pinks, magentas and oranges.  And that was what I was so hoping for.

Late April through June offers the best opportunity to see the most blooms appearing at one time.  One of the wonderful things about the Parkway is that the elevation varies by several thousand feet, constantly changing the blooms that you see.  In general (and counter intuitively), the farther south you drive on the Parkway, the earlier the season becomes.  The parkway gains altitude the farther south you go.  If you missed the azalea bloom in Virginia, just take a day trip towards Asheville to catch them just coming on.

So here it was—early June.  Not too early for blooms in the lower elevations, but that wasn’t where we’d be headed.  Coming from the east our route would take us through Sylva, North Carolina, accessing the Parkway just a few miles north of town.  With our destination near the Pisgah Inn, we’d find ourselves in the highest elevations of the road.  And hence my doubts as to catching the blooming shrubs this first week in June.

Flowers or not, the views were certainly arresting.  We couldn’t have selected a better day to take that high ridgeline road.  Sunny skies and clear conditions, the views were incredibly expansive.  It wasn’t long before I was asking Chris to pull off at the next overlook.  It would be the first of many.

A scenic drive doesn’t begin to describe what this parkway is like!

The first sighting of flowers almost escaped my attention, so caught up in the views we were.  (Actually, Chris was more caught up in the driving, maneuvering curves and defensively driving).  They didn’t begin with a bang, but more like a teaser.  A few blossoms here, a scattering there .  .  .  an isolated bush would show up ever so often.  But it was enough to open my eyes with anticipation.

Interestingly, the farther we drove and the higher we went, the more flowers seemed to be showing.  How’s that happening?  But forget about trying to figure it out, I just sat back and kept enjoying the show.

And miracles of miracles, it just kept getting better.  Welcome to Spring Bloom on the Blue Ridge Parkway!

A labyrinth of cross ranges and gentle peaks make up the Blue Ridge Mountains as they extend from Pennsylvania to Georgia.  As part of the Appalachian chain, the time-worn Blue Ridge is one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, having summits reaching in excess of 6,000 feet.  (Some geologists will say that eons ago the mountains in this range were higher than the Himalayas are today).

The Blue Ridge Parkway was the longest federally planned roadway in the United States when construction began in 1935, and today it is America’s longest linear park, running for 469 miles through 29 counties.  Traversing mostly along the spine of the Blue Ridge, it links Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  And this is a fact you don’t want to forget—this Parkway has been the most visited unit of our National Park System EVERY YEAR since 1946 (except for 1949 and 2013).  In 2016 the parkway had 15.2 million visitors.

The Parkway is featured on the 2015 America the Beautiful Commemorative quarters series for North Carolina .

Begun during FDR’s administration, construction began in the fall of 1935.  Most construction was done by private contactors under federal contracts.  In June of 1936, Congress formally authorized the project as the Blue Ridge Parkway and placed it under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.  Work was done by the WPA, the CCC and crews from the Emergency Relief Administration.  During WWII, conscientious objectors had a hand in its construction.  The parkway is built across streams, railway ravines and cross roads by 168 bridges and six viaducts.  There are 26 tunnels (1 in Virginia and 25 in North Carolina) boring through rock.

To travel on the Parkway is to know firsthand what a jewel of the NPS this masterpiece of construction truly is.  You can’t help but to be incredibly impressed.  We have visited segments of it many times, coming up to hike some rugged trails, to take in the popular locations, even to dine at the mountaintop Pisgah Inn.  We’ve been witness to its many looks and fickle moods.  It’s simply a place we have never become tired of seeing.

But we’ve never done an overnight stay for even one night, much less 3 or 4.  Until this trip, that is.  But here we were, Airstream and all, relatively speaking in the neighborhood.  And so we pulled into the Pisgah Campground, where we’d already reserved a site.

Mt. Pisgah Campground is ideally located along the parkway, situated in the high elevations of the Pisgah National Forest and within striking distance of some great mountaintop trails as well as the delicious fare of The Pisgah Inn.  Both RV and tent sites are available—52 for advanced reservation and 74 on a first-come, first-served basis.  For a national forest campground, this one is a notch above the average.  Paved roads and pads, many pull-thrus as well as back-ins, bathhouses with running water and tiled showers.  While RV sites are on the smallish size, some of the pull-thrus are quite long.  But it helps to arrive during the week, because this place is really hopping come the weekends.  Reserving a site or coming mid-week is the best advice I can give!

Our reserved site turned out to be way too short for our 40+feet total length.  Fortunately we pulled in early afternoon on a Wednesday and had plenty of non-reserveable sites to choose from.  After several attempts to get us level—my hubby epitomizes the patient albeit long-suffering male—we settled in to our fragrant, flower-lined site.  Everything we could ask for in a campsite and the liberal (8am-9pm) generator hours took the worry out of living off the grid.  Now if we only had a water hookup . . . .

 . . . oh well, this is the joy of back-to-nature camping!

We woke up in the clouds our first morning.  And I’m not talking just a mist or a little foggy.   I’m talking a full-blown, complete white-out.  No visibility more than a few dozen yards.  Coooool.  And probably pretty typical at this 4,000’ elevation.  No sunrise photo on this morning, but a great day to hunt down some wildflower photo ops.  Go with the flow and play the cards you’re dealt when you’re dealing with Mother Nature!

Flowering shrubs and wildflowers dominate the parkway this time of the year, bringing out the first high tide of tourists.  Redbuds and dogwoods begin the show as the tender greens of trees leaf out.  Wildflowers on the forest floor are the next harbingers of spring, and then comes the flowering shrubs.

Known as the “Big Three Bloom” in Blue Ridge Parkway jargon,  it refers to a trio of flowering shrubs, three of the showiest of parkway wildflowers. that bloom here in early summer and are the subject of many a photographer, be he an amateur or pro.  It’s a time to go searching for that ideal calendar-worthy composition.  Or try your hand at some close up, macro shots.

As it turned out, we were very, very fortunate in our timing.  To catch the Big Three Bloom is the hope of every flower-seeker fan.  An occurrence that doesn’t happen every year . . . Azaleas being the earliest bloomers in late April, followed by the Mountain Laurel in May, and then one of the Parkway’s icons, the wild magenta Catawba Rhododendrons coming along in mid-June cap off the three outstanding flowering shrubs.  AND I SCOOPED ALL THREE!!!  Oh happy day!

The Catawba rhododendron could also be known as the show-stopper of the Parkway.  With its masses of blossoms ranging in shades from pink to magenta, to violet and purple, it’s easy to see why people pull over to snap a few pictures, especially when found growing in masses.  Contrasting so vividly against their dark emerald evergreen foliage, it’s easy to see why this is also a popular landscape plant, especially in the South.

Also contrasting sharply within their own dark green foliage, at first the mountain laurel might be mistaken for the Catawba rhododendron, but closer scrutiny will show how different they are.  The flowers of the laurel are slightly smaller, made up of clusters of tiny, cup-shaped flowers, their color ranging from white to deep pink or peach.  Growing sometimes to heights of a small tree, they can form a nearly impenetrable thicket that even large animals have difficulty getting through, much less the cross-country hikers.

In comparison to the mountain laurel and rhododendrons, the flame azalea has a very delicate appearance.  What they lack in fragrance (as opposed to the two others), they make up for in a wider range of colors.  From palest yellows and apricot to brilliant oranges and scarlet reds, these shrubs can grow as tall as 10 feet.

Both flowers and waterfalls make ideal subjects for photographing on overcast days, and today certainly qualified as such.   I returned home with quite a collection of flower photos.  Only then did I come down from a day-long adrenaline high. The sun broke out the following morning, and even before breakfast we were headed down the parkway.  Fresh mountain air does wonders for stimulating appetites and tendrils of  early morning mist still draped the valleys and coves.  It’s as invigorating as it is scenic.

After our hearty and quite sufficient feast of a breakfast we were ready to hit the long trails.  Actually, one doesn’t even need to drive to a trailhead if camping here at Mt. Pisgah.  A trail map posted at the camp’s entry showed several choices we could make.  Pilot Rock Trail looked promising, so we headed out.

Sometimes you must earn those mountain views with a steep climb and some good hard sucking in of air.  Burning those calories off while we’re at it!

 

 

 

 

 

And yes, the effort was worth it.  You’ll find incomparable views on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

When you feel you’re deserving of a respite from the trails, then you can take a leisurely drive along the Parkway.  With plenty of overlooks and picture postcard views to offer, windshield touring has rewards of its own.

Rising to just over 6,000 feet, Cold Mountain (made famous by the movie of the same name) is one of the more noteworthy peaks you’ll see from the parkway.  Since it’s part of the Pisgah National Forest, the mountain is still (most fortunately) in its natural state.  There’s an extremely strenuous 10-mile trail to its summit (something Chris has added to his bucket list–but not Melinda).

Looking Glass Rock is another outstanding landmark along the Parkway.  Named for the way its granite face reflects the sunlight, it rises from the valley floor to an elevation of nearly 4,000 feet.  It is as popular of a photo op as it is a hiking trail.  Yes! A 6-mile round trip hike will climb 1,700’ to some pretty phenomenal views of the parkway and the iconic mountain ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountain.  Next trip (bodies willing) we’ll do it!

Speaking of hiking trails, we took a noteworthy one on our last day on the parkway; one that we didn’t even know about but certainly should have!  It was just dumb luck that the blooming rhodies made this a spectacular trail at this particular time of the year.  We headed out after another hearty breakfast, unsuspecting of what waited up the trail.

The Black Balsam area includes some of the most spectacular mountain balds in the Southern Appalachians, including Black Balsam Knob, Sam Knob and Tennent Mountain.  These treeless mountaintops offer sweeping views and provide an invigorating sense of accomplishment.  You have the option of just hiking up to Black Balsam Knob, or you can make a 5-mile circuit and bag all three of these mountain balds.  Once you get going, I’m betting you won’t be calling it quits at the first summit . . . it’s just too tempting not to continue on.  We sure did!

Once I saw the profusion of wild rhododendrons, there was no doubt that we’d continue.  A few detours were thrown in as I made my way off-trail in order to snag a few photo ops along the way.  What glorious flowers!

From a flower-strewn pathway the final bald, Sam Knob, lies up ahead.

But finally, all good things have an ending.  Chris was the first to head down .  .  .

. . . but when flowers are involved, I have a tendency to linger.

I suppose by now (if you’ve read through this post) you’ll know that our stay on the Parkway was fulfilling.  Whether camping or just day-tripping, any traveler should have this Parkway on his/her bucket list.  Whether choosing to drive its full 469-mile length or just a section at a time, you’ll find it to be a rewarding experience—I have no doubt!  And that is all you can hope for when you are seeking new places to go.

From the Southern Appalachians,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

–heading on to other peaks (after a brief interlude in Indiana).

Coming soon!

Posted in Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina | Leave a comment

A JAUNT IN EARLY JUNE—Headed for the Southern Appalachians

Not to be misconstrued with one of our more involved trips, this particular excursion was what might be referred to as a little “getaway”.  Actually, when Airstream acquaintances Teresa and Randy Cook informed us that their summer itinerary would have them passing near to our home base in Indiana, we arranged a rendezvous of sorts.  Once learning that they had yet to see a nearby national park, we suggested that Mammoth Cave would be a good place to meet up and to enjoy their company for a few days.  Reservations were made months in advance, with them headed on to Michigan and eventually the West Coast. Adding a few extra stops of our own, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky would be our first destination, but not our last.  Inveterate travelers as we are, why not tack on a few more places?  Early summer in the Appalachians really can’t be beat.  We’d retrace a trip we made in reverse just a couple years ago . . . albeit in the last days of a spectacular autumn.  Seen in reverse and dressed in a totally different look, it should be as if a first-time event.  We hit the road with high expectations.

Our acquaintance with Teresa and Randy was a recent one, coming together at last May’s annual Airstream Rally, the Alumnapalooza, in Ohio.  As fate would have it, we were assigned adjacent sites, and remarkably we both pulled up in Limited Edition Pendleton Airstreams!  And that was just the start of all we had in common.  After several fun-filled and informative days, we parted company.  Our travels would take us in different directions, but we were determined to reconnect.  As thus we came to Cave Country RV Park in late May of 2017.

Two cave tours later and many enjoyable evening hours around the “campfire”, our visit once again came to an end.  The Airstream connection might have been the catalyst, but an active lifestyle and a yearning to keep traveling was the bond that has us determined to reconnect our full lives.  Mammoth Cave was just the beginning.  We’ll stay in close touch and look forward to our next rendezvous—undoubtedly somewhere our Airstreams take us!

From the rolling hills of central Kentucky, we took the highway south.  Once in Tennessee, those hills took on a decidedly more rugged character.  The highway got curvier too.  Near the end of our nearly 200-mile drive we were making a serious climb up the flanks of the Cumberland Plateau.

Located in central Tennessee midway between Nashville and Knoxville and just a short drive south of I-40, Fall Creek Falls is one of the state’s most popular state parks.  And with good reason.  Centered in an area known for its unique geological formations, this 26,000-acre park is found in the upper Cane Creek Gorge, where just to get there is an adventure in driving, not to mention when you’re towing.  Part of the Cumberland Plateau—that huge dissected upland that lies just west of the Appalachian Mountains, the Cane Creek Gorge is a large gash cutting into the western edge of the plateau.  With its headwaters in the eastern highlands of the Plateau, Cane Creek slowly gains strength as it absorbs several smaller streams.  Entering the gorge, it drops several hundred feet in less than a mile, first creating cascades and then separating to create two waterfalls dropping into the same plunge pool.  Over the next half-mile, Cane Creek absorbs Fall Creek and Piney Creek, both of which enter from smaller gorges, having each created their own impressive falls.

In 1937, the U.S. Government began purchasing the badly eroded land around Fall Creek Falls.  The following year, the WPA and the CCC began the work of restoring the forest and constructing park facilities.  In 1944, the NPS transferred ownership of this park to the State of Tennessee.  Today, Fall Creek Falls is the state’s largest and most visited state park

There is a 145-room lodge and 30 cabins.  The campground has 222 sites with water and electricity (70 of which have sewer hookups!).  Very popular on the weekends, the campground is laid out in several loops.  With paved roads and campsite pads, it’s pretty darn decent for any state park!  Make reservations ahead of time if coming in the summer and fall months. There are more than 34 miles of trails as well as two long-distance overnight trails.

Three days later had us pulling away from a satisfying visit, but looking ahead to even higher elevations with great expectations.  Another cross-country drive along rural state highways . . . a stop for provisions in the college town of Athens, and then deeper into the backcountry highlands of far eastern Tennessee.

Ever heard of the Cherohala Skyway?  If not, you’re in good company with lots of people—even those that live a lot closer to where it’s located.  I learned about it years ago, written up in a travel magazine article.  Piquing my interest, I filed the article away under my Scenic American Roads travel folder, waiting for the right opportunity to come along.  And here we were—in a convenient location at a perfect time.  It was an easy half-day drive from Fall Creek Falls.

Winding up and over 5,400-foot mountains for 23 miles in the deeply forested backcountry of Tennessee and descending another 18 miles in North Carolina, the Skyway gains over 4,000 feet in elevation.  Crossing through both the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests, its name is thus derived—“Chero…hala”.  Well known in motorcycling and sports car circles, it has gained a reputation for long, sweeping turns, scenic views and cool summer breezes.  Once passing through the verdant gateway, there is little evidence of civilization from views that rival any from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

During the 1950s the people living in the foothills and mountains of eastern Tennessee felt isolated from virtually the rest of our country.  They had roads running west, miles of rough driving to reach a town of any consequence.  What they were needing was a route to the east, to the progressive towns of western North Carolina.  A passage in the book Wagon Train:  Thirty Years Across the Far Blue Mountains written by Jim Thompson summed it up succinctly.

“A highway that would enable their youngsters to search for the reality inside the dreams of their parents. A highway that would allow bright young men and women to expand their horizons beyond the noble mountains of their birth. They would travel to places beyond the horizon, then bring the lessons they learned home to the mountains. Rural villages would grow in knowledge and education, while retaining the values of the past.”

The history of the road is a long winding story that began in 1958. In the spring of that year the Tellico Plains, Tennessee Kiwanis Club members were talking about the need for a road connecting the people of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Charles Hall was one of the men at that Kiwanis Club meeting and remained a driving force behind the push for the road, until the dedication of the Cherohala Skyway in 1996.

During a Kiwanis meeting in April 1958, Sam Williams suggested they organize a wagon train to draw attention to the need for a road, “Since our roads are only fit for covered wagons.” “We laughed at Sam a little while, then got serious,” said Hall. On July 4, 1958, 67 covered wagons and 325 horseback riders made the 42-mile trek to Murphy, N.C. Surprisingly, this event caught on, becoming an annual event. During its 30-year history, this wagon train was chronicled by local and national media, eventually attracting the attention the men and media that it intended to.

It was on the 1960 wagon train, that then Robbinsville Mayor Smith Howell made the first announcement that the road connecting the two states would run from Tellico Plains, TN to Robbinsville, NC. Coincidentally, the 1960 wagon train remained the largest ever with 105 wagons and 776 horseback riders.

In 1962 Hall and several other men went before Congress to ask for money for the project. They had discovered the road could be built entirely on federal land, with it traveling through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests. Later that year the Federal Highway Administration made the first appropriation for the road, but it was still a long way from becoming a reality. “After we got the first appropriation, it fell back to us to keep the wagon train going and the money coming in,” Hall said. By 1967, the 10th anniversary of the Wagon Train, the road was finally under construction. As the Wagon Train ventured out on its annual journey in 1982, more contracts were being let for construction of the road and the Cherohala Commission had been appointed to promote and plan the new highway. Hall said construction was delayed for about 13 years while they worked with 21 environmental groups which had concerns about the road. But finally on Oct. 12, 1996, the road was dedicated and is now designated a National Scenic Byway. Hall’s wife, Billie Nell, said her husband was like the “little engine that could” in his efforts to draw attention to the need for the road and seeing it through to completion. Hall said what is important to him is “the satisfaction of knowing it is done and is going to be enjoyed by so many people.”

And we would be one of them.  Starting in Tellico Plains, TN., we entered the Cherokee National Forest, the state’s only national forest.  Once devastated by logging, but protected since 1911, the woodland is pristine—no signs of civilization.  Surrounded by every conceivable nuance of green, we passed into an entirely natural and seemingly untouched world.  My kind of place.

At the very start of the drive, the Tellico River parallels the road.  Popular with trout fishermen and white-water enthusiasts, its appearance completes the picture of this primordial setting.

Only one campground is located along the drive—but it’s a real doozie.  Taking the turnoff on Forest Road 345, only 14 miles from the Tennessee terminus of the drive, you’ll find an hidden beauty of a campground canopied by large, looming hardwoods and pine forests.  Indian Boundary Recreation Area is easily the crown jewel of the south zone of the Cherokee National Forest.  It didn’t take long for us to set up camp . . . ahhhhh—now THIS was OUR KIND OF CAMPING!

Situated deep in a forested setting at a modest elevation of about 1,600 feet, the sites are decently spaced, extremely deep,  neatly delineated and nicely leveled.  While the road is paved, the sites are graded with fine gravel, and each site has electrical hookups.  Water faucets abound, making filling tanks very convenient.  Modern bathhouses are spotless and provide showers as well.  All this from a national forest campground??? National park campgrounds can’t hold a candle to this ideal campground!  You’ll find 87 reserveable sites in this popular place—make reservations well ahead!

Just 2 miles from the Cherohala Skyway, this is the perfect place to use as a base camp.  But don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to leave this pastoral setting . . . you might find everything here you’ll need for a satisfying getaway.  The 96-acre lake completes the picture—having a swim beach, small boat launch and accessible fishing pier.  The finishing touch is provided by a nicely graded 3.6-mile hike/bike trail that encircles the entire lake.  You’ll find it easy to understand why it’s such a popular family destination. And a real beauty for nature lovers!

It was difficult to pull ourselves away from that idyllic place come the next morning.  It would require a tantalizing lure to pull me away . . . and an exceptionally picturesque waterfall was just that kind of temptation

Turning off the Skyway, a narrow forest road skirts along the edge of the upper Tellico River through a steep-sided rocky gorge.  Sheer canyon walls rise above the forest canopy; the whitewaters of the river cascade over boulders and rocks. A setting that’s truly a balm for city-worn spirits.

And then, a few short miles up the river gorge is the big payoff for this side trip.  Bald River Falls is arguably the most beautiful and impressive waterfall in the entire state.  No argument or contradiction from me.

The Cherohala isn’t just about driving through dense forest scenery where trees hem in the road, their branches creating an emerald tunnel.  Soon enough the twisting road ascends to the highest ridges, gaining over 4,000 feet from the start of the drive, where it leads to arresting panoramas. It is from these high overlooks where little evidence of civilization can be seen and the views can rival—or surpass—any from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

This 43-mile, twisting ribbon of asphalt corkscrewing through mountain ridges is North Carolina’s most expensive highway.  Having a final price tag of $100,000,000, the cost averages out to about $3 million a mile.  For a scenic drive that is little known and rarely publicized, we found the statistics quite astounding.  You won’t find gas stations, restaurants, billboards or other facilities along its route, just the occasional restrooms and picnic tables at most pull-offs.  But for those of us who have made the discovery, there’s more enjoyment to be found on this high mountain road so little traveled.

Take hiking trails, for instance.  We tried out a couple and never passed another soul.  We were on our own to climb the pathways, selecting those that led to unique Appalachian anomalies—the mountain balds.

Found in the Appalachian Mountains, balds are mountain summits or crests covered primarily by thick vegetation of native grasses, shrubs and dwarfed trees.  With more than 80 of these balds found in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, their origins are speculative to both geologists and the native Indians.  Unlike the alpine summits where the climate is too cold to support tree growth, the climate found on balds is warm enough for trees.  Why a summit develops into a grassy bald is an ecological enigma, but there are some speculations.  Forest fires once sweeping through is an explanation.  Or cleared by early native tribes for ceremonial or hunting grounds could be the reason.  It is known that early settlers herded livestock to the mountaintops, providing summer grazing ground.  But those days are long gone.  Once shrubs and grasses become established, their deep and tightly bound root systems tend to prevent other vegetation from taking root.  Yet the mystery still is unanswered—why do forests exist on some of the summits, while others remain primarily grassy balds?  In this informed age of ours, I like to think that nature can still have her secrets.

Among the listing of more prominent balds, you’d find the two we chose to hike that day on the Cherohala.  Following the ridge of the Unicoi Mountain Crest, one of the most undeveloped areas in the eastern U.S., one can actually hike three successive mountain balds.  Hooper Bald, the second of the three, was where we chose to start.  Known for its wildflowers and plantings of wild and native azaleas by a local conservation group, it has an interesting history.

In 1908, George Moore started a 1500-acre hunting preserve on Hooper Bald where wealthy clients could come to shoot exotic and native game.  (In those days, activities such as this seemed to be very popular among certain groups—fortunately, not so much in current times).  In an effort to contain the wildlife, 25 tons of wire were hauled over rough roads for the 10-foot high fence to keep out the indigenous bear population.  However, those bears soon learned to climb the fence and would repeatedly raid the lodge in search of food (much to the dismay of guests). Among the animals shipped to this preserve were 14 European wild boars, 4 bison, 14 elk, 6 Colorado mule deer, 25 black bears and 9 Russian brown bears. (I find it interesting that George Moore thought more bears were needed).  It took 3 days and 6 wagons to haul just the boars up 25 miles through the mountains.  Those same boars, incidentally, easily rooted out of their enclosure once on Hooper Bald and escaped.  Today it is a certainty that their progeny still roam these mountain ridges.

A stream of wild buttercups lined our pathway to Hooper Bald.

The end result makes all the huffing and puffing exertion worthwhile. Standing on that mountain bald opens up the far-off views.  Standing in a sea of high grasses, you’ll have an excellent view of the surrounding mountains, coves and deep valleys.

And there it is before you . . . that view of undulating ridge lines that the Blue Ridge is famous for.  You’d find this a memorable hike.  And we had it aaaaaall to ourselves!

It was just dumb luck that we saved the best for the last.  With a unremarkable start to Huckleberry Knob, we followed an overgrown forest road up a gradual slope through a thicket of dwarfed trees, shrubs and grasses, giving no hint of the scenery that was to come.  The call of songbirds was the highlight, with images of being alone here in bear country to give us a touch of apprehension.

Nearly a mile later the forest began opening up .  .  .  soon enough we were breaking through to sunshine as the undergrowth fell away.  Before us lay a breathtaking expanse.

This bald was crowned with a field of buttercups.  Not just a smattering, mind you, but a solid carpet of those yellow flowers.  Absolutely amazing as unexpected delights often are.  Even Chris was standing in awe.

Once again, the benefits of an open summit pay out in dividends with the far-off views.  Now here is a spot that you’d never tire of . . . and once again we were the only ones to be there!!  You won’t find that kind of privacy on most mountaintops.

Soon enough we were turning to go as heavy dark clouds were rolling in.  But I’m here to tell you—the trail back down was as spectacular as the start.  Lingering for a few last shots, I was still on an adrenaline high.

Ending our stay here on such a high note couldn’t help but influence our interlude here.  The flowers might have been one of the last memories, but we took away plenty of other good ones to add to it.  The scenic drive, the great campsite, a fabulous waterfall, the picturesque lake and its well-worn perimeter trail.  Somehow, we hope to return. Isn’t that the way a great stay should end?

Streaming on to the Blue Ridge Mountains,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

 

 

 

Posted in Cherohala Skyway, Tennessee | 2 Comments

PRESCOTT & FLAGSTAFF, Part 2—Wrapping It All Up

It had never been a primary destination, not a town where we’d spend a lot of time.  It was a place to pass through on our way to somewhere else . . .  on our route to the Grand Canyon  . . . returning home from Zion and Bryce.  Until now, with the conditions so perfect, with us attempting to delay our journey home, with average temperatures exceeding their normals, why not pull in and linger awhile?  When we learned new Airstream friends we’d met in Prescott, Lynette and Dan, were planning some days camping here, the decision was easy to make.  For the coming few days we’d be seeing what Flagstaff had to offer.

First, find a place to camp—not as easy as it sounds.  Lynette did her search while we did ours.  Seemingly plenty of campgrounds to choose from, with a mix of all kinds of ratings, the trick was to locate a place up and running this second week in March.  Interestingly, we both came up with the same selection—they’d be leaving Prescott a day before us and send back a report about Woody’s—Woody Mountain Campground & RV Park, that is.

With a total of 196 sites, it turned out to be a very good choice, at least when nearly empty.  Located in a forest of tall pines, the ambiance was perfect albeit the sites were extremely close to one another.  Not a desirable place when nearly full, on this first week that they were open it ended up being an ideal place.  Additionally, it was very close to town—just a couple miles to the west.  Perfect for getting around.  Good times, new friends, perfect weather—who could ask for anything more?

Located at the base of an extinct volcano, Flagstaff (simply known as ‘Flag’ to the locals) held quite the allure for us.  Positioned on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, the gorgeous, snowcapped San Francisco Peaks are the town’s backdrop.  Easily seen from the high points we had hiked while in Prescott, those peaks continued to tempt us to come closer.  With mountains always having been a huge draw for both of us, like a siren’s call we were powerless to resist.

It’s the highest mountain range in Arizona, the tallest peak soaring to 12,633’.  Named in honor of St. Francis of Assisi by the Spanish friars that settled here in the 1620s, these scenic mountains are referred to as the Peaks by those who live here.  They are a huge attraction for the thousands who come here throughout the year, being a place for great hiking, skiing, camping, wildlife viewing and wilderness solitude.  They are a refreshing change from the desert areas that surround them.

The Peaks are made up of 6 summits that circle a caldera of a now quiet volcano.  Unusual for eruptions to occur on this dry arid plateau so far from the edge of a tectonic plate, these mountains were formed between 500,000 to a million years ago by the most dramatic of those eruptions.  The inner basin has been quiet ever since.

So many hikes .  .  .  so little time .  .  .  that’s what I was realizing once I began investigating possible trails.  Since Flagstaff was an addendum to this trip, I hadn’t researched all the possible trails.  Consequently, a cursory check on a few websites revealed a head-spinning pot load of possibilities.  The conundrum was in selecting just a few.  Actually, I don’t think we could’ve gone wrong with any one of them . . . in an area such as Flagstaff there just can’t be a bad trail around.

The Old Caves Crater Trail was a great starting point.  Winding through a forest of towering Ponderosa Pines, we were hit with a startling revelation.  Having just spent the past two months primarily in desert regions, this one particularly verdant trail accentuated a landscape we’d been missing.  Ahhhh, back to the pine-scented air! The emerald green colors!  The soft, cushiony, needle-strewn ground.  What delights!  What freshness!  What a difference!

Flagstaff might have many superlatives, but here in this particular spot we were to learn that the town is smack-dab within the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest IN THE WORLDYes, you heard it here and it is true, pure documented fact.  The ecosystems that surround Flagstaff span from pinon-juniper woodland to alpine tundra, but it is the pine forest in between that dominates the area.  Growing only at elevations between 6,000’ and 8,000’, Flagstaff’s 7,000’ elevation makes for the Ponderosa pine’s perfect home.

The trail eventually begins to climb, first through a volcanic cinder field and then switchbacking up the side of an old volcano.  Several hundred feet of elevation later we’re up on top where the views open to impressive vistas. The trail’s namesake ‘caves’ are actually lava-formed chambers called “bubbles”.  The indigenous Sinagua Indians built their village above these bubbles, using them as rooms, then carved out storage alcoves.  The pueblo walls have long since crumbled, but the chambers remain.  It’s not uncommon to find sherds of pottery still scattered among the caves.

Perhaps the most rewarding payoff of this hike were the views of the San Francisco Peaks . . . through the seemingly unending span of Ponderosa pines.

Who would’ve known just 7 miles east of Flagstaff and a couple miles south of I-40 was a little-known national monument?  Not us, to be sure.  How many times had we driven right by, little suspecting what we were missing?  But anxious to bag yet another unit of our national park system, our first afternoon was spent exploring Walnut Canyon.

In the densely-wooded plateau country the small seasonal stream, Walnut Creek, has carved a 600’ deep canyon as it flows east to eventually join with the Little Colorado River, and then on to the Grand Canyon.  The exposed limestone that forms the upper third of the canyon walls is made up of different layers of hardness.  Some layers, eroding more rapidly than others, have formed shallow alcoves within these steep cliffs.  Eight to nine hundred years ago, the native Sinagua Indians constructed cave-like dwellings along these ledges, high above the canyon floor.  Today, the appearance of the canyon with the ruins is quite similar to the more well known Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, just on a smaller scale.

The park has a good visitor center.  Perched on the cliff edge, it has panoramic views both to the east and west.  Many of the ancient dwellings were built around a U-shaped meander in the canyon, where the creek circles around three sides of a high rocky plateau.  Almost creating an ‘island’, this is the central attraction of the monument.

There are many other ruins within a 10×20 mile area, but no others except those on the Island are accessible to the public.  As many as 600 people probably lived in this area, divided into many family groups.

The dramatic location of the structures and their good state of preservation gives Walnut Canyon the reputation for being the most interesting of the NPS historical sites in Arizona.

The Island Trail is very steep as it descends part way into the canyon.  For those with good lung capacity, it provides a good feeling of what it would have been like to live in this environment.  Circling around the ‘island’, the pathway passes alongside the remains of about 20 separate dwellings.  Looking down the steep incline to the streambed below, it was the route taken when more water was required. Looking out over the span of the canyon, you can see other dwellings built on opposing cliff walls.  Their ‘neighbors’ were just a loud call away.

The Rim Trail is a much easier walk, following the edge of the cliff for a short distance.  With two scenic viewpoints you can look out over another segment of the rock walls leading down into the canyon.

In the summer we learned that staff personnel lead the Ledges Hike to cliff dwellings off the main trail, as well as a moonlight/starlight walk in the area.

Our last hike in Flagstaff turned out to also be our last hike of this trip, and it was shared with now good friends Dan and Lynette.  Having spent time together around the campfire as well as a couple of fun dinners out on the town, we had come to realize we shared several common interests—hiking being one of the more significant ones.  It seemed only fitting that our last day together would find us all trekking together along a good scenic trail.

The Sandy Canyon Trail leads down one of the side canyons of Walnut Canyon. After a short descent to the canyon base, you can hook up with the Arizona Trail leading through a segment of Walnut Canyon.  Once down in the valley the going gets easy, along a flat, even pathway surrounded by wide grassy fields and flanked by towering stone walls. A beautiful day for a beautiful trail!

The highlight of the trail is Fisher Point. We saw it from below, and then we earned the view from up on top.

From the top of Fisher Point across another vast Ponderosa pine forest, once again we have views of the snowy summits of the Peaks.

So ends another good visit here in Flagstaff.  And the wrap up of another good trip.

With the mountains fading behind us,

Airstream Travelers,

Chris & Melinda

heading home.

 

OTHER PERTAINING LINKS:

  • More background on Flagstaff, click HERE
  • Other campground listings, click HERE and HERE
  • More hiking trails, click HERE
Posted in Arizona, Flagstaff | Leave a comment

PRESCOTT & FLAGSTAFF–Wrapping It All Up

Ever since leaving San Diego, our route had basically taken a turn toward the east.  No big jumps, mind you, and certainly not a direct easterly course, just small incremental moves that gradually had shifted eastward, to terminate ultimately at our home base in Indiana.  There would come the time when longer, more undeviating stretches would be required, but for now just some slight eastward movements were all we could manage.  If you’ve followed our posts in the past, you’ll know that being homeward bound is usually not a direction we eagerly embrace.

With that in mind, we checked the map for someplace in a general eastward direction that seemed appealing . . . a place not yet seen  . . . somewhere to hold our interest for just a few days at least.  Nothing too far from our current location, but at least somewhat to the east of where we were.  That was when the town of Prescott caught our attention, right there on Google Maps.  A place we had once come close to in past travels, a town recommended by fellow RVers we’d met, it was one of the few remaining Arizona cities we had never had the chance to visit.  Until now.  So we set our course.

Once again, a big chunk of desert scenery needed to be covered.  What else was new—as far as this whole trip was concerned?  Nearly 300 miles of mostly desolate, unchanging scenery . . . with scarce signs of civilization or towns of any small size.  One of our more unremarkable drives of the past two months.

Perhaps knowing that, you’ll understand the joy, the downright elation we experienced when the unceasingly bland horizon finally gave way to undulating ridges of mountains ahead.  Now that was something to take note of!  Our anticipation was barely contained.  Soon the flatlands would be a place of the past.

Long weeks spent in a basically unchanging environment seems to have a way of altering one’s frame of reference.  At least that’s where we seemed to be coming from when finding  ourselves suddenly surrounded by a totally different landscape.  Dark, lush, heavily-forested hillsides was a sight unfamiliar to our eyes.  Wow!  In what seemed the blink of an eye we found ourselves in a totally different life zone.  One thing was for certain—this had ceased to be a monotonous drive.

Although the Sonoran Desert was merely one mountain ridge below, the town of Prescott sits at a mile-high elevation.  In an entirely different ecosystem than where we had just come from, there was a cool crispness to the air and a scent of pine wafting on the breeze.  We were back in the mountains again  . . . a place we had too long been gone from.  And it was very welcoming indeed.

Sitting on the flanks of the Bradshaw Mountains, Prescott is an old town that has its roots as being the first capital of the newly formed Arizona Territory, back in the mid-1800s.  Many downtown buildings were built from that time, and around the courthouse square there are many historic landmarks.  Although several fires swept through town, the buildings were rebuilt (of bricks, second time around) and now have been converted to boutiques, art galleries, bookstores and restaurants.  All in all, it is a downtown worth strolling and enjoying, both by visitors and locals alike.  It was a big drawing card for the town we soon discovered.

Thumb Butte, a local landmark, towers above Prescott, easily seen from most locations. (photo credit: 55Places.com)

Another aspect of Prescott’s downtown is their Courthouse Square.  Bordered by tall old elm trees hemming in  the walkways, the plaza is quite an attractive asset.  We later learned it is a popular gathering place, a location for cultural events and performances many nights in the summer.  Its wide encircling sidewalks, shaded by the canopy of tree branches, makes for very pleasant ambling.

(photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Prescott likes to show off its western style and portrays a cowboy feel, it  actually has a distinctive Americana look about it.  The early settlers and residents of Prescott built their homes and businesses with a character clearly reflecting their Midwestern and Eastern roots.  The town plaza, with its courthouse surrounded by landscaped lawns shows an influence of the larger American culture rather than that of the Southwest, contrary to many Arizona towns.  Nevertheless, that same town plaza has been enhanced with the addition of excellent sculptures that clearly reflect the Western influence.  It is a town that can simply combine the best of both worlds.  And therein lies the essence of its character.

Prescott’s town center isn’t the only draw to this attractive town—there are many natural assets yet to note.  Topping the list might be the most distinctive one of all, that being the Granite Dells.  Known locally as simply ‘The Dells’, just north of town is one big area of spectacular piles of boulders.  Formed over a billion years ago by the cooling and stressing of buried molten rock, weathering eventually uncovered them.  Through eons of erosion, these rocks were transformed into the rounded weathered shapes and other unusual formations that characterize the Dells today.  It’s a feast for the eyes as well as a natural outdoor playground.  Hiking trails abound—paths wind through, around and over these gigantic piles.  Whether photographing or exploring, they offer a temptation impossible to resist.

Two very scenic artificial reservoirs—Watson and Willow Lakes—lie within the Dells.  Both are very scenic, offering trails that encircle and wrap around the waters’ edge.  The rounded and colorful boulders make up the shoreline, as well as creating semi-submerged tiny islands and narrow promontories.  The honey-colored rock, combined with water mirroring the sky as well as the emerald green foliage of trees and bushes managing to somehow sprout from solid rock, all comes together to present a multitude of photographic possibilities.  And endless hours of exploring—both on and off the trails.

Perhaps the best part of all was finding a campground in the perfect setting—nestled within these fabulous rocks!  Point of Rocks RV Park, with nearly 100 full service sites, is all about location.

From the campground you have views of rock formations or long extended views over the Prescott area.  What’s more, the park is a short drive to the heart of town.  This is a place that gives you the best of both worlds for sure.  We liked it so much, we extended our stay an extra couple days.  (Having wonderfully warm, above-normal temps probably played into that choice.)

When camping amongst the scenic locations there’s an added bonus besides the convenience.  When access to photographic opportunities is a short walk or drive from your door, it’s much easier to catch those fleeting moments when the golden hours of day seem to transform the natural features.  That’s when you and a camera need to be Johnny-on-the-spot.

Late afternoon light can illuminate the otherwise lumps of plain rock.  They can burn with a golden glow for mere short minutes at the end of day.

In moments after sunset, a featureless sky is painted in pastel shades.  The soft twilight colors bring a subtle look to the often ordinary rock, accentuating patterns and shades.  A moment later and the effect can be gone.

When you have the opportunity to familiarize yourself with your surroundings, and there’s scenic potential just outside your door, then all you might require is the right timing and SHAZAM!! you might be rewarded with a full moon rising.  It’s all about location and good luck.

Is it any wonder that we added extra days to our stay?  Don’t think I’m trying to gloss over what Prescott has to offer—there’s really lots of perks to this town.  From our point of view it was the scenery and the seasons (not the usual Arizona climate), a diversity of trails—through the rocks, up the mountains, around the lakes, into the pine forests, a traditional downtown center where strolling with an early morning latte makes a good start to your day.  For sure we weren’t the first to be attracted to Prescott’s charms—this town is seeing quite an influx of new blood and retirees.  It’s sure easy to understand—being a place we could see ourselves living.

For now, it was time once again to hit the road and to leave those rocks behind.  While the good weather was holding and the warm temperatures weren’t cooling down, we had our attention on one last Arizona town.

Streamin’ on down the highway,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

  • Other pertaining links:
    • More trails with maps, click HERE and HERE
    • More campground listings, click HERE
    • Historical background on Prescott, click HERE

Posted in Arizona, Prescott | Leave a comment

JOSHUA TREE (addendum)—A Tribute to the Flowers

Like the water foaming behind a speeding motorboat, the wildflowers were blooming in our wake.  In the days following our departures, the abundant winter rains that had fallen in California were producing desert super blooms.  We had observed the early days of the flowering while still in Anza Borrego, but knew that the best was yet to come.  Joshua Tree was expecting a good crop also, but sitting at much higher elevations would delay the bloom another week or more.  And we would be long gone.  Alas .  .  .  so close .  .  . and yet so far.  Another good example of timing being everything.

Instead, we would be confronted by the headlines making big stories in places we had been .  .  .  the event got great media coverage—on TV, in newspapers, on our phones.  It was the talk of the entire Southwest.

Woe is me.  Oh, the pain .  .  .  the agony I was feeling.  What might have been, but was not to be.

If any solace was to be found it was the byline to this news.  Of course, it made good sense!  I could see exactly the scenario unfolding.

And therein lies the downside.  Maybe a weak one, nevertheless an accurate one.  Memories of congo lines of people, marching like ants in single file up a mountainside trail to wildflower meadows.  Hordes of people tramping through fields of luscious flowers is not a pretty sight.  In fact, some might view it as a turn-off.  And it’s a sight I’ll willingly pass by.  Of course, in this case, I really had no choice.

Yet there was some redemption to my story.  All was not lost, it eventually turned out.  In its own small way we did have a modicum of good fortune.  It wasn’t huge, but it was wide-spread; maybe not profuse, but certainly it could hold its own.  Not a remote place, to be sure, but on our route nevertheless.  And the best part of all ,  ,  ,   without a doubt .  .  .  I had it ALL TO MYSELF!  Just the way I like it.

We were departing Joshua Tree and heading to lower elevations.  I had just settled back, switched on the radio, prepared for a drive of several hours.  It was the color in the otherwise monochrome landscape that first caught our attention, alerting us to a distinctive change of scenery.  What was that we just passed by? it wasn’t completely registering until .  .  .  just wait .  .  .  we were passing more .  .  .  both sides of the road . . . clumps of colorful flowers dispersed over the land!  Then more—stretches of flowers—fields of flowers.  No kidding—we had come upon some microcosm of a super bloom of our own!  Just outside the entrance to the park.  OH HAPPY DAY!!!

I didn’t need to exclaim “Pull over!” He already was.  Then he settled back, opened a book, turning to simply say “Have at it.”  I was already grabbing my gear.

Seventh heaven.  Complete bliss.  It wasn’t endless acres, but it was enough.  And it was mine.  All mine.  For this moment in time, I had these blooming masses to myself.  And therein lies the true rapture.

The earth laughs in flowers.    —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Lupines, poppies, primrose, chia, sunflowers, desert dandelions and sunflowers.  Bursts of color in an otherwise drab and colorless landscape.  Not much to work with . . . no outstanding landmarks  . . . just dry, rocky slopes enveloping this collage of color.  Yet still, there was wonder and beauty.

Undoubtedly I missed the spectacular, popular hot spots.  Obviously I didn’t miss the crowds.  But when the day was done and this trip wrapped up, at least I can say I caught a fragment of Super Bloom 2017.  In a little corner of Joshua Tree.

Making the most of what is given,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Posted in California, Joshua Tree N.P. | Leave a comment