DURANGO—Good Memories Made Here

About halfway between Silverton and Durango, which happened to be our next destination, the highway climbs up to nearly 11,000 feet at Molas Pass.  From a highway overlook travelers will have a wonderful panoramic view of the mountains in the wild Weminuche Wilderness.  It is a place that affords a moment to contemplate the majesty of nature and the wild expanse of a pristine landscape.  Which was exactly what I was doing, standing alone on the viewing platform, when unexpectedly and quite suddenly, I wasn’t alone.  A guy had come up to stand beside me and spontaneously says “Hi!  My name is Kurt and I’ve just come off the Colorado Trail which I’ve been hiking since leaving Denver nearly a month ago! I’m on such a high right now that I’ve just got to share it with someone!”  He was beaming with obvious joy and, just as spontaneously, I found myself caught up in his euphoria.  “Wow!” I exclaimed, searching for words that would adequately match his accomplishment.  “What was that like?” was all that I could think to say. But it turned out to be enough.  His ebullience carried him on a wave of illustrative explanations.

The Colorado Trail extends from the outskirts of Denver to the town of Durango, for a total length of 470 miles.  Traveling through the spectacular Colorado Rockies, it encompasses mountain peaks with their alpine lakes, creeks and streams, and diverse ecosystems.  Hiking the entire distance will include six wilderness areas and eight mountain ranges topping out at more than 13,000 feet.  The trail’s average elevation is over 10,300 feet and it rises and falls dramatically.  If they make it the entire distance, hikers will have climbed 89,354 feet.  To say it is an  accomplishment would be a drastic understatement.

“The stars at night were like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” was Kurt’s first remarks to my simplistic, utterly inadequate question.  He went on to provide other thoughts, still wearing a wide grin while nearly quivering with excitement as he stood there.  He had never done anything like this accomplishment in his 70+ years, and that was undoubtedly a big part of what he was now feeling as he was on the very last leg of his adventure.  I remarked that just the day before I was up on Stony Pass and noticed the Colorado Trail passed over it.  “Hey, that’s where I was too!!” he exclaimed, which raised his effervesence at least a couple notches higher.  “That very morning .  .  .  I was sleeping right up there just below the pass!  What time were you there?”  When I said it was around 11am, he said he had packed up and taken off by then, sounding as if he almost regretted that we didn’t have an encounter then.  I remarked that there was still snow up there, and that it must have gotten pretty cold at night.  (Everything that was coming out of my mouth seemed so trivial in comparison to the feat that he had just accomplished).

In retrospect, one tends to think of all the things that SHOULD have been said, all the questions that SHOULD have been asked, after the fact.  Pertinent questions such as “Did you have any serious wildlife encounters?” Or “What was the best part of the trail?”  Maybe–”Was it more difficult than you thought it would be?” And even better—“Ever think of giving up?”  But instead, caught in the suddenness of the encounter, like a deer trapped in headlights, instead I blurted out “How did your boots hold up?”—Yes! That was the very next thing to come out of my mouth!!  But indeed, I’ve always wondered how hard the long miles must be on a pair of even the sturdiest hiking boots.  “Just fine,” he replied, not acting at all surprised at the obvious mundane and simplistic query, as we both looked down at what he was wearing.  (As a matter of fact, they didn’t seem to be anything special—just your ordinary, everyday hiking shoes).  Okay, so much for the insignificant question.

After that, we both took time to look at the trail map on the board there in front of us, remarking about where the route went.  He was still obviously feeling nearly unconstrained exuberance as he turned to go.  His friend from Durango was there to meet him and take him in to town for more provisions and a well-anticipated cleaning up.  (Actually, I thought he looked to be in pretty decent shape for all the hardship he’d just come through). So, I wished him well on his last segment and ended by saying “You’ve just done something that many might dream of doing, but few actually get it done.  Congratulations seems so meager, but what else can I say?  Thanks for sharing your moment of joyful accomplishment with me!  I feel honored to have shared it with you!”  With a last big grin, he turned to leave.  I called out to him as he was walking away “Live long and prosper, Kurt!”  which just kind of slipped out spontaneously.  But he turned to wave and I’m sure there was mutual happiness in this moment of his personal triumph.

Now it was on to Durango and our next campground.  Continuing south on US-550, a segment of the San Juan Skyway, the scenery continued to amaze.  Tucked between reddish sandstone bluffs, Durango occupies a spectacular position in the wide Animas River Valley close to the sharply uplifted peaks of the San Juan Mountains.  Its location has become an asset as the mining industry dwindled, which had been the mainstay of the town’s economy for decades.  Falling on hard times, Durango languished for years before seeing a growth in the tourism and education industries.  Today, tourism is booming, with local businesses the beneficiaries, as well as the founding of Fort Lewis College in 1956.  Located atop a high mesa near town, the college has had few troubles attracting students to its prime location in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains.

About 10 miles north of the city limits a very distinguishing landmark stretches for nearly a mile.  Towering above the road, the Hermosa Cliffs form a high wall on the western side of the Animas River Valley.  With high mountain peaks to the east, the verdant valley of ranchlands sandwiched between, the landscape approaching Durango is hard to beat.

The Hermosa Formation is a prime photo op in the early morning light.

Just across from these cliffs is the turn-off for the Durango Riverside Resort and RV Park, our home for the next 4 days.  With a great location just outside the city limits but part of great scenery, we loved this place.

Besides having wonderful amenities (including a heated swimming pool), we had opted for a prime site adjacent to the fast-flowing Animas River.  We’d enjoy a peaceful and hopefully leisurely time here enjoying this ideal spot.

But we couldn’t spend ALL our time settled in .  .  .  this area was too full of outdoor potentials.  One afternoon was all the time I gave him for lounging before we headed out.

There happened to be a rather perfect fishing spot just a short drive away (in fact, we had passed by it further north just off US-550).  Known to be prime trout waters, it also had a reputation for being one outstandingly scenic location.  With late afternoon being prime time for both fishing and photography,  Andrews Lake seemed to be the perfect match.

Great photo op (check!); great fishing hole (double-check!!)

(Ask him about the ones that got away!)

Early the following morning we were heading out once more.  (You didn’t think I’d let him do more riverside lounging?)  There was a hiking trail I’d had my eye on ever since researching this trip.  With afternoon monsoons still being the rule rather than the exception, we were pulling in to the trailhead at the unheard of (for me) early hour—8am.

But the early bird photographer catches the best light!

Our destination in sight as we headed up to 10,600-foot Coal Bank Pass, the trail we’d be taking led to the base of Engineer Mountain (or on up to the summit, if legs were willing).

The trail to the base of Engineer Mountain is known as the Pass Creek Trail. Access it directly from US-550. From there, the trail climbs through a steep open field before entering the forest. Follow the switchbacks up, up and ever up until you reach tree line. This is where the magic happens: wide and open vistas with the sheer cliff walls of Engineer looming large in the foreground. Toward the top, the trail breaks out into beautiful alpine meadows at the base of the peak, offering sweeping views of the Needles Mountains and Animas Valley.

The start of Pass Creek Trail is a real winner!  The path leads through a stunning array of masses of colorful wildflowers.  To see it is even hard to believe what you’re seeing!

Engineer Mountain Trail brings the best of both worlds into one amazing day-hike – a pleasant, albeit uphill, climb through Colorado’s finest terrain and an adrenaline-pumping scramble to the top of the mountain. With easy access from US 550, this trail is popular with hikers and mountain bikers alike who enjoy a climb through cool conifer forests before reaching an open meadow, blossoming with Colorado’s classic wildflowers.

Leaving the wildflower meadow, the trail begins to gain in elevation.  Hard-packed dirt makes for easy footing, the forest shade keeps us pleasantly cool.  I couldn’t imagine a better trek!

When the trail comes out of the dim forest, we have our first sight of what’s waiting ahead.

Tired legs forgotten .  .  .  I felt my heart beat faster (not due to the high elevation, to be sure).  Fields of flowers will continue to lead the way to Engineer Mountain.

At 11,600′ the path emerges from the woods onto a broad swath of land, the Engineer Plateau. And now, for the first time, we felt the pulling force of the mountain, first sight is seen through the trees.

We have arrived at the Engineer Plateau—a magnificent peak soars above a flamboyant floral tapestry at its base.  I am transfixed.  Chris is somewhat taken back too (just not quite to my degree).

He’ll continue on down the trail .  .  .  not attempting to climb to the summit, but at least to get a feel for its climb.  I am transfixed where I am .  .  .  content to remain in the meadow and bask in the wonder of it all.  Perhaps take a photo or two (or maybe considerably more).

About 12,000 years ago, the most recent episodes of repeated glaciations took place along the Animas River Valley. The glaciers began their formation from Silverton all the way through Durango and they were the driving force behind the geography we see here today. The ice was more than two thousand feet thick in places but Engineer Mountain was high enough to stick out and become what geologist call a “nunatak’. As the glacier slowly plowed its way to the south it smashed into the mountain carving out the tall cliffs and shaping the sides as it went along. What we see today is the aftermath of what the ice and water did ages ago.

Sometime later, he returns.  Blue skies have turned overcast and ominous.  It signals what I know is moving in, reminding us we must be returning.   Back down the trail, we turn to retrace our route.  My breath stops once again at the sight that’s been behind us, unseen until now.  Another heart-rending, unbearably beautiful scene.

Lest you begin to think from the photos I’ve been posting that the Colorado Rockies are awash in a wildflower splendor, let me assure you that isn’t quite the case.  True, we timed our visit in hopes of hitting Colorado’s wildflower peak season, but even in the best of years you won’t find this flowery carpet in every field and meadow you chance to pass.  Colorado has its special places—usually remote, hidden away, often well-kept secrets, not passed on every road and highway.  Places that require some knowledge beforehand, research often pays off with high rewards.  So when you come across these glorious locales where wildflowers carpet the landscape, the rewards are felt many times over.  They are treasures that will enrich whatever time you have in Colorado.

Doing what we do best

in Colorado

Airstream Travelers,  Melinda & Chris

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SILVERTON—And the Adventure Continues . . .

The town of Silverton is not a refined town.  Unlike the other San Juan mountain towns, it is by no means gussied up.  What you see it what you get—only its main street is paved, restaurants are local cafes and they’re all very casual, and you won’t have a hassle finding a parking spot close to where you want to be.  The two big draws to bring you into Silverton—outdoor activities and the Silverton train—keep the town thriving.  If it weren’t for those two assets I’m sure the town (what still remains of it) would have disappeared long ago.  But that is not the case today—in this their prime season (measured in weeks rather than months), you could accurately say it’s a bustling town.

Chris sets up for taking time lapse photos of the fast-moving cumulus clouds above our trailer

The few campgrounds around—a couple in town and a few more forest service ones in close proximity—are pretty filled up in the short summer season.  The ones in town do have hookups (the forest service ones being primitive), but otherwise, with dirt or gravel roads and pads, they’re pretty basic.  But, the surrounding scenery is picturesque and they do provide extra space for bringing your OHVs along (which the majority of campers seem to have).  Without one of our own, we not only had mountain views, but also plenty of space to spread out.  Silverton Lakes RV Resort worked fine for us.

I had lots of plans for our time here around Silverton and they all involved heading into the high country.  Unfortunately, I learned early on that our ¾-ton Dodge truck was a little too hefty, a little too wide and a little too tightly sprung to tackle those 4wd ‘roads’ that would take us there.  But fortunately, Silverton has a solution to that predicament and most fortunately, Chris was game to follow through.

A Jeep Wrangler seemed to be the perfect option—so we took one for a 2-day rental.  Having owned a Wrangler for several years, we were well-acquainted with its operations and performance.  Being fixed up with some extra features for coping with the rough conditions we would find, we headed out confident that it would get us through.  The weather conditions couldn’t have been better for a day in the mountains—at least until the predictable afternoon monsoons blew through.

Like any smart wife would do, I had the easiest, less precarious route planned for our first day’s foray. Heading north out of town, we’d cross over a couple of mountain passes, see a picture-postcard alpine tarn, then wind our way over a couple steep gulches before returning to Silverton on the rocky (no getting around it) Animas Forks Road.  Hardly a white-knuckler drive. First stop—Hurricane Pass!

The scenery promised to be exhilarating.

Views of Red Mountain rose up behind us, outstanding in the warm light of early morning.

Just one short stretch of shelf road (okay, maybe a little muddy too) to navigate, and then we’re home-free and high on the alpine tundra.

Where views open up and we’re enveloped in spectacular scenery.

Taking a blind turn we encountered an unexpected but totally breath-taking scene.  This surely deserved a quick (?) photo op stop.  When flowers are involved Chris just tacks on more than just a quick minute or two stop, I suspect.

Oh sweet day, my heart is singing!

Indian Paintbrush in colors like this deserve more than a passing glance.

 

Turning to go revealed another sight—Don’t put the camera away too soon!!

Back in the car and on our way, we came first to 13,000+feet Hurricane Pass (piece of cake).  California Gulch was just up ahead when the alpine landscape took on a more rugged and rocky appearance.  That’s what can happen when one reaches these elevations.

But the views around California Pass soon made up for the bleakness we passed through.  And yes, it was a mite chilly this high up (breezy too).

 

It was like standing on the top of a mountain summit, where the views stretch on forever. (Without the effort of the climb–some would call that cheating).

And down below spreads out another scene—pretty little Lake Como in a glacial cirque, with mountaintops stretching to the horizon.  We can easily see the track we’ll be taking, crossing over the alpine tundra.

Make a right turn off of California Gulch  and you’re entering Placer Gulch.  A dramatic gulch above timberline, it takes you off the more popular road.

Heading up through the gulch, this route promises to pay off with many scenic dividends.  And boy, did it ever!

Yes, Placer Gulch is noted for being a wildflower hotspot (being the motivation behind selecting this drive) as well as many mining remains.  After connecting back up with the road to Animas Forks (CR-2), we followed it back to town.  And so ended one good day of off-roading in the high mountain country.

Tomorrow we’d bump it up a notch or two, adding more challenge to the driving (but don’t tell Chris).

The highlight of our second day’s outing would be American Basin.  Many years ago on one of our earliest trips we climbed our first Fourteener.  Handies Peak can be accessed from Silverton or Lake City by taking the 4wd Alpine Loop Road, from which you turn south to drive through a beautiful alpine basin to the start of the Handies Peak Trail.  That basin, I soon discovered, is a treasure-trove of Colorado wildflowers.  American Basin in mid-summer is spectacular, ranking right up with the most memorable places seen in all of our travels.  It can be a lush garden of amazing wildflowers.  I was hard-put to leave it behind that day we began our hike up to Handies Peak.  But I never forgot what was seen there, determined to someday return.

That day had finally arrived.  But first, we must once again drive that same rocky road leading up to Animas Forks.  From there, we’d connect with the Alpine Loop, taking it over Cinnamon Pass.  Coming off the pass to negotiate a narrow, twisting, rocky shelf above timberline, we’d cross a landscape of fragile alpine tundra.  A few miles later we’d come to the turn-off to American Basin.  And that’s the drive in a nutshell.

Before things got too dicey, while the road was just rocky and rough, we had a couple of stops along the way for me to snag two waterfall shots.  Chris didn’t seem to mind the driving reprieve and the waterfalls were undeniably awesome.

 

 

 

After that, it was down to serious driving.

But the scenery more than made up for the driving effort (or did it?).

One of Colorado’s most scenic off road drives, Cinnamon Pass is a  part of the Alpine Loop.  After enduring the steep and jarring drive to the summit, your reward is in what you see.  Sweeping views take in seven of the San Juans’ thirteen 14,000-foot peaks.

We took a breather on Cinnamon Pass .  .  .

.  .  . and then tackled yet another rough road waiting beyond.

Not the least of which was the track leading into American Basin.

Ensconced below towering peaks, at a first distant glance you would never guess what jewels are to be found here.  Having many drawing cards, American Basin has been a popular destination for many people—those looking for a good hike up to a mountain peak, those who are enticed by a full palate of photo ops, and those who simply want to soak up some of the best scenery this planet has to offer.  There is a price to pay for these rewards .  .  .  it’s much more than a mere drive in a park.  You’ll earn the price of admission coming here.  But once you do .  .  .  you’ll soon realize it was worth the wear, the tear and the effort, I suspect.

This is just the prelude .  .  .

And I thought this was off the charts!

Until I found the fields of Blue Columbine .  .  .  and that’s when I realized that miracles really can happen.

And it wasn’t just the Columbines .  .  .  there was no end to the wildflower displays here

And so ended a glorious second day in Silverton.

For Day 3 we tried something different–and a little more daring, should I say?

Some people call this a Side-by-Side.  Chris describes it as a dune buggy of sorts.   Much smaller than a Jeep, it has 4-wheel independent suspension and can handle the rough, rutted roads much easier and definitely much smoother.  It can handle the worst road conditions and actually, it’s a ton of fun to ride in.  Or drive, as Chris soon learned.  It was the only way I’d get to bag  my third hoped-for destination.  Stony Pass had been on my bucket list all these many decades ago.

Today, I just might make it there.

“The scenery is nothing short of spectacular along this old wagon road over Stony Pass.”  Reading words such as those surely sealed the deal for me, but I almost didn’t convince Chris.  Rated as a moderate drive, I think he was reaching his saturation point for more rough driving.  Until we got an acceptable deal on renting a side-by-side for the morning, and then his perspective took a more positive turn.  We geared up, got the scoops on its operation and took off for another adventure!

You might say Stony Pass comes by its name honestly.

And yes, there was a method to my madness (in having this goal set so firmly in mind).  I did know ahead of time that this ‘adventure’ could include more wildflower landscapes.

Can a girl have too much of a good thing? (I think not).  But, can a wife over-extend her passion for photo opportunities?  (Maybe she can push a little too much—the trick is in knowing what’s too much).

Nevertheless, the scenery didn’t disappoint and even others not so attuned to a flowery field could derive enjoyment in this kind of ride.

We did get to that mountain pass .  .  .  and the views seemed to make it worth the effort.

Chris bagged his third mountain pass in as many days .  .  .

.  .  .  and I got my fill of flowers

(well, then again .  .  .  )

Having a blast on those high country drives,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

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SILVERTON—The Heart and Soul of the San Juans

Good bye Ridgway—it’s been a great stay.

It was time to be streamin’ on.  Ridgway had been a great base camp for tasting the San Juans.  But that was just the appetizer .  .  . now we would get onto the main course.  Today we were headed into the heart of this spectacular mountain range .  .  .  to a town as rugged and unrefined as the mountains it was located in.  But first we had an exciting drive ahead of us—the most stunning segment of the San Juan Skyway (aka, The Million Dollar Highway) stood between Ridgway and our destination.  We’d driven it before and Chris had decided it wasn’t as bad as first appearances warranted, but that didn’t involve towing our near 30-foot Airstream.  Maybe that would be a whole different experience.  One of us was slightly apprehensive, while the other was camera-ready, anxious to confront it head-on.

With one last lingering look at the impressive Sneffels Range, we were on our way.

Headed south, the road led through a pastoral valley of ranches.  With Abrams Mountain looming behind the town, it’s no wonder Ouray, Colorado is often referred to as the Little Switzerland of America.

Leaving Ouray behind, the highway switchbacks up the mountainside and then, with one sharp curve taken, that dastardly road is before us.  Camera ready, steering wheel firmly gripped .  .  . we bravely set forth.

A truly magnificent drive to take (easier for some to say when it’s behind us)!

It would be a short drive to the town of Silverton, but what a magnificent drive it was!  Having driven this stretch only days before (more as a dry, albeit scenic, run), this is one highway you could never be bored taking.  Unfortunately, the conditions were less than perfect and by the time we reached Red Mountain Pass, it was totally socked in.  Bummer!

Unlike the other towns in this region claiming to be in the heart of the San Juans, but actually sitting more along the perimeter, Silverton actually lives up to this label. It is truly dead center in the San Juans. It is the only town in the state that you have to go over a mountain pass to get in and to get out.  Red Mountain to the north, Molas and Coal Bank Passes to the south.  At an elevation of almost 10,000 feet, it is situated along the Animas River in Baker’s Park, a flat 2,000 acre glacial valley encircled by a wall of mountains.  Sultan Mountain to the south, Kendall Mountain on the east, and Storm Peak to the north are all over 13,000 feet high.

Winters can be tough here. The year-round average temperature is 35.6° and it receives usually over 300 inches of annual snowfall.  That’s the main reason there’s only about 500 year-round residents. It’s more laid back than Telluride or Ouray being that it is a little less touristy (except for when the trains comes in—more about that in a coming post).

The treaty of 1868 that gave all of San Juan County to the Utes wasn’t worth the paper it was written on after the discovery of gold and silver soon thereafter.  Realizing the futility of keeping prospectors and miners out of their territory, the native Utes were compelled to negotiate another treaty in 1874.  Shortly thereafter, mining activity reached a fevered pitch.  It would be more than 100 years before things in Silverton really cooled down.

Mining is the story of Silverton in a nutshell–how it got its start, how it saw its glory days, how it all but disappeared and how it was reborn.  People came in hoards in the 1870s .  .  . by 1875 the 100 “sturdy souls” who lived in Silverton proper worked in the post office, sawmills, blacksmith shop, mercantile, newspaper, liquor stores, smelters or assay office.  The town’s population grew to 500 by 1876.  Life was not easy for any of them.  Statistics from Silverton’s cemetery note causes of death in early Silverton as 117 from snowslides, 143 from miner’s consumption, 161 from pneumonia, 138 from influenza (most in the 1918 epidemic) and 202 from mine accidents.

People came to the Silverton area on foot and astride mules.  In 1879, the wagon road over Stony Pass (12,590 feet) opened. Three years later the railroad reached Silverton, coming north from Durango, relieving Silverton’s isolation.  In 1884 Otto Mears operated his toll road between Silverton and Red Mountain town, and then, on into Ouray.  By 1887 the railroad had reached Ouray from the north, but it never connected to Silverton from the north due to the rugged Uncompahgre Canyon.

Mining reached its peak between 1900 and 1912, and the population of San Juan County peaked at 5,000.  The area boasted four railroads, three smelters, and over thirty mills serving myriad gold and silver mines high in the mountains. Men worked at these remote locations year-round, living in boarding houses, coming off the mountains via tram bucket over long cable tram lines designed to carry the ore from the mine to the mill several thousand feet below. On the rare occasions miners came to town, many of them spent their money in Blair Street’s saloons and houses of ill repute. 

Locals just sit back, take in the view and let the world pass by.

In the years since that glittering decade, San Juan County saw several of the boom and bust cycles typical of the mining industry. The boom cycles saw an influx of people from practically every ethnic group on earth and yielded millions of dollars worth of precious metals, and the bust cycles saw the settlements of the county turn into ghostly reminders of themselves. Financial and environmental setbacks, such as Lake Emma’s flooding of the Sunnyside Mine in 1978, sounded an eventual death knell to Silverton’s mining era. The Sunnyside, the last big mine in the region, closed in the early 1990s.

After hanging around here in town for several days, we found Silverton to be a sleepy, laid-back kind of town—except when the Silverton trains pull in.  Then things come alive, business is popping, the streets are bustling and the few cafes fill up.  Silverton is once again experiencing boom times.

But it you take time to look closely at what’s going on, you’ll soon see lots of OHVs buzzing around town.  “What’s it all about?” you might ask.  Well, take a look at the most thriving businesses in town and you’ll soon figure it out.

It’s ALL about 4WDriving in the mountains around Silverton.  Renting them is big business, or bring your own and hit the trails.  You’ll never see a place with more Off Highway Vehicles around, I’ll venture.  The reason is simple—these backroads are rich with scenic potential, the ‘trails’ go everywhere and you’re only limited by your own abilities to negotiate and your sense of adventure.  And let me tell you truly—the experience is a HOOT!!!

And it’s all on account of the mining.  Yep, thanks to all the old trails first laid by mule trains and wagons, this mountainous terrain is honey-combed with tracks and narrow, rocky ‘roads’.  Too rough for passenger cars, a little too narrow for oversized trucks like ours, the ideal vehicle you need is a small 4WD Jeep or else what they call two-by-twos.  And then, the world will be yours for exploring.  At least, in the Silverton area.  And it’s the thing you’ll want to do.  Trust me.  I know from personal experience!

The evidence of mining is everywhere.  It’s not just the ‘roads’ that were built.  Structures still remain on the mountainsides.  Old mines with their tailings pouring out of the openings pock-mark the land.  In all of the San Juan Mountains you won’t find such a proliferation of old buildings and structures.  These photos tell the story.  Of a hard life and endless struggles.  Of enduring harsh winters and extreme loneliness.  Old mills still stand—some just remnants of their former selves.  Miners’ cabins and towns now disintegrating.  All giving interest to a landscape that hardly needs enhancing.  It’s a tribute to a way of life that will never be seen quite like this again.

Perhaps the biggest draw to this area at a junction where several backcountry roads come together is the old mining town, now turned deserted ghost town, of Animas Forks.  Although a mere shadow of its former self, it still stands as one of the more restored mining towns in the state.  But you’ll need some fortitude and willing endurance if you want to see this site in person.  The ‘main’ road leading to it is what you might call a “Wimp Filter”.  Built on the former rail bed out of Silverton, today it’s a teeth rattling, bone-jarring ride.

First established in 1875, by its heyday Animas Forks had a population of nearly 500 people with miners scattered in the nearby mountains.  Sitting at an elevation of 11,200 feet, winters were so brutal that many townspeople evacuated to Silverton for several months.  For those who stayed, they had to endure many cold months and plenty of snow.  One 23-day blizzard in 1884 dropped 25 feet of snow, necessitating the residents to dig tunnels from building to building.

Nevertheless, it became a full-fledged town, complete with a water-powered sawmill, 3 general stores, a butcher and a short-order restaurant, a saloon, a post office, 2 boardinghouses and a very fine hotel, as well as 30-some cabins.  The nicest house in town was built by William Duncan in 1879 for his wife and two daughters.  It boasted a fancy bay window and has managed to survive (with help from some restoration work) to this day, along with only 8 other structures.

Primitive cabins to live in, but with million dollar views.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As was not uncommon to many old towns from days gone by, devastating fires spelled the beginning of the end of their existence.  Animas Forks experienced two—in 1891 and again in 1913.  By the 1920s only a handful of residents were still living here.  Today, the BLM has ownership of the site which is now listed on the National Register. The nine buildings have been stabilized and restored, representing a particularly hard way of life in these mountains.  Access to them is free and unrestricted.  Interpretive panels help to give a sense of what it was like living here.

The site seems to evoke a sense of time long past.  Moving around the townsite conjures up images of a totally unfamiliar way of living.  The few remaining buildings help to envision a way people coped with hardships and lived an isolated life.  Definitely a place for thoughtful contemplation.

The remains of Animas Forks today .  .  .  high and alone in the San Juan Mountains.

So this is a taste of what Silverton has to offer.  With a sense of history scattered in the mountains and a wild and magnificent setting in the landscape, to see it is an adventure in itself.  Waiting for those willing to head out and follow those rough tracks of a ‘road’.  Provided you have the proper vehicle, and perhaps a little fortitude to brave the elements of fickle summer weather.  We were enticed and excited to give it a try.  Anxious to see where the roads led.  That is what brought us here to Silverton.  This is what the essence of Silverton can be. The roads branch out from town and lead to what I suspect can be the best of a Colorado portfolio.

Follow where those roads take us .  .  .  coming soon in my next post.

Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris

caught up in the rugged mountain scene.

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TELLURIDE—Posh Ski Town, Glorious Scenery

You could say we knew Telluride when .  .  .  all its roads were dirt except the main drag .  .  .  you could still get a parking place wherever you pleased .  .  . the businesses weren’t all gussied up and the cost of a meal still seemed reasonable by most Colorado standards.  It was in the late 1990s, one of our first trips to the state and Telluride was just beginning to get a name for itself.  But it didn’t take long before it was ‘discovered’ and the $$$ began to roll in.

Now it’s much more hoity-toity.  Its ski area, Mountain Village, has really taken off, and some rich-and-famous celebrities have made Telluride the upscale place to have a home.  Not exactly our kind of place.  We learned that a few years later when we made a second visit back.  Much had changed.  Except for the location it was barely recognizable.  We didn’t hang around longer than a short stroll through town.

So, why bother now?  Our tastes haven’t really haven’t changed that much in recent times.  And we certainly didn’t expect to see Telluride coming around to be more of our kind of place.  Indeed, if anything, the town would be even more off the charts.  So, what would have us give up a full day just to drive a good hour or more to come here?  Well simply put—it’s all about location, location, location.  When the town investors began pouring money into upgrading this town and making it into what it is today, they undoubtedly knew what a good investment they had.  You see, Telluride is located in what hands down, arguably is one of THE positively most picturesque areas to be found in this most scenic of all Colorado mountain ranges.  Whatever the season, whatever the conditions, it’s this location that receives top billing.

And thus, we made the drive.

You might say that it’s the getting there that is the highlight.  Whichever approach you take, it’s the scenery that easily makes the whole experience most worthwhile.  I happen to think coming from the north has great impact .  .  .  and if you dare to choose that backroad drive rather than the paved highway, then your experience will be all the more enhanced—both in the scenery and the thrills.

At first glance you might think that backroad drive would be the shortcut route.  Why swing wide through the small burg of Placerville when there’s a more direct route down to Telluride?  Yet, closer inspection shows has there’s lots of squiggly lines to that more direct route.  And therein lies the reality.  Or the interest, some might say  This backroad drive goes cross-country, following the dictates of the land.  It’s not that the highway route is all that boring, it’s just you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck when you take the Last Dollar Road. While the highway circumvents the rugged scenery, the Last Dollar drive takes you straight through it.  No doubt about it—this was our (my) kind of road.

The Last Dollar Highway began as an old wagon road used to convey supplies from the railroad town of Ridgway to the mining camps around Telluride.  Departing the San Juan Skyway just a mile east of the Dallas Divide, it’s a hard-packed dirt road that really doesn’t get dicey unless it has recently rained (then even 4WD vehicles will be challenged). Rising in elevation, it leads across a high plateau which offers outstanding views at every turn in the road.  It’s definitely a Rocky Mountain High kind of drive.

Near the start of the drive, the Last Dollar Ranch gateway portends of the scenery ahead

With spreading meadows, old homesteads, forest corridors and inspiring vistas of chiseled peaks, it presents a microcosm of all the Colorado Rockies have to offer—in their best light.

Passing through thick aspen groves you know this would be one fabulous fall drive.

Once you surmount the high point of the road at slightly over 10,000 feet and then break out from the aspens, there’s a whole other view that easily surpasses what has already been seen.  The sight is expansive, the scenery superb—I call it jaw-dropping amazing (if you’re into mountain scenery, this one can’t be beat).

Spread out on the horizon is a view to give any mountain-lover pause—or perhaps convert you to being an admirer.  The San Miguel Mountains—part of the San Juan Range—can easily hold their own when compared to the Sneffels Range, both in their beauty of form as well as lording over the surrounding landscape, soaring several thousand feet above all else.

The surrounding aspen forest intermingled with the dark green conifers encircling the mountains’ flanks will create an outstanding landscape come late September.  Well into summer, snow will linger inside the more deeply etched couloirs and crevices, and the grey and white rock that make up the alpine summits will bring the mountains into sharp contrast against a blue and violet sky at dusk.

Wilson Peak stands out prominently and tends to garner most of the attention.  It is simply one beautifully perfect peak.  Besides being an officially ranked Fourteener, Wilson Peak is familiar for another reason—it figures prominently on all the Coors labels and products (or so I’ve read). When viewed from the north, Wilson Peak does indeed strike a strong resemblance to the graphics on Coors’ designs. Whether it’s fact or fiction, it no doubt has been the inspiration for countless photos and works of art.

Under close scrutiny can you see the resemblance?

While speaking of amazing photo ops, there’s one more to capture on the last leg of this scenic drive.  Perhaps not featured in any calendar or magazine layout, nevertheless it’s a view that’s hard to pass up.  And it’s an easy roadside image to bag.  Once again, Wilson Peak has a starring role.

The Last Dollar Road soon ties into Hwy. 145, and then Telluride is just a short distance away.  This is when you’ll get a true feel for the town’s setting, you’ll see why it’s become a popular place to visit.  Its location as a mountain town just can’t be surpassed.

Probably the most famous of the San Juan Mountain towns, Telluride is nestled in a gorgeous box canyon that backs up to sheer canyon walls from which Colorado’s highest waterfall, Bridal Veil Falls, cascades down 365 feet.  The town sits amid high mountain scenery of steep, forested hillsides, sharp grey peaks, scree-covered slopes and smooth summits high above the treeline.

The Ute Indians called it the “valley of hanging waterfalls”.  Fur trappers traded here as early as the 1830s.  Prospectors arrived in the mid-1870s to find rich veins of silver, and mines popped up.  Battered by avalanches, covered by great depths of snow, and set in utter isolation, Telluride was a particularly perilous mining site.  (Legend has it that Telluride’s name refers to its remoteness—to hell you ride!)

In 1890, the nearly inaccessible town welcomed the arrival of the railroad, which at last connected it with the rest of the world.  But like all Colorado mining towns, Telluride’s fortunes rose and fell.  By WWII, mining appeared to be in steep decline, and the town with it.  In the early 1950s, though, giant Idarado Mining Co. came to Telluride’s back door, bought up all the nearby mines, and put people back to work extracting zinc, lead, and copper.  But even better days were on the horizon.

Given the deep winter snows here (with averages around 175 inches), Telluride’s residents always used skis for getting around.  Eventually, the citizens created a recreational ski area on a ridge off Gold Hill, which started to draw visitors. Next thing they new, it began making them some money.  So they took the idea and ran with it.  The Telluride Ski Area was established in 1971 and grew exponentially after the 1987 unveiling of the ski-in/ski-out Mountain Village.  With a major expansion occurring in 2001-2002, the resort became a world-class destination offering every amenity to please those with plenty of $$$.  The little mining town of Telluride will never be quite the same again.  Still, it’s a town with a lot of character and atmosphere.

We strolled Colorado Avenue (aka, Main St.), had a bite to eat, and then set out for more scenic cruising.

Heading south of town back on a section of that San Juan Skyway, we found the views to be equally outstanding.  Telluride is surely located deep within some of the most scenic parts of the San Juans.

For awhile the road follows the course of the San Miguel River, a clear-flowing, mountain stream that offers good trout fishing.  A couple of forest camp-grounds are located nearby, one with electrical hookups and sites suitable for midsized RVs.

More good fishing is found at Trout Lake (maybe its name is a good indication).  Located at nearly 10,000 feet elevation, it’s another asset in the Telluride area.  Easily seen right from the highway, it surely warrants a photo op, if not to take the great trail to Hope Lake (something we did in our earlier days).  Nestled beneath several 13,000-foot peaks, it is one beautiful place to take in.  Soak up the scenery, fish awhile, walk through the flowers.  It’s the Colorado thing to do.

Just a little further down the road you’ll come to another striking landmark of the area—Lizard Head Peak.  At slightly over 13,000 feet, it’s not nearly one of Colorado’s highest mountains.  But what it lacks in height it more than makes up for in its unusual formation.  Can’t see the resemblance to its name?  Perhaps that’s because a big chunk of its ‘head’ fell off a few years ago.  A volcanic pinnacle (not a plug), its towering spire-like form makes it one spectacular peak.  And tempting to scale, but it’s one of Colorado’s most difficult technical climbs.  if you have any interest in reading about the first harrowing ascent, achieved by Albert Ellingwood in 1920, check out the story here.  I certainly found it absorbing to read.

For the less skilled (or foolhardy) there’s some great hiking trails to be taken around its base.

As you might see from my photos, the day’s conditions were taking a slight downward dive.  The predictable afternoon monsoons were rolling in, preceded by ominous dark skies.  No doubt about it, we had seen the best the day had to offer.  Backtracking our route, and prudently foregoing that Last Dollar Road, we followed the San Juan Skyway back to camp.

And came to see an entirely different perspective of the mountain views.

You’ve gotta love that Colorado scenery!

Airstream Travelers,  Melinda & Chris

soaking it in and craving for more.

 

 

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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 Colorado, Crested Butte | 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