Well we’ve almost wrapped up our second busy summer on the road and once again I’ve managed to get behind in my blogging. While this was predictable, it is still disappointing! So, in an effort to catch-up…
We spent most of the summer hanging around the Rocky Mountain west. Home-basing ourselves at Anna’s parents’ in the Colorado high country, we spent part of June visiting Yellowstone National Park, Montana, and Wyoming. In July, we headed south to explore southern Colorado. We left Colorado in mid-August for a prior engagement with the Solar Eclipse–we made plans with four other Airstream families to spend the eclipse in Madras, Oregon at SolarTown.
Colorado Springs was our first stop during our July southern Colorado swing, followed by Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks. We also spent time at Curecanti National Recreation Area and Dillon Lake in Frisco before returning to the In-Law’s driveway.
On our first full day in Colorado Springs, we headed back into the mountains to visit Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Situated in a beautiful grassy mountain valley, about 50-minutes northwest of Colorado Springs off US24, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument holds fossils from about 1,700 species, including over 1,500 insects and several petrified giant Redwood trees (Yes, giant Redwoods in Colorado!) At only 6,000’ish acres, Florissant is an easily digested stop that can be seen in few hours. Overall, we spent about two hours exploring the monument, talking to the rangers, and working on Owen’s Junior Ranger Badge. Florissant continued our unbroken streak of super-friendly, highly educational, and entertaining small NPS sites.
Evidently there is a city statute that states you must go to Garden of the Gods when you visit Colorado Springs. Based on the high density of tourists we encountered during our visit, we can attest to the fact the Colorado Springs’ tourists are carefully adhering to this rule. Garden of the Gods is a Colorado Springs City Park that encompasses some very impressive suburban red rock formations. With several easy trails winding through the formations, everyone has a chance to get up-close and personal with geology…that is if you define up-close and personal as ignoring the Area Closed and No Climbing signs and doing whatever
the fuck you feel like doing (such as climbing up behind the No Climbing signs and taking a selfie on the side of a rock). Regardless, Garden of the Gods was beautiful. However, we found it way too crowded and way too uncontrolled to really enjoy ourselves. We visited though, so we don’t need to worry about violating any City Ordnance.
On Friday, July 14th, we left Colorado Springs well before 8am and ventured southwest towards Great Sand Dunes National Park. We weren’t positive that we would be able to find a campsite inside the park at the Piñon Flats Campground, so we had Plans B and C in our back pocket. Since the campground can fill-up pretty quickly on summer weekends, we wanted to get into the campground before noon. Luckily, we didn’t need to execute Plans B or C, as we were able to find a big enough site at Piñon Flats. Had we arrived an hour later, we may have been out of luck.
At slightly over 40,000 acres, Great Sand Dunes National Park sits in the San Luis Valley at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The National Park encompasses not only the tallest sand dunes in North America, but also the high elevation watershed that is responsible for creating and maintaining the dunes. Having visited Indiana Dunes and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashores, we thought we knew what to expect. Great Sand Dunes National Park confounded those expectations and blew our minds!
On Monday the 17th, we hitched up and headed west over Wolf Creek Pass towards Mesa Verde National Park. Anna’s parents had wanted to meet up with us somewhere during our Rocky Mountain travels and Mesa Verde became the rendezvous point. We planned to stay in the National Park’s Morefield Campground and Anna’s Parents had reservations at the Park’s Far View Lodge.
Home of Ancestral Pueblo people for over 700 years (up until AD 1300), Mesa Verde is one of our favorite National Parks. Not only does the park hold dozens of beautiful and stunning vistas, but it also protects close to 5,000 known archeological sites, including over 600 cliff dwellings. We spent three days exploring the park with Anna’s parents and two additional days exploring on our own. We visited three of the most famous cliff dwellings (Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Step House), took one of the Park’s four-hour long guided tours through Mesa Verde’s 700-year history, and hiked the Petroglyph Point Trail to see some ancient petroglyphs. We wanted to do the self-guided tour of Spruce Tree House, but it was closed during our visit. Mesa Verde is truly one of our favorite National Parks.
Our next stop on our southern Colorado swing was Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Located northeast of Mesa Verde, we had never visited the Black Canyon and weren’t sure what to expect. En-route to Black Canyon, we considered riding the Durango-Silverton Railroad, but ultimately decided against it because of cost and logistical concerns. This left us free to take the Million Dollar Highway to the Black Canyon and spend a night in Silverton along the way.
For those of you not familiar with the Million Dollar Highway (U.S. 550, between Ouray and Silverton), here are a couple of links for you (Introduction to the Million Dollar Highway from a website called DangerousRoads.org and Outside Magazine’s article on the DOT snowplow drivers that keep U.S. 550 clear in the winter between Ouray and Red Mountain Pass). We debated bypassing U.S. 550 via the more westerly CO-145. My preference was U.S. 550 because it is supposed to be such an amazing drive. And, after all, it’s the journey more than the destination…right? As long as that destination isn’t at the bottom of the Uncompahgre Gorge!
On Sunday, the 23rd of July, we departed Mesa Verde and drove north out of Durango. We spent one night outside of Silverton at Anvil Creek, a free National Forest dispersed camping area next to the South Fork of Mineral Creek and had a nice time wandering around Silverton and enjoying some really good pizza and beer. The next day, we had a spectacular and uneventful drive up and over Red Mountain Pass, around the Uncompahgre Gorge, down into Ouray, and through Montrose before spending two nights at the South Rim Campground inside Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison would end up soaking up the next five days of our journey.
Once again, we weren’t sure what to expect from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. And once again, we were surprised by what we found. We were awestruck by the immensity, depth, and sheer beauty of the Black Canyon’s cliffs. Even two thousand feet up you could hear the roar of the pounding Gunnison River as it cascaded through the canyon on the steepest river run in North America. The canyon earns its name from the inability of light to penetrate all the way to its vast depths due to the steepness of its walls and the narrowness of its bottom. In places, the Black Canyon squeezes the Gunnison River into narrow slots only a few feet across.
Owen looking over the Gunnison River at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The Gunnison River can be accessed from the South Rim via the East Portal Road. River access for fishing, a campground, and a day-use picnic area are located at the end of the road at the bottom of the canyon. The road is not recommended for trailers and the drive is not for the faint of heart! We did spend one morning down at the river. Anna used the time to finish up Owen’s classes for the day while I fished. The Gunnison is a Colorado Blue Ribbon fishery and could see dozens of wise and weary trout suspiciously eyeing my feathery offering. Once Owen finished his schoolwork, I put my rod up and spent over an hour helping him fine-tune is fly-fishing bona fides on this challenging fishery. We both easily accepted the fishes’ rejection and didn’t take it [too] personally.
Owen enjoying the National Park Boat Tour of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
We plan to spend the late-summer and early fall in the Pacific Northwest. After the eclipse, we spent a few days with family outside Eugene, Oregon before traveling north to Mt Hood, followed by another rendezvous with the Alumalarkies on the Oregon Coast. Next up will be a few weeks around Puget Sound and who knows after that?!?!