A Florida friend and I opt for an eight-day adventure tour of Southwest Colorado, a place neither one of us has previously visited. The trip will heavily focus on checking out national parks. As is generally the case with us, we have not made any lodging reservations in advance, but simply assume we will find hotel rooms on the road. That way, we preserve flexibility on where and when our trip finds us.
We drive our tiny rental car – a GM Spark – from the Denver airport on a Thursday night to Buena Vista, Colorado – a gateway for many adventures in Colorado. The beautiful view we see the next morning of the striking Collegiate Peaks to the west of town gives Buena Vista its name.
I have selected a hike on the Hartenstein Lake trail between Buena Vista and Cottonwood Pass. Immediately after we depart from the trailhead, we find ourselves immersed in the bright yellow colors of aspen trees changing color in the fall. Soon, we find ourselves hiking in a snowstorm that dumps six inches on us. A rude awakening for my Florida friend, but we press on to the lake. A disconcerting thought occurs to me: When we turn around to return to the trailhead, will we get lost due to the snow hiding our tracks on the poorly marked trail? Fortunately, this does not happen. A night spent in the national forest of Colorado at high elevations in the snow would have been quite grim for two hikers utterly unprepared for such a night.
Three days after this hike, we are stunned by the news that five hikers (three of whom were family members) have been killed in a rock slide on a Colorado trail. At first, we thought the trail was hundreds of miles away near Denver. But we then learn that they were hiking only a few miles to the southeast of our Hartenstein Lake trail.
After our hike, we reverse our plans. Instead of next driving to the Black Canyon National Park, we double back east. For much of the drive, I am cruising on a multi-lane highway, making for easy passing in the passing lane. Unfortunately, this state of affairs lulls me into complacency. I begin passing a large recreational vehicle and casually see a wonderful view of snow-capped peaks in my rear-view mirror. I nonchalantly urge my friend to have a glimpse of the wonderful view. Fortunately, my friend happens to be paying more attention to the road than I am, as he looks up from the map he is looking at to see that I am on a two-lane road with the other lane carrying traffic coming towards us. IN OTHER WORDS, I AM NO LONGER ON A MULTI-LANE HIGHWAY. He sees a vehicle in the opposing lane a short distance from us and rapidly closing on us for a possible high-speed head-on collision. YOU’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!!!!, he shouts at me. Startled back into paying attention to the road rather than the mountains, I immediately realize that I’ve made a potentially deadly mistake. I hit the brakes and quickly drop back into my own lane behind the recreational vehicle. WHEW!!
Despite my driving blunder, we safely arrive at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The dunes are the tallest in North America. The dunes are otherworldly immense (32,643 acres in size, with another 40,595 acres in National Preserve). Most sand, we learn, comes from the San Juan Mountains, 65 miles to the west. The dunes are about 440,000 years in age. A storm is rolling in as we start out onto the dunes, and we are pelted by a cold rain. We press on, and are soon on a sand dune ridgeline. Here, winds that must be approaching 100 mph are pounding us. So this is what it is like to be caught in a sandstorm! We opt to stop in our tracks periodically while being battered, and quickly move forward only when the winds have mercifully died down. Finally, we arrive at our goal: we summit the highest sand dune peak at the park. For weeks afterwards, I am finding sand in my ears and in my clothes.
Here are the photos we shot during our first day of adventure. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left:
Here is a video I shot of the Great Sand Dunes:
On Saturday, we opt to visit the nearby Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, which is 11,169 acres in size. Large areas of marsh flank the Rio Grande River here, and it reminds me of Paynes Prairie State Preserve in Gainesville, Florida, where I formerly lived. We then drive Route 160 west, an extremely scenic route that takes us along the south side of Colorado. My road map indicates which roads are considered scenic, but oddly, this section of Route 160 is not one of them. I suggest to make-makers that they add the route…
On our drive, we stop to enjoy the impressive Treasure Falls. See photo below.
We visit the famous, acclaimed mountain town of Durango. The town was organized in September 1881 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to serve the San Juan mining district. The city is named after Durango, Mexico, which was named after Durango, Spain. The word Durango originates from the Basque word “Urango” meaning “water town”. In 2010, 16,887 people lived in Durango. We find a noticeably vibrant town center here, despite being in an off-season. As an urban designer and transportation planner, however, I would suggest an important renovation to the town: Your main street is overweight. It is too big to create a human-scaled sense of place. Please consider putting your main street on a road diet by reducing it from four and five lanes to three lanes. You’ll end up being much more wonderful.
Here are the photos we shot while driving in southern Colorado:
Late in the day, we arrive at Mesa Verde National Park. The park was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people, after being discovered by local ranchers in the 1880s. There are 4,500 archeological sites at the park, 600 of which are cliff dwellings. We hike the Knife Edge trail. On the Park Point trail, we watch the sun set over the horizon. While at Park Point, I am astonished to see that we can view the famous “shiprock” geological structure hundreds of miles away in Arizona. The views all around us on these two trails are big.
The next morning, we make the surprisingly long drive from the tiny town of Mancos to the famous Cliff Palace Pueblo ruins at Mesa Verde. The Pueblo started living in this area in 550 AD. The guided tour provided by the park ranger was exceptionally interesting. We also take a self-guided hike to the Soda Canyon Overlook nearby.
We then enjoy a guided tour of the Balcony House ruins, which is also embedded in the Mesa Verde cliffs. Both Balcony House and Cliff Palace afforded the Pueblo with astounding views into the distance, which surely provided good defense from possible invaders (although our rangers inform us that it is not clear that the settlers had to defend themselves in their over 700 years living there).
At both Balcony House and Cliff Palace, we see well-preserved “Kiva Houses,” which are round depressions that acted as a venue for much of the life and ceremonies of the Pueblo.
After our visit to Mesa Verde, we finish our day with a short trip to hike the Pass Creek trail and Little Molas Lake. We find a room at the historic Grand Imperial Hotel in the historic mining town of Silverton, which is surrounded by impressive San Juan Mountains. Silverton is a former silver mining camp, most or all of which is now included in a federally designated National Historic Landmark District, the Silverton Historic District. Silverton is linked to Durango by the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Silverton had a population in 2010 of 638 people.
Here are the photos we shot on this day at Mesa Verde:
Monday turns out to be The Day of Debacles. Our plan is to hike the highly-rated Highland Mary Lakes trail. But because trail guidebooks today place too much reliance on navigating by GPS (which we don’t own), the guidebooks deliver us a bum steer. Our drive on the very rough, narrow, steep, harrowing, rocky road has us make a wrong turn, which means we unknowingly hike a trail that we THINK is Highland Mary Lakes but turns out to be a nearby, seemingly unnamed trail. Fortunately, the trail – like most all trails in Colorado – is quite impressive. We realize we must not be on Highland Mary Lakes trail when we thoroughly scope out the mountain ampitheatre at the end of the canyon we are hiking. Where are the three lakes, we ask ourselves. Nowhere to be found. Oops.
Because we had extra hiking time, we then opt to hike the Hope Lake trail from the optional east side approach. But again, the guidebook assumes we are using GPS, and leads us astray. We never find Hope Lake. Not only that. In our futile search, we actually lose sight of each other, and only discover each other hours after we split up.
Here are the photos we shot on this day in the San Juan Mountains:
The next day more than compensates for The Day of Debacles.
On our drive to the town of Ouray and the Ice Lake hike, we notice that Route 550 from Silverton to Ouray is eye-popping in its splendor. So much so that there are groups of professional photographers with their $10,000 cameras and tripods at each of the road overlooks on Rt 550. Along the way, we are treated to several clusters of glowing, gorgeous, fiery yellow aspen tree clusters, and the bright strawberry red-streaked mountain peaks in our view.
I must say that in this section of my driving that unlike my near head-on collision, I was forced to pay close attention to the road, as the drive on Rt 550 from Silverton to Ouray has many more sharp hairpin turns than any road I have ever driven on.
In 2010, Ouray had a population of 1,000. Originally established by miners chasing silver and gold in the surrounding mountains, Ouray at one time boasted more horses and mules than people. Prospectors arrived in the area in 1875. At the height of the mining, Ouray had more than 30 active mines. The drive along the Uncompahgre River and over the pass is nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway.
I suggest we experience the Ice Lakes trail. It turns out to be one of the best, most gorgeous hikes we have ever done. Simply spectacular! Early in the hike, we unintentionally take a diversion side trail off the main trail in order to cross at the top of a very tall waterfall off to our right. It was a very steep climb to arrive at the precipice of the falls. Over the precipice is a wooden log structure. Logs are lashed together facing in the direction of waterfall movement, with another set of logs running perpendicular to the lashed logs. I arrive first, and notice that one side is ponded water and the other side of the wood platform is relatively dry logs (the relatively dry side, however, is unprotected, as the perpendicular logs are not between the falls and the hiker. Nevertheless, I foolishly decide that the exposed, dry logs are the place I will cross. I’m holding the trail guidebook in my right hand as I tentatively cross a section I presume is adequately safe. But I slip on an incredibly slippery log. In an instant, I am on my butt, only a few feet from surely falling to my doom over the falls. As you will see in the photos below, my hiking buddy had his camera ready and shot a photo of me only feet from my death. I jokingly tell him that it was good he got a photo, rather than doingn something to save me, and that I would return the favor if I see him plummeting over a cliff to his demise.
Overall, a VERY close call.
Ice Lake turns out to be, by far, the bluest lake I have ever seen in my life. So blue that it does not look real. It looks more like a Dr Suess cartoon. I could not stop taking photos of it.
We also hike to the nearby Island Lake, which was nearly as spectacular as Ice Lake. I also opt to hike to Fuller Lake. We then notice that the stream near us is a bright white color in its bed. Is it the “glacial till” (“white flour”) I had heard about in my geology classes in college?
Here are the photos we shot on this day in the San Juan Mountains:
On Wednesday, we hike the Bear Creek trail, said to be the most spectacular of all four of the Bear Creek trails in Colorado. The trail has two very interesting mine site ruins: Grizzly Bear Mine and Yellow Jacket Mine. Near Grizzly Bear, we enter and explore a long mine shaft adjacent to the trail. At both mines, we puzzle over how on earth the original miners were able to haul in large, very heavy iron to build their mine processing machines. Mules? Trains?
I find myself laboring and gasping for air as I ascend the steep switchbacks of Bear Creek. I tell Mike that these miners were surely in top physical condition by having this sort of daily commute carrying their heavy pick axes up these steep trail sections. The views along Bear Creek are astounding. Did the miners even notice the views?
The Bear Creek trail is “infamous” largely because it has trails that are noticeably narrow, are often skirting along rock walls, and have a tremendous amount of exposure to very scary and enormous cliff drops. One misstep and it is all over…For us, however, while these frightening trail sections look worrisome as we come upon them, hiking on them is less dangerous than we expect.
We end our day by visiting Box Canyon Falls and Cascade Falls – both of which are on the periphery of Ouray. Box Canyon Falls have a VERY loud roar. The roar of the thundering hoof beats of a huge herd of horses. We read an interpretive sign that informs us that if the energy of the falls were harnessed by a hydroelectric plant, the falls could supply nearly all of the electrical needs of the Town of Ouray. The deafening sound of the falls makes me believe it. I decide that the falls are so powerful that it would be impossible for a human to stand in them. It would be equivalent to being shot at by a machine gun spray of bullets.
Here are the photos we shot on this day in Ouray and the Bear Creek trail:
On our final day of adventuring, we opt for a 14-mile paddle in inflatable kayaks (commonly called “duckies”), which takes us through the northern section of Gunny Gorge National Conservation Area and Wilderness on the Gunnison River. The Gunny Gorge area is 62,844 acres in size, and was designated in 1999. As I noticed during a canoe trip through Escalante Canyon on the Gunnison River, the canyons which the river passes through is a treasure trove for geology class field trips. Indeed, the geological history for these canyons is said to span 1.7 BILLION years. The Gunny Gorge has been inhabited by humans for at least 13,000 years.
During our kayak paddle, we come upon a sign that reads: “EXTREME DANGER!!!! WATERFALL AHEAD!! EXIT IMMEDIATELY!!!”
Of course, we ignore the sign – partly because our kayak rental manager had told us to do so. But then we come upon a second warning sign, and soon we are upon a river that is nearly entirely roped off by warning signposts for the falls. Did the manager lie to us? We carefully navigate to the western side, and are disappointed to see that we have therefore paddled past what looks to be a wonderfully enjoyable Class II-III sluice where the dam used to be. Damn!
Fortunately, we had previously enjoyed several Class II ripples and whitewater wave trains upstream.
In the middle of our adventure week, the dysfunctional U.S. Congress has created yet another fiasco: For the first time in 17 years, congressional fighting forced a Federal Government shutdown. The result, for us, was that our final destination – the Black Canyon National Forest – had closed and locked its gates. We surprisingly did not “stand tall for freedom” by running over the gates with our car to enter…
We were, however, one of the few Americans this past week who had not only visited three federal parks in the past few days, but had hiked on federal forest lands for many of those days as well. HMPF!
After our paddle, we drive through – for us – the previously unheard of Curecanti National Recreation Area, which is an extension of the Black Canyon adjacent to the east. Here we enjoy STUNNING fall colors. Some of the best fall colors I have ever seen. I need to return for fall colors here in future years.
A fitting conclusion to a week of adventuring in Southwest Colorado.
Here are the photos we shot on this final day on the Gunny Gorge and Curecanti NRA: