Canyonlands NP to the End

A short distance north of Moab is Canyonlands National Park, the next stop on my trip.  Canyonlands NP protects the junction of the Green River and Colorado River which divide the park into three districts; Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze.  I chose to stay within Island in the Sky due to its excellent accessibility and my lack of time.  This region is literally covered with thousand foot deep canyons, inside thousand foot deep canyons.  As generic as the name "Canyonlands" sounds, it is a perfect description.  I arrived during the afternoon which ruled out any morning locations such as Mesa Arch.  Instead, I hung out at one of the overlooks and waited for the sunset.  If you look closely you may be able to see the lone photographer on the ledge below the sun.

The following day I stopped for a ranger presentation and heard the same story about cryptobiotic soil that I heard repeatedly for the past week.  A combination of bacteria, algae and other living things will form a microscopic net in the sandy soil.  This prevents the soil from washing away and also provides basic nutrition for other plants and animals; it is the basis for life in the desert.  Since damaged cryptobiotic soil can take nearly a century to repair, there are signs everywhere urging you not to walk on it.  My final hike in Canyonlands NP was out to Upheaval Dome.  Once believed to be the result of an underground salt dome, it is now thought to be caused by a meteorite impact.  The size of the crater is hard to comprehend when you stand there, but is an amazing two miles across.

Deadhorse State Park is very near Canyonlands NP and has similar terrain and features.  One unique vantage point provides a view over the potash evaporation ponds, which supply the factory in Moab.  Water is pumped underground into the salt domes, returning to the surface as a brine slurry.  The slurry is left in open ponds, putting the brutal sun to good work.  Once the water evaporates, the salt is collected by big Caterpillar scrappers and hauled to the factory.  The blue ponds are a very nice contrast to the warm landscape.

My time in Utah was over as I drove east and crossed back into Colorado.  My destination was Colorado National Monument, the last Natural Park Service facility on this trip.  Colorado NM (confusing abbreviation, right?) is a series of canyons and spires originally explored by John Otto.  He lobbied the government to turn the area into a national monument, and later ran the park when they did.  The most interesting feature in the park is actually its perimeter road, Rim Rock Drive.  The road was built by the CCC, which provided work for the unemployed after the Great Depression.  It is a breathtaking road that hugs the canyon edges, with barely a guardrail between them.  One of the popular overlooks is Wedding Canyon where John Otto married his wife.  She was a city girl and couldn't handle the outdoor life; they divorced months later.  While I was taking these photos, a wedding ceremony was happening further into the canyon.  Hopefully their marriage turns out better than Otto's.

I hiked a few trails and listened to a few ranger presentations, but my trip was winding down.  From Colorado NM, I drove east on I-70 along the Colorado River.  I've been to this region of Colorado many times, so this was pure driving, no sightseeing.  However, I did allow myself a quick stop in Leadville to see the town and visit the Mining Hall of Fame.  This short detour resulted in me crossing Tennessee Pass, Fremont Pass and finally the Eisenhower Pass, all three over the continental divide.  Then it was a clear shot back to family and my first laundry day in nearly two weeks.

Well folks, that's the end of this trip.  It took me three months to write about a two week trip, which is something I need to work on.  In the end, I hope these stories were as enjoyable to read as they were to experience.  Probably not, but it seemed like a nice thing to close with.

Million Dollar Highway

From Great Sand Dunes NP, my trek continued to Durango.  I briefly considered waking up early and attempting the hike out to Star Dune, but I came to my senses and packed up camp.  I drove across the Continental Divide for the first time this trip at Wolf Creek Pass.  The landscape on the west side of the pass reminded me a bit of Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald in Switzerland.  In hindsight, it's not really the same, but that was my initial reaction.

I visited Chimney Rock National Monument to break up the long drive.  In addition to the gigantic rock it's named after, the monument is also home to several Anasazi ruins. These ancient Indians lived on top of the mesas and their civilization stretched for many hundreds of miles.  The tour guide explained a story of how a high school student validated a theory of their long distance communication by using signal mirrors to reflect sun from Chaco Canyon to Chimney Rock, 60 miles away!!

My main reason for stopping in Durango was to stop by Folding Kayaks, one of the few dealers in the US who carry Feathercraft kayaks.  I don't know about you, but the first place I think of when I hear the words sea kayak is Durango, in the mountains of Colorado.  I asked the owner about this and he explained that he started renting and selling Feathercraft in Seattle and eventually moved to Durango.  He had the model I was interested in ready for me try out, although not on water.  Do you know the feeling when you see something for the first time and in your head, you know you will eventually buy one?  One day, the boat will be mine.

The next day I figured I should try and photograph the narrow gauge railroad.  After all, I'm a huge train buff and it is probably the most famous thing about Durango.  Thanks to Google Maps and free McDonald's WiFi I was able to scout a few locations ahead of time.  I had a short, snake free, hike to the first location, a curve at the top of an uphill section of track.  The first train of the morning passed before I had a chance to set up, but I caught the second train in great light, and the engineer waved at me.

I hurried to my next scouted location to catch the third and final train for the morning.  The tracks stop following the road (or the road stops following the tracks) and enter the Animas River Canyon.  I hiked along the tracks a short distance into the canyon, set up the camera and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.

After 45 minutes I figured the third train wasn't going to happen.  But, my hike into the canyon required me walk along a narrow 1/4 mile section of track where there was no place to safely shelter if a train came along, a la Stand By Me.  I waited another 30 minutes to truly convince myself another train wasn't coming before I hiked out of the canyon.  By the time I reached Silverton, the trains had been there for hours and were ready to take their passengers back to Durango.  Once the trains leave with the tourists, the town really quiets down, but I did see a few interesting vehicles.  I bet the half-track comes in handy during the winter.

I left Silverton with the intention of camping in the town of Telluride.  Although it is only 6 miles away from US-550 as the crow flies, there is no direct route so it is more like 60 miles.  The stretch of US-550 between Silverton and Ouray through Uncompahgre Gorge is nicknamed the "Million Dollar Highway".  Just imagine a twisting two lane road on the side of a cliff hundreds of feet above the bottom.  With semi-trucks and RVs.  And no guardrails.  Unfortunately I was driving alone, so I couldn't take any pictures, safely.

Telluride turned out to be a bust because of the the annual Film Festival, which I completely forgot about.  Since camping in town was impossible and I didn't feel like staying at the free campgrounds in the National Forest outside of town, I decided to bite the bullet and drive onward to my next destination, Natural Bridges National Monument.  I chased the setting sun through Western Colorado, crossing into Utah, through thunderstorms into the night, avoiding suicidal deer to arrive at my destination, weary and tired.  But, as is usually the case, magnificent follows the tedious and I was rewarded with the most gorgeous night skies I've ever seen.

Which I will write about in my next entry…

Great Sand Dunes NP

After spending time in Boulder, the first stop on my road trip was Great Sand Dunes National Park.  After driving through hours and hours of grazing land, I came to the turn off for the park, only to drive another sixteen miles.  The grazing land gave way to fields of prairie sunflowers and then finally the dunes, mountains of sand against a backdrop of mountains.

Since I would be visiting several National Parks on this trip I opted for the annual pass.  It wasn't cheap, but it also wasn't as expensive as the Parcs Canada pass I bought last year.  I took a hike to the dry bed of Medrano Creek to catch the thunder storms in the distance, watch the sun set and see the Milky Way for the first time.

I got on the dunes by 5:30 the next morning since the NPS warns about the heat during midday, it can get up to 140 degrees.  The initial climb onto the dunes from Medrano Creek was exhausting, to say the least.  Along the way I passed several sand pits that reminded me of the Sarlacc from Star Wars. The sun finally rose high enough to shine over the mountains, casting a beautiful glow across the patterns in the sand.

I spent the next several hours wandering the dunes like Lawrence of Arabia, observing the patterns in the sand and finding sunflowers miraculously growing in the valleys.  I could turn around and see the erratic footprints of a madman, oh wait, those were my footprints.

As fun as the dunes can be, wandering through them can be endless.  After all, they all look similar.  I needed a goal, so I decided to try and climb High Dune, the second tallest dune in the park, which also makes it the second tallest dune in North America.  From my location I could either take the really long and easy way by hiking along the spines of the dune, or head straight to the base and make the short, but very steep climb up the leeward side of High Dune.  To be honest, I wasn't quite sure you could even climb the side.  Turns out you can, but it was the proverbial two feet forward, one foot backwards.  I doubt it was more than two hundred feet of climbing, but it was at least 30 minutes of sweaty, pulse pounding in my ears exercise.  By this point it was starting to get hot and I decided to call it a day.  Going down was much easier and I was off the dunes and back at the campsite by 9:30.  Just in time for a very, very early lunch.

The rest of the day was rather boring.  I hiked far enough along Medrano Creek to actually see water.  During wetter seasons it will actually reach the visitor center and is a public attraction.  I attempted driving to Zapata Falls ten miles away on the entrance road.  Upon reaching the top of the hill I looked back to the dunes just in time to see the daily thunderstorm roll over the mountains and dump on the campsite.  Of course, it's the one time I thought it was okay to leave my tent open.  Thankfully, everything dries quickly in the Colorado air.

Colorado Utah Trip Report

Here it is folks, the statistics from my trip out to Colorado and Utah.  The driving and walking distances are from the entire trip, while most everything else is from the "on the road" portion.  I'll do more posts for different portions of the trip in the near future.