Saturday, October 17, 2015

September in Colorado: Part IV (Cimarron River and Silver Jack)

(Remember that you can click on the photos to see a slideshow, and then hit "escape" to get back to the text.  Also, a note on the photo credits: as always, both Felice and I took these shots, and many of my shots resulted from her suggestions.  I do the photo editing using Lightroom; my goal is to reproduce just what we saw, as faithfully as possible.) 

Wednesday, September 30:  Per our last-minute change of plans, we drove from Ridgway to the Silver Jack area, over the difficult and dusty Owl Creek Pass Road.  (Let's admit it -- the drive was fun -- we were taking the trailer into a remote national forest, making full use of the trailer's off-road modifications.)  The drive took us about two hours to go 20 miles, very slowly.  The road led us into the jagged Cimarron peaks – this is Chimney Rock.  (Felice climbed a steep hill to get this shot!)

After a little scouting, we found a great boondocking site, right on the bank of the East Fork of the Cimarron River.  The site was steep and uneven, but we chose it because of the views and the privacy.  It was great to be boondocking again, rather than in an ordinary campground, even if it was only for a few days, enjoying the silence and the isolation.  This is a view of our cocktail area toward the west:

And this is the view from behind our lounge chairs:

Later that afternoon, as we drove north near Silver Jack Reservoir, those dark clouds treated us to a brief but heavy rainstorm.  During the rain, we got some great views of the ridges dividing the Middle and East forks of the river:

When the rain stopped, we took a long walk on the Middle Fork road – the geology was more like Bryce Canyon, with “hoodoos” carved into the soft rock, than some of the other Colorado ranges we had seen:

Thursday, October 1:  We drove to the south end of the Middle Fork road and had the trail completely to ourselves, the entire day. (I love when that happens – it gives me a spurious sense that we are “rugged explorers,” rather than just ordinary day hikers.)  Most of the day, we were in sight of Precipice Peak, at over 13,000 – notice the greenish copper deposits on the cliffs across the river:

The trail was in pretty good condition, so we made it up to the general area of the Middle Fork Pass:

This is the sharp ridge separating the Middle Fork from the West Fork:

On our drive back down from the trailhead, we got another view of the brilliantly lit “sandcastle” formation near the campsite:

Later that afternoon, we were compelled to get a shot of the trailer set against the aspens on the hillside.  Our solar panel (at the center of the shot) provided us with a surprising amount of “juice,” even though it was in the shade for half the day:

The sunset that evening was the best one that we had seen during the whole month:

Friday, October 2:  In the very early morning, I stepped outside the trailer to get a few shots in the moonlight:

In the morning, we hiked the East Fork trail.  The trailhead was very near our campsite – and again we were completely alone.  We hiked only about 5 miles, since we had to leave for home around noon.  It was a pleasant trail, although there was quite a bit of trail damage from horses’ hooves.  We really didn't want to leave Colorado while there was still so much fall color:

That afternoon and evening, we drove to Goosenecks State Park near Mexican Hat, Utah.  
Even with the slow trip back to Ridgway over Owl Creek Pass (more than an hour and a half to go 20 miles), it still took us only about six hours to get to Goosenecks.  We got there at dusk and found a campsite way out on the "peninsula," overlooking Monument Valley in the distance.  Using headlamps, we set up camp in the dark, something we had never done before – it was a successful experiment!

As one might expect in a remote desert campsite, the stars were terrific -- we got this shot before the moon rose:

This was an attempt to shoot Felice’s silhouette in front of the Milky Way – her head is visible at the bottom of the shot, but next time I try this, I will put the camera closer to ground level:

(I am not sure whether the “light dome” at the left bottom of the shot is from Flagstaff or Tuba City – either way, it is very far away.)  After the moon rose, the stars were a little washed out, but the whole landscape emerged from the darkness:

Saturday October 3:  We drove to Kingman and stayed at Hualapai Mountain Park, a county campground.  It was shady and cool, about 6500 feet,  but the internal roads were steep, rutted, and very tight, and most of the sites were unsuitable for any trailer, no matter how small.

Sunday, October 4:  We drove home.

         Some concluding thoughts about Colorado:  we have never seen so many different mountain ranges, with so many high mountains.  If Colorado were flattened out, it would be one of the biggest states in the country.  There is so much boondocking and hiking available that it would take years to explore it all.  We found the Colorado towns to be surprisingly crowded (even though it was after Labor Day!), but then we realized that it is practically in the middle of the country and is reachable from many cities, with just a few days of hard driving.  Even though the towns were busy, we had no problem finding solitude on the trails.

         Better yet, there is really good access to a lot of the high country (unlike the Sierra), probably because of Colorado’s history of mining activity – the old mining roads have paved the way, so to speak, for “tourist mining.”  The scenery was jaw-dropping, especially with the fall color display.  We could only imagine what these mountains would look like with a little snow and a few well-placed wildflowers.  We have never seen such broad swatches of aspens – the trees were not confined to the canyons but were spread across entire hillsides and valleys.  And somehow, no matter what the weather, the aspen leaves were intensely luminous – maybe because they were shimmering in the breeze and reflecting the light.

September in Colorado: Part III (Ouray, Silverton, and Telluride)

(Remember that you can click on the photos to see a slideshow, and then hit "escape" to get back to the text.  Also, a note on the photo credits: as always, both Felice and I took these shots, and many of my shots resulted from her suggestions.  I do the photo editing using Lightroom; my goal is to reproduce just what we saw, as faithfully as possible.)

Friday, September 25:  We had planned to leave Aspen and drive to Canyonlands in Utah, but a severe heat wave was building in the desert (as well as back home in California).  So, at the last minute, we changed our plans and headed for the high country of Southwestern Colorado.  We stopped in Montrose for an exceptionally delicious lunch of Mexican roasted chicken at Pollo Asado 2 – we highly recommend it!  We then got some great info from a helpful ranger named Julie at the Forest Service office in Montrose.  That night, in need of a Laundromat, we stayed at the KOA in Ouray (pronounced “you Ray,” with the accent on Ray.)

Saturday, September 26:  We drove over Red Mountain Pass.  Due to construction, there was only one lane open, so there was a very long delay.  (One lane of the road had completely crumbled into the canyon – the red sedimentary rock was pretty but weak.)  There were a lot of mining ruins up at the pass – lots of photographers shooting the ruins against the aspens. (Not our cup of tea, but to each his own.)

We took the Little Molas trail near Silverton, with great views of the surrounding mountains – that is Little Molas Lake in the foreground:

Along the trail, we were struck by the relatively undisturbed “layer cake” geology, more like Utah than Colorado.  Most of the mountains we had seen in Colorado had been metamorphic rock, uplifted and warped, but the ranges south and west of Silverton appeared to be intact sedimentary plateaus that had been cut down by erosion:

That afternoon, on our way back to Ouray, we looked at Molas Lake Campground, operated by the town of Silverton.  This is a place to keep in mind for another time – there were world-class views of the surrounding mountains from the campsites.  We also scouted Amphitheater Campground above Ouray, which was crowded on Saturday but turned out to be empty the next day, on Sunday.

Sunday, September 27:  We moved from the KOA to Amphitheater. (Note – do not bring a big rig to this campground!)  Site 25 was perfect for us, with good views and a level pad:

This was the view of Twin Peaks from our campsite – Felice obligingly hopped up onto a picnic table in a neighboring (vacant!) campsite:

(Site 6 would also be good, for future reference.)  After getting situated, we hiked parts of the Ouray Perimeter trail.  The Lower Cascade was not impressive – very little water.  We then took the “Baby Bathtubs” trail, named for the potholes gouged out by the creek.  There were great views of Twin Peaks from the highpoint of the trail:

We could see why this area was called the Amphitheater – a volcanic eruption had carved out a semicircular gouge from the canyon walls.  The campground is tucked behind the knoll with the orange foliage:

Monday, September 28:  We drove out to the area between Ridgway and Telluride to hike the Blue Lake trail.  The access road was long, bumpy, dusty, and difficult, but it was worth the effort.  The hike was excellent, with a mix of forest cover and great views.  The lake, a glacial cirque, really was astonishingly blue, especially when viewed with the sun behind the camera:

That afternoon, as we bumped back down the access road, a herd of horses posed in the valley for their portrait:

This shot shows the whole Mt. Sneffels area – Blue Lake is in one of those canyons:

That evening, we had one of our very rare campfires, complete with hot chocolate:

Later that night, the full moon illuminated Twin Peaks across the canyon and the reddish-purple cliffs above our campsite:

Tuesday, September 29:  We took a long (but enjoyable) drive to Telluride.  The little town was very congested (no surprise) and had no visitor information center (which was a surprise).  But with the help of Mike, the manager at Clark’s Market, we eventually found free parking in the southwest corner of the town.

We first rode the free ski gondola to the top of the ski area – this is worth doing, even if it is a little touristy.  From the top, we had great views of the Wilson Peak area and the Lizard Head Wilderness in the San Miguel Mountains.  That whole range looked like a great place for camping and hiking.

That afternoon, we happened to talk to some other hikers, who told us that they had just been boondocking in the Silver Jack area east of Ridgeway and that the foliage was unbelievably brilliant.  We had been planning to leave the next day for Cedar Breaks in Utah, but we again changed our plans on the spot!  After that pivotal conversation, we hiked to Bear Creek Falls, above Telluride.  The falls were lovely but would be even better in a season with more water:

Felice decided to do some "boulder hopping:"

 Late that afternoon, on our way back to Ouray, we just had to stop for more aspen-gazing – one would think that we would get saturated with it, but that never happened in a month of leaf-peeping:

September in Colorado: Part II (The Maroon Bells and Beyond)

(Remember that you can click on the photos to see a slideshow, and then hit "escape" to get back to the text.  Also, a note on the photo credits: as always, both Felice and I took these shots, and many of my shots resulted from her suggestions.  I do the photo editing using Lightroom; my goal is to reproduce just what we saw, as faithfully as possible.)

Sunday, September 20:  We left Estes Park and drove southwest to Aspen, which we also found to be very crowded and not trailer-friendly.  There were no unreserved campsites available in the Maroon Creek Valley.  That turned out to be a good thing; otherwise, we would have had to drive through Aspen to get to many of the hikes in the surrounding area.

Instead, we found a site at "Difficult Campground," a funny name.  (It is near Difficult Creek.)  Our campsite (several miles east of Aspen) was not far from the stream, and there was almost no road noise (even though Highway 82 passes on the cliff overlooking the campground.)  The only real difficulty that we encountered at Difficult Campground is that there was a breakdown in communications between the Internet reservation agency and the local camp hosts, which meant that we had to change campsites after a couple of days (even though we were assured that we wouldn't have to).  No big deal, but an unnecessary and time-consuming inconvenience.

Late on Sunday afternoon, after we set up camp, we drove up the Roaring Fork River toward Independence Pass and found a small cascade set in a gorge that had been sculpted by the flowing water:

Monday, September 21:  We caught the shuttle from Aspen to the famous Maroon Bells area.  Unlike the shuttle system at Rocky Mountain National Park, the shuttles were crowded, not free, infrequent, and rigidly scheduled.  Hikers had to be out of the valley by 5 PM, which is a little too early for us.

But despite all of that regimentation, the trip was absolutely worthwhile – don’t miss it!  There is a darn good reason that the Maroon Bells are so crowded: this is an astoundingly beautiful area.  This is the classic view that greeted us not far from the trailhead, complete with changing aspens, a deep blue sky, a vivid reflection in a calm lake, and a little snow on the peaks:

With every turn in the trail, the 14,000 foot mountains were framed by the brilliant aspens:

The walls of the valley were thickly carpeted with multicolored aspens:

Given the limited time available to us, we were able to hike up to an area just above Crater Lake; we would have gone further, except that we had to turn back to catch the last shuttle at 5 pm.

Tuesday, September 22:  To quote Monty Python, “And now for something completely different!"  Hoping to get away from the crowds, we took the Independence Lake trail up near Independence Pass, with a trailhead at 11,500 feet.  The hike was almost entirely above treeline, and we didn't see anyone else all day long – mission accomplished!  The weather was chilly, dark, and overcast, which completely suited the stark arctic landscape of willow and tundra – very wild and pseudo-adventurous.  To provide a sense of the grand scale, note Felice standing on a rock on the right side of the shot:

The trail reached the pass at about 13,000 feet, the highest we have ever been on foot.  (By this point in the trip, we were completely acclimated, and I no longer had "heavy legs" above 12,000 feet.)  Independence Lake was just south of the pass -- Felice is on the south shore of the lake:

Lost Man Lake was just north of the pass, in a rocky barren valley:

That afternoon, after the hike, we drove up to Independence Pass.  We could see a great above-timberline trail along the Continental Divide, which we will have to save for another trip.

On our way back down to the campground, we scouted around for potential camping or boondocking sites but found almost nothing suitable.  Weller Campground was set in a shady aspen grove but was right by the highway.  Lost Man Campground was much quieter and more spacious, with lots of evergreens, but was really far up the highway, away from everything.  Lincoln Creek wasn't easy to get to, and the campsites were too close together.  The biggest problem was that Highway 82 is simply too narrow in places for safe towing, although lots of people have towed trailers on that road.  There are various stretches where two passenger cars can barely pass each other; I would not want to be towing a trailer up the road when another trailer is coming down.

Wednesday, September 23:  We drove back up Highway 82 to the Grotto and Weller Lake.  The Grotto area was really interesting, with elaborate rock formations carved into the granite.  (Most of the Rockies are metamorphic, so a big patch of granite was like finding an old friend from the Sierras.)   The "ice caves" were actually a slot canyon cut into the granite; they would have been more photogenic in another season with more water flowing through them. The cascades, however, were terrific.  After lunch, we took our obligatory "boot shot:"

We then spent quite a while clambering around the various waterfalls:

Felice spotted this intricate little sculpted cascade, with the water vaulting over the rocks. Surprisingly, this shot is a quarter of a second exposure, completely handheld!  Lest anyone think that I am a super-steady photographer, I must disclose that my new camera has image stabilization built into the lens. (Also, I was sitting down, with my arms braced on my knees -- but even so, a technological miracle.)

Later that afternoon, we hiked up to Weller Lake, which was completely unimpressive.  We then drove down into Aspen (difficult parking!), because I needed to use the Internet.  While I worked, Felice explored the trails by the Roaring Fork River and discovered that there is a whole network of trails within the town.

That night, the sky was very clear, so we drove back to the Maroon Bells.  (After dark, the vehicle access is no longer restricted.)  Since it was a clear and calm night with just a little moonlight, I expected there to be crowds of photographers seeking to capture the aspens and the stars; instead, we were practically the only people there (except for one wedding photographer):

Thursday, September 24: We drove up Castle Creek Road to the Cathedral Lakes trailhead.  That valley was even more beautiful than Maroon Creek, with wide swaths of color spreading all over the hills and the valleys.  It looked like a gaudy green and gold 1970s style Berber carpet had been thrown over the mountains.  We came across an abandoned log cabin in the woods – note the interlocking dovetail joinery at the corner of the cabin: 

The hike to Cathedral Lake, although fairly short, was very steep, almost at the limit of our abilities.  The trail passed through bands of multicolored aspens:

The guidebook described the final approach to the lake as being up a "couloir," which we later learned was a French word for “steep gully.”  As we climbed the tricky switchbacks, Felice said, “Couloir?  Ha!  I know a headwall when it bites me on the behind." (That quote is slightly altered.)  From the top of the headwall, we could see far to the east, into the Collegiate Wilderness and beyond:

The lake itself, at nearly 12,000 feet, was stark and calm:

Coming down that difficult headwall, we met an 82-year-old man hiking up with his wife – very impressive!  (His wife told us how old he was – she was obviously proud of him.)  Down near the trailhead, we passed through a grove of ancient aspens – we were in shadow at ground level, but the tops of the tall trees were still catching sunlight: