Six Days in Colorado


Click on any picture to see it full-size.
When I emailed my gfs about this long trip, and asked who wanted to come along on which parts, Chris in Indiana was very interested in the southwest...but she doesn't camp. Well, I said, you could learn! but if you hated it, it would be ten awful days. But I'm making a swing through Colorado, from Denver to Grand Junction; I will have been camping for two weeks before that and wouldn't mind making that section a motels section.

Chris thought that sounded great. And then we both emailed Jo Nell, because the three of us have known each other for nearly forty years. Come along! we both said. It'll be all the fun in the world!

And she did. And it was!

When they both signed on, they wanted to know what the plan was. Well, I said, you should fly into Denver on August 18, hopefully near the same time, and soon after Kelly (with whom I was traveling through Montana, Wyoming and Colorado the two weeks before that) flies out, so I can drop her off and pick you guys up on one airport visit. And you'll be flying out of Grand Junction on either the evening of the 23rd or early in the morning on the 24th.

Sure, they said, but what are we DOING?

Well, I said, I have a list of stuff I'm interested in, and that would make a curve around Colorado, south, then west, then back north to Grand Junction...

  • The Pikes Peak Cog Railway, Seven Falls and Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park in the southeast of the state
  • Mesa Verde National Park in the southwest
  • The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park near Montrose
But, I said, I'd be glad to do other things too...what would you guys like to do?

And they looked at my list and said that looked great to them. Okay, I said, but I'll bring a guidebook and we can look in that too.

So that was the plan, and here's how it went...

Saturday, August 18

The airport dropoff and pickup went like clockwork. We went back to the motel I had reserved downtownish, hit a grocery store for provisions for the week, then walked across the street to this place for an excellent dinner.

Sunday, August 19

The next morning after breakfast, we drove to Colorado Springs. I had wanted to do Garden of the Gods since I came through here in 2014; there was also something called Seven Falls near there. Unfortunately, the Pikes Peak Cog Railway had been shut down in the spring, after over a century and a quarter of operation...but we managed to have fun anyway!
The river flowing through the park

Sure! Sounds cool!

And this guy drove up in his chef-mobile and got out and started walking toward a building. I thought this was way cool.

So here we are way up a mountain from Colorado Springs, which is what you see in this picture through the wildfire smoke; we had to park in a rodeo lot and take a dedicated small bus up here.

When I found this place online, and the description was something like, Seven falls in a canyon going down 181 feet and 226 steps! And that sounded like a really pretty hike.

Reality: it's a local paid attraction. There is a paved trail up to where the stairs start; they are not rock stairs on a trail along a river in a canyon, they are metal steps straight up a rock wall with, admittedly, very pretty falls coming down the face of it. There is food and amusements for the kids along the walkway to the falls, and an elevator to a viewpoint for those who can't go up the stairs (they WERE very steep...). At the top are a couple of hiking trails that go for about a mile and a half all together...and a zipline, of course.

So it was very commercial. But it was fun, in a kitschy kind of way, and pretty.

So here are the seven falls, on the left; you can see the steep stairs up to the top. And the falls, on the right, are pretty...it was just not at all what I expected.
WARNING! WARNING! DANGER! DANGER! WARNING!

Wow. Either they get some really stupid people or are terrified of lawsuits...or both...

Some kind of aster, probably

flower This is one of the trails at the top of the falls. Steep but pretty. And...did someone drop this or is it for out-of-shape hikers to call when they collapse?

Helen Hunt Jackson's gravesite

And we went back to the top of the big falls, and hiked the other trail, which was shorter and basically went to a waterfall and back.
Then we went back down all those stairs...which was indeed much easier than going up them!
Then we went across the way and up the elevator to the observation platform; the path to the elevator was a large, rock-walled tunnel full of memorabilia of the history of Seven Falls. At the top were a couple of overpriced gift stores and a large patio with views of the falls.
Then we sauntered back down to the bus that took us to the parking lot where we had left Boudika.

Common Soapwort

Tailgate lunch with Boudika! Then we went to Garden of the Gods...here's a map of it.

The Garden of the Gods is about 600 acres in Colorado Springs full of beautiful rock formations with concrete and asphalt and dirt walkways all through them; there are three parking lots, all of which were PACKED, and a one-way road with cars crawling along. I dropped Chris and Jo Nell off and circled until the parking gods smiled on me. We had a nice time walking around looking at all the pretty rocks; what you have to realize is, there were people EVERYWHERE including climbing on the rocks, so anytime you see a picture without other people in it, it's either cropped or we had to wait a while for the perfect moment...! But this was a really beautiful place, and it was nice to see so many people enjoying it.

Mullein

But you can't see the sign unless you ARE hiking on this side...

Josie Looking Sexy On Rocks

We tried to walk to the bus to the visitor's center, but by the time we got there, it was too late (about 4 pm) to take it there and back, so we went back to the car and drove over there. This sign was on the way to the bus stop. Didn't see any, though.

The visitor's center was cool but everything in it was WAY expensive.

This is the relief map of Garden of the Gods.

The two paintings were each outside a restroom, men's and women's.

Dinosaurs! Yay!
Animal tracks, rocks, and a view of Garden of the Gods from the Visitor's Center balcony across the road.
We went to the Park Row Motel in Manitou Springs...turns out our 'room' was a tiny two-bedroom house! Here are Jo Nell and Chris on the front porch.

Then it was dinner time...we decided on a Mexican place that was in a residential area; there was a park across the street from the parking lot, and there were deer, including babies, and after this picture they started FROLICKING. Awwww!

The porch of the Mexican restaurant, the Crystal Park Cantina, and aaah. Margaritas for all! Then on the way home we passed yet another marijuana shop, they were EVERYWHERE.

Monday, August 20

Today was our day to drive south to Great Sand Dune National Park, in the Colorado Sangre de Cristo mountains. We had looked at our guide the night before, and discussed taking a road that was supposed to be gorgeous but slow and windy...we finally decided to go directly there instead, and stop at a silly tourist thing on the way.
As we left Colorado Springs on Highway 25, we passed this place, and had to find a place to turn around and go back. An awesome tourist trap!
We passed these statues in a little town called Salida, and...PHOTO-OP!
So then we found our silly tourist destination...The UFO Watchtower. It's off a tiny road and shares space/roads with a campground and a reptile and amphibian place. You can see it to the far right in the right hand photo above, but none of us got a picture of the actual place; we were too busy photographing the craziness. So here's a picture of the building from their website. The square ironwork around it is the 'watchtower', which you climb up a really scary metal staircase to reach.
So we went into the main building, the igloo, and paid our two bucks each. We shopped for stuff, mostly postcards. We talked with the woman at the counter; she assured us that this valley was the BIGGEST FLAT VALLEY IN THE WORLD and UFOs love to fly through it. She also told us they had over 500 confirmed sightings so far, which as far as I could tell meant that someone had written something in a spiral binder they had out for that purpose about a sighting...

Then we went out to the patio under the platform and had lunch, then we went all over this place. They had these 'take a photo' things, and the desert on the left is the view from the platform. No UFOs, oddly enough.

Then there was the 'Garden', which was all kinds of wierd stuff, some found, some brought, interspersed with badly-made alien figures.
Wow, that was just crazypants. We really liked this place. If you're ever in the butt-end of nowhere in Colorado, drop by, it's fun. For an hour or so.
Then we continued on to a place we had planned to go from the start: Great Sand Dunes National Park.

I had thought that this would be just, you know, a SAND DUNE. But no. Not only is this the tallest set of sand dunes in North America, it's in a corner of the Colorado Sangre de Cristo Mountains...the biomes in the park include grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes, and tundra. This is a seriously cool place. And Medano Creek runs right by the dunes for about half the year, so there's lots of fun in water and sand before you go hiking into the mountains.

We got close enough to start seeing the dunes, and it was a gorgeous view, smoke-haze notwithstanding. On the road to the National Park, there were some places to pull out and read stuff about the area. We also took pictures, of course!
And there were some great plants!

And BEAUTIFUL Prairie Sunflowers!

There were also Hairy Goldenaster flowers, and one last view of the dunes as we get closer...and what a great tree!
The Visitor Center. Two maps of the park; DUNES WHEELCHAIRS! I wanted to rent one SO BADLY!! and a great display of skulls, wow!
We went out on the dunes...it was very hot, and of course no shade. Jo Nell stayed by the treeline, and Chris and I walked about twenty minutes out to the top of the first ridge before the actual dunes. The third picture here shows the dune, and on the far left I've blown it up so you can see some of the people on the dunes...they're that big. I was wearing Keen waterproof sandals, and the sand getting into the sides was actually burning my feet...ouchies!!

Maybe a Crowned Grasshopper?

We got back and hiked a short trail through the woods nearby, the Montville Trail. It was gorgeous, and the shade was nice. Whole-leaf paintbrush, Scarlet Gilia
Lots of beautiful plants and flowers! More Scarlet Gilia, and a Prickly Pear cactus
Finished hiking, went back to the Visitor Center briefly, which is where these awesome masks were, and took off for Fort Garland, where our motel was.
We went to the restaurant across the street, the 'Allgon' restaurant. Mom and pop, big food, pretty good. Jo Nell and Chris had pie for dessert, here they are debating the merits of each kind.
And this was our motel, with a view of the lobby where there were games on display for the delectation of their customers. The room was awesome, a huge room with three beds, a microwave and a fridge. Loved it! A good night's sleep was had by all.

Tuesday, August 21

On Tuesday we got up early and drove across the width of Colorado to Mesa Verde, which was on the same highway as the town we spent Monday night in; easy peasy! Here we are at the Continental Divide. and there are plants. And a view of driving across Colorado, which was beautiful.
We reached Mesa Verde right before noon. We went into the Visitor Center and talked to the ranger, and signed up for two guided tours about an hour and a half apart; we had half an hour before the first one started, so we had a quick tailgate lunch in the parking lot and then drove off to Cliff Palace for our first tour.
Mesa Verde National Park is a huge area where different groups of Puebloan people lived for hundreds of years; there were large and small communities in pretty much every single cave in the area that was big enough to build anything in...and then at a certain time, they all just up and left. Nobody knows if it was disease, drought, war, or some other reason, but after about 1300 all the pueblos were deserted. I think one of the rangers said they've counted upwards of 500 man-made buildings that they know of in the park. They offer guided tours of three of them: Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House.

And not a lot is known about these places-they know where people lived, where they stored grain, probably some of the places they had religious ceremonies...they know when different parts of each one were built, and some of the other purposes rooms were put to...and that's about it. They have a lot of good guesses, and have information that has come from other Puebloan ruins in the Southwest, but there are, of course, no written records.

I usually don't like having people I don't know in my pictures, but the lefthand photo gives a good idea of the size of Cliff Palace. I took these while we were waiting for the tour to start. Ranger Jackie was our tour guide, and she was great.
These pictures are of a ruin across the canyon. They are everywhere here. And here's Cliff Palace...
This was the ladder we climbed up to get back out of Cliff House; I figured Chris wouldn't want everyone staring at her butt so I covered it up...but climbing up the ladder was so much fun!

The picture on the right was across the canyon from one of the pullouts on the road.

Then we drove to Wetherill Mesa to take the Long House tour. The ranger had blithely said, oh, it's about half an hour but we'll give you the later tour so you can see stuff on the way. Good thing she did, because it was a LONG way in the POURING RAIN and it took about an hour and a quarter to get there. This picture would have been of the mesa we were trying to reach but you can't see it, it's raining too hard. We would have assumed we were lost but the road literally goes nowhere else...we also had a debate about whether or not we wanted to take this tour in the rain. We decided to go there and join up with the tour and ditch it if it was raining too hard.
Some beautiful lupines, really gorgeous burned trees from a fire they had many years ago on Wetherill Mesa, and one of the ubiquitous signs about the cliff dwellers.
So we met up with Ranger Susie, who was also an archaeologist, and started on the mile and a half walk to Long House...and as we started out, the rain stopped and the sun came out, and the weather was lovely until we got back to the parking lot and it started raining again. Couldn't have been more perfect.
The ranger told us about the area as we walked 3/4 mile on an asphalt walk to the stairs down the cliff; this is soaptree yucca. The Native Americans who lived here used the fibers for thread, ate the pods, wove the leaves for baskets and basically used it every way you could think of. And it's a beautiful plant as well.

Caliche Globemallow

Horsetail Milkweed, and a horsefly!

The first picture is one of several catchbasins the cliff dwellers used to water their plants and grow food, still there 800 years later. The trail sloped gently down for 3/4 mile, then started going steeply down with lots of stairs for another 3/4 mile to Long House. This was an awesome tour, and we were the only people there; in fact, we were the last tour of the day, so we had more time there than most of the tours people take.
Here you can see the seep along the back of the cave that was a water source, and the catchbasin that it once ran into. And all the plants that grow there now!

Grain grinding holes

The ranger's page on how this cliff dwelling once looked.

The next bunch of pics are Jo Nell's...she really caught the brickwork beautifully!
Chris is ready to go back up the trail! The blue skies are going away... A valley/catchbasin...and here comes the rain... But it sure is pretty!
We drove to Cortez, CO, and stayed in the Retro Motel. The guys at the desk recommended the Destination Grill, and here we are enjoying delicious drinks, to be followed by a very good dinner. A most satisfying day, and we all agreed that Mesa Verde was the best part of this trip.

Wednesday, August 22

When we were talking to Ranger Susie at Long House, she mentioned that there was a PETROGLYPH hike. All of us whipped our heads around and said, WHAT? So of course we had to do that! We had planned to go back to Mesa Verde for the morning anyway, before driving to Montrose CO to spend the night, so that worked out fine.
Three pictures of the coolness that was the Retro Inn.
Jo Nell at the Retro Inn's free breakfast, which she and Chris took advantage of, and me, eschewing the free breakfast (mostly eggs and toast and things) for the lovely skillet at Denny's and my good book.

Then we drove back into Mesa Verde and stopped on the way in to look at the beautiful clouds in the morning.

Some kind of rabbitbrush

We drove to Chapin Mesa, and took the Spruce Tree House trail to the Petroglyph Trail. It was a beautiful morning, sunny and cloudy, a bit cool and breezy. Really nice for a good hike, which is what we were looking forward to.
Spruce Tree House, which I think is a cliff dwelling that they let people go into and see up close...but it was closed today.
I sent this picture to my geologist friend, Robbie, and this is what she said:
It is a very interesting and funny rock face! The rock looks most like sandstone with concretions. Sandstone lets water flow through it easily, The water carries elements such as silica, calcite and iron which can deposit on fossils, such as leaves, clams, or worm burrows, or on bits of non-silicate pebbles which wash into the river, beach, delta, or dunes. Hey, I looked up the geology of Mesa Verde and they have a picture of one of your concretions! The Cliff House Sandstone sandstone is about 75 million years old, so there were plenty of calcite shelled critters: oysters, clams, and snails. There were various slimy burrowing critters, and vegetable matter such as palms. The slidey layers in your picture look like deltaic deposits. The weird pointy shaped concretion reminds me of the notch in a palm frond, but could also be a cross-section of a snail. Since the Cliff House Sandstone is quartz sand held together by calcite cement, the concretions must be mostly iron, possibly with silica, since they are harder and more weather resistant than the sandstone. The eroded centers of the concretions could have been organic matter or calcite; you would have to probe them, or find a whole one to find out.
Common Sagebrush Lizard! Not a lot of wildlife on this leg of the trip...
Walking down the asphalt path to the bottom, where the trail starts. And a pretty feather!
This was absolutely the coolest trail. It went up and down through the rocks on the side of the canyon, and through a lot of tiny openings in rocks and stuff. We loved it!

I think this is Brownplume Wirelettuce

Fruiting Prickly Pear

Ancient lake bed mud ripples

We had a pamphlet that told us what to look at when we reached each number.

#23: POISON IVY

Gaaaah. That little plant in the center by the wall.

And here are the petroglyphs! The handout with all the information for each signpost had this guide to meanings, although from what I understand nobody really knows. But here it is, fwiw.
So then it was time to make our way back. And I am the one who, given two trails, always picks the wrong one. There was the Petroglyph trail, which we were on, and the Spruce Tree trail, which was down in the canyon; I thought they were two halves of the same loop and made a case against going all the way down there and then walking uphill all the way...so we turned around and went back the way we came.
The trail back was just as pretty as the trail to the petroglyphs. And- bonus- one of the hikers showed us a cliff dwelling up above the trail. Just sitting there. Amazing.
One more beautiful tree. Then we got in and ran into a ranger who expressed admiration for us doing the petroglyph trail the HARD WAY BOTH WAYS! Yes, Wrong Way Rees strikes again- the trail continued UP past the petroglyphs and meandered gently back over the mesa. But it was a fun trail anyway.

Here's Jo Nell with her dead hiking boot that matches the sign...

Then we went to the parking lot and had lunch on a bench before going to the museum.

There were a lot of cool exhibits at the museum. I liked this stained glass.

And they had photos of what the cliff dwellings had looked like when the Wetherills found them, before they were restored.

Cliff Palace, 1896

Balcony House, 1896

Cliff Palace, 1896

Spruce Tree House, 1907

I love sand paintings. This was my fav, among the many at the museum. We left Mesa Verde. I had gone on and on about this hell-road from Durango to Montrose and how awful and twisty-windy it was (and I didn't exaggerate), so we took a different road from Cortez that looked a bit longer but would get us there...and it was BEAUTIFUL. A fine road, full of fog and rain and sun and clouds and trees and water. We stopped for gas and a break in Telluride, and got to Montrose about 5 pm...and immediately found a Big 5 Sporting Goods store so Nellie could buy new shoes.

The fish were the carpeting in the motel we stayed in, and we had a REALLY AWESOME dinner at this Italian bistro. An excellent day!

Thursday, August 23

Jo Nell is stylin' in her new hiking shoes!

We left Montrose for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Doug and I had been here in 2014, but that was the day I woke up with a roaring head cold, and although we hiked and enjoyed it, I wanted to go back and see it when I was well. We figured we could stay there til about 3 pm, then we'd have to hit the road for Grand Junction; the Squirrel Lady's plane was landing a bit after 6 pm and we had to check into the motel and pick her up. This was our last day on the road, and we were looking forward to one more day of fun.

We got there around 10 am, just before a ranger led a geology walk along the canyon rim. It was a beautiful day, and the day was not the only beautiful thing...
Then we hiked to Warner Point, a gorgeous hike at the westernmost part of the Black Canyon.

No idea what is happening here. Maybe I'm a rodent?

Small Wood-Nymph butterfly

I think this is a Clark's Nutcracker, just like the ones we saw at Rocky Mountain National Park.

The wild and elusive Travelin' Jo

Looks like a deer head!

We got back to the truck, had some lunch, and started down the road, stopping for some of the turnouts along the way...Dragon Point, Painted Wall View and Chasm View .

Grasshopper!

And we were back at the Visitor's Center. We had a little more time, so we decided to go down Crystal Road and see the bottom of the Gunnison River. On the right is Chris taking a picture of the warning sign for the road...they weren't kidding, it was a steep twisty bear of a road.
And at the bottom was this beautiful river, with fishermen along it having a wonderful time. There was also a campground that looked awesome. We followed the trail by the river to the first big bend...and then it was time to go.
On the way back, before the steep road up, we stopped to look at Crystal Dam. And there's Boudika, posing by the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
These were in a gas station on the way to Grand Junction. Made me laugh. Grand Junction has numbered and lettered streets pretty far apart, so when they put streets in between, they just...added halves and quarters. This is B1/2, which is between B and C. They also had 29 1/4 and 29 3/4. Seriously. We stayed here and it was very nice...The Squirrel Lady's plane was right on time, and we went out together and had large drinks and a good dinner.

Friday, August 24

We went to the Old Man Grill for a delicious breakfast, and then we dropped Chris off at the Amtrak station (Jo Nell flew out very early, so I just dropped her off and came back to the motel.)
And these are pictures Chris took from the train on her way back to Indiana.

It was so much fun driving around Colorado with Chris and Jo Nell! I would miss them...but up next is CAMPING IN THE SOUTHWEST, always my favorite thing to do!