Day 14 – Grand Canyon -> Kingman AZ

In the morning, we were awakened by the roar of helicopters and small planes making their daily rounds hauling mutants with too much money to spend over and into the canyon.

(A side note: often you will see us use the word “mutant” to describe a type of tourist that seems to be 80-90% of the population of major destinations. A mutant is someone who goes to a place because someone told them it was a place they should go. The mutants have no REAL appreciation for the places they overrun. They do everything possible to insulate themselves from the environments they visit, and usually contaminate these places with the sounds, traffic, and smells of the cities and suburbs they come from.)

Something we noticed on our way into our campsite that we didn’t have time to check out before nightfall was a tall metal ranger tower. As we were leaving for Grand Canyon Village, we stopped to check it out. It had a stairway leading to a locked ranger shelter at the top. There was a sign at the bottom that read (paraphrasing), “you can climb it if you want to, but please don’t sue us if you hurt yourself.” Obbie couldn’t resist making the climb and getting pictures from the top.

Arriving at Grand Canyon Village, while looking for a parking space near our trailhead we stumbled upon a vintage steam train with lines of people waiting to board. We parked near the train and inquired about riding it. “You can ride the train if you’re willing to ride one-way to Williams.” We’re not quite ready for that today.

The Grand Canyon Railroad was completed early in the twentieth century, fell on hard times when people started to drive their own cars to the canyon, and was revived in 1989. Today it was running with a vintage steam locomotive, assisted by a 1950’s era diesel locomotive. We ogled the train up and down from front to back until it left for Williams. Next time we come to Grand Canyon, it’s going to be on this train.

Once we were finished train geeking, we were ready to hike into the canyon. It seems that only about 1% of park-goers venture off the rim, and the easiest and most popular trail to do so is the Bright Angel Trail. It descends into the canyon to the riverbed and beyond. For the seriously ambitious who have a couple of days, you can follow this trail to the North Rim. For the rest of us, for each hour you spend hiking down the canyon wall, allow an hour and a half to climb back out. Wear a shady hat and bring/drink lots of water.

We hiked down to the first water station and then climbed back out. The daylight was running out as we drove south, past the helicopter airport and the expensive hotels on our way to Williams. After all that hiking and climbing we were hungry, and found a great meal at the Pine Country Restaurant. The place was quite popular, but we didn’t have to wait; and it was non-smoking, which can be rare in this part of Arizona. Between us, we had orders of baked chicken and fried chicken. Each plate had a half chicken, potatoes, veggies, and soup or salad. We got plenty of food at a decent price.

At this time of year, it’s best to cross the Arizona desert in the “cool” hours of the night, so we pressed on toward Kingman. Even in the dead of night, our air conditioner was a necessary accessory. At the first exit in Kingman, we found a motel with $30 rooms, and since they all had working AC, we took one.

Day 13 – Page -> Grand Canyon AZ

The day began in Page, Arizona. This is the location of the Glen Canyon Dam, which holds Lake Powell. Not too long ago, the area occupied by Lake Powell was a series of deep, rugged and beautiful canyons; and it was prime territory for hiking and rafting. The characters in Edward Abbey’s book “The Monkey Wrench Gang” fantasized about destroying the Glen Canyon Dam and restoring the canyons that were taken away. In an ironic twist of history, there is now serious talk about doing exactly that, many years after Abbey’s death.

So before leaving Page, we had to get a look at that dam. We also got to see the same river that we last saw as a mountain stream from the roadside: the Colorado River.

The climate has taken a dramatic turn. The cool moist forests of the Rockies have given way to the hot dry deserts of the southwest. Around Page, the land had a color between beige and rusty red, and it was completely barren.

We headed south on US-89, which was the road to Flagstaff. But we were going to the South rim of the Grand Canyon, so we took a hard right turn after about an hour. Along the way we bought some jewelry from some Navaho people at a roadside stand, which are common along major highways through Indigenous lands.

A large sign welcomed us to Grand Canyon National Park, but it was quite a few miles before we were stopped at a gate to flash our National Park Pass. Right after that was the first major facility, the Desert Watchtower. This is a four-story tower built in the 1930’s, designed to look like a Pueblo tower, even though the Pueblo never built towers that big. The stone work on the outside actually conceals more modern designs that enable its size and durability.

Along with exploring the inside (drop a quarter into a turnstile for admission) and taking lots of pictures, we got some questions answered. Wilderness camping was not going to be an option. There are very few opportunities at this park, and reservations are filled months to years in advance.

When we asked about campgrounds, we were told that if we go a few more miles and turn left, that road leaves the park and enters the adjacent national forest. And in the national forest, we can camp almost anywhere we want to (subject to some very reasonable restrictions).

As we relaxed in our camp site, tour trucks passed by on the forest road. They were trucks with rows of seats set up on a flatbed, with each row perched a bit higher than the row in front of it.

After dark, we invested some time in admiring the stars from this high, dark and dry location. But we weren’t as remote as we thought, since a very busy aerial highway was right over our heads. Planes passed less than 30 seconds apart, one right after another, all night.

Day 12 – Taylor Falls CO -> Page AZ

We opened the door of our tent on the side of Taylor Creek Road and found that we were once again in lush green forests. It was sunny, but the air was cool and crisp. Occasionally a large vehicle would pass and shake our campsite a bit, but they were mostly big pickup trucks pulling horse trailers. They weren’t worried about us; they were much more interested in things further up the mountain.

Our map showed us a town called Stoner not far down the road. It wasn’t as much of a “town” as it was a roadside motel and cafe. Expecting bland diner food, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of our breakfast. We were well fed with good food by good people in a great setting. Our omelettes were eaten at tables outside while we watched hummingbirds get their breakfasts.

Obbie seeks a high vantage point for photography.

Our first stop of the day was Mesa Verde National Park, and we have good news from there. The damage from last year’s fires was obvious as we drove through. But the damage was limited to areas away from the ancient ruins, and the land is already vigorously regenerating itself. The burned frames of trees that were left behind will apparently feed the new growth of this desert forest.

Seeing the cliff dwellings was a reminder that no picture, film, computer screen, or virtual reality can ever replace the live 3D experience. It is impossible to appreciate the scale of such structures or the environment they occupy without actually being there.

Our best Mesa Verde experience came from an obscure corner of the park, where the ancient natives built “check dams” along a gulley to plant their gardens. A trail passed one terrace after another, built with the red rock that is indigenous to the area. Yes, we have pictures, but they will not replace the live experience.

We will give credit to the park service for using on-site materials in their construction, rather than trucking in loads of concrete. Everything from the park headquarters to roadside ditches were built of the same red native rock.

On our way out of the park, a wild turkey crossed the road with her babies right in front of us. No, she didn’t pose for pictures.

Leaving Cortez, we went into the Four Corners along a seldom-travelled canyon on McElmo Creek. The drive was slower-going than the alternative, but the vistas were worth it. The surface vistas were complimented by skyscapes of the storms we were dodging along the way.

After years of seeing them used as a backdrop in movies, magazine ads and tv commercials, we finally got to see the massive sculptured rocks of Monument Valley. Again, no picture or movie can substitute for the live on-site 3D experience.

An annoyance: we’ve been trying to sample (record) some of the sounds of the natural environment where we go, but we’ve found that no matter how far you get off the beaten path, you can’t get away from traffic noise. If it’s not a truck on a road miles away, it’s a passing jet overhead. We’ve gone to some of the most remote places one could find, and it’s safe to say there is nowhere on the North American continent to totally escape the sounds of human machinery.

As darkness fell upon the land we arrived at Kayenta, the only town of any size on the Navaho reservation. The only lodges in town were full, but a place was suggested to us about ten miles down the road in Tsegi.

That motel turned out to be too expensive for our tastes, but we did get fed. We got a really good deal on an order of fry bread and beans from the Tsegi Canyon Cafe, though the rest of their menu was your run-of-the-mill diner food.

That left us fortified enough to take on the 100-mile drive to Page, where we found a $40/night room, saving enough money to make the extra drive worth it.

Day 11 – Gunnison -> Taylor Falls CO

We arrived at the Gunnison KOA late last night, so our morning was the only chance to enjoy our cabin in the daytime. We were able to make coffee in our room, and we sat on a kind of front porch swing to have a relaxing morning.

But that was not to be, as the staff was nagging us to clear out so that they could clean the place for the next guests, who were scheduled to take over at 11 am sharp. It was funny how the folks who were so nice to us when they were checking us in, are now so stern and pushy once there’s no more money to make from us.

For a long time, the daily weather report would include the hottest and the coldest temperatures in the country, and Gunnison Colorado was the “coldest place in the country” on a regular basis. We were starting to feel that way about the people in the town, as people at other places in Gunnison were not helpful or even polite. We started going down the road, feeling bad.

We noticed that we were driving high above the north shore of Gunnison Reservoir. We also noticed that the green forests had given way to a drier landscape with a redder color palette. In search of a place to stop and relax for a bit, we saw a sign for “Rainbow Lake Road.” Stopping by a lake sounded nice, so we turned north to find Rainbow Lake.

We never did find it, and gave up after about five miles. We stopped the truck on the deserted dirt road, turned around, and pulled over next to some shade-providing bushes. We were no longer in alpine meadows, we were on the edge of the south-western desert. Instead of relaxing on soft green grass, we sat on “grickle grass.” Dr. Seuse had many useful names for things in nature we couldn’t identify.

Our next destination was Telluride, where we’d hoped to drop in for the first night of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The sun had gone down by the time we got there, and we were hungry, so we had dinner in an eatery called Baked. The place was busy, staff & clientele were funky & friendly, and prices were reasonable by Telluride standards.

While we ate we looked at one of the free papers lying around the place, and we were struck by the real estate ads. Anyone who wants a place to live in Telluride has to come up with a seven-figure sum, even for a tiny condo. Then we wondered about the staff feeding us. Can they afford to live in Telluride? Probably not, so where do they live?

Many resort towns in Colorado are run by armies of low-wage workers. But the rents in these towns are so high, how these workers manage to survive is a mystery we still haven’t solved.

It was getting close to 9 pm, and if we were gonna stay in Telluride it was time to find a room. It felt clear that if we could find a room, we wouldn’t be happy with the cost. It turned out the music from the main stage was broadcast on the local FM station, so we listened to Bela Fleck’s set on the radio as we drove out of town toward the south.

That plan worked for about a half hour. Telluride occupies a box canyon. When we went over a mountain pass that took us out of that canyon, our signal abruptly faded out. We drove into the night until we saw a national forest road. We followed it until there was a level pull-out, which is where we set up our tent for the night.

Day 10 – Silverthorne -> Gunnison CO

Silverthorne was our best chance since Boulder to catch up on things like laundry, repacking the disorganized disaster inside our truck, and communicating with friends back home. It’s the kind of small city that exists to be a supply base for the ski crowd in the winter, and hikers and explorers in the summer.

Driving deeper into the mountains, we were reminded that not all of Colorado is picturesque scenery. The Climax Molybdemum Mine dominated our vistas for several miles. We saw miles of denuded landscape where it looked like entire mountains were being fed to processing plants. What’s left behind is barren dirt (we can’t call it “soil”) and several square miles of toxic tailings ponds, bathed in disturbing colors that don’t fit with the natural world.

We crossed Fremont Pass at almost 12,000 feet and passed through the town of Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the United States (elevation over 10,000 feet). This was a town that was built around mining instead of tourism, and it felt much more “down-market” relative to Silverthorne.

We started getting disgusted with the two types of people that populate most of Colorado: yuppies and rednecks. The yuppies run around with an overblown sense of entitlement to every desirable asset, from parking spaces to real estate; and they regard anyone wearing bib overalls or driving an old vehicle as Not Worthy. The rednecks project anger via the gravel flung from their wheels and the black smoke billowing from their tailpipes. Fortunately, we’ve been able to avoid unpleasant interactions with either group.

Leadville is on the eastern slope and near the source of the Arkansas River. South of town we found a place where there had once been a bridge and maybe a dam. We tried to get a broad view of the place with a composite photograph, and noticed that from that spot you could identify at least five road beds.. old wagon trails, what’s left of a railroad bridge, and the current highway and railroad.

The river carves a canyon between here and Colorado Springs, and from there it crosses the plains and becomes the major river of the state that bears its name. We followed the valley south for a while until we reached the crossroads town of Poncha Springs, where we took a hard right turn and crossed the Continental Divide one more time, leaving us on the western slope for the foreseeable future.

We got to Gunnison before it got dark and found a KOA campground where we rented a cabin… We don’t need to set up our tent, but it’s not a motel room either… something in between.

Day 9 – Lulu City -> Silverthorne CO

It was about 8:30 when we emerged from our tent under crystal clear blue skies. After we had our camp packed up, we decided to hang our packs from our improvised “bear bar” and take a day hike to find the campsite we were *supposed* to use.

It took about an hour to get there. The site had a marker telling us we were at “Stage Pass.” There was a bear bar, fire ring, lots of shade from big evergreens, and soft level inviting places to put a tent.

Along the way we found the junction of the Colorado River and Lulu Creek. We filled our water bottles from the creek. After adding purification pellets, the water would be drinkable in about an hour. At this point, the Colorado is a tiny stream that one could wade across. We opted to cross on a little bridge fashioned from a pair of logs.

It was early afternoon when we retrieved our packs and headed back to the trailhead. For a while we were escorted by a mule deer. Later on we got up close and personal with another herd of elk… or maybe the same group we’d met yesterday. And we had one scenic vista after another.

Hiking that distance at that elevation with that much weight on our backs was a new experience for Rozie and a rare experience for Obbie (it’s been about 10 years). We complained a little bit, we’re a little tired and sore at the end of it, but the vistas and the wildlife sightings and the quiet made it all worth it.

We were back in the truck by 5:30 and started heading toward Granby. Before we left the park, there was another traffic jam. A moose had been sighted along with some elk, so people had stopped their cars and jumped out with their cameras. (This is where we sheepishly admit that since we couldn’t move anyway, we joined in and snapped a few frames of our own.)

We arrived in Granby hungry, but a major bicycle tour had also just arrived and they were hungry, too. We decided to keep moving rather than wait, so we had calzone and lasagna at a pizza place in Fraser.

The rest of the day was spent playing road tag with the Continental Divide. We crossed it from east to west yesterday on Trail Ridge Road. Today we went back to the eastern slope on Berthoud Pass. We were forced onto Interstate 70 for a few exits before we saw an exit for US 6 – Loveland Pass.

This was the last exit before the Eisenhower Tunnel, where I-70 goes *under* the Divide. Trucks hauling hazardous materials are not allowed in the tunnel, so we drove over Loveland Pass behind trucks loaded with gasoline. The barren alpine tundra and piles of snow were more interesting.

Back on the western slope, we came into the town of Silverthorne, where we found a Super 8 motel where we could collapse for the night.

Day 8 – Glacier Creek -> Lulu City CO

Glacier Basin camp was made for trailers and RVs more than it was made for tents. Our pad was not quite level, and the noise from kids, dogs and generators on these closely-packed sites made for a restless night.

We knew the day was going to end with us carrying our packs into the backcountry, so we got them together as we broke camp. As we left the campground, we took a detour toward the park entrance…. to the office for wilderness permits.

Wilderness permits don’t cost anything, and are required for overnight camping in the backcountry. There are good reasons for the park to require them. It gives them a chance to go over the ground rules for overnight hikes. Also, it gives them a record of who is where in the event of an emergency (wildfire, flash flood, etc.).

They also gave us a briefing on how to behave if encountering a bear… something we called “the bear drill.” Campsites have a structure that looks like a goal post with the cross bar twenty feet up. They recommend that we put food and toiletries into a bag, tie a rope to it, and suspend the bag from the rope over the bar. That way the bears can’t reach it.

If you see a bear, don’t run… You can’t outrun the bear, and running will encourage it to chase you. Look and act big. Make noise. If all else fails, curl up into a tight fetal position, like a pill-ball.

Finally, we need to reserve one of the designated camp sites. Our plan was to hike the Colorado River Trail, which was on the other side of the park. We chose the closest available site on that trail. After all, the trailhead is hours away on the opposite side of the park, and it was already mid-afternoon.

Permits in hand, we headed west on Trail Ridge Road. It’s one of the most iconic scenic drives in the country, but it can also be a slow-moving parade of vans, motorhomes, and distracted drivers. There’s a relatively low posted speed limit, but the true pace is set by the heaviest and most underpowered vehicle on the road.

As we climbed the mountain, we went from dense pine forest through a series of climate transitions until we were in alpine tundra and surrounded by snowy peaks. We pulled over briefly to photograph the first herd of elk that we saw… hundreds of yards from the road. Just before the road started descending again we saw another group of elk. This one was much closer to the road, but the lack of pull-out areas resulted in a bit of a traffic jam.

If was 4:30 when we finally had our packs on and were setting out on the Colorado River Trail. When we had hiked long enough to be away from the highway noise, we took a rest stop on a meadow. We looked up from where we were sitting, and a group of elk were grazing less than fifty feet from us.

While we were passing a rock field we saw a group of marmots. They made us think of the “brown barbaloots” that Dr. Seuss described in “The Lorax.” Some of them were playful while others watched over the scene from higher up.

By the time the sun was going down, we hadn’t reached our reserved campsite. We were gonna have to improvise. So we found a fairly level meadow close to the trail and set up our camp there. No fires are allowed outside designated campsites, but that wasn’t a problem.

Our dinner was trail mix, cheese & crackers, yogurt pretzels, and a beer. The nighttime air was cool, crisp and bug-free. And the stars were incredible.