Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Western Colorado (5/22-5/24/2016)

Enjoying beautiful weather, I've spent several days exploring some of the towns around the "Western Slope".  Delta is located about twenty miles north of Montrose, and is slightly less than half the size.  The town started out as a trading post for early settlers and the Ute nation in the late 1800s.  Its name is the result of being located on the delta where the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers join.  It calls itself "The City of Murals", most of which reflect the culture and history of the region, starting with a tribute to Fathers Dominguez and Escalante who explored this area in 1776 while looking for a better route from Santa Fe to the missions in northern California.  Local canyons are named in honor of both men.

The long-standing peaceful relationship with the Ute Nation is also recognized.

The West Elk Wilderness Area and mountain range to the east of town is known for its great hunting.

There are also tributes to several of the smaller towns in the area which produce a variety of fruits and vegetables. Some people are surprised by the volume of apples and peaches grown here.

 Like the rest of this area, Delta is surrounded by the unusual "adobe badlands", a big attraction for ATV and dirt bike drivers.

Near the village of Hotchkiss, I visited Pleasure Park (recommended by a friend) to see where the Gunnison River and the North Fork of The Gunnison merge.  Notice the difference in color of the two streams.

While at the confluence, I met a group of folks preparing to raft down the river.  That stretch of water is running pretty fast, but has nothing more than Class II rapids.  The 14 miles above the confluence runs through the Black Canyon (but outside the NP) and has Class III and Class IV rapids.

I also took a drive up on Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world.  Created by lava flow from the nearby volcanic West Elk range, Grand Mesa is just over 10,500 feet in elevation.  In other words, it's almost a mile higher than the surrounding valley.  Along the drive up the mountain, there are various zones due to elevation change.  At the lower elevations, there isn't much snow left, and the aspens are leafing out.  Higher, the trees are still bare and lots of snow remains.

There are numerous lakes on the mountain and many of them have lodges on their shores.  Some lodges are strictly summer operations, but some are open all year.  Those open in the winter need snow clearing equipment to combat the 35 feet of average annual snowfall.

Frozen lakes show tracks from snowmobiles and skis, both popular among winter visitors.

The absence of trees is a sure sign of an avalanche area, also indicated by the crossbar used to close the road after an avalanche.

 The Visitor Center and a rental cabin give you an idea of the snow accumulation on Grand Mesa.

 The drive back down provides a good view of the West Elk Range and some of the homes located on the lower part of the mountain.


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Colorado National Monument (5/19/2016)

Seventy miles north of Montrose, Colorado National Monument is another park that flies under the radar of most people, particularly those who live in the eastern half of our country.  Annual visitation is estimated to be nearly 600,000 people, but that may not count everyone.  My visit, for example, started around 5:30 pm when the entrance kiosk wasn't staffed.  So, was my visit counted?  And what about all those locals who routinely arrive later in the day, after work, to hike the many trails in the park or bike the 23 mile Rim Rock Road.  There were many of both evident during my two-hour drive through the park.

Called "The Monument" by locals, this park consists of a series of canyons in the Colorado Plateau, created by our old friend erosion.  There are four main canyons, but numerous side canyons.  In addition, outside the park but accessed through the park, Rattlesnake Canyon (what an inviting name) has more sandstone arches than any area outside of Arches National Park.  I've saved that canyon for a future visit.

On my first visit here, almost twenty years ago, I immediately thought this place should be a National Park, rather than just a National Monument.  I learned that a man named John Otto, the first European to explore this area, had lobbied long and hard to gain National Park recognition.  Congress has never passed the required legislation, but Otto's efforts finally led to President Taft designating the place as a National Monument in 1911.  In recent years, efforts to gain National Park status have been renewed.  With minimal investment, I feel, the park could offer all the amenities and outdoor opportunities of our largest national parks and help attract visitors away from the most popular ones that are currently overcrowded.

Rim Rock Road, which can be driven in either direction, offers twelve official overlooks with parking areas and maintained trails.  However, there are many unofficial pullouts where people can park and just walk onto the  rim of some canyon. Views from the rim include the city of Grand Junction and the town of Fruita, plus Grand Mesa (the largest flat-topped mountain in the world), the Book Cliffs and the Colorado River.  Oh yeah, there are the canyons themselves and the many sandstone formations in the canyons.

There are many colorful plants to enjoy while walking, and several varieties of wildlife (although I saw very little this trip).

The unusual rock formations are part of the unique characteristics of Colorado National Monument.  I forget the names of most of them, but that's not important.



On the drive down from the rim, one pullout provides a great view of the road twisting below.

Colorado National Monument is just one of the many attractions available to visit on the "Western Slope" of Colorado.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Montrose, CO (5/17/2016)

During a stretch of "active" weather, when storm clouds surrounded Montrose almost all of every day and occasional showers and hail storms were occurring, I decided not to complain about the weather but to embrace the conditions by going somewhere the dramatic skies might be beneficial.  Black Canyon of The Gunnison, a national park located just a few miles outside of Montrose, fills that bill nicely.  Due to its remote location and lack of publicity, it is one of the least visited parks in the system.  Still, I have always found the canyon to be extremely interesting, providing spectacular scenery.  In years past, I have driven both the south and north rims, as well as enjoying the boat ride that's available in a small part of the canyon just outside the national park.

Black Canyon is named for its relative lack of sunlight due to its depth and extremely steep walls.  Within the park, the canyon ranges from 1700 feet to 2300 feet deep.  In the 1880s, the Rio Grande & Durango Railroad built a narrow gauge track through part of the canyon, since building a track over the high mesas in this area was considered impractical at that time.  Despite the difficulties associated with such a location, the train operated successfully for many years, not only hauling needed cargoes, but providing passengers with incredible views.  It finally went out of business in 1922, when alternative routes were readily available.

Early communities in the valley west of the Black Canyon were growing, but needed more reliable supplies of water to make their farms successful.  The perpetual flow of the Gunnison River was thought to be a solution, if only there was some way to divert some of it to the valley.  A tunnel through the mountain was planned and started in 1904.  With crews working from both ends, a tunnel 11 feet wide and 12 feet high was completed in 1909 and began delivering water to a system of canals throughout the valley.  That tunnel still provides water to these communities today.

The canyon itself was carved through the Gunnison Uplift, a huge bulge in the earth's crust, by the Gunnison River, which drops quite steeply on its way to the Colorado.  The river might have taken an easier path around the uplift, but volcanic activity was busily creating mountains to the east and south, blocking those alternatives.  The force of the river and all the sediments it carries, along with rain and snow penetrating crevices and freezing, as well as wind and the plants growing on the canyon slopes, all combined to shape the canyon over some two million years.  Several dams now in place upstream have smoothed the river's flow and reduced its power, so change in the canyon now comes much slower.

On arriving at the park, I took a ride to East Portal, where a small town once stood to support the building of the tunnel.  Now there is only a road to a dam, a ranger station and a campground. The road to East Portal is only five miles long, but three miles of it drops some 1800 feet with a 16% grade.  I put the Jeep in 4 Low to keep it in check.  Some young men I met at an overlook halfway down had scorched the brakes of their truck trying to slow its descent.  Although the rim of the canyon is 8300 feet above sea level, I noticed right away that aspens were leafing out with that bright green color, almost yellow.

This photo was taken from the mid-point overlook.  By the way, I've never felt the canyon is overly dark, maybe because I've never seen it when the sun is farther to the south.

At the bottom, a sign talks about the tunnel project.  The road follows the river to a point near one of the dams, known as the Crystal Dam.  Notice the snow poles are about eight feet tall.

At this level, it's easy to get good views of the jagged spires that make up the walls of the canyon.

Driving back to the rim, I took photos of the road ahead and behind.

The south rim road is about seven miles long and has twelve overlooks.  From parking to the overlook ranges from a few feet to a couple miles round trip.  If you did all of them, it would be a full day.  I stopped first at the Visitor Center, although I knew it had already closed.  It has a really good viewpoint.

In 1900, a team of local men set out to explore the canyon in preparation for digging a tunnel.  At a place called "The Narrows" their boat and all supplies on board were lost in the rapids.  The men then had a difficult time climbing out where the canyon is about 2000 feet deep, but all made it back alive.  As a side note, the Ute Indians lived on the rim, but there is no evidence that any humans ever inhabited the rugged canyon itself.  Note the continuous rapids at The Narrows, caused by all the boulders that have fallen into the river.

It was pretty obvious that the rim has gotten lots of moisture  recently, although summers may turn much drier.  Lots of bushes and wildflowers were thriving.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Indian Paintbrush

Desert Mahogany

One of the more popular overlooks is the Painted Wall, the deepest part of the canyon at 2300 feet.  Those patterns that inspired the name are where molten rock under pressure was forced into cracks and crevices in the existing rock and then hardened.

I was hoping to photograph a sunset over the canyon, but it appeared the heavy clouds would block the sunset.  Being so close, I can wait for another opportunity. The drive back to town afforded some good views of the sky, including a rainbow over the Cimmaron Range.

As a prospective resident of Montrose, I would recommend this national park be added to anyone's list of good places to visit.  After all, many people complain about the crowds at some of the more popular parks, but Black Canyon of The Gunnison has only slightly more than 200,000 visitors each year, compared to millions at other parks.  Also, there are many other attractions in the area that aren't national parks.