San Luis Valley: Aliens, Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes!

In this post, I detail a recent trip the Trekkers took to the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado.

In early March Mr. Trekker and I enjoyed a quick, Spring Break trip! We traveled 600 miles to Monte Vista, in south-central Colorado, and got to enjoy the Monte Vista Crane Festival in the beautiful, San Luis Valley!

Our trip started with an interesting drive down I-25 in southeast Wyoming near Cheyenne. We got as far as Wheatland, Wyoming on the interstate, and then saw the flashing sign for “I-25 closed to Cheyenne”! (It had snowed the day before, and even though it was bright and sunny strong winds were causing blowing snow and bad enough winter conditions to close I-25 and I-80 for close to 12 hours!)  So, we had to turn around and drive in “a big f-ing circle”–per Mr. Trekker 😂–back to the nearest alternate route through Torrington.

Anyone who’s driven through MANY parts of Wyoming knows, alternate routes (or roads in general) can be hard to come by. 😝 

After navigating some black ice…in the dark…and some sketchy drivers (I’m looking at you reckless semi-truck! 😒) we finally made it safely to Cheyenne.  From there it was an easy trip to the hotel in Lakewood (with a quick stop at Chick-fil-A for dinner!)  This is the price we pay to live in the INCREDIBLE Mountain West and try to travel during the fickle, early spring. 😂

Snowy pastures with snow-covered Rocky Mountains in background

The next day we headed down the GORGEOUS Route 285 southwest of Denver.  I LOVE this drive, it is always SO PRETTY! It sweeps through mountain passes and across alpine valleys.  It was cool because we’ve never been to the Rockies when they had this much snow before! One of my favorite parts of the drive traverses South Park, an incredible valley in central Colorado. Click here for a video!

San Luis Valley, Colorado

Eventually, we arrived in the BEAU-tiful San Luis Valley!

The San Luis Valley, in southern Colorado, is an amazing place! It is the world’s largest high-altitude (alpine) valley that stretches over 100 miles north-to-south and is almost 75 miles in width.  It was once the bottom of a large lake and this is evident as the valley floor is flat as a pancake!  The valley is especially striking as it is lorded over on three sides by the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains that reach higher than 14,000 feet!  The views here are truly incredible! (Click here for a short video of the drive into the valley.)

Looking down the road at the long San Luis Valley. Snow-covered Sangre de Cristo mountains on the left.
Driving into the incredible San Luis Valley!

Where is the San Luis Valley?

You will find this amazing valley hidden…in the middle of nowhere. 😉  The southern tip of the valley is only about 35 miles north of the state’s southern border with New Mexico.  The valley is also situated almost directly in the center of Colorado (going west-to-east).  It sits around 150 miles west of the mountain town of Durango and 120 miles from I-25 (nearest to the small town of Trinidad and the larger city of Pueblo.)

Pastureland backed by snow-covered mountains that are pink as they reflect the setting sun
Sangre de Cristo mountains living up to their name!

Fun Things to do in the San Luis Valley

The San Luis Valley is chock full of fun (and sometimes downright WEIRD) things to do! 

Great Sand Dunes National Park

This is the second time we’ve visited this park.  The first was several years ago in October (another lovely time to visit.)  We were able to hike higher on the dunes this time but we still haven’t made it to the top.  Those things are steep and they’re situated at like 8900 feet of elevation so you’re dealing with thinner air too!  It always seems to be windy at the Dunes (but I suppose that makes sense as wind is what created them. 😉)

Snow-covered pasture and sand dunes with snow-topped Sangre de Cristo mountains in background
Great Sand Dunes under the watchful eye of the Sangres!
Snow-covered sand dunes with a clear, blue sky
Snow-covered sand dunes
Snow-covered sand dunes with mountains in the background and a clear, blue sky.
Panorama of the Sand Dunes!
People seem tiny as they climb a sand dune
A view up one of the mid-sized dunes. (We made it to the top of this!)
Person with back to camera standing with arms-outstretched atop a sand dune.
Tranquil Trekker, Queen of the Sand Dune!

Snow-covered sand dunes with snow-covered mountains and a clear, blue sky in the background

Crestone, Colorado

The small town of Crestone, Colorado is found in the northeast corner of the valley. The town has a population of only a little over 100 people but at least eight different religions offer sites here.  They range from a co-ed Catholic monastery to Buddhist, Hindu, and New Age offerings.  You can see a Ziggurat–a monument commonly found to honor ancient, Mesopotamian gods.  There are also Buddhist and Hindu centers.  This tiny town even hosts the only open-air funeral pyre (used for open-air cremation) in the country!

Aliens in the San Luis Valley?

This valley is known for one very unique characteristic, a large amount of UFO sightings!  This has helped it earn the title of the “Bermuda Triangle of the West”.  There have been recorded UFO sightings in the valley since the Spanish Conquistadors first came here in the 1500s! (Before that time there are stories of “Star People” found in the ancient legends of the American Indian tribes who were here far earlier.)

No one knows exactly why there are so many UFO sightings here:

      • It could be due to the incredibly dark, night sky that is somewhat unique to this area.  This is provided by the towering mountains that surround the majority of the valley blocking out light pollution from larger towns in the local area.
      • This region is also very rural, some of the largest towns in the valley only boast populations of around 10,000 people.
      • Some also suggest these sightings may be related to covert operations occurring at Cheyenne Mountain, a military base located less than 200 miles to the northeast (not too far as the secret government plane flies. 😮 😉)
Alien figure surrounded by and covered in trinkets and figurines
Benevolent Guardian of the UFO Watchtower vortices?

Whatever the reason though, there are more UFO sightings here than at the infamous, Roswell, New Mexico.

UFO Watchtower!

Continuing with the “out-of-this-world” tradition of the San Luis Valley is the UFO Watchower!  We discovered this unique locale the first time we visited the valley.  We literally stumbled on it as we were driving down the road. 😂  We didn’t have time to stop then so Mr. Trekker promised we could return on the next trip!

A small, open tower with an uncovered deck on top
The UFO Watchtower!
Desert landscape with tower railings and trinkets in the foreground, snow-covered mountains far in the background
Panorama from the UFO Watchower

It takes a little imagination and a BIG open mind to fully appreciate the quirkiness of the site.  The story goes that two large, energy vortices are found here.  One spins clockwise, the other counterclockwise. (They are said to be connections to other dimensions/universes.  Supposedly, 25 different psychics have visited the site and have confirmed this.)  Several have also claimed that two large “beings” protect the vortices (they’re supposed to be friendly as long as you are respectful. 😇)

I’m not sure I believe any of this, but science has shown the earth has different magnetic fields, so maybe these could influence the area?  Neither of us sensed anything strange but maybe we’re just skeptics? 😝  

Desert landscape with trinkets in the foreground, snow-covered mountains far in the background
View from the UFO Watchtower

There is “The Garden” where people leave trinkets (I left a bobby pin, it’s all I had in my pocket. 😇)  Some of the psychics also claim there is a mile-long mothership buried in the ground underneath the watchtower. (Could this help explain all the UFO sightings? 👽🖖)

Desert landscape with trinkets in the foreground, snow-covered mountains far in the background
“The Garden”

Old satellite dish covered with stickers and surrounded by trinkets in the foreground, snow-covered mountains far in the background

Where is the UFO Watchtower?

The UFO Watchtower sits around three miles north of the tiny community of Hooper, Colorado.  You will find it on Route 17, a little more than halfway down the San Luis Valley.  It is situated around 25 miles north of one of the largest towns in the valley, Alamosa, and about 60 miles south of the town of Salida.

Desert landscape with space-like robots in the foreground, snow-covered mountains far in the background

The friendly proprietor of the site claims that since the destination opened in May of 2000 around 231 “tourists from outer space” have been spied in the night sky over the valley. (The owner claims she’s seen around 28 “things she can’t explain”.)

Sandhill Cranes!

The main reason we chose this weekend to visit the San Luis Valley is that it was the date of the annual, Sandhill Crane Festival (it occurs every year in early March.)  We always enjoy watching (and hearing!) the cranes fly over our area every fall and spring, their unique song echoing across the Hills as they fly high on the thermals.

We actually learned while we were down there that the Cranes that fly over the Black Hills are NOT the ones we were watching in the San Luis Valley. These are the greater Sandhill Cranes that migrate to the Yellowstone area for the summer.  The ones that fly over our house are the lesser Cranes who summer in Canada. 

You can view the cranes, feeding, flying, and “loafing” about all around Monte Vista.  We especially enjoyed visiting the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge where we saw a bunch of geese too!

Click here for a video of the cranes, their incredible song and their “flight ballet”…

Banner that says, "Monte Vista Crane Festival" in front of pastureland
Monte Vista Sandhill Crane Festival!
Pastureland covered in flocks of Sandhill Cranes in foreground, snow-covered mountain peaks in background
Feeding and “loafing” cranes

Places to Eat in the San Luis Valley

The Trekkers always find great places to eat on our adventures:

The Cow –a yummy place for breakfast (This locale is not actually in the San Luis Valley. It is located in Morrison, Colorado, not far from the Red Rocks Amphitheater.)
San Luis Valley Brewing Company–Alamosa, Colorado.  A good place for dinner and/or drinks
–Campus Cafe–Alamosa, Colorado.  Another great place for breakfast (and probably the best meal we had all weekend!)
Purple Pig Pizzeria–Another fun place for a post-adventure meal!

If you want to explore a lesser-known part of the incredible state of Colorado, check out all the amazing San Luis Valley has to offer!

Have you checked out any of these sites in the San Luis Valley?  Tell me about them in the comments! 

 

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Want to visit a beautiful and lesser known part of Colorado? Check out the San Luis Valley! Home to UFOs, sand dunes, sandhill cranes and much more!

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Guide to Colorado Backroads and 4WD Trails: A Book Review

I review a collection of guidebooks the Trekkers have found helpful regarding 4×4 roads and trails in Colorado.

The Guide to Colorado Backroads and 4-Wheel-Drive Trails may have a long name, but these are some of the best guidebooks I’ve used, in general. (To be fair, I don’t have much experience with books that, specifically, discuss 4WD trails).  In this post, I mentioned that we used these books quite a bit during our Colorado road trip this summer. 

What makes the books so great?

The book series is composed of two volumes that encompass the central and southern regions, and the northern region of the state and divide the roads and trails into classifications of “easy”, “moderate” and “difficult”.  They give incredibly detailed descriptions of the routes (down to the tenth of a mile), and also discuss rules regarding permits needed, unlicensed off-road vehicles, etc.  

It should be noted that the books make the assumption that a 4WD vehicle will be used when attempting these roads/trails,  So, classifications of “easy” should be understood within that context.  We found some (though not all) of the “easy” roads should be approached with care in a passenger vehicle (even higher-clearance vehicles such as my Subaru Outback).  It should also be noted that even the easiest trail can quickly become difficult if weather conditions deteriorate.   

The books tell you what you will encounter on the route

The books’ excerpts describe the types of vehicles that each route can accommodate–a full-sized truck or jeep versus an ATV with a shorter wheelbase, whether or not modifications (such as skid plates, rock sliders, winches, etc.) are advisable.  These excerpts also do a good job of differentiating between paved and gravel roads (information we found to be lacking in the Gazetteer), the usual condition of the routes, as well as how surface conditions can vary based on changing weather conditions. 

The books give directions on how to reach a route, bug-out options if needed (and if they’re available at all), hazards to watch out for, the best time of the year to experience the trail (as well as when they may be closed, entirely, due to weather conditions), and contact numbers to verify the most updated road conditions.  The route’s length, the highest altitude it reaches, activities available on or near the trail (availability of camping, hiking, rock crawling, ghost towns to explore, etc.) are also discussed.  Color-coded maps are provided in spiral-bound, durable pages that make for easy use in a vehicle (I can vouch for this as the navigator).  😉  

Related Posts:  7 “Must-See” Colorado Ghost TownsThe Best Hidden Gems of Northern ColoradoThe Backroads of ColoradoThe Drive to Crystal Mill in Colorado

According to Amazon, similar books by the same authors are available for other locales as well, including, Moab, Utah, and portions of Arizona and California.  I can’t speak for the quality of these volumes, though, if they’re anything like the ones described above (and I have no reason to believe they aren’t), they would be beneficial additions to any gear list if you’re visiting these areas.  

So, if you’re itching to get away from the crowds and explore some Colorado backroads, consider these books for your adventure!

Have you ever used either of these books?  What did you think of them?  Tell me about your experience in the comments! 

 

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Have you been looking to try your hand at some Colorado backroads? Check out this series of books I found helpful.

 

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7 “Must-See” Colorado Ghost Towns

I review several ghost towns we toured around the Colorado High Country as well as our drive up Independence Pass.

During our 2018 road trip, we REALLY enjoyed the ghost towns we visited in Colorado.  I am a big fan of ghost towns, they give you a true, visual understanding of how people lived “back in the day”.  I’m a very visual person so this helps me fully appreciate what their lives must have been like.  I prefer the towns that are restored, with at least several buildings remaining that you can view.  Sometimes, however, the places that are comprised mostly of ruins allow you to use your own imagination of how they must have appeared in their heyday.

Below is a list of the several ghost towns we visited:

Teller City Ghost Town: 

This was the first ghost town we visited and the one that required the most effort to access.  The townsite is near State Forest State Park, around nine miles south of Gould, Colorado, on Route 740 (Baker Pass Road).  You reach it by driving on a, somewhat rough, 4WD shelf road. (The Guide to Colorado Backroads† book that I mentioned in a previous post, rates this road as “easy”.  I would rate it as “moderate”.  A high clearance, 4WD vehicle should be all you’d need to access this site in good conditions).  The route was fairly well marked and obvious, but be watchful.  The road branched off several times and the correct route was only marked with orange, snowmobile trail markers (this is a snow machine route in the winter months).  

One plus with this site is that there’s a designated parking area and then you hike a Nature Trail loop to view the remains of the town.  Not much is left, but you could almost hear the voices of the patrons visiting the bustling shops, and smell the dust kicked up by the wagons as they rolled along, what used to be, a bustling Main Street.  

At various stops along the trail, markers describe the history of that home or business.  At one of the stops, the words of a young girl who came into town one winter night, via the pass, were noted.  Her description of the twinkling town lights flickering through the evening shadows was incredible.  We didn’t actually complete the 4×4 road all the way to Baker Pass, though we spoke with a local who said it was worth the drive, but daylight was waning (and the mosquitoes were starting to bite!) 😝

Below are some pics of the ruins at Teller City (as usual, thanks to Mr. Trekker for several of these):

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An old well pit

Coalmont, Colorado: 

After leaving State Forest State Park, we visited this site on our way to the Flattop Wilderness area.  Only the schoolhouse remains of this dusty hamlet, but from what we could see through the grime-spattered window, it appears to have been restored inside.  It would have been neat to be able to view it in more detail! 

The townsite is located off of Route 14, southwest of Walden, and can be reached via either Route 24 or Route 26 (they form a half-moon shaped loop here).  The location is directly off of Route 26.

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Remains of an old ranch at Grand Mesa National Forest:

This site is located on top of the mesa, off the Land’s End Road.  It is the remains of a ranch that operated in this area long ago.  Several cabins, one of which you can walk inside, and an old livestock corral, have been restored.  They can be viewed on a Nature Trail loop (it is part of a cross-country ski trail in the snowy months).  

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The old corral

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Pitkin Ghost Town: 

This “living” ghost town is located about 27 miles east of Gunnison Colorado.  Take US 50, east, from Gunnison, then turn left onto Route 76 in Parlin.  

As an aside, we enjoyed several good meals in Gunnison.  We had a wonderful breakfast at the W. Café, and, I can attest, that the High Alpine Brewing Company makes great pizza!

At about the halfway point on Route 76, you will pass the “living” ghost town of Ohio City.  I call them “living” because some hearty souls are still living in both of these locations!  The rain was falling fairly heavily as we passed through Ohio City, so we chose not to stop, but Pitkin should definitely be on your list of places to visit!  It was one of the more “real-feel” ghost towns we toured as it wasn’t crowded with visitors, and enough of the old buildings have been restored that you felt as though you were actually walking down the town’s Main Street.  Silver Plume General Store, located on the east side of town at the corner of 9th and State Streets, is a great place to stop for lunch.  We certainly enjoyed our burgers from the outdoor grille!  This is the last chance at civilization if you’re venturing onward to Tincup, Cottonwood Pass, the Alpine Tunnel, or St. Elmo ghost town via Tincup Pass.

We didn’t make it to Tincup on this trip, being that Cottonwood Pass was closed for paving.  We are hoping to, one day, try the Tincup Pass between Tincup and St. Elmo and hike to the Alpine Tunnel.  Another journey for another time, I don’t worry that we’ll be back in Colorado soon!  😁

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Below is a short video I took of the hummingbirds near the Pitkin Hotel.  I’ve always liked hummingbirds, but I’ve never heard them make this noise outside of Colorado…

St. Elmo Ghost Town: 

Everyone we talked to (and the books we read) told us we HAD to visit St. Elmo, and it was, definitely, worth the visit.  The only disappointment I had with this town is that vehicles are allowed to park in the town itself.  The spirit of the old town is kind of ruined when there’s a modern Audi parked in front of Town Hall. 😝  Also, they were restoring several buildings while we were there—which I’m sure is necessary and will be wonderful when it’s completed—but it meant that construction equipment was parked along Main Street.  *sigh*  Guess we’ll have to visit another time! 😉 

As I mentioned previously, if you’re daring, you can reach St. Elmo via Tincup Pass.  If you’re looking for a tamer route, you can do what we did and take the long way.  The following day, we took Route 50 east of Gunnison through Monarch Pass (another great view) and turned north onto US 285 at Poncha Springs.  We then took Route 162 west–an out-and-back road (for the less daring among us)–toward the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs resort and on to St. Elmo.  

Near this area, there’s also a turnoff for Hagerman Pass Road to the site of another ghost town, Hancock.  From there, you can hike to the Alpine Tunnel from the east, though it sounded as though the hike is longer and the view isn’t quite as good as hiking from the west side–we chose not to complete the hike at this time due to time constraints and the monsoon-fueled thunderheads that were threatening.  

As I stated previously, since we missed a few spots this time around, we’ll be putting this area on our “must-visit” list for the future.  It’s always a shame when you visit a location and find out you HAVE to come back to explore further (that happens to us regularly on trips, especially in Colorado…have I mentioned that I enjoy vacationing in this state?) 😉

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The Cascades Waterfall near Buena Vista, Colorado:

After leaving Saint Elmo, on our way east, back to US 285, we stopped at the Cascades.  This is a lovely waterfall that’s just off the side of the road.  It’s a beautiful, peaceful location where you can walk right up to the base of the river that creates a picturesque waterfall in this area as it cascades across boulders–hence the name. 😉  

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Gothic Ghost Town, Crested Butte, Colorado: 

I was a bit disappointed by this town.  The restoration of many of the buildings is exceptional, as they are still in use.  The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory bought the town–which we knew, what I hadn’t realized is that the lab has taken over almost the entirety of it.  As it’s now, mostly, all private property, it’s almost impossible to tour around and browse the various buildings.  I’m glad the town is being used for something, and I’m thankful to the lab for helping to save its structures, I just wish the historical features were easier to access.  And a note to the general store in town; you close by four, in the middle of summer, on a Saturday?!  REALLY?!  Afternoons are a good time for people to eat ice cream you know!  😝😳😉

You can reach Gothic by taking Gothic Road, Route 317, north of Crested Butte and the ski village.  You can’t miss it, this is, literally, the only main road going north of town! 😉  This will also lead you to Schofield Pass that I discussed in this post.  

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Signs regarding the lab dotted the entire town 😕

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Main Street in Gothic

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The General Store with its questionable hours of operation 😝

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Independence Ghost Town and Independence Pass:

This was my favorite ghost town of the entire trip!  It’s easy to access as the site is located directly on Independence Pass.  You actually park at a pullout on the Pass road and then hike out to the site, so no vehicles marred the view.  You walk in about one mile, on an old, two-track road.  You can see the townsite from quite a way off, which helps you to imagine what it must have felt like riding a horse or wagon along that route during the height of the town’s life.

Related Posts:  Guide to Colorado Backroads and 4-Wheel-Drive Trails: Book ReviewThe Best Hidden Gems of Northern ColoradoThe Backroads of ColoradoThe Drive to Crystal Mill in Colorado

The town is located on Independence Pass (Route 82), around 16 miles east of Aspen, and around 21 miles west of Twin Lakes.  It’s just east of the peak of the Pass itself, and is, actually, easy to miss.  It’s below the grade of the road and the two parking pullouts are small and not well marked.  There are, blue, “Places of Interest” signs, but you have to be watching for them.  We actually saw the ruins of the mill, first.  The townsite is located in a valley, along the Roaring Fork River, framed by the towering Sawatch Range on both sides.  

Independence Pass was incredibly beautiful as well.  This one has been on my Colorado Bucket List for some time and it did not disappoint! (It was also the highest altitude we reached on this trip, maxing out at, just over, 12,000 feet!)  The scenic overlook and hiking area at the top of the Pass offer, almost, 360-degree views of the Continental Divide, which the Pass spans.

Independence Pass:

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We finally topped 12,000 feet!

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I made another video of our drive up Independence Pass.  I think my videographer skills got a “little” better with this one! 🤔

Independence Ghost Town:

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I don’t imagine this view was much different when the town was thriving

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You may have noticed I’ve been enjoying using a Sun Company altimeter† on this trip.  It responds to changes in barometric pressure caused by weather, as well as pressure, so you may have to recalibrate it a little each day to maintain the most accurate readings. But, for amateur interest, it’s a fun, portable, way to keep track of changes in elevation–it connects to the vehicle using velcro so it can be easily removed and taken on a hike if you’re so inclined. 

If you’re looking for something fun to do this summer, definitely check out the ghost towns of the Colorado High Country! 

Have you visited any of these amazing places?  Tell me about it in the comments!

Did you enjoy this post?  Pin it!

Who doesn't like a good ghost story?! Be sure to put these ghost towns around Colorado's High Country on your must-see list!

 

†As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases

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The Drive to Crystal Mill in Colorado

Our trip to Marble, CO, the renowned Crystal Mill and the Crystal ghost town via a thrilling trek over a 4×4 road.

Palms are damp, heart is racing, stomach is churning as I grab the truck’s “Jesus handle” and see my life flash before my eyes while Mr. Trekker slowly inches the vehicle ever closer to the drop-off….

Let’s back up and start this story at the beginning…

Crystal Mill

The Crystal Mill is one of the most photographed sites in all of Colorado and a key reason we embarked on this road trip to begin with.  First off, let’s just get the technicalities out of the way.  This isn’t actually the mill (even though that’s the common name for it), it’s actually the powerhouse for the mill.  This is all that remains of the abandoned site.  The actual mill lost its battle with nature many years ago.  I just wanted to get that out of the way for all the “sticklers-for-detail” out there, now for the fun stuff!  😁

After several days at Grand Mesa, and a wonderful breakfast at Connie’s in Cedaredge, we traversed a beautiful gorge dotted with coal mines and then a spectacular canyon on Route 133.  The drive into Marble (the departure point for our adventure) was a sight to behold in itself!  This was the first real alpine view we’d had on our trip to date, and the drive over McClure Pass and down the switchbacks into town was incredible.  Before reaching the pass we could already see the dichotomy between opposing ecosystems; the drier scrubland on the western slopes and the wetter, alpine peaks on the eastern slopes of the pass.  As we rounded the first curves and began our descent down the eastern side of the pass, the yawning chasm of the valley opened up in front of us, edged by the towering peaks of the nearby mountains.

Colorado’s Alpine Beauty

THIS is why I love the mountains so much!  That first glimpse of the majestic, alpine peaks is what keeps me coming back time and again, never tiring of their pristine beauty.  It’s a humbling experience, feeling so small next to those gigantic monoliths that continue on, one after another, for miles on end, standing the test of time eternal.  How many eons has the rock that forms them been in existence?  How many more will it continue existing, affected only by the passage of time?  It makes our puny, maybe-a-century-long, human existence on the planet seem paltry in comparison. 

Related Posts:  Guide to Colorado Backroads and 4-Wheel-Drive Trails: Book ReviewThe Best Hidden Gems of Northern ColoradoThe Backroads of Colorado7 “Must-See” Colorado Ghost Towns

Viewing vast expanses like this, for me, is a transcendent experience.  My spirit is refreshed more by a day in the mountains than a week in a church pew.  Being allowed the privilege of experiencing creation on this visceral level; as you breathe in the damp loam of the forest floor, and feel the competing elements of heat from the sun and the cool, mountain breeze that simultaneously caress your skin.  For me, these experiences leave no doubt of the presence of a Creator.  What better way to appreciate said Creator than by encountering its creation?       

The tiny village of Marble, Colorado

Marble, a tiny town with a permanent population of little more than 100 people, is nestled into the Rocky Mountains along the Crystal River.  Its claim to fame is the marble–hence the name–in its quarries that has been used for a few well-known places.  These include portions of the Lincoln Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington DC!  

The Road to Crystal Mill

The road to Crystal Mill, Forest Road 314, is listed as “moderate” in the 4×4 book I mentioned in this post.  It’s about a 10-mile, round-trip excursion from Marble to the mill, and then the ghost town of Crystal, beyond.  So, be prepared for a several-hour adventure, especially depending on your mode of transportation.  The road is open for hiking, biking, and vehicles, so all should proceed cautiously and be ready to encounter others on the path.  

I approached this route with a bit of trepidation.  This road connects with Schofield Pass to the east, via the sometime’s-deadly Devil’s Punchbowl.  (As I mentioned previously, we chose not to attempt that adventure on this trip, maybe someday, though!)  We knew this would be one of our more challenging 4×4 adventures to date, so, with sweaty palms and a pounding heart, we passed Beaver Lake and headed for the unknown.  

As it turned out, the technical difficulty of the road was completely manageable, our earlier drive on Montgomery Pass Road, as outlined hereactually proved more challenging.  The road was rocky, for sure, with a water crossing or two in places, but any high-clearance, 4WD vehicle could manage it in fair weather conditions.  The difficulty arose when you met people coming the other way on this one-lane, two-way, shelf road!  😳  The smashed cab of the ancient truck I saw lying at the bottom of one of the ravines didn’t help to quell my nerves any!  😕

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The road to Crystal

There was only one, truly nerve-wracking moment when we were forced to hug the edge of a cliff as we waited for an ATV to pass us.  Fortunately, this was an area with a bit of a turn-off where the road “widened” to about 1 1/2-lane width, so it was actually the perfect place to meet an oncoming vehicle.  As we hovered on the rim of the canyon, several hundred feet in the air, my acrophobic tendencies spiked as Mr. Trekker had to inch towards the drop-off to make room for the other car.  These conditions are a normal part of driving back roads in the mountains so, while manageable, these roads are not for the faint of heart!  (Did I mention this was the “safe” and “easy” portion of this road?)  😜   

We did arrive safely at Crystal Mill, and it is, truly, all it’s lauded to be.  There’s a reason why this is one of the most photographed sites in all of Colorado.  The mountains provide a picturesque backdrop and aspens frame the Crystal River as it courses down a small waterfall and edges the side of the mill before continuing on to Marble, farther down the valley.  The water roars as it rushes past, caring naught for anyone or anything that gets in it’s path.  It presses on with one purpose, to obey the demand of it’s master, to continue on to where the call of gravity slackens.

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The iconic Crystal Mill (powerhouse) 😉

Crystal “Ghost Town”

The ghost town of Crystal is located only a few hundred feet beyond the site of the mill and is not, truly, abandoned–at least in the summer months–as many of the old buildings have been restored and are now privately owned as small, mountain getaways.  The town itself makes for a good turn-around point on the road for those of us who are less brave (wiser?), and are not willing to take on the Devil’s Punchbowl.  We returned to Marble, the way we had come, without further incident.       

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Crystal ghost town

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Just Groovin’!

After that adventure, we decided we had earned a celebratory meal (also, we were hungry!)  There is a cool BBQ restaurant, in Marble, called Slow Groovin BBQ.  The food was wonderful and was just what our appetites had ordered!  You can visit their website here, they also have a location that is open year-round in Snowmass.  I liked the message they had printed on the bottom of their menu (see the pic below).  I took the message to mean we should focus on the present, appreciating the potential joy that every experience has to offer us.  So, we adopted this attitude for the rest of our trip.  

Now that we’ve returned home, this is something I’m trying to implement into my everyday life as well.  (I always try to garner insight from our trips, and I always come away inspired when we visit Colorado–have I mentioned I LOVE this state? 😉)  It’s a struggle for me, particularly with my anxiety, but I’m always trying to be more Present…not rushing from task to task, not constantly being worried about how the next item on the list is going to get accomplished (or even what it is); just “groovin'” through the current moment.   

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This is the message that is printed at the bottom of the Slow Groovin menu that I found so inspiring (reprinted with permission).

We had planned to camp at an RV park we located on the map in town.  Unfortunately, it was full for the night.  Since there is no cell service to speak of in the valley, and we were fresh off our life lesson to “just groove”, we decided to press on to see what camping options awaited us in the Gunnison National Forest.  We were SO glad we did!  It turned out, merely 20 minutes down the road, we came upon a National Forest campground that was nestled against the Crystal River and found, what ended up being, one of our favorite campsites of the entire trip (have I mentioned National Forest campgrounds are AWESOME?) 😉  We happened to arrive shortly after the most scenic campsite in the entire campground became available, early.  So, we snatched it up!  Sometimes, “winging it” works out for the best!  It was located mere feet from the river itself!  Due to the Stage 2 fire ban, no campfires were allowed, so we enjoyed a relaxing evening riverside, dangling our feet into the cool water, reading the books we brought along while enjoying the sounds of the bubbling river.  

This trek to the Crystal Mill was definitely one for the Bucket List. If you’re even in the central Colorado High Country, I’d encourage you to visit it as well.  You’ll be glad you did!

Have you visited this incredible, Colorado landmark?  Tell me about your experience getting there in the comments!

Did you enjoy this post?  Pin it!

Have you always wanted to visit the iconic Crystal Mill, near Marble, Colorado? Read on as I review our trip there via a thrilling trek over a 4x4 road.

 

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The Backroads of Colorado

This post outlines our adventures on several Colorado backroads, including some at State Forest State Park and around the Crested Butte area.

One of the main agenda items on the Trekkers’ road trip itinerary for 2018 was to improve our 4×4 driving (and navigation) skills.  

One series of books we found to be incredibly helpful is A Guide to Colorado Backroads.  It’s actually a series of books covering the northern, central and southern regions of the state that provide helpful information on the roads and trails including their difficulty level, equipment needed to successfully complete them, and details on each of the routes’ conditions.  

Below is a listing of the new roads we enjoyed:

Montgomery Pass Road, State Forest State Park

The first road we mastered, the Montgomery Pass Road at State Forest State Park, ended up being the most technical route we attempted on the trip. This out-and-back trek is listed as “moderate” in the guidebook.  It was fun, though, definitely, challenging.  A high clearance, 4WD vehicle is required and skid plates are an added benefit–we were VERY glad for them as we scraped across one particular rock.  Several spots even required me to exit the vehicle and play “spotter” for Mr. Trekker to assist him in navigating the obstacles…it was fun!  😁  The road was wide, with room to pass in most spots, and mostly traversed the forest, so, it lacked the stomach-churning shelf roads we experienced on much of the rest of the trip.  

The road ends before it reaches the top of the pass, and the final half-mile or so must be completed on foot.  It’s an easy hike (minus the altitude) as the trail is an abandoned forest road.  It was windy at over 11,000 feet, but the incredible views of the Never Summer Mountains and promise of the 360-degree vista at the top provide motivation despite beleaguered lungs.  The wildflowers had begun to carpet the surrounding meadows while snow still blanketed portions of the nearby peaks (in early July!)   Another quality of this wilderness area is that we felt like we had the entire mountain to ourselves on a Monday morning, seeing only two other groups for the duration of the excursion.  You can also hike the entire way to the peak from the other side of the mountain.  The trailhead is off of Route 14 on the eastern edge of the park.   

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Made it to the top of Montgomery Pass!
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The view from the summit

Bockman Road, State Forest State Park

We supplemented that adventure with a side trip down Bockman Road which intersects the Montgomery Pass Road farther down the mountain.  This road was easy, I think my Outback may have been able to handle it if you were careful on a few of the bumpy sections.  It was dirt, but wide enough for two vehicles and mostly graded.  It made for a fun, relaxing afternoon as a bubbling creek accompanied us for much of the trip, as well as countless more wildflowers (have I mentioned the wildflowers are beautiful in Colorado this time of year?) 😉  

Gothic Road near Crested Butte

Probably the most nerve-wracking drive we completed was Gothic Road, from Gothic ghost town to Schofield Pass–I discuss Gothic in this post.  The road is in good condition–a sedan could probably negotiate it.  The problem we ran into was that it is a 1 1/2-lane shelf road with a significant drop-off at one side and no barrier–a frequent condition we encountered on Colorado back roads.  When we were there it was also INCREDIBLY busy; filled with 2-way traffic in addition to hikers and mountain bikers.  Part of the trouble was that we were there on a weekend in July (our fault, it was just the way the trip itinerary worked out).  But the horde of visitors combined with people who are unaccustomed to driving in those white-knuckle conditions made for what felt like a genuinely unsafe situation from time to time.  

From the top of the pass, a dangerous 4×4 road continues on through the acclaimed “Devil’s Punchbowl” to Crystal Mill–one of the worst 4×4 accidents in Colorado history occurred on this road.  We chose NOT to take that route, 😝 but stay tuned next week for the 4×4 adventure we had on Forest Road 314 from Marble to Crystal Mill!

Schofield Pass and Slate River Road

Once we reached Schofield Pass, we completed the loop via Slate River Road (Forest Road 734) through Paradise Divide.  This section was not only FAR quieter and more relaxing, it was also one of the most scenic drives I’ve ever been on (it made the other half of the loop worth the gray hairs). 😉  Showcasing towering mountains donning green meadows, grass-covered avalanche chutes, and streaming rivers fueled by snowmelt, this drive is incredible!  We were fortunate enough to grab one of the last remaining dispersed campsites in this area that was nestled right next to a small canyon.  We fell asleep listening to the water coursing through it that night!

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Waterfall along Paradise Divide
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Our campsite
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View from the campsite

Below is a video I took of the Divide.  Be patient with me, I have NO videographer experience, and the road was bumpy, and this was taken on an iPhone.  But…this valley was so INCREDIBLY beautiful, I had to share this with you!  You can see why they gave it the name they did! 😎

The drive from Rifle to Grand Mesa Colorado

Even when not looking for a 4×4 adventure, we learned that travel on Colorado back roads can be an interesting experience.  We drove the back route from Rifle to Grand Mesa National Forest, taking Dry Hollow Road from Silt.  Then we continued via Route 270 into Colbran and then took Route 121 to enter Grand Mesa the back way.  The drive was lovely!  The eclectic scenery transitioned from desert-like scrubland in the Rifle area to aspen forest in the higher elevations, then to rolling farmland in the valleys–that reminded us of Pennsylvania–before ending in the spruce forests that comprise Grand Mesa.  

Related Posts:  Guide to Colorado Backroads and 4-Wheel-Drive Trails: Book ReviewThe Best Hidden Gems of Northern Colorado, 7 “Must-See” Colorado Ghost TownsThe Drive to Crystal Mill in Colorado

I mentioned earlier that the gazetteer didn’t always differentiate road surfaces well.  We found the regular road atlas (and the 4×4 book mentioned above) gave far better indications of what to expect for the actual conditions of the roads.  In this situation, these routes were indicated to be “major connectors” (and I’m sure they were for that, extremely rural, area). However, this indication included roads that varied from paved and painted to those that are dirt/gravel, with some being extremely rough due to a washboard surface.  They were, often, also, narrow and winding (where two, full-size vehicles may struggle to pass).  Many also hugged the sides of cliffs on shelf roads.  They offered incredible views but may be alarming to people who aren’t accustomed to those conditions.  We had a great time, but I note this so people are aware these conditions can make travel more difficult and may require you to budget additional time to complete the drive.     

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Viewpoint on the road to Grand Mesa from Silt

These portions of our trip were thrilling, nerve-wracking and challenging.  However you manage to do it, whether it be machine-powered by a 4×4 vehicle or using your own two feet, I’d encourage you to venture out onto these lesser-traveled routes (as you are comfortable, of course).  You’ll see sites and experience adventures that the average person misses on the more well-traveled highways.  It will give you a whole different appreciation for the nature that surrounds us.

Stay tuned next week for an in-depth look at our trek to Crystal Mill!

Have you ever tried out any of these Colorado backroads?  Tell me about your experience in the comments!

Did you enjoy this post?  Pin it!


Looking to explore some backroads in Colorado's High Country? Read on for some around State Forest State Park and Crested Butte that you won't want to miss!
 

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The Best Hidden Gems of Northern Colorado

This post outlines our 2018 road trip adventure around the Colorado high country.

Last year we enjoyed the Colorado portion of our road trip so much, we thought we’d return for our summer trip this year!  This vacation turned out far better.  No projectile vomiting, no rivulets of blood running down a certain blogger’s leg, almost no injuries at all actually…just many, MANY, mosquito bites.  😜

For the last 6 months, we’d been planning to complete a grand loop of Colorado’s Hidden Gems; visiting ghost towns, furthering our 4×4 skills and enjoying the awesome scenery that is, Colorado.  Unfortunately, a winter with unusually low snowfall, and a dry spring, yielded a predictable result, wildfires.  One entire National Forest was placed under a Stage 3 fire ban and closed to all visitors for a time, while many others were under Stage 2 bans (no fires of any kind with the exception of gas cooking stoves).  

At first, we considered changing the trip entirely as it seemed likely that the beautiful vistas we were anticipating would be marred with heavy smoke, we also didn’t want to be an additional burden to those dealing with the fires on a daily basis.  After briefly considering the southwestern Montana backcountry, and deciding we’d like to leave grizzly encounters to another trip, 😳 we decided to stick with Colorado.  Fortunately, about that time the monsoon season kicked in and the fires began to slacken.  We were SO glad we made the choice we did!

Related Posts:  Guide to Colorado Backroads and 4-Wheel-Drive Trails: Book Review, 7 “Must-See” Colorado Ghost TownsThe Backroads of ColoradoThe Drive to Crystal Mill in Colorado

In an effort to avoid the worst-hit areas, we altered our trip a bit and returned to the northern portion of the state to both State Forest State Park and Grand Mesa National Forest, two locations we had enjoyed so much last year.  We again had a great time at both locations.  We experienced disperse camping for the first time at State Forest, and at Grand Mesa, we enjoyed a lovely campsite within site of the–albeit low–lake.  We got to explore new places like Montgomery Pass (discussed in this post), as well as Lake Agnes, the Crags, the Flattop Wilderness area and the Land’s End Road at Grand Mesa.

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Our home for the week!
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View from our first dispersed campsite, near the Never Summer Mountains 

We also enjoyed COUNTLESS wildflowers throughout the trip.  We’d heard stories about the beautiful flora that carpets the Colorado mountains during summertime, but had never been there late enough in the year to experience it.  Their colors consisted primarily of red, yellow, purple and white variations.  Their beauty was worth the mosquitoes!  

This brings me to another point…if you visit these areas in the summer…buy stock in mosquito repellant first!  We’d experienced the little buggers (no pun intended 😇) a little bit last year, but not during prime season.  Those things can, almost, carry you away!  And they’re tenacious! They latch on until physically removed and are undeterred by vigorous hand-shaking or other, less forceful methods (which is problematic when you’re using both hands to complete other tasks).  I’m all about respecting Nature, but mosquitoes may be the one critter where I draw the line.  I just don’t see where they have ANY redeeming value.  They’re annoying, they spread–potentially deadly–disease, they do act as a food source for other animals, but aren’t there enough other creepy crawlies for those critters to live on?  I mean, COME ON!  Is it possible Mother Nature made a mistake with this one?  🤔

Public Service Announcement:  While I don’t enjoy smearing poison laden with Deet across my body, as someone who reacts STRONGLY to bug bites–to the point of being woken up by the itching in the middle of the night–I’ll defer to the poison on this one.  😝  There are more natural bug repellants available, but I’d encourage you to be VERY careful with your choices in bear country (especially grizzly country).  Anything, with any smell, should be avoided.  They claim bears can even be attracted to hand lotion or chapstick that’s been left in someone’s pocket inside a tent.  One perk to the drier areas we ventured through later in the trip was the lack of mosquitoes! 🤭

Wildflowers in the Colorado High Country!

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I am SO PROUD of this picture.  This was a “end-of-the-day-I-was-tired-so-I-jumped-out-of-the-car-and-snapped-a-quick-pic-that-ended-up-being-awesome” picture.  😁

This trip did reiterate for us, again, how spoiled we are living in the Black Hills.  In South Dakota, even during high-traffic times, you can enjoy a weekend in the backcountry without encountering nary another human (unless you bring them along).  In Colorado, we were–somewhat unpleasantly–surprised by the number of human companions we encountered.  It wasn’t just busy weekends either.  While we were in a heavy-use area, I was shocked that we had trouble finding a National Forest campsite on a Monday.   I was rather disappointed by the lack of wildlife we encountered on this trip and I wondered if it was at all due to the higher percentage of people in the vicinity?  We spent 2.5 days in the “moose capital of Colorado” and didn’t see one moose (actually, we didn’t see any the entire trip!)  😫  We saw LOTS of marmots, but I was hoping, with intentionally spending time in the backcountry, we would have a higher likelihood of encountering more wildlife.  I don’t think the heat was a problem as it wasn’t that hot, and we spent the majority of our trip at-or-above 9000 feet.  There weren’t THAT many higher locations for the critters to roam!  

We DID see countless bovine–which I dubbed “Colorado Bears” by the end of the trip.  🙄  I’m all about everyone having equal access to our National Forest land; however, the cows got a little annoying.  They smell, you have to avoid getting their “remnants” on your shoes, and when you’re looking for exciting wildlife–like actual bears, or moose–and all you see are cows, you get a little discouraged.  Maybe some “city folk” find our steak-producing cohabiters interesting, but this farm girl from Indiana was not impressed.  😜

We also learned on this trip that no matter where you go in Colorado, and no matter how remote you think your location may be, you will likely always be in the flight path of some airport.  You’d settle down in your tent at night, being lulled to sleep by the, surprisingly, deafening silence of the forest (apparently it’s too cold for crickets at 10,000 feet, even in the summer?), and your reverie is suddenly disrupted by the roar of jet engines flying overhead!*  🤫  

*I really don’t mean to complain, we honestly had a SPECTACULAR time on this trip and we’re already looking forward to and planning our next excursion to the Rocky Mountain State (I’ve mentioned before my unbounded love for vacationing there).   These are just the things you contemplate after 10 days of suffering from altitude-induced hypoxia and the venom of countless insect bites.  😳😉

We were also, again, reminded of our love of National Forests on this trip. I’ve mentioned this before, but if you can make do with more primitive facilities at their campgrounds (which usually means no flush toilets, though potable water is often available in the summer months), National Forests are a must-see.  They are at least as scenic as National Parks, with far cheaper fees and FAR fewer people.  We’ve enjoyed campsites where we fall asleep to the sound of the nearby babbling river, and ones where the moose almost walk through your campsite multiple times per day!  

A new “device” we acquired for this trip was a Luggable Loo and Double Doodie Bags (seriously, one of the greatest inventions EVER) and **sun shower, which made the disperse camping experience far more tolerable. 

**A sun shower is simply a reusable, robust, vinyl bag and tube with a spout, with black backing that you fill with water and leave out in the sun.  When you return to camp later in the day, you have warm water (it also works well to make sure your fire is out at the end of the evening).  

State Forest State Park and Lake Agnes:  

As the snow had receded, we were able to complete the Lake Agnes trail and enjoy the Crags at State Forest State Park this year.  It’s a fairly short trail, well-graded and not-overly-strenuous.  I should caution you, though through many switchbacks you are carried up a fairly decent elevation gain, at 10,000+ feet mind you. 😀  The entire trail is only about two miles round-trip and the lovely wildflowers that accompany you on your hike, as well as the SPECTACULAR view at the trail’s midpoint, are absolutely worth the effort required to complete the trek.  While it’s still on our list to visit, it reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of Avalanche Lake at Glacier National Park, complete with the turquoise-colored water.  This was comforting to me as I was under the impression this water was mostly seen near glaciers, and if glaciers continue to recede, it would be a shame if future generations are unable to enjoy this spectacular view.  

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Lake Agnes

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The Crags

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Flattop Wilderness:  

We also traversed the Flattop Wilderness Area, a destination that hadn’t even been on my radar until earlier this year (thank you Facebook!). 😉  It was gorgeous as well! We were surprised by one element of it.  The majority of the “highway” that traversed the wilderness area, also known as a Scenic Byway, was a dirt road comprised of a rutted, washboard surface.  It wasn’t a difficult drive, we saw plenty of sedans traversing it.  The surface choice is understandable as the road is completely closed throughout the winter months, so maintenance during the rest of the year is probably more easily completed on a gravel road.  We were just surprised, as our experience with “scenic byways” has consisted of two-lane blacktop roads winding through the countryside.  The area was spectacular though, full of sweeping vistas of far-off peaks and valley floors dotted with lakes perfect for fishing and picnicking.  

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You can see where the area got it’s name

Grand Mesa National Forest:  

At Grand Mesa, we had hoped to hike more, but the impending thunderstorms and extreme exposure on our intended trail encouraged us to seek out other recreational options.  

Those storms actually produced a small, short-lived, funnel cloud! Accidental storm chasing, on a mesa, with only two escape routes (one a potentially muddy dirt road), what could possibly go wrong?  😳😉  Fortunately, I had a meteorologist with me who determined the risk to us was slight.  

We were able to complete the Land’s End Road–also, primarily, gravel, but in much better condition than the previously mentioned Byway.  This route takes you to a, now closed, Observatory.  It also proffered an incredible vista of the valley far below and granted a birds-eye-view of the interchanging ecosystems that encompass so much of western Colorado.  Here, lush forests in the highest elevations transition into scrubland and nearly-desert as the altitude decreases.  

We saw some of the friendliest (pushiest?) chipmunks we’d ever encountered on top of the Mesa.  The Trekkers believe in keeping wildlife wild so we did NOT feed them.  But, evidenced by the mounds of sunflower shells we saw scattered about (and that we watched the critters literally take food from other peoples’ hands), they have been habituated to human contact.  The greedy little buggers come at your with cheeks full, begging for more!  

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The view from the top of the Mesa at the terminus of Land’s End Road

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The overly-friendly (and difficult to photograph) chipmunks at the top of the Mesa

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Funnel cloud at 10,500 feet!
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Island Lake with the Crags Crest off to the left (note: these are different crags than those at State Forest State Park)
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The San Juan mountains provide a lovely backdrop to the views at Grand Mesa

If you’re looking for some hidden gems to visit in Northern Colorado, make sure you check out State Forest State Park, Grand Mesa National Forest, and the Flattop Wilderness!  

Have you experienced the chipmunks at Grand Mesa, or seen any moose at State Forest?  Tell me about it in the comments!

Did you enjoy this post?  Pin it!

Tired of the crowds on Colorado's Front Range? Check out the Hidden Gems of State Forest State Park, Grand Mesa, and the Flattop Wilderness!

 

 

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Driving the Medano Creek Road at Great Sand Dunes National Park

I review a 4×4 driving class the Trekkers took and our adventure at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in south-central Colorado, near the small town of Saguache.  The park is nestled among the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  If you recall, in a previous post regarding one of our epic, summer road trips, I mentioned we canceled plans at this locale due to me falling ill.  I had originally intended this adventure as a present for Mr. Trekker for achieving Tenure, but, since our plans got changed, it ended up being an anniversary trip instead.  We were able to reschedule for the fall (which consequently is a much prettier time to visit that area due to leaf colors.  It’s also less busy and much cooler, all pluses in the Trekker book! Ya’ll know how I LOVE the heat! 😓

Unbeknownst to us, when we had originally planned to visit, in early June, is one of the busiest times at the park.  This is when the creek runs high due to snowmelt in the mountains.

The Great Sand Dunes are situated in a GORGEOUS location!

We woke up the first morning surrounded by a 360-degree view of the rounded peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  Gorgeous pictures painted the walls of the rental house, reflecting the spectacular scenery found in the surrounding area.  I’ve waxed lyrical about our love for Air B&B’s before.  This choice was a simple, rustic old farmhouse that had been renovated.  The kitchen was well-stocked with the cooking equipment/utensils you might need and beautiful cabinetry adorned the walls.  The home offered plenty of room for a family to sleep and is centrally located in the San Luis Valley, making an ideal base camp for day treks to the Great Sand Dunes or any hiking, 4×4-ing, or winter sports you want to engage in within the surrounding area.

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The adorable kitchen in the rental house
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Sunrise over the Sangre de Cristo range

 

Related post:  Aliens and Sandhill Cranes in the San Luis Valley! 

4×4 trails at Great Sand Dunes National Park

We rented a jeep for the weekend and spent Saturday in a hands-on 4×4 driving class.  We learned proper tire placement, how to navigate various routes (picking the correct line, sticking to the high ground), as well as acquiring safety tips and how to get ourselves out of sticky situations (such as fashioning a winch using a hi-lift jack to get a vehicle out of a bind).  We then spent Sunday trekking around Great Sand Dunes National Park, driving the Medano Pass Primitive Road and getting sandblasted on the dunes (it was windy that day!) 

Medano Creek, which you cross numerous times when driving the Primitive Road,  runs fairly low in the fall which made for easier crossings for us novices.  If you want the challenge of higher water crossings early June through summer would be a better time to visit (though there are times in spring when the road is closed due to extremely high water from snowmelt and spring rains.)  Also, as the road is 2-way but is only one lane wide, there were times we found it complicated to navigate while leaving room for others to pass.  I can’t imagine how this challenge may be exacerbated in the crowded, summer months.

Pathfinders 4×4

We rented the jeep through Pathfinders 4×4 and it’s proprietor, Cam Benton, taught the class.  The company offers jeeps for rent as well as jeep tours and 4×4 driving classes.  You can find out more at Pathfinders 4×4.  I cannot say enough about Cam, he was incredible!  He was friendly, personable, and a wonderful teacher.  Not only did he allow us to cancel our original reservations inside the 5-day “no cancellations” window, but he also gave us an almost total refund (with the exception of our initial deposit which he then credited back to us when we rescheduled).  Cam also owns several Air B&B properties.  We had originally reserved a room in his home for that weekend but the week prior to our arrival he suggested we could use the nearby rental house, he also owned, if we preferred.  It provided more privacy, more space for us, and was actually more centrally located to our planned activities for that weekend.  The cost of the home was close to double the cost of the room we actually paid for but he offered it to us for no extra charge.

**To be clear, Cam has not reimbursed me in any way for giving him this glowing review, I just firmly believe in giving credit where credit is due. 😁  

As is often true for mountain weather, we were able to experience multiple seasons in just a few days.  The weekend was full of clear blue skies and warm temperatures in southern Colorado, and we had intended to stay through Sunday night.  However, with impending Winter Storm warnings for the Denver area on Monday (Denver was between us and home) we opted to leave Sunday afternoon instead.  Not all was lost though.  This change in travel plans allowed us to enjoy a leisurely, beautiful fall drive on scenic US 285 through the South Park area and Trout Creek Pass back to Denver, and Monday we were able to enjoy our first snow of the season!

Below are some more pictures from our weekend of fun.  Thanks, as usual, to Mr. Trekker for several of these!

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Sunset over the Great Sand Dunes and Medano Creek
Fall at Great Sand Dunes National Park!
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Snow in Denver!

This is a great park to visit no matter the time of year.  Definitely put it on your “to-do” list!  Have you ever visited the park or driven the Medano Creek Road?  Tell me about it in the comments! 

Did you enjoy this post?  Pin it!

Did you know there were sand dunes in Colorado? Check out my review of the Medano Creek 4x4 Road that you can enjoy at this national park!

 

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11 “Don’t Miss” Sites in Colorado

Our adventures in Colorado on our 2017 road trip.

We spent the second week of our 2017 Road Trip traversing various parts of Colorado.  That state is, by far, one of my favorite locations in the entire country to visit (and we’ve seen a fair amount of the country).  Its beauty is indescribable and pictures don’t truly do it justice. 

The small town of Trinidad, Colorado

The first night we stayed in Trinidad, an old-school Western town in far Southwest Colorado, only about 15 miles from the New Mexico border.  It’s a cute little town that’s been well maintained and is in the process of getting a trendy facelift.

Can we talk about the elephant in the room?  You know, the stores with the green leaves on them that you can’t help but point at and giggle (or is that just me?)  😇  I know, I know, it’s legal there.  I’m just still struggling a little with its recreational legalization (though I FULLY support it for medicinal purposes).  It’s not my fault, I was a DARE child of the ’90s, I grew up being taught that it was bad (of course this was by the same people who also taught us that Pluto was a planet–and people wonder why I have a skeptical nature!)  Then there’s the issue where it’s legal in the state but not in National Parks within that state because that’s Federal land and it’s still illegal Federally (*sigh*, does this make anyone else’s brain hurt?)  Like every good Libertarian, I’m willing to tolerate it, but, Colorado, do you have to shout it from the rooftops?  Trinidad was the first town we came to in this “leaf-friendly” state, and with a population of only around 10,000, I thought the four separate shops I saw on our drive through town that night were a little much!  But I digress, you do you, Colorado!

 The next day, we headed West from Trinidad on Route 160, bound for Mesa Verde National Park!  12 years ago we visited the park and parts of Western Colorado on our very first road trip, so it was cool going back.  Some of it we remembered, but it had been so long there was plenty that we were seeing again “for the first time”. 

Related Posts:  10 “Don’t Miss” Places for your Great Plains Road TripLessons Learned on a Road Trip; 5 “Don’t Miss” Places for Your New Mexico Road Trip 

Having just recently survived a bout with an aggressive flu, I was still not my best self at this point, though, as we were entering some beautiful country we wanted to do a little sightseeing.  The first pass we arrived at (and the first overlook) we stopped to take some pictures.  I stepped out of the car, took one step on the unsteady gravel in my flip flops, and skidded to my knees.  The fall left a lovely road rash in its wake (because this trip just hadn’t been adventurous enough!)  At first, I figured it was nothing, till I looked down and saw red rivulets running down my leg *sigh*.  So, back to the car, we went, with Mr. Trekker coming at me with the first aid kit.   Unfortunately, it only had alcohol swabs in it and we were FAR from any modern bathroom with water and soap.  Needless to say, Mr. Trekker was NOT my favorite person that day!  But, kudos to him, he bandaged me up well (albeit painfully) and several months out, I’ve got only a minor scar to show for my misfortune.

The following is a rundown of the highlights of our tour around the state.  Thanks again to Mr. Trekker for letting me use some of the pictures!

Mesa Verde National Park: 

This unique park showcases cliff dwellings from the civilizations who lived there thousands of years ago.  Some you can view from overlooks, some you can actually tour (self-guided and ranger-led).  They’ve also got a great campground with spectacular star-gazing opportunities.  Our first trip to the park was one of my first camping experiences out West where there’s far less light pollution.  I remember being astounded at the light show the night sky put on (and that’s coming from a girl who grew up on an Indiana farm).  Unlike many of the national parks (such as Rocky), the campgrounds have modern bathrooms—read, flush toilets, and showers.  I’d recommend at minimum a 2-day stay to really get the most out of the park.

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Cliff dwelling
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Navajo Canyon

Route 550, the Million Dollar Highway: 

On our first trip to this area, we stumbled upon this highway accidentally, completely unprepared for what we were about to experience (it was just the most accessible option to get us where we wanted to go).  The 2nd time around we knew what we were in for…and were still awed.  If you’ve never traveled this route, I STRONGLY recommend it, though I’d suggest traveling it from south to north starting in Durango.  This ensures your car is on the inside of the sharp turns the majority of the time rather than perched along the cliff edge with nothing between you and the gaping maw of the canyon below than some thin oxygen (there are no guardrails the majority of the drive as the snowplow drivers need space to push the snow off the cliffs in the winter months). 

If you can handle the drop-offs, this drive is a must!  This area is referred to as the “Switzerland of America” due to the incredible mountain vistas.  I can testify the views here rival those we saw in Glacier National Park on the Going to the Sun Road last summer (though these are more accessible, depending on your location).  The most popular portion of the drive (from Durango to Ouray) is less than 70 miles, but plan for it to take several hours (that was our big mistake the first go-around).  It’s a slow drive, in some areas the suggested speed limit on the curves is only 10 – 15 mph (and trust me, they aren’t joking).  It can be slower if you find yourself traveling behind larger, slower-moving vehicles.  The most intense (and most beautiful) portion runs the 25 miles between Silverton and Ouray.  Stops are frequently caused by construction in the summer months as workers are constantly fighting the ongoing battle with natural erosion.  Rockslides are also common (as well as avalanches in the winter months).  This drive can be frightening for us acrophobics but the immensely beautiful views are worth it!  There’s plenty of skiing, 4×4 trails, hiking, camping, rafting, and a slew of other activities available in this corner of Colorado, so be sure to put it on your “must-see” list.

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Telluride, Colorado: 

Telluride was about what I would expect from a ski town (the Trekkers are uncoordinated and therefore not downhill skiers).  It was lovely, though we were a little early for the summer season so the upper roads weren’t clear of snow or open yet.  We walked down the road to view a staple of the town, Bridal Veil Falls.  The road up to it was open for hiking, but as I still wasn’t at my best we decided to skip that option this trip.  Instead, we opted for lunch at Brown Dog Pizza, a local joint where I can honestly say I had the best cheese calzone I have ever eaten, hands down.  The ricotta cheese seemed as though it had been whipped into an airy froth.  I’m no food connoisseur, but it was incredible.

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Bridal Veil Falls

Ouray, Colorado: 

The drive into town from the south is one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen.  THIS I remembered from 12 years ago.  You descend from the harrowing Million Dollar Highway and this small oasis of civilization opens up before you in the valley, beckoning you down from the peaks (if you’ve seen the show “The Ranch” on Netflix, this town is the one used in the opening credits).

Ridgeway State Park and True Grit film sites: 

This was one of my favorite campgrounds we visited on the entire trip  (part of the reason we spent three days there!)  It’s located just north of Ridgeway on Route 550 (north of Ouray, so out of the peaks).  They have a lovely, shaded, tent-camping area that’s back off the road, complete with level, graded tent sites, modern restrooms (and showers!), and surrounded by cedar trees. 

This brings me to another point.  Apparently, it’s perfectly legal to smoke pot in Colorado State Parks, but don’t you dare hang a hammock from a cedar tree!  I’m sure there is a good reason for this due to a risk of damage to the trees, and I’m all about protecting nature, but this just seemed to be a bit of a misalignment of priorities to me!

The park surrounds a picturesque reservoir set against a backdrop of snow-capped Rockies to the east.  Its location makes it an ideal base camp for numerous day trips and activities.  It also happens to be near the filming location of the original western, True Grit (the one with John Wayne, not the new version).  If you’re a good enough detective there are numerous filming sites you can locate in this area (though please be aware, many of these areas are located on private land and you are trespassing if you travel on it without the owner’s permission.  Please be respectful of private property.) 

We were able to view Maddie Ross’ Ranch, Courthouse Mountain, Chimney Peak, and the meadow where the shootout scene was filmed, without difficulty.  The last three can be located off of Route 8 (to reach this travel east from Route 550).  You’ll reach The Meadow about ½ mile before the summit of Owl Creek Pass.  Courthouse Mountain and Chimney Peak are visible from The Meadow and Sleeping Rock is located at the summit of the pass.  Maddie Ross’ Ranch is located off of Last Dollar Road which is off of Highway 62 (the road from Ridgeway to Telluride).

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Sleeping Rock (the rock Mattie Ross slept on in the 1969 version of True Grit)
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Courthouse Mountain and Chimney Peak
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Mattie Ross’ ranch
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Deb’s Meadow (where the final shootout scene was filmed)
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Ridgeway State Park
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It was so strange to look to the east and see the Rockies

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Grand Mesa National Forest: 

This is another “must-see” location in the mountains east of Grand Junction.  It’s primarily used for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter months.  It’s got some great campground/fishing/hiking opportunities as well, but we were, unfortunately, too early in the season to really take advantage of these options.  The hiking trails weren’t yet open as there was still feet of snow drifted on them in some places.  During the peak of summer, this would be a prime place to escape the heat though, the day we were there it was near 90 in the closest town on the valley floor and it was in the ’40s and raining/snowing large glops on us at the summit.

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Snow on the summit, this was June 6th ya’ll!

Rifle/Rifle Falls, Colorado: 

We spent our final hotel stay of the trip in the small town of Rifle, Colorado.  The Shooters steakhouse (located in Rifle) was on our bucket list for this trip as I had read a news story on this restaurant (namely, the pistol-packing servers!)  The food was good, unfortunately, this steakhouse was out of steak the night we visited (another bummer to add to the count for this trip!)  We then walked around the corner to Moo’s Place for dessert (an ice cream shop built in an old gas station).  The staff were INCREDIBLY friendly. 

The next day we visited Rifle Falls State Park, which was beautiful.  It was the only place I’ve ever been where you can traverse walkways that stick out over the TOP of the falls!  The caves at the bottom were picturesque as well (and provided a cool respite from the summer heat).

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State Forest State Park: 

$20/night for a campsite; going several days with no indoor plumbing (or showering); a DISGUSTING pit toilet (seriously, it was an upside-down pail sitting over a stinky hole in the ground); BUT…eating dinner while a cow moose and two calves eat theirs, in a field, a few thousand yards away with the Rockies as a backdrop…PRICELESS!!! 

We spent the last three nights of our trip at this park which is renowned for its moose sightings (many were re-introduced here back in the 90’s.). The park actually claims to be the “Moose Viewing Capital of the World!”  It definitely offered the best moose sightings we had ever experienced…until our Labor Day camping trip in the Big Horns (you can read about that here!)

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This view reminded us of the Garden Wall at Glacier NP.
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Alpenglow over the Western Rockies (Rocky Mountain National Park and the Never Summer Mountains are basically due east from here)
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Ranger Lakes
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Moose from the campsite

CLOSE ENCOUNTER of the Mountain Lion Kind!!!

The final night of our trip I had a true close encounter (at least I think I did, it was dark and it was over fast!)  It was late and we were the only people still up in the half-full campground.  Our campsite was perched on a hill backed by the forest and fronted by a lake.  The first night we spied a moose family skirting the campground using a gully to get to the lake for their evening drink, so we knew it was a popular thoroughfare for the local wildlife.  We were waiting for the fire to burn down and out of the corner of my eye I spotted movement in the empty campsite across the road (maybe 30 yards away and downhill from our site).  At first, I thought it was a deer I had seen meandering around earlier that evening…and then I realized the “deer” had a long tail.  Then I thought it was a dog from one of the neighboring campsites, but I was pretty sure he was in the tent with his family…and the creature I spotted didn’t move like a dog.  Its movements were stealthy, fluid, and sleek; beautiful actually.  I couldn’t tear my eyes away.  It almost glided across the ground.  It reminded me of watching a cat jumping onto a high shelf when you’re sure any minute it will send objects flailing into space but instead it glides gracefully around them.  It was visible for only a few seconds, once it saw me it hightailed it out of there, and I wasn’t able to get Mr. Trekker’s attention quickly enough for him to see it.  We looked for tracks the next morning and didn’t find any but the ground was very dry and hard so this wasn’t a surprise.  I can’t prove it but…I think I saw my first mountain lion that night (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!)

Oregon Trail Wheel Ruts, Guernsey, Wyoming: 

The last day of our trek we stopped for lunch in Guernsey, Wyoming and viewed ruts left forever engraved on the landscape by the wagon wheels of the pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail.  You could almost hear the lowing of oxen, the clanking of household items, the creaking of the wagons as they slowly made their way across the prairie.  You could almost smell the rank odor of animal and human sweat mixed with the constant cling of dust stirred up by the plodding of the animals’ hooves. 

It was humbling to think that we traveled almost 3500 miles on our two-week road trip, crisscrossing across eight states and visiting countless places in our air-conditioned, all-wheel-drive Outback, with a suspension that gently glides across any bumps in our path (on the paved or graded gravel roads we drove on).  Whereas these people traveled thousands of miles in a wagon train, a trip that took MONTHS as they slowly crept their way across the bumpy, muddy, rutted, rock-strewn ground, and lived under constant threat of death by exposure, disease, or attack.  When I became ill we drove five minutes to the local Urgent Care, it took maybe an hour to get seen, we then went to the Walgreen’s across the street for medicine and I was back in the hotel room on the road to recovery 20 minutes later.  Back in the days of the wagon trains the same ailment likely would have meant DAYS of misery as the best of potential outcomes.

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A few final pictures from our jaunt around Colorado.  If you haven’t been there, I STRONGLY encourage you to put it on your bucket list.  You won’t regret it!

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The Rockies
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Rifle Gap Reservoir
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Odometer reading as we pulled into the driveway (No!  We didn’t drive around the block an extra time to get it to 3500, I don’t know what you’re talking about!) 🙂

Have you visited any of these places?  Tell me about it in the comments! 

Did you enjoy this post?  Pin it!

Looking for some incredible places to visit in western Colorado? Click here for 11 "don't miss" places to put on your road trip list!

 

Like what you read here today?  Please feel free to leave a comment, like or share this post!  Add your email at the bottom of the page, or the sidebar to the right, to be notified when a new post is published.  By signing up for the email list, you will also receive a free copy of the Tranquil Trekker’s Top 10 Tips of Trekking Do’s and Don’ts!

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