I haven’t posted since mid-July, so I decided to touch upon each of our weekly high country hikes in one blog posting. We’ve been high in the mountains above Telluride, Ouray and Ridgway, Colorado Tuesday or Wednesday of each week; our days off. The scenery has been amazing as we hiked through deep forests of spruce and aspen, through waist-high fields of wildflowers, through alpine tundra, through snow and over boulders and scree above tree line. We’ve been hiking mostly between 9,000 and 12,500 feet. Each trail has been a challenge and a test as each time we strike out at elevation our bodies feel like they couldn’t possibly carry us up to that high peak or ridge line at the apex of the trail. We huff and puff all the way up and our knees scream “no more” all the way down! I am training, ostensibly for a 14’er summit with one of the rangers, who used to be a guide, here at Ridgway State Park.
The 2 pictures above are from the sparsely travelled but superbly built Hawn Mountain Trail, which takes off from just above the Telluride Airport (we watched a steady stream of “jets of the stars” coming and going from the precipitously placed runway). The segment of trail we hiked was almost entirely scree, but the trail was constructed through the scree by strategically placing scree rocks against the mountain. They jiggled some when you walked across them, but they felt secure, nonetheless. Thunder sounded ominously in the distance and it was past noon, so we didn’t make it to the top of Hawn Mountain this time around. In the photos below, we did capture some awesome views of 3 14’ers in the immediate distance, Mt. Wilson, Wilson Peak and El Diente. If you squint you can also see Lizard Head, which is an interesting 800 foot high column of independent rock jutting above the surrounding landscape. Wilson Peak, the pointy mountain in the center of the left picture is the mountain on the Coors Beer Can; viola!
To find these trails we have been using the High Country Day Hikes books by Anne and Mike Poe. There is one for Ouray, Lake City and Silverton and another for the Telluride High Country. These books are marvelously mapped and illustrated, with step-by-step directions on how to get to the trails and where to go once you are on the trails. The Poes have also published hiking books for Crested Butte and Moab.
We did make it all the way to the lower Blue Lake, which sits in a bowl of high peaks and on a sunny day is an unreal aquamarine blue. If you keep going on the trail, which gets considerably steeper, it takes you over Blue Lakes Pass and into Yankee Boy Basin, which is the starting point for the classic route up Mt. Sneffels. Our day was mostly cloudy, so we didn’t quite manage to capture the famous color.
The wildflowers on the way up were stunning, to say the least, and presented a riot of colors.
For a serious challenge, try the Bridge of Heaven trail. This trail is not found in the Poe books, but I found it on a trails map and the topography looked interesting, so I hiked it with Levar in 2012. It was exciting to bring Mandy back this year, as it is one of my favorite trails. This trail even pooped Levar out:
There are wonderful views back towards Ouray from the trail and deep into the heart of the San Juans from the highest parts of the trail. “I’m on top of the world!”
The final trail I will discuss is the West Fork Trail, which takes off from Owl Creek Pass, way above the town of Ridgway. Following the West Fork Trail will take you into the Wetterhorn Basin, where you can be face to face with the flanks of the Wetterhorn, another fabulous 14’er. Like the Bridge of Heaven trail near the top, you feel like you are on top of the world when you reach the West Fork Pass leading down into the basin. Below are some photos of the world above tree line, leading up to the pass. This one features some pretty serious scree, with occasional cairns to guide the way.
On the way back to the trailhead you are rewarded with awesome views of Chimney Rock, another 12,000 foot high column of rock jutting high above its surroundings.
I climbed to it with my son in 2012, I sent friends there in 2013 and I longed to return this year. Based on our experience hiking around 10,000 ft. there was still a lot of snow until late June, as the winter had had 120% of normal snowfall. On June 27th Mandy and I figured we’d head down to Silverton, camp in the South Mineral Creek campground, and make for the basin.
The hike starting out was harder than I remembered, as you are already at 9,500 ft., so we were huffing and puffing to get started. I remembered the famous last leg toward the basin as being where I had had the most trouble breathing previously. The trail zig zags through the lower forest with a waterfall in and out of view. The trail used to cut across a wooden bridge near the top of the waterfall, but it has since washed out.
After emerging from the forest, the trail cuts through a series of alpine meadows that are beautiful enough to take your breath away. It was still a little early for the well-known blankets of wildflowers, but there were a few popping their heads out, including this beautiful Colorado Columbine.
The last meadow before the surge for the basin is 180 degrees of snow-covered cliffs with waterfalls everywhere emerging from the snow. I tried to capture a video but it doesn’t really do it justice, although you can hear the roaring of the waterfalls.
The first major hurdle was one of the creeks that was not easily crossable, as it was swollen with snowmelt. You could either take off your shoes and wade through the thigh-deep, ice cold rushing water, or you could walk 100 yards up the creek to an “ice bridge,” as a fellow hiker giving us advice called it. We opted for the latter. There were indeed footprints going across the bridge with the swollen stream crashing underneath. We decided to go for it, hoping that we wouldn’t be the unlucky hiker that the “bridge” decided to cave in on. Next came the really hard part – the final push to the top. Keep in mind that you are laboring at 12,000 feet above sea level on a steep trail going up the side of a mountain. Exacerbating this is the fact that lots of the trail was still occluded by snow. The going got a little treacherous through the snow banks, as one little slip could send you down the mountain on your behind. If you kept your mind on the trail and put one foot in front of the other on the previous hikers’ footsteps you were likely to be okay.
We weren’t at all prepared for what came next. Instead of this:
We found this:
What a difference a little extra snowfall can make. The picture above was taken one week earlier, in 2012! The entire basin this year was filled was snow and the lake, although showing around the edges, was still mostly frozen solid. Mandy kept saying “where’s that azure lake I hiked up here for!” The vista made for a good trade off, however.
The 12,500 ft. basin is surrounded by 13’ers such as Vermillion Peak, Golden Horn, Pilot Knob and US Grant Peak. Absolutely stunning. There are side trips to Fuller Lake and Island Lake, all easy side trips except for one thing; the deep snow hiding the trail.
We made friends with a pair of local marmots on the way back down. At least we like to think so!
The entire trip was 22,299 steps or 7.7 miles and took us 5 hours to complete.
This particular figure is known as The Guardian. We found the image delightful because he reminded us of the totoro, from the Japanese animated film, “My Neighbor Totoro.” Totoro is fond of showing his huge teeth and roaring, and this character seems to be doing just that! The Guardian can be found along Colorado 139 between Grand Junction and Rangely, in the Canyon Pintado National Historic District. It is also part of the 512-mile Dinosaur Diamond National Scenic Byway, which takes the visitor through one of the richest paleontological areas in the world. Little did we know starting out that it is home to so much Native American rock art.
Canyon Pintado was occupied by prehistoric people as long ago as 11,000 years. Most of the rock art dates from the Freemont culture, dating from around 200 B.C to around 1200 A.D. At that time people were beginning to live in villages and cultivate crops, but still hunted and gathered as well. Scientists don’t agree on the meaning of the pictograph (painted) and petroglyph (pecked) images, but some Native American groups still claim a cultural connection. Since no one is sure what the images mean, it is fun to speculate.
The two images below are intriguing. The image on the right appears to represent the sun, moon and earth. Apparently at the Solstice a shadow is cast by an overhanging rock pointing at the earth image. Perhaps the ancient ones used this image to mark time. The image on the left also appears to have a sun image. Some think the artwork on the left side of the photo represents a necklace.
It is a good thing that so much of the artwork is so accessible. Most were a short hike from the car. So were the artists creating art because they had the time to do so, or do the artworks carry significant meaning and messages? The more you drive around Colorado and Utah, the more you discover that these works are everywhere. Everywhere, that is, that a surface was available and pigments could be made.
Somehow the works of art morph into dinosaur bones. The presence of the bones in a quarry captures the imagination as much as rock art. Imagine walking the land in 1909 and seeing 4 fossilized ribs sticking out of the ground. Imagine your excitement as you dig down to find hundreds more bones, then further and thousands more, many as complete skeletons, once assembled. Such is the history of the dinosaur quarry at Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah. Over years of digging, dozens of specimens were delivered to museums all across North America. Digging stopped in 1993, so that now one sees 1500 bones across a huge, enclosed cliff, representing 500 animals and 12 species.
Much like the rock art, I could contemplate all day on the existence of these fossilized relics. Fortunately for us, scientists are pretty sure why there are so many bones in one place. The site was apparently a river bed. Some specimens are partially intact, others are like putting together a puzzle. There were a couple of assembled skeletons on display.
The heads of the creatures were most fascinating. Look at the size of those teeth! 90% of the bones in the quarry belonged to herbivores.
Scientists still work alongside the bones although the excavation is complete, trying to understand more about the environment at the time and the reasons a creature perished. For more about the exhibit, go to superstars of paleontology. There is even a virtual tour and a list of all the species of dinosaurs and the other animals that lived among them.
There is actually nice rock art within the boundaries of Dinosaur National Monument.
To give you a sense of scale, the large lizard in the center of the frame is actually 6 feet in length. Check out my 2015 blog entry for more discussion of rock art in Utah: September 21st, 2015: Of Pictographs and Waterfalls.
There were actually similar, alien-looking figures in southern Utah. Are the people representing themselves in ceremonial dress, or are they mythological beings? I’m sure there has been endless speculation by the experts. One thing I did notice – the people and animals in the depictions appear alone or in small groups. Down in Texas along the lower Pecos River, at the White Shaman site, the pictographs make more of a huge mural, such that it seems to be a single story or, some speculate, what the participant(s) saw during a vision quest.
In Utah, it appears that there are more singular beings or single messages on stone. Dinosaur National Monument is vast, occupying a huge swath of northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado. We camped along the swiftly flowing Green River, the same river that eventually runs into the Colorado in Canyonlands National Park.
I have been coming to the San Juan Mountains since I was 4-years-old. Our first trips as a family to the San Juans began at the S-Lazy-U Dude Ranch between Creede and Lake City, on the headwaters of the Rio Grande. My dad used to fly fish while my mom and sister and I would dam streams, harass weasels that were trying to dine on chipmunks, and hike up to ghost cabins. We would always rent a jeep in Lake City and do the alpine loop over Cinnamon and Engineer Pass. I remember my mother and sister jumping out of the jeep as my dad struggled to keep the jeep moving onward and upward on some of the steep switchbacks. I think he could have used a lesson on a standard transmission in the mountains before heading out!
I feel like the mountains are part of me. A piece of my soul resides here in the San Juans, and I always feel happier and more whole when I am here, and yearn to return when I am not. Fast forward from 1968 to 2004 and you will find me solo-adventuring on my first return trip as an adult to my beloved mountains. I actually made two trips up in 2004, one trip ostensibly to deliver an architectural model that Mandy had built of a new $3 million dollar “cabin” in Telluride. The builder paid me enough for the gas, but it was worth it. On my return visit, around September 8th, 2004, a Pacific front dumped a foot of snow on the mountains above 10,000 feet. I had to wait a couple days, but I soon made my bid to bag my first 14’er: Mt. Handies. It was a tough climb for me, even though it is a walk-up 14’er. I wasn’t well acclimated and every step was a struggle. The last 500 feet to the summit were the worst. At the top I met two cool Californians who had actually climbed over an unmarked route crossing a 12,000 ft. ridge from Highway 550 between Durango and Silverton to make their ascent of Handies. We shared some good political talk and laughs and I bid them farewell, but I keep up with their climbs on summitpost.org, which is a wonderful website for researching mountains and rocks worldwide and the most favorable routes to climb them for your skill level. Here is a great photo of them making their way down the mountain. The basin of mountains covered in snow in the background, looking south from Handies toward Mt. Eolus on summitpost.org (a mountain hosted by “Diggler”, one of the guys I met on Handies) and Red Mountain is the largest contiguous area over 12,000 feet in the United States. In the foreground are from left, American Peak, Niagara Peak and Jones Mountain. Sloan Lake is in the center foreground.
The Californians told me they had made a bid for the summit of Mt. Sneffels, another 14’er about 10 miles due west of Handies in the Sneffels Wilderness about 2 days prior, but that there was too much snow to reach the summit. I decided to try, since the days were warming and the snow was melting. I made it to what I thought was the summit of Mt. Sneffels, even though I had a sneaking suspicion that the rock mass to my left had to be climbed to truly reach the pinnacle of Sneffels. I couldn’t find a way up, and I was alone, so I chose to leave the mountain, in one piece.
In 2010 my son was old enough to bring to Colorado for some climbing and adventure. We too made a bid for Mt. Sneffels’ summit in early June, but there was a lot of snow and the signs pointing the way to the summit were buried. I made the mistake of thinking 13,694 ft. Gilpin Peak was Sneffels, so we climbed that by mistake! We were about 1,000 feet from the summit when a peal of thunder struck fear in us. We did an about face and hustled down the mountain as fast as we could with the thunder increasing in frequency and decreasing in distance as we went. I was quite scared, but we made it to the jeep just as the sleet hit, and we drove/slid our way back down the high jeep trail to safety.
Levar and I decided to try again for the right mountain this time in 2012, on Levar’s 17th birthday, June 26th.. We made the false summit successfully after climbing the Lavender Couloir and followed others up a narrow V-notch to the true summit. To get to the V-notch you kind of had to hoist yourself over a piece of missing mountain to gain a foothold.
A wrong step and you would find yourself tumbling thousands of feet! Levar helped me up into the V-notch, which once you had a good foothold was pretty simple to ascend. It was only 20 vertical feet or so in the V-notch and you emerged on a narrow ledge that lead to a wide enough area on the summit for a dozen or so people to comfortably hang out. My back decided to go out while getting to the summit, so you can see in the photo that I am slightly hunched!
Somehow, despite my back problems, we made it back down Sneffels, with me taking it slow and easy, one step at a time, and Levar jumping and sliding much of the way down the 1,000 ft. scree slope.
Other highlights from our trip included a jeep trip over some of the same trails my Dad used to take, but adding to that, some more extreme passes such as Ophir and Imogene and some of the infamous routes such as California and Corkscrew Gulch.
After Sneffels, Levar and I high-camped at Alta Lakes above Telluride’s Mountain Village, at 11,000 feet. We had a nice fire and some stories and bedded down. When I opened the tent in the morning I spied to artists painting a nearby peak. Turns out it was the Telluride Plein Air Art Festival, and the artists were dispersed throughout the Telluride region over the course of a week. They were supposed to come together over the weekend in Telluride to display and sell their work. I don’t know if it was really kosher or not, but I shortened that process by negotiating with the artists on the spot. The woman was asking too much, saying what her work would go for in a gallery, but the gentleman offered his work to me for half that cost. I’m happy to say that the painting now graces Levar’s bedroom wall, but unhappy to say that I don’t remember the artist’s name! The painting is not signed anywhere. Perhaps I will run into him again someday and see if he remembers me. Both artists were working on paintings of Silver Mountain. Here is a peak at the work in progress and the actual subject.
I think he did pretty well, in the plein air style of painting. Levar and I also got some mountain biking in on the high trails, as well as messing around on some of the boulders overlooking Telluride.
Now, in 2016 and 2017 Mandy and I have been camp hosts at Ridgway State Park. We get Tuesdays and Wednesdays off, and haven’t wasted any time in getting out to explore. There are wonderful trails around Ouray and Telluride and we’ve hit several already, even though there is still plenty of snow at the higher elevations. An early-season favorite is the Ouray Perimeter Trail, which features gorgeous mountain scenery, close-up views of Cascade Falls and some modest challenges on the trail itself.
One of our favorites recent forays is the Weehawken Trail, which is accessed on CR 361, the Camp Bird Mine Road, just above Ouray to the south off Hwy 550 headed toward Silverton. Instead of hiking the entire Weehawken Trail, we took a righthand spur that leads to the Alpine Mine lookout. The view from the lookout is marvelous, taking in most of Hayden Mountain and United States Mountain.
I will close with some more shots of my beloved Mt. Sneffels with varying amounts of snow and during different times of day. These are all views from the north side, where Ridgway State Park lies.
It’s been unusually hot for June in Ridgway, Colorado, where we are currently camp hosting at Ridgway State Park. So, this past week we decided to venture up to the Grand Mesa to escape the heat at 10,500 feet. It was at least 20 degrees cooler at that elevation.
The Grand Mesa is the largest tabletop mountain in the world. It is a veritable wonderland full of over 300 tiny to mid-size lakes and beautiful aspen and conifer forests. It feels as though you could spend a month exploring up here, as the mesa is crisscrossed with roads, paved and unpaved, and a myriad of trails. We felt as though we were barely scratching the surface.
The Mesa was formed from volcanic action over 100 million years ago, while the lakes dotting the surface were gouged out by a glacier 20,000 years ago. It is a real oasis of cooler temperatures and gorgeous scenery. The only drawback is the swarms of mosquitos. They do stop swarming as the evening cools, but they are there to greet you when you open your tent flap in the morning.
We only had 2 1/2 days to explore, and we wanted to kayak, hike and mountain bike. We camped at Island Lake campground, so Mandy was able to test the waters of the lake in her kayak the evening we arrived.
Not surprisingly, there was still lots of snow at this elevation, so some of the trails included hoofing it through snow banks in the shade where the sun hadn’t already melted the snow.
Our first full day on the Mesa we did a combination of mountain biking and hiking. It was a combination, because at that elevation with any incline, we quickly tired of biking. We headed out on the Flow Park Trail off Land’s End Road. It was a nice ride through forests, beside lakes and eventually up to the edge of the Mesa. From the edge, we could see our own Sneffels Range some 70 miles away, as well as the nearer West Elk Mountains and the LaSalle Range around 50 miles away in Utah. The first day was very clear, with visibility of I suppose 100 miles. On the second, however, there appeared a haze that we think must have been coming from the fires in southwestern Utah.
On the evening of our first full day we were rewarded with a moose sighting. She was at least 100 yards away, but I was able to get a fairly decent shot of her with my telephoto lens. Next to where the moose was lounging was an intact beaver dam.
On our second full day I chose to hike and Mandy chose to kayak again. From her position on the lake Mandy was able to observe wildlife such as marmots and deer. I hiked the Crag Crest Trail about 4 miles in from the western trailhead, reaching 11,000 feet. The views were inspiring, but the haze put kind of a damper on the more distant views. This is a very popular trail as it is a National Scenic Trail and makes an 11 mile loop. Being a Wednesday though, it wasn’t crowded at all. I imagine as the summer rolls on, the crowds will thicken as the snow disappears. In contrast, we met only one other group of hikers on the Flow Park trail, even though it features on the Forest Service website.
I highly recommend a trip to the Grand Mesa if you are anywhere nearby. Even if you’re not, it’s worth a special trip. We only began to have its mysteries revealed to us.
Wow, the last time I posted was in June, 2016! One of our family members became ill in June, so our focus has been on their well-being and return to good health. Things are almost back to normal now, so I have time to blog again-yes! Where to begin? Even though there was a health-crisis, we still found time to venture to new and exciting places, most of the time with our children. Since last June the Silver Chariot has visited the Great Swamp NWR in central New Jersey, Forsythe NWR in southern New Jersey and finally Enchanted Rock, in central Texas. This event has given me time to reflect on the circle of friends and family in our lives and to better keep in touch.
Since we were in New Jersey for so long, we ventured out to Pennsylvania and New York states as well as exploring the Garden State. Our daughter lives in Highland Park, New Jersey, where she and her boyfriend opened a new art supply store; Tiger Art Supply. Happily the store is doing well, especially thanks to the community of artists in New Jersey and proximity to several art schools, one of which is the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
Exposure to the Arts is very important to us since we are architects and have an artist daughter. We made a couple of trips to art facilities in the Hudson Valley while we were in New Jersey. I even made a day trip to NYC to meet my sister at MOMA and walk the High Line. For her, visiting art museums tops the list of things she loves to do! My favorite museum that we visited as a family was Dia:Beacon in the little town of Beacon, New York, right on the Hudson and a short train ride for New Yorkers. I have struggled my whole life with contemporary art. My favorite period is the Impressionists, but I try to understand all of the art I come in contact with. Dia:Beacon is housed in a former Nabisco Box Printing factory, which is larger than almost any museum I’ve been to, except for the MET. From Dia’s website:
Dia was founded in New York City in 1974 by Philippa de Menil, Heiner Friedrich, and Helen Winkler to help artists achieve visionary projects that might not otherwise be realized because of scale or scope. To suggest the institution’s role in enabling such ambitions, they selected the name “Dia,” taken from the Greek word meaning “through.”
Mission: Dia Art Foundation is committed to advancing, realizing, and preserving the vision of artists. Dia fulfills its mission by commissioning single artist projects, organizing exhibitions, realizing site-specific installations, and collecting in-depth the work of a focused group of artists of the 1960s and 1970s
Natural light is an essential element of the museum. The entire space is crossed by countless huge clerestories, helping to eliminate the need for artificial lighting. The building itself is cast-in-place concrete, so it gives a very solid-feeling foundation to the art installations. Images of the current art on show can be found here: Dia:Beacon collection.
I loved Robert Erwin’s installation of white translucent scrim walls, titled “Excursus: Homage to the Square3”, which is visible in the above photograph, below the giant clerestory windows. The thing about many of the installations at Dia is that the installation is so large that the viewer becomes part of the art. Homage to the Square is 16 rooms, 4 by 4 square. Depending on the time of day and weather the walls are constantly, almost imperceptibly changing. On the middle of each wall is a flourescent light fixture, which heightens the effect of light on the piece. The doorways from room to room are lined up in such a way that they create an optical illusion.
Another one of my favorite large pieces was Richard Serra’s “Torqued Elipses.” I first encountered their models or “maquettes” in one room, before walking into the elipses in another huge room. They are made of solid steel and truly invite exploration. They are often maze-like or spiral inward. I first encountered a piece by Serra at the Ft. Worth Museum of Modern art. It was a tall exterior torque of steel. A woman was singing “Ave Maria” inside and the sound was incredible. I wonder if the artist ever dreamed that they would be the perfect acoustic vessel for signing.
The museum abounds with Dan Flavin’s flourescent light artworks:
Finally, I really liked Michael Heizer’s “North South East West.” You don’t necessarily interact with these holes in the floor, but the dark voids or “sculptural negatives” cause you to contemplate their meaning.
Another fantastic museum we visited was The Storm King Art Center in Cornwall, NY. This is primarily an outdoor sculpture garden set amongst rolling hills, forests and lakes. It is quite a hike going from one installation to the other. Everybody loved Andy Goldsworthy’s Storm King Wall. The first impression is that the wall is a left-over fence dividing property in an area where fieldstone is abundant. Looking closer, one begins to admire the construction and to notice the serpentine form of the wall as it disappears into the lake and emerges on the other side.
From the Storm King website:
While Goldsworthy conceived Storm King Wall and supervised its construction, the roughhewn structure was built by a team of British wallers, who explained to Storm King staff exactly what kinds of stone to harvest and sort in preparation for their work: chunky foundation stones, a smaller, rounder variety for the wall’s midsection, large “through stones,” and flat cap stones for the top layer. The British team built the wall by placing one stone on top of another while chipping and shaping each one to fit snugly; no concrete was used in stacking the wall’s 1,579 tons of fieldstone. The stones can be as captivating as the wall itself.
Another captivating piece we happened upon was Isamu Noguchi’s “Momo Taro.” Momo Taro was a Japanese folkhero who emerged from a peach pit to become an elderly couple’s son. Noguchi is known for his furniture designs, and this piece is very much like an outdoor furniture installation. It invites visitors to interact, touch, and sit upon the work.
There are scores of installations in stone, steel, bronze and other materials. I don’t remember the artists’ names, but in closing here are two works that I found appealing.
Once again during our weekly days off we tried to squeeze in a National Park or two. Luckily for us, Mesa Verde National Park is just 2 1/2 hours away from Ridgway State Park in southwestern Colorado. Mandy has been lobbying pretty hard for a visit to Mesa Verde, so happily we finally made it!
Consult the Mesa Verde wikipedia page for a more in-depth discussion of the area’s history and culture. The mesa area has an abundance of structures. It is estimated that at its height, the Mesa Verde region housed more than 20,000 people, at the beginning of the 13th century or c. 1285. By the next century, Mesa Verde was empty. It is thought that long drought, overpopulation, resource decline and overdependence on maize precipitated the decline and eventual exodus from the mesa. The exodus may have been very rapid, as evidenced by the pottery and other tools and possessions left behind.
The Ancestral Puebloans long inhabited the mesa, which stretches from north to south for about 20 miles and rises gradually towards the south. The first humans to inhabit the area may have done so around 6500 BCE, and were hunter-gatherers following large game. It is not clear whether these peoples inhabited the mesa area permanently or temporarily.
The mesa top is punctuated by canyons, and this is where you will find the cliff dwellings. To visit the cliff dwelling you will drive across the top of the mesas. Stairs or a steep pathway will lead you down to the cliff dwellings, which were mostly sandstone, timber and plaster mortar. The Puebloans began building these more complex structures around c. 1075. The cliff dwellings contain many adjacent rooms, towers and kivas. All are found under a sheltering cliff or recess in the canyon walls.
The kivas are a circular structure sunken in the ground and were typically 12 to 15 feet across. Kivas were accessed from the smoke hole in the roof by ladder. The firepit can be found directly under the hole in the roof. A cooling tunnel was usually built into the side of the kiva, with the air flowing from a hole near the floor, which was blocked by a diversion stone, to keep the airflow from extinguishing the fire. A sipapu was typically a small pit dug in the north of the kiva and symbolized the peoples’ emergence from the Underworld. One of the cliff dwellings has a nice reconstruction of a kiva, complete with the roof and ladder, cutaway so that you can see the construction. Kivas may have been both ceremonial and residential.
A single village may have housed 100 people or multiple families in a small clan. The villages or cliff dwellings were always located near a water source and were accessible to the fields, which remained on the mesa tops.
Prior to the cliff dwellings, the Ancestral Puebloans lived in multi-roomed structures on the mesa tops, close to the fields and check dams which were constructed to control the flow of water. Prior to the multi-room structures the Puebloans lived in pit dwellings, which were a precursor to the kiva. There are several fine excavations of pit dwellings to explore in the Park.
There are also petroglyphs, which predate the cliff dwellings by centuries.
We enjoyed the talk and flute performance by our ranger guide, David Nighteagle.
We’ve been exploring farther and farther abroad on our days off from work here at Ridgway State Park, Colorado. We were very pleased to find out that Moab, Utah is only a 3-hour drive by car, across some gorgeous country. The route takes you across a mountain pass (Dallas Divide) with awesome up-close views of the Sneffels Range, through canyons and gorges and around another big mountain range, the La Sal Range, which lies southeast of Moab. The La Sals attain 13,000 feet and are the second-highest range in Utah.
The town of Moab has about 5,000 inhabitants and is centered between two national parks: Arches and Canyonlands. The opportunities for adventure here seem endless, with whitewater rafting, extreme mountain biking, hiking, climbing, bouldering, canyoneering, horseback riding and so on. We stayed in a tiny tent-only urban campground, the “Up the Creek” campground, just off the main drag. It was very nice to hear the gurgling of adjacent Mill Creek all night. After arriving about 11 a.m. we set up our tent and headed into Arches N.P, the entrance of which lies about 5 miles north of Moab.
The entrance into Arches has to be one of the most dramatic of any national park. You drive in low in front of a series of red sandstone cliffs looming over 1,500 feet above you, in close proximity. The entry road takes off immediately up and over these cliffs, such that you soon have a commanding view of the region and feel as if you have reached the top of a plateau. Indeed, you are on the Colorado Plateau. The Colorado Plateau is a large, distinct physical region centered on the four corners region of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. It was once covered by an inland sea which deposited an underground salt bed that is thousands of feet thick in places. This unstable salt bed is overlaid by a mile of rock. Instability began to create faults in the rock surface. Over time these faults developed into fins of rock through the process of erosion. As erosion continued, softer rock fell out of the fins and the hardiest fins developed into arches.
We decided to drive as far as the road goes, about 16 miles, to the Devils Garden trailhead. The initial trail, to Landscape Arch, is relatively flat and easygoing. But if you want to leave the crowds behind, venture beyond Landscape Arch into the further reaches of Devils Garden. The first thing you get to do on this trail is climb a giant stairstep made of slickrock. And the rock truly is slick, due to the sand that seems to cling to every surface.
As we approached this stairstep formation, a woman coming down was actually screaming that she couldn’t make it. It is pretty intimidating coming down, knowing one false step will send you scuttling into the chasm. She took it slow and with some guidance made it down, but was very upset. She definitely needed more appropriate footwear. It is interesting that the National Park service has taken the stance that you are pretty much on your own in the wild and even not so wild portions of the parks. There are abundant opportunities for you to shorten your life in every park. Think of the incidences of people taking selfies and backing up and off a cliff. Be careful and bring the right equipment!
On the way out to the Double-O arch we encountered Navajo Arch and Partition Arch. In both place you can climb into the arch itself, which is not recommended as these formations are still forming! There was a picture at one of the viewpoints of a giant slab of stone coming loose from the underside of the arch that someone actually caught on film.
On the way to Double-O the trail goes over some very slender fins of rock with plenty of room to fall on either side. Not a trail to take if you suffer from vertigo. This was called a primitive trail, for good reason. There was a loop to go back a different way that we didn’t take and for good reason. One couple back at the start told us that they almost called it quits several times taking this trail back; it was that extreme. On the way back to camp we stopped at the old Wolf Ranch to take in some rock art. This is more recent, dating anywhere from the 1650’s to the 1850’s, after Europeans introduced horses to the Americas.
Another panel near where the road going back to Moab crosses Courthouse Wash, is a much more ancient panel, dating back 1,500 to 4,000 years. These panels often are found at confluences of rivers or entrances to canyons. This panel was unfortunately defaced in the 1980’s. Pictures nearby, prior to the defacing, show the figures and colors rendered more brilliantly. The figures in the art are very tall and mysterious. There is not a good scientific explanation for the meaning of the art. Read more here: Courthouse Wash Pictographs
Since this was kind of a whirlwind trip, we had only one day to explore Arches and one for Canyonlands. The approach to Canyonlands takes off about 10 miles north of Moab and continues, up and up, for about 20 miles to the west, towards the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers. This road leads into the Islands in the Sky quadrant of Canyonlands National Park. And the name is apt. You don’t get many glimpses of the rivers, far, far below, but you do get the sense that you are in some ethereal world, floating above the desert floor. The land falls away in all directions, with the vistas originating from mesas resting over 1,000 feet above the land below.
If you are very adventurous, there is White Rim Road which follows the base of the cliffs, but it is 100 miles of no water, hardpan and dust. You can see the road leading off into the distance in the next photograph. It used to serve as a way for ranchers to get their sheep to water.
This is once again big sky country, with vistas to distant mountains in Colorado on clear days. It is somewhat reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, but the scale is so huge that is hard to place oneself in that context. There is a very famous arch in the Island in the Sky quadrant known as the Mesa Arch. Photographers were clambering for their chance to stand at the mouth of the arch to take their photo since one can capture the distant canyons through the arch. If you really want to beat the crowds, arrive at sunrise for a truly spectacular photograph.
I will close with a nice shot of a gathering thunderstorm looming over the cliffs, and a distant view over all the formations.
For the way back to Ridgway, we started out by taking State Road 128, which leads upstream through the canyon of the Colorado east of Moab. A truly spectacular road with few travelers. It has been discovered by canoers, kayakers, and stand-up paddleboarders.
Most of the trails above 9,000 feet are still snowbound now, in early May in Colorado. So, on our two days off this week we chose to visit the nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which lies about 15 miles to the northeast of Montrose, and a 45-minute drive from our home-base, Ridgway State Park. I had vague memories of visiting as a kid, but it was during this visit that I really came to love and appreciate it. I would say, for the reasons I outline below, that I enjoy the Black Canyon even more than the Grand Canyon, and that’s saying a lot!
The Black Canyon was formed over the last 2 million years as the rapidly falling Gunnison River cut its way through some very old Precambrian metamorphic rock that was in place some 1.7 billion years ago. The river falls an average of 96 feet per mile in the National Park, so it is that action along with the turbidity of the water that cut the canyon so deep and so narrow. There is a nice rim road on the south side of the canyon which has numerous overlooks reached by short trails. From almost everywhere along the rim one can hear the roar of the Gunnison, at work below. I don’t recall being able to actually hear the Colorado rushing through the Grand Canyon, although one can see it in places. For me, the scale of the Grand Canyon is too overwhelming and therefore hard to put into perspective. The Black Canyon, on the other hand, can be taken in and understood on a much more intimate scale.
In the book, Images of America: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, author Duane Vandenbusche states, “Several canyons of the American West are longer and some are deeper, but none combines the depth, sheerness, narrowness, darkness, and dread of the Black Canyon.” I would have to agree with that statement. A singular rock face, the Painted Wall, is roughly 1,700 feet high. The canyon itself averages 2,000 feet in depth. At its narrowest it is 1,000 feet across at the top and only 40 feet across at the bottom. In some places light may only reach the bottom for 30 minutes per day, thus the canyon’s name.
The Park was a National Monument, established in 1933, but it is now the newest National Park, established in 1999. This year, 2016, marks the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. If at all possible, plan to visit a national park or two during this centennial year celebration!
All in all, we found the Black Canyon experience to be an eye-popping awakening. The vistas are in constant flux and it is fascinating to watch the light change throughout the day. We were here on a nearly cloudless day, so the canyon walls were rendered brilliantly. Part of me really wanted to explore the bottom of the canyon, but it is basically inaccessible to all but the most intrepid hikers and climbers, via a trail system that is not managed. Even more unlikely would be a trip down the Gunnison through the canyon. Class V rapids abound, with many extremely treacherous portages. Suffice it to say, the canyon is best viewed from the relative safety of the rim.
We did take one managed trail about 400 feet down into the canyon. Strangely enough the trail is called Oak Flat, but it is anything but flat. It is an awesome experience to leave the hustle and bustle of the rim road and experience the quiet interior of the canyon. One of our favorite hikes was the Warner Point trail, named for a Montrose minister that rallied to have the canyon preserved in the 1920’s. From the end of the point one can see in all directions, with the majestic San Juans to the south, the Elk Ridge Mountains to the north, the Uncompaghgre valley to the west, and the Black Canyon to the east.
The canyon, as a raparian zone, is teeming with life. We saw many types of birds, including Golden Eagles, Magpies, a Grouse and Violet-Green Swallow, as well as a marmot. Spring is just beginning to show as well, as evidenced by several early wildflower varieties and the beginnings of cones on Douglas Fir.
During his winter visit to Oregon, our son decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, a 2,185 mile proposition. The logical time to start was around March 15th, as a hiker must reach Mt. Katahdin, Maine by October 15th, when Baxter State Park closes for the winter. Mandy and I decided that we would take him to the start of the trail at Springer Mountain, Georgia, to see him off properly. The motto on the plaque says, “a footpath for those who seek fellowship with the Wilderness.” There couldn’t be a better reason for undertaking such a commitment.
We struck out from Texas on March 11th, bound for Georgia, with the Airstream in tow. We set up camp at the Plum Nelly campground in Ellijay, Georgia upon our arrival on March 13th. Levar was ready to hit the trail on the 14th, but the first thing one must do is register as a thru-hiker at Amicalola Falls State Park. Levar was the 658th person to register this year, so he was bound to have some company on the trail. Upon registering, it is traditional to weigh one’s pack and have one’s picture taken at the arch marking the start of the Approach Trail.
Despite all the careful research, planning and paring down, Levar’s pack still weighed in at 41 pounds! Packs these days can weigh anywhere from 25 to 75 pounds, depending on how much food and water one carries. Rather than carrying weeks worth of food, as one must do on the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide trail, as resupply points are so far apart, Levar decided to carry 4 to 5 days worth of food to lighten his load, as towns are closer together on the Appalachian Trail. He also carried a good water filter, to resupply water at the many creeks and springs one encounters on the trail. As you can see from the sign above, the Approach Trail to Springer Mountain, the official southern terminus of the trail, adds an unnecessary 8.5 miles over 1,000 feet of vertical climb up steep terrain to the trek. We found out that we could get close to Springer Mountain on Forest Service roads, so took Levar to within 1 1/2 mile of the summit. We hiked with Levar to Springer Mountain. There we found a group of other beginners, a notebook to sign, and a copper plaque marking the start of the trail.
Learn more about the origins of the trial here: How the Appalachian trail got its start. After Springer Mountain, we saw Levar off with some pictures to mark the occasion. Note the white blaze on the tree. There are several thousand of these trail markers on trees and rocks, so one can be assured one is on the right path.
While Levar made time on the trail, Mandy and I hiked some other sections of the trail and some surrounding trails, before meeting at the highest point on the Georgia section of the trail, Blood Mountain, on March 17th. We approached from the north while Levar approached from the south and we reached the summit almost simultaneously. A gracious CCC-built shelter is built into the rocks on the summit. The CCC, Roosevelt’s New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps, were responsible for the construction of many segments of the footpath and shelters: 75th anniversary of the AT.
Levar was in excellent spirits and physical condition, and was going strong for these first 30 miles of the trail. We relaxed awhile on Blood Mountain and took in the spectacular views. One really gets a sense of why these mountains are called the Blue Ridge.
After descending from Blood Mountain, the footpath passes, quite literally, through Mountain Crossings at Neels Gap. This is the only spot on the trail where the trial passes under a roof: Mountain Crossings. This building was also built by the CCC, in 1937. It serves as the first contact with the outside world, a way station of sorts, a hostel and a place for a warm shower. The folks at Mountain Crossings offer a free service to thru-hikers: the pack “shakedown”. Levar decided to take part in this service. Staff have you take everything out of your pack and lay it out on the floor. Then comes the discussion about what ought to be jettisoned and what should stay. Thru-hikers send pounds of equipment either home or forward on the trail to save weight. Levar was told that he should do away with his sound-recording equipment and some other things, so these were sent ahead so that once he incorporates them in his pack again, he’ll be physically better able to handle the weight.
After a hike to the next mountain after Neels Gap, we finally parted ways with Levar. As of this writing he is hiking through the Great Smokies National Park on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. I am posting this sunset photograph as a token of one of the many rewards of hiking the Appalachian Trail.