Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP

20170605_130746After our Indiana Jones experience at Mesa Verde we had one more stop to make on our Utah/Colorado Loop Tour, Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It was a scenic four hour drive up route 145 through the San Juan National Forest.  We passed beautiful snowy peaked mountains, forests of tall trees, and rolling meadows.  We came across the mountain town of Telluride and decided to stop and take a peek. We heard it was pretty fabulous and wanted to get a look at the ski resort.  The town didn’t disappoint.  Driving down Main Street I felt like we had entered a storybook town.  The houses all looked like freshly painted Victorian cottages the color of Easter eggs, and were maintained to a tee.  Yards were mowed and manicured, with no sign of junk or clutter. Bicycles of all vintages and colors were parked by the porches.  Bikes seemed not only the preferred method of getting around town in the summer, but also moving works of art proudly rode about by their owners.  The more unique the paint job the better.  Main Street was quaint and filled with shops, restaurants, and food carts.  Giant rectangular flower boxes filled with colorful blooms sat right in the middle of Main Street dividing the two lanes of traffic.  Every few blocks there was puppy parking for patrons to tie up their furry friends while they shopped or dined.  As we drove down Main Street to the end of town we were delighted by the sight of Bridal Veil Falls cascading down the box canyon. It was a fantastical display of the power of water, dropping down 365 feet. After gazing at the waterfall we headed back into the main part of town, parked and walked over to the base of the ski resort which dumps right into town.  We grabbed some ice cream from a food cart vendor and sat down on a bench to enjoy people watching and take in the scenic surroundings.  On our way back to the truck we stopped in a real estate office to see what it would cost to live in the magical town.  We laughed as we realized we would need a pot of gold to be home owners in the storybook town of Telluride. We jumped in the truck to head towards our more realistic camp for the night.

For our visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison we opted to camp at Crawford State Park. For $18 a night we camped right on a lake and were treated to stunning mountain views, hot showers, and clean bathrooms.  We were located a short drive to the North Rim of the Black Canyon where we planned on hiking the next morning.  Being that it was a weekday there were only 3 other campers in the park making for a quiet, secluded camping experience.  We had a peaceful night watching loons fishing for their dinner on the lake and a rainbow poking over the mountain top.

The next morning we got up and broke camp and headed to the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The weather was perfect for hiking! We filled up our Camel Back packs, grabbed our bear spray and sunscreen and set off.  We planned on driving home later that day so we hiked the North Vista Trail to Exclamation Point, which ended up being 3 miles round trip.  For a longer hike we could have continued up to Green Mountain for a 7 mile round trip hike.  The hike to Exclamation Point contained numerous wildflowers and wound through juniper tree forest, oak and sage brush.  We came across several plants that looked like they had white spray paint on them, but it was just the way the plants were made.  It reminded me of when I was a kid and my grandmother went through a phase where she spray painted everything white.  She would take candle sconces out into the yard and lay them on the grass to spray them down with white paint and the grass looked exactly like these plants we saw when she was done.

As we wound our way through the juniper forest the trail took us to different overlooks on the rim. The sight of Black Canyon is breathtaking.  The dark craggy rocks of the canyon look like they should be home to Count Dracula.  I expected to see his castle nestled in the side of the canyon at any moment.  The walls of the canyon were steep and unforgiving. A fall here would be death for sure.  The Gunnison River flowed through the bottom of the canyon at a rapid pace.  It was crazy to stand on the rocky edge of the canyon and know that it was carved over time by the river moving far below.  We made our way to Exclamation Point and it was easy to see how the area got its name.  The view stretched for miles, both down into the canyon and across to the other rim.  It’s not a spot for the faint hearted.  Being perched so high above a canyon so scarred and rough looking is a dizzying sensation.  Ryan was brave and sat on a rock right next to the edge to get snapshots of the river raging at the bottom.  Unlike many National Parks we visited Black Canyon had few visitors that day.  We had Exclamation Point all to ourselves for a bit and we sat and enjoyed the views and solitude for a while before making our way back to the truck.

This was our last stop on our Colorado/Utah Loop Tour and we had about a five hour drive back to Fraser. Our drive back was the icing on top of an already sweet trip.  We passed through Grand Mesa National Forest and were delighted by the surprise waterfalls along the way.  We had to stop several times to check out raging creeks and waterfalls bursting with the runoff from the melting snow of mountain peaks.  We arrived home, happy, sun-burned, and satisfied that we’d managed to cross off five more National Parks from our list.   It was time to start preparing to say goodbye to Colorado for the summer and get ready to take the Cramper out East for more adventures.

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Mesa Verde

We were sad to leave Utah but ready to beat the heat and head back towards the cooler temperatures of the mountains. Continuing our Colorado/Utah Loop Tour we left Moab and drove to southwest Colorado to check out Mesa Verde National Park.  During the short 2 hour drive the scenery of red rocks began to get greener and the mountains in the distance got bigger.  Since the drive was short we planned on checking out the park and then settling into a free boondocking spot I found on Campendium.  At the last minute I decided to see if they had any camping available in the park for the night.  Sometimes it’s really difficult to find camping in the National Parks if you don’t have a reservation.

I pulled up the website and we were in luck! There was camping available but it was going to cost $32 to tent camp for one night. Wowza that’s expensive! We rarely paid that much in our camper and if we did the site usually had water and electric too. Then I read about their really nice bathrooms and shower house and decided after a week of not really having a decent shower $32 sounded pretty reasonable.  We paid our $32 and listened to a lecture on making sure we followed camping procedures for bear country. The lady obviously didn’t know she was talking to the biggest follower of bear country rules ever.  I follow every guideline and am never without bear spray in bear country.  I have an insane obsession with reading about bear attacks and an absolute terror of being eaten by one.  I blame my good buddy Kaci for introducing the book When Humans become Prey into my life.  I also believe strongly that we as humans are responsible for allowing wild animals to stay wild.  The best way to do that is by ensuring animals don’t get comfortable around humans and human food.  The park rangers always say a fed bear is a dead bear.  I will do my part to keep the bears away so they can have long happy lives.

A cool thing about Mesa Verde National Park is their visitor center is located before you enter the park. Visitors can actually go inside and look around at the art and exhibits before paying to enter.  If you are in the area with a little time to kill but not enough to see the park, stop in and take a look around.  They have wonderful exhibits there! I’ve talked before about how the National Parks don’t just protect land and wildlife but they preserve history as well. Mesa Verde is all about the history.  The park preserves over 5,000 archeological sites, 600 of which are cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo People that lived in the area from 600 AD to 1300 AD.  The visitor center is full of artifacts and beautiful pottery that has been recovered from the sites.  Visitors can purchase tickets to tour some of the cliff dwellings with a ranger.  The tours only cost $5 per person and are totally worth it!  The cliff dwellings are literally located on the sides of cliffs and require climbing huge ladders and crawling through some small spaces.  It’s not for people afraid of heights and I’m definitely not a fan, but there was no way I was passing up the opportunity to be Indiana Jones for the day! Visitors can tour Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House.  We purchased tickets for the last tour of the day of Balcony House.

We set up our camp and then started driving towards Balcony House, it’s about an hour drive from the campground inside the park. We stopped at several viewpoints along the way and were able to look across the canyon and see dwellings on the cliffs opposite us.  These structures are insane!  They are located in openings in the cliffs hundreds of feet down from the edge above.   A whole community of people lived in these cliff side structures and had to scale the walls to reach the land above.  It’s amazing to look at and think of how they had to go about getting food and supplies down into areas to live.  It’s also crazy to me how many people would live in these tight knit areas.  What if you were born into one of these families but were afraid of heights? I would never have survived climbing in and out of these places on a daily basis.  There are also many above ground archeological sites that we were able to hike to and around that were very interesting.  The cliff dwellings were really the star of the show for me though.

The last tour group of the day was small and our Ranger was able to really talk at length and show us some cool parts of the Balcony house you may not see on larger tours. My main advice if you visit is don’t look down and really don’t look behind you while on the ladders!  The pictures are the best way to describe this place so I hope you enjoy them!

After our day of being Indiana Jones we headed back to camp for a simple dinner of chips and sandwiches and then headed to the shower house. It was amazing!!! My favorite kind where you have your own room you can lock yourself in and plenty of space to put your stuff and dry off after.  The best part was the diagram showing that it was for showering only, not pooping. I absolutely love all the crazy signs we come across in our travels!

Mesa Verde is a special place and their facilities are top notch. Besides camping they also have a lodge, restaurant, and a huge gift shop that offers a café and groceries for sell.  They even have laundry services available.  We didn’t need them this time, but when we are on the road full time it is really nice to do laundry where you camp. The views here are awesome too.  If you’re planning on being in the Southwest Colorado area or even Moab, put it on your list and go be like Indiana Jones for a day, you won’t be disappointed!

Dinosaur National Monument

Right after Memorial Day this year we decided to embark on a tent camping adventure around Colorado and Utah. We had just received our new National Park Pass in the mail and were eager to put it to use.  Our mission was to visit five National Parks in ten days: Dinosaur National Monument, Arches, Canyonlands, Mesa Verde, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  It would create a perfect loop from our starting point in Fraser and allow us to really explore parts of Colorado and Utah we had never seen.  We loaded our cooler, camping equipment, and our bikes into the truck and set off towards our first destination, Green River Campground on the Utah side of Dinosaur National Monument.

The campground was only four and half hours away so we decided to stop and see a waterfall in Steamboat Springs on our way and have a picnic lunch. We are so glad we did!  Practically located in town is Fish Creek Falls, a 280 foot waterfall that cascades over Fish Creek Canyon.  We parked and then walked an easy 3/4 of a mile to the falls.  It was in full splendor from the spring runoff and the sound was so loud we had to practically shout at each other to talk.  The trails are set up so visitors can get an up-close and personal view of the falls and also a distant view from above.  We enjoyed both before heading back to the truck for a quick tailgate lunch of ham sandwiches and veggies before hitting the road to our campsite.

We had plenty of time to get to camp and get set up before dark, or so we thought. As we started making our way toward the Utah/Colorado Boarder, heavy flumes of smoke began rising in the air.  When we arrived at the boarder we found it closed off by state troopers due to a forest fire that had erupted near the highway unexpectedly.  The troopers thought it might be controlled enough in a few hours to pass through, or we could take a long route around to reach our destination that would also take a few hours.  Dinosaur is located partially in Colorado and partially in Utah and we had only planned on seeing the Utah side.  We thought this seemed like a good opportunity to visit the Colorado side for a few hours and hoped the road would be open later so we could make it to camp for the night.  The Colorado side of the park had some really cool rock formations, and lots of fields with deer grazing.  We enjoyed a nice drive and then headed to the boarder to find it open.  As we drove to camp we could see lots of brush smoldering off the highway and many firefighters working to ensure the blaze was fully contained.

When we entered the Utah side of Dinosaur I felt like we had just entered Jurassic Park! The rock formations were incredible geological structures jutting out of the earth and the Green River flowed through areas with low formed trees and greenery.  It felt like a dinosaur might show up at any moment!  We made our way to camp and got our tent pitched just as darkness was falling.  Our campground was right on the river with towering rocks as a backdrop.  We crawled into our tent and crashed for the night excited to see big fossils the next day.

The next morning we drove to the visitor center and took a shuttle bus to the Quarry Exhibit Hall. The Quarry Exhibit Hall was built around a large cliff that has over 1500 exposed fossils embedded in it from many different dinosaurs. We spent the morning marveling at fossils of the Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and many others. We also found out that there were several complete skeletons that had been excavated in the area and moved to big museums so more people could see them.  We were excited to learn that one was in Denver and another at the Smithsonian Museum of Science and History in Washington D.C., both places we planned on visiting soon.  It would be really cool to see the fossils in person and also know what the land looked like where they came from.

After a morning of fossils we decided to continue our history tour and hike to some places we could see ancient Petroglyphs and Pictographs carved and painted into the rocks by the Fremont People about 1,000 years ago. It is kind of awe inspiring and mindboggling to stand in front of a rock and look at artwork on stone and know other people in ancient times had stood in the same spot and created it.  It’s interesting to think about what their lives were like and how they compare to ours now.  It is one thing to read about Petroglyphs in history books, but to see them in person is truly spectacular.  That’s why it is so important to support our National Parks, they protect not just lands and wildlife, but they preserve history.

We concluded our day by watching sunset from a perch high above the Green River with a cold beer. Dinosaur was a wonderful first stop on our loop tour.  Happy and tired we climbed into our tent and fell asleep to the sound of the river rushing by, thinking about dinosaurs and ancient people, anticipating our next adventure into Arches and Canyonlands.

Rocky Mountain High

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Hey everyone! I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. It’s been a really long time since I posted about our travels! After touring the east coast this summer with the Cramper we have settled back down in Fraser, Colorado for our second winter. Why do we keep returning to Grand County Colorado you ask? The simple answer is the beauty, the fun, and the laid back mountain vibe. The area averages 245 sunny days a year which is good for the soul and for playing outdoors. We have big, snowy peaked mountains, lush forests, babbling brooks, clear rivers, and deep lakes full of colorful trout.  In the winter we get oodles of snow that coat the trees and freeze over the lakes, turning the outdoors into a majestic winter wonderland of sparkling ice and fluffy white snow. In the spring Mud Season descends as the snow melts and the ice thaws causing the rivers to rage and rise.  Summer brings colorful mountain wildflowers and long sunny days.  Fall is full of fiery aspen trees set against mountain backdrops.  I could go on and on about how beautiful it is here but I’ll let our photos do the talking.

Instead, I will talk about how FUN it is here! No matter what season it is, there is tons to do in Grand County Colorado.  Out our front door we have access to the Fraser River Trail which starts at one end of town and runs alongside the Fraser River over to the little tourist town of Winter Park, then it winds through Idlewild Campground, and over to Winter Park Ski Resort.  The trail meanders past lakes with swimming beavers, geese, ducks, and through a forest of delicious smelling Lodge Pole Pine Trees.  If you are lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) you may run into a moose or a deer.  It’s a great place to walk, run, or ride bikes during the warmer months and is used for crossed country skiing, fat biking, and snowy walks in the winter months.  A short drive or good bike ride away is the Fraser Experimental Forest.  It is the perfect spot to mountain bike with trails for riders of any skill level. It’s also a beautiful place for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and just meandering through the woods.  We’ve done some really great challenging hikes in the area, like to the top of Byers Peak, the mountain we can see from the front window of our cute little condo.

About 40 minutes away at the Town of Grand Lake is the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. If you like to view wildlife, hike, or just enjoy a scenic view Rocky Mountain NP is a must see. You will truly feel like you are on top of the world here! We spent an hour there this fall just listening to the elk bugle during the rut.  Grand Lake, the Arapahoe National Forest, and Granby Lake are also nearby with superb fishing, hiking, and camping.  I don’t plan on trying ice fishing myself anytime soon, but there are always people out on the lakes in the winter. There’s also snowmobiling and sleigh rides in the winter, hot air balloon rides, and heart pumping white water rafting nearby in the summer.

I haven’t even touched on Winter Park Ski Resort! With 24 lifts, 168 trails, and over 3000 acres of space it’s an amazing winter playground.  The resort is divided into seven different territories, each one giving the rider a different unique experience. We spent most of our ski time last winter on Mary Jane Mountain trying out the moguls, and escaping the crowds in the laid back area of Vasquez Ridge.  The views are amazing going up the lifts and equally amazing coming down the slopes. In the summer it is a mecca for Mountain bikers.  Riders and their bikes take the lifts to the top and then bomb down the mountain for an adrenaline rush. For those that don’t like to ski or bike there is a tubing hill in the winter, an alpine slide in the summer, lots of shops, restaurants, and a spa or two.  No matter what season it is the town makes it really easy to get around and take advantage of happy hour with free buses running all day. Between the town trails, our bikes, and the bus our truck is getting a well deserved break from carting us and the Cramper all over the country.

If you are thinking about your next vacation, come give Grand County and the Fraser Valley a try, it’s a great place to get outside and feed your soul. Come visit and we’ll show you how to play like a local!