Last week a friend and I drove out to Pawnee Buttes, in the Pawnee National Grassland. This is on the prairie in northeast Colorado, not far south of Wyoming and Nebraska. It was a warm but lovely day. The grassland is beautiful: lots of miles on dirt roads; beautiful undulating hills; and the isolated buttes themselves. The only downside is the sheer number of oil and gas facilities out here, along with the accompanying truck traffic. In a time when it’s imperative that we phase out fossil fuels, I was discouraged to see the amount of fracking and other fossil-fuel extraction on this, one of our national treasures.
For this year’s aspen photos I drove the 24-mile Guanella Pass Scenic Byway from Highway 285 north to Georgetown. The road starts out gently on the south side of the pass and gradually ascends. The aspens were at their peak, and flowers were still blooming here and there.
It was a beautiful Friday. These photographs show no hint of the sizable crowds at the Summit Overlook (elev. 11,669 feet); this is definitely “curated” reality. Something I’m learning about Colorado in 2018: There are now so many people driving the drives and hiking the trails that you must be a very fit person to find solitude in the mountains. Every trailhead I passed in eight hours of driving, from Highway 285 up through Clear Creek Canyon, had a pretty full complement of cars. A number of people were hiking the Square Top Mountain trail (below), which originates at Summit Overlook on Guanella Pass. It was an unusually warm day, probably at least 70 degrees at the pass and breezy.
This afternoon I drove up to Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, located about 15 miles north of Fort Collins and about 10 miles south of the Wyoming border. The last several miles are on a very well graded dirt-and-pea-gravel road. I went to the north parking lot, where there was only one other car, and walked a short trail to a site that overlooks a former archaeological dig, now restored to prairie. This is some of what I saw. I’m still working on an identification for a couple of the plants. I’m also a bit puzzled by the rocks atop the fenceposts—are they decorative, or do they have some sort of significance I can’t read?
The sense of remoteness and the solitude were gratifying, very different from the isolation of being at home. It was a beautiful, unusually cool day for August and it was windy; my ears actually got cold. I was fine in a T-shirt but began thinking longingly of earmuffs; what a strange sight that combination would make! A hat or scarf would have done the trick. I want to return to this area soon with my Olympus and my binoculars.
Note: I have since learned that the purpose of the rocks is to divert water, thus preventing deterioration of the tops of the posts. Thanks to Michael Bliss for telling me this.
Now for an excursion into the humid hallways of “Tropical Discovery,” the facility at the Denver Zoo that houses reptiles, amphibians, fish, and a few invertebrates. Despite the name, some animals here are not tropical species—but this lovely jade-colored frog is.
For yesterday’s drive I skirted Denver on the west side and took U.S. Hwy. 285 over to Kenosha Pass and down to South Park. I’d been keen to see this part of Colorado ever since I read a magazine writer’s comment that, though he’d been many places in the world, the view down across South Park from the pass was his favorite. Not ever having watched the animated series “South Park,” I didn’t know that it was named after a real place. (There is also a North Park, northwest of Rocky Mountain National Park.) The designation “park” here refers to a broad plateau or basin ringed by mountains.
I stopped to eat lunch at Fairplay, then took state route 9 up through Alma (10,578 feet elev.), and over Hoosier Pass (as it turns out, there are two Hoosier Passes in Colorado, both of them—I presume—originally sited in Indiana, then trucked west and greatly enlarged). A series of hairpin turns on the other side of the pass takes you down to Breckinridge. There were still golden-leafed aspens along 285 east of Kenosha Pass and in Breckinridge; elsewhere, the aspens were mostly bare. Given the abundance of stands on the slopes, it must have looked spectacular a couple of weeks ago. Now I know an ideal driving route for seeing the fall colors in Colorado.
View west from Trail Ridge Road to the Never Summer Wilderness.
Yesterday I took my sister for a 7-hour drive to see the aspens in their fall colors. We drove from Loveland to Boulder, up Boulder Canyon, down the Peak-to-Peak Highway, up Hwy. 40 to Granby, up Hwy. 34 to Rocky Mountain National Park, and across Trail Ridge Road. We didn’t stop for photos very often, but here are a few.
Today I drove Old Fall River Road up to the Alpine Visitors Center in Rocky Mountain National Park. This route was the first road through the park. Today it’s one-way (uphill) and nine miles of it are dirt. Very little of it runs above the tree line, so it affords very different views than you find from Trail Ridge Road.
At the Visitors Center one can climb “Huffers Hill,” which rises a bit over 200 feet in elevation, taking you to 12,005 feet. I didn’t think I could get up there, but with a lot of rests, I did, and a kind young woman offered to take my photo at the elevation sign. Normally I don’t include myself in photographs, but I was happy and proud that I’d made this climb—such a little thing to most people, but a big thing for me—so it seemed okay to make an exception. It was 46 degrees and very windy. Gloves would have been a good idea; also a scarf and a more suitable hat.
On the way up I was passed by a talkative group of Japanese tourists. When I reached the top, they were taking pictures with their phones. I walked on to the sign at the end of the trail. When I turned back, I saw that they had all sat down, some on the ground and some on a rock outcrop—silent, eyes closed. They were meditating. Their silence was of a piece with the silence of the stones. Only the wind could be heard. Theirs seemed the most apropros response to the landscape, and I considered sitting with them, but I was afraid if I sat down I wouldn’t be able to get up again. The coldness of my ears also argued against any possibility of meditating, so I walked back down (much harder on the legs than the walk up, but a nice respite for lungs and heart).
A final, four-part love letter to the rock walls of Canyon Country.
The north section of Arches National Park, which has the most trails, was closed for road repairs and construction when we visited, and another popular section was so crowded that no parking spots were available. My companion and I found ourselves both suffering from a world-too-much-with-us malaise. (See here my post A plea for public lands, or better yet, read Desert Solitaire by the very prescient Edward Abbey.) We ended up just getting out at a couple of overlooks and then walking a very short trail to Sand Dune Arch. That arch isn’t pictured here: I left my camera in the car because of the strong, gusty wind; sand grains stung the skin and tourists without sunglasses were shielding their eyes. Sand Dune Arch is sandwiched between tall fins of rock that form a little slot canyon, the bottom of which is piled deep with sand of a uniformly red color (due to its iron content). Burrowing my hand into it, I discovered that it was the finest-grained sand I’ve ever felt, almost velvety, perhaps because it is eroded from rock only rather than being a mixture of rock and marine shell.
So the only arch in my photographs was taken, ironically, at Canyonlands. At the north end of this park, a paved road travels south along a skinny mesa appropriately called Island in the Sky. The mesa is a long finger pointing down into the heart of the labyrinthine canyon systems that make up the bulk of the park, hundreds of feet below and extending for miles east, south, and west. Mesa Arch, which is pictured here, stands on the eastern edge of Island in the Sky midway between the visitors center and the end of the road, Grand View Point. By the time we got there, the sun was at the horizon.