Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hiking Avon and Minturn - Backpacking Grouse Mountain and Meadow Mountain

With the wife firmly esconced in the Westin Riverfront, the son and I were able to sneak off for a bit of backpacking.  We had tried this in other locations, but leaving her alone in the tent, taking community showers with truck drivers, and eating at the local diner didn't go over well.  Finally, we had the right combination of location and accommodation!

Unfortunately for me, Steam was offering a free multiplayer weekend for online gamers on Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, so our son awoke hours before dawn and played for free before our departure.  This had immediate negative consequences.

At least we didn't miss the trail sign, and since he was carrying the food, he had no choice but to persevere.  However, we did a lot of this on the way uphill.

Time for the daily game, can you spot the grouse?

Between the devastation wrought by the Pine Bark Beetle here in Colorado and the recent high winter winds, the trail got increasingly more difficult, especially when carrying packs.

It was fun at first...

...but pretty soon, the West Grouse Creek Trail became a bit ridiculous.

So we back-tracked and after wandering a bit, we settled on to the Meadow Mountain trail.  It was lower down, free of fallen pines, and offered wide-open meadows and stands of aspen for the hammocks!

Our view looking north from the campsite...

...and our campsite looked like this the night before,

and this in the morning light.

At around 10,000 feet, our son stayed warm and toasty in his hi-tech sleeping bag in the "mother ship" to the left, while I, after stuffing the jungle hammock with leaves for insulation, was still looking for the feeling in my toes four hours after getting up.  Note the ice on the logs crossing the bubbling brook next to our campsite.

I regained feeling in my digits shortly after consuming this buffalo burger, fries, and onion rings at the Route 6 Cafe on the way back to the hot tub at the Westin

Friday, April 27, 2012

Hiking Avon and Minturn - Cross Creek Trail

Our second day out, we're scouting for a good place to backpack this weekend - you know, that trail that isn't covered with large piles of elk and black bear poo, and empty bottles of pepper spray.

Cross Creek is a beautiful trail, much nicer than Booth Creek.  It is much less heavily used, and the woods are nicer.  Forest Road 707 was closed when we were there, requiring a bit of a walk to the trailhead along the road.  Once on the trailhead, we're immediately surrounded by wildflowers.

The trail winds up and down through the woods, frequently using short switchbacks.  Just often enough to keep things interesting, we're treated to creekside views.


What a bridge!

We hiked up to the bridge and a little past, but it was getting late so we headed for home, stepping around the piles of elk scat.

Hiking Avon and Minturn - Booth Creek Trail

We've landed in the Eagle River valley in Avon, Colorado - and that means it's time to hike the White River National Forest!

Uh oh, not even out of sight of the parking lot, and he's looking a little fatigued and grumpy.

First creek crossing, and feet still dry, so all is well!

Well, maybe "well" was a strong word, but we are still moving away from the trailhead and uphill and chatting....

Third creek crossing, going strong!

Lots of small wildlife on this trail, see if you can spot the bird in this picture:

Also a few small waterfalls, no doubt smaller than usual due to lack of runoff from the light snow season.

Nearing Booth Lake, we saw bighorn sheep on the rock face across from the trail.  Unfortunately, I only have the wide angle lens, so there's no closeup and you'll have to use your imagination.  Here's what they look like with the picture cropped down.

Here's what it looked like from across the canyon.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mesa Verde National Park - our new favorite!

We couldn't really put a finger on a single reason that we enjoyed our visit to Mesa Verde National Park so much, but we came away feeling like this park offered an experience as unique as Yellowstone, as visually interesting as Arches, and as educational as the Grand Canyon...all in one small package.  The Park employees were the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their park of any place we've ever visited.  We were taken on guided tours right through the ruins, scrambling down sandstone stairs carved hundreds of years ago by the forefathers of some of the American Indian tribes of the southwest, such as the Hopi.  The museum wasn't the largest or the newest that we had visited, but it was packed with artifacts and information.  It certainly didn't hurt that we stumbled into Metate, a fantastic restaurant offering extremely well-prepared local food like Elk Shepherd's Pie.  It might have also been due to the fact that we opted to stay in the hotel room with cell and wireless Internet service rather than camping for the night.  Finally, it might just be because Mesa Verde addresses a few thousand years of human history and earth science and does it in a detailed and thorough fashion, while all of the other parks address hundreds of millions or even billions of years of geology and deal with time scales and forces well beyond normal consideration.  All of these things combined to make our tour of Mesa Verde one of our favorite national parks out of the twenty or so that we have visited this year.

The big attraction at Mesa Verde are the cliff houses.

Apparently, the people lived on top of the mesa for almost 700 years, exposed to fairly harsh conditions, but thriving on a diet of game animals, corn, beans, and squash.  After such a long time on top of the mesa, something caused them to drop over the wall and build these amazing villages in alcoves in the sandstone.  There is no consensus on why this happened, but in my opinion, a good case can be made for both population pressures and fear.  They had hunted all the big game animals out of existence in their area, and centuries of growing crops on the same farmland had depleted the soil and reduced yields.  As Murphy's Law provides, when things go wrong, they go wrong in size.  In this case, the above problems were compounded by the onset of a 24-year drought around 1276-1300.  This drought would have devastated their farms.  In the nearby plains, competing tribes ravaged each other, and episodes of extreme violence and cannibalism have been documented.  Apparently, the residents of Mesa Verde were able to scratch out an existence through this ugly period in American history without major violence or unrest, but it appears that they finally voted with their feet - leaving their newly-built cliff dwellings en masse for better prospects elsewhere.

If you take this "defensive theory" as the origin of the cliff dwellings, then the circuitous route that must be followed to get to them makes sense.  First you go down the stairs....

...then up the ladders, and around the corner to this magnificent sight!

Being able to walk through the ruins under supervision, and in general get a first-person look at the dwellings made this a fantastic historical tour.  While we've tramped through many castles and ruins in England and Scotland, something about the blue skies, sunshine, and magnificent wilderness vista made this much more enjoyable and realistic!

Getting back up was as much fun as getting down.  The Cliff House, pictured here, was built fairly early in the tribe's move to the cliffs.  Note the wide stairs below.

By the end of this migration from mesa top to cliff side dwellings, the builders were destroying the stairways used to bring construction materials down, walling up doors, and sealing their dwellings up so that the only access was by hand and foot-holds gouged into sheer cliff walls.  In the second dwelling we toured, Balcony House, this high security arrangement was clearly evident.

To reach Balcony House, the Park Service had to create and pave an entrance that runs along the cliff wall.

Along the way, you learn why Mesa Verde was "an oasis in the desert".  Geologically, it is a massive pile of hard yet easily worked sandstone (great for building and masonry!) set atop a layer of water-impermeable shale.  The sandstone sucks up every drop of water that falls in the form or rain or snow, filters it, then turns it loose when the water reaches the lower layer of shale in the form of springs like the one pictured below.

It's easy to see why the Mesa Verde residents thrived for hundreds of years, then managed to survive without succumbing to violence and cannibalism when the drought hit, but finally had to make the decision to leave when the springs finally ran dry.

Back to the Park Service entry to Balcony House...

Note that most of the wall at the far end of the cliff dwelling is walled up in the picture below.  The builders brought their construction materials in that way, then walled off the entrance and used this end of the structure for food storage, lived and worshipped in the middle, and then hid the entrance a thousand feet down the cliff with only hand and foot-holds for entry and egress.

After climbing down the sheer cliff wall, and climbing through an 18-inch wide tunnel...

...the residents of this cliff dwelling then had to squeeze through this crack to reach their home.

They had a nice view.

Doomsday Preppers have nothing on these people!

Finally, a 30-foot scramble up a ladder and a bit of chain-hugging climbing, and we are back on top of the mesa!

After considering the decline of the Mesa Verde tribes from a place of comfort and prosperity to life in fortress cliff dwellings with water and food supplies slowly dwindling and cannibals roaming the mesa top, it was easy to trade some little green pieces of paper for a fantastic meal and comfortable beds with a great view at the Far View Lodge and Metate Room!

Monument Valley - our cowboy moment

While she's not a cowgirl or a big fan of cowboy movies, my wife insisted that we see Monument Valley while in the area. 

We got extremely lucky and managed to secure a last-minute room with a view at The View Hotel in Monument Valley when someone cancelled.  So, we packed up quickly and pulled out of Moab.  Our first stop, Mexican Hat.  Life simply is not complete until you've photographed a balanced rock that looks like a sombrero!

Checking into The View Hotel, we knew it was worth the early departure from Moab.  The panorama from the balcony or bedroom at this hotel is as good as the best locations we've stayed in over the years, both at sunset...

 ...overnight with the stars, and at sunrise the next morning.

This is how the hotel looks from the 16-mile driving tour of Monument Valley.

It is just about time to wash the truck.  Here's hoping for torrential rains on the drive across the "fly-over" states.

Taking advantage of our location once again, we stopped to visit Four Corners - the only location in the USA where four states meet at a single point - Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.  Note that we are standing in Arizona.  Arizona is our favorite state of the four, thanks to its strong respect for the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution and our right in this country to keep and bear firearms.  There's nothing wrong with the other three states, and Utah and Colorado are two of the most amazing states we've visited...but if given the option of standing in any one of the four, we stand in Arizona!