Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Piece of Rocky Mountain National Park

    Rocky Mountain and I have a strange relationship.  Whenever I’m around, it seems to want nothing to do with me.  Back in 2010, I was just ending an 8,000 mile road trip and was heading back to Iowa with Rocky Mountain National Park being the last stop.  Just as I was cresting those incredible mountain ranges in Central Colorado, my transmission gave out.  Looking back on it now, I’m not at all surprised.  It was an older car and I’d been pushing it pretty hard for the past four weeks.  At the time it was pretty devastating considering I was still over 700 miles from home.  Miraculously, the car got both of us home in one piece, but I did miss out on Rocky.

     Here is an unnamed roadside waterfall from high up in the Rockies.

     The creek that formed the waterfall flowed into this river which followed right next to the road for a while.  I wish I would have written down the name of the road and the river.  I usually do.  Perhaps the elevation was getting to me!

     My second time out there was this Spring.  I did make it into the park this time, but only just.  On May 25th, 2012, a violent Spring storm moved in over the park.  The day before was perfectly fine, as was the day after.  But the day I was to arrive was the one day that the main pass through the park was shut down.  For this reason, I do not have many typical Spring pictures of the splendors of the park.  We were able to take Hwy 34 in around the big lakes, up to the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, which was completely devoid of any other visitors, and drive up just as far as the Farview Curve, before heading back down and coming out the way we came in, as the rest of the park was completely closed down.

     As you can see, it was a rather dreary day.  This is the meadow and trees just after the Visitor Center, under the nondescript sky.  

     One good thing about the weather is that forests and waterfalls are best photographed in overcast conditions.

     The beauty we missed out on is vast.  Trail Ridge Road, which is considered a great enough experience by many to make it worth a visit to the park, even if all you do is drive right through it.  It is one of ten America’s Scenic Byways.  This Colorado Byway climbs to 12,000 feet and consists of forest, river, and meadows.  The plethora of habitats and ecosystems that the road guides you through is an experience that few other roads offer in the US.  If you ever have a chance to take an American Scenic Byway, I would strongly suggest that you do, as they are all unique and astounding.  Just a week earlier I was on a different byway in The Grand Staircase Escalante.

     Rocky Mountain National Park is located to the West of Denver and the whole area surpasses 7,500 feet in elevation.  If you’re not acclimated to high elevations, then I would highly suggest taking your time before you do any major hikes or anything else that could proliferate altitude sickness.  If you are coming from a much lower elevation such as the Midwest (like me) then it is a good idea to pull over every hour and get out of your car to walk around.  It’s good to take your time when climbing such high elevations so that you don’t get sick once you’re up in the mountains.  
     The first time I drove into the Rockies was incredible.  I’ll never forget seeing the mountains from a distance and feeling them get closer and closer with each mile.  At first they were just shadows on the horizon, could maybe even be mistaken for dark clouds, but as I got closer they began to take shape and I fell in love.  Driving through them was frightening at first.  It took a long time to get used to the roads.  At each switchback my heart would stop for a moment.  My whole body was thrown off balance; my whole life I was used to flat roads.  

     One time I picked up a couple of hitch hikers outside of San Francisco, a couple of young guys with guitars.  I was heading to Point Reyes and they wanted a ride to the ocean.  As we drove we got to talking; they were from Colorado, and they told me that the first time they had gone out East through Nebraska they felt unhinged at the feeling of all the flatness.  They felt like they might fall off the edge of the world.  I found it interesting because I’d never thought of it that way before, working the other way around.

     High Summer is the most popular time to visit, as my experience shows.  Late Spring is also a great time to be there, though you’re taking a chance even in May.  But if you can get there on a good day, the passing clouds and wildflowers are absolutely stunning.  

     These are my photos from the top of Farview Curve, which is as far as we could get along the road before they closed it down.  

     For a few moments, the sun actually pierced through the heavy sky and lit up some of the trees and the meadow below.  It was so beautiful.  It was the only bit of sun I saw the entire day, and I was grateful for it.

     The elk were not afraid to come out in packs as I believe we were one of 10 cars in the whole park that day.

     These elk were completely unbothered as we slowed down to take a good look at them from a distance.

     One time in Grand Canyon National Park I was driving along and happened to spot a young elk in the woods about 20 feet off the side of the road.  He was gorgeous, his antlers just growing in for the new Spring season.  We pulled over and sat quietly from the safety of the car and watched him.  He gave no indication that he even knew we were there.  Though this is how you’re directed to observe wildlife while on park roads, it may have been a mistake because our stopped car signaled to other tourists that something interesting was to be seen.  

     Within minutes, several other cars were pulled over, which isn’t a bad thing, but then the tourists began pouring out of their cars, at least 20 of them, each one seeing who could be braver than the next, getting closer and closer to the elk grazing in the woods.  They were closing in on him, and I believe their intentions were good, but they were being incredibly foolish.  The elk realized he was being outnumbered and saw this new, strange situation as a threat and immediately ran off back into the woods and out of sight.

     If the elk would have felt threatened enough, there was a good chance he may have charged at them, or if it had been a mother with her young baby, it’s almost certain that she would have.  Not only could someone get hurt, but the chances are great that the elk would be hunted down and tested for diseases.

     Not only did these ignorant tourists disrupt anyone else’s chances of getting to see such a majestic creature, they also interrupted his dinner and his peaceful way of life.  National Parks are the some of the single remaining places that animals get to enjoy their natural habitats in peace.  The last thing they need is people impending upon them any further.  We’ve already built roads, campgrounds, lodges, markets, gift shops, and even gas stations all throughout these areas, the least we can do is leave them alone when they’re enjoying what natural habitat that they have left. 

     The thing about National Parks is, they weren’t just designed for humans.  That is what the rest of the country does.  This is the one place where we are saving and preserving everything pure and good that remains.  Some of these places are utterly unchanged and undisturbed, the way they were meant to be by nature, the way they were before the Industrial Revolution, before roads and houses.  The way they were when Europeans first arrived and decided that this country was the place to make a home, they way they were when Native Americans were the only people living here.  

     Someone at some point, came across each of these places and decided that what they saw made life worth living, and so they settled there.  The tragedy comes when what made this place so ideal to begin with is ultimately destroyed and replaced with something of a dirtier, lesser value.  National Parks show that we care about our roots.  People come from all over the world to spend time in these parts, and the parks showcase our pride.

     There are over 300 miles of hiking trails in Rocky Mountain Park.  Though it was thundering overhead and already raining slightly, we decided to take a chance on Adam’s Falls.  

     This trail is located at the very edge of the park at the East Inlet Trailhead.  Take US 34 to the Grand Lake and Village.  It can be a little tricky finding it but the park map has it clearly marked.  It’s less than a mile roundtrip and the majority of the trail takes you through a beautiful forest.  

     I am just messing around with my camera here, but I like this effect.

     Adam’s Falls is gorgeous.  It takes two complete 90 degree turns, and would be a challenge for any photographer.  It was easiest to photograph in parts.

     The river that rushes right at your feet and flows on through the forest.

     Here is the top of the waterfall, which breaks apart into two sections to flow around some pretty trees.

     A close up of the water, and wildflowers.

     This was a wonderful hike, and there was so much climbing and exploring to do by the waterfall.  I sat perched on a big rock overlooking the falls and the river until the thunder got too loud to ignore.  I love what I did get to see in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Perhaps one day I will get to fully experience the rest of it.  I can hope, anyway.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

     Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park does not get a lot of hype, though I am not sure why.  Perhaps because of its remote location, which  is wedged high up in the mountains, right in the center of 5 National Forests, both of Colorado’s main interstates being more than 60 miles away.  The Colorado Interstate is a savior for many people.  Driving through the Rocky Mountains is intense, there is no doubt about that.  I can imagine it would take years to get used to the zipping roads, the 12% upgrades, dark tunnels, steep drop-offs, and narrow gravelly pull outs.  

     Though it can be tempting for some to just stick to the Interstate, don’t.  Interstates were designed to be boring! plain and simple.  They were built with one goal in mind: to get the driver from point A to point B in the easiest way possible.  Take the scenic route, take the old road, take the long way around.  Take the road that was designed to follow the river, or the tree line.  Take the road that moves with the curves of the mountains, not the one that just cuts right through it.  If you don’t, you’re going to miss all the good stuff.  You’re going to miss your adventure.  You might get lost, you might get scared, but you’re going to have more fun.  I promise.

     Another possible reason the Black Canyon of the Gunnison gets overlooked is the location of its very famous brothers on either side of it.  With Arches to the West just outside Grand Junction, and Rocky Mountain to the East just outside Denver, it may be no fault of its own that Black Canyon doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

     This canyon began forming over 2 million years ago, the torrential Gunnison River slicing down a new page in the book of time, year after year, until what we have before our eyes is a narrow dark chasm like something you’d see on the cover of Fantasy novels.

     To give some sort of fathomable idea of the shape of this canyon, at its highest point it is over 2,700 feet deep (this can be seen at Warner Point) and at its narrowest point down at the river, it is only 40 feet across.  Though that is less than half as deep as the deepest part of the Grand Canyon, the sheer verticalness is what makes it truly outstanding and incomparable to the rest of the extreme canyons in North America.

      There is a North and a South Rim, and just like the Grand Canyon, the South Rim is considerably more popular.  It is open year round and has more paved roads, campsites, hiking trails, and overlooks.  We did not make the three hour venture over to the North Rim, although it does boast to have some of the best overlooks due to the almost vertical canyon walls.

     The South Rim contains a 7 mile drive and 12 overlooks.  A short trail will take you to each overlook to give you a unique and impossibly steep view.  Once in a while you may see what are called Rock Islands, sharp spires of rock that jut skywards, holding onto nothing but the ground far, far below.

     At the rim of the canyon there are several hikes ranging anywhere from 1/2 to 5 miles.  These hikes offer great opportunities to study plants and wildlife, especially the different birds that seem to float effortlessly on the updrafts created by the canyon.

     Unbelievably, there is hiking in the inner canyon as well, though no one will go as far as to call these “trails”.  They are recommended only for the most experienced and physically able hikers as there are points of no return and places where chains are dredged into the wall to aid a hiker from one ledge to the next.  Hikers are expected to find their own way and be prepared for self-rescue. 

     We chose to camp just outside of Montrose but the campgrounds inside the park would have been just as nice, if not an even better experience.  The South Rim has 88 sites which are divided into 3 Loops.  The park is very specific about two things:  One is to conserve water since it must be brought in by truck, and Two is that you keep your food sealed off in bear-proof storage lockers or in the trunk of your car.  They go as far as to recommend that you do not keep anything scented (including toothpaste, tobacco, even sunscreen) in your tent.  

     Black bears are frequently roaming through the park and have on numerous occasions visited campsites and have gone to great lengths to snatch campers’ food.  What is terribly sad is the fact that most bears that end up doing this ultimately have to be killed because after becoming accustomed to human food instead of foraging for themselves, they become very dangerous for obvious reasons.

     It is not a pretty slogan but keep in mind, “a fed animal is a dead animal’.  Fed as in by you or something you’ve left lying there either in the form of trash or scraps.  This goes for all wildlife but especially bears since they are considered the most formidable.  

     It’s fun and cute to feed birds and chipmunks some of your trail mix or whatever and I have been guilty of it myself, but these animals get used to the type of food that you’re giving them (which usually isn’t healthy for them in the first place) and the ease at which they’re given; soon they get used to people and even cars and this will lead to their untimely deaths.  It’s healthy and natural for wildlife to be scared of humans.  Though it’s a magical experience to be able to get close to them, we need to look at the big picture and be content to respect and admire them from a distance.

     It is possible to drive to the bottom of the canyon by way of East Portal Road.  This road is quite possibly the steepest I have ever been on, with 16% grades and hairpin curves.  Make sure your breaks are in excellent condition before heading down as there are no guard rails, either.  Vehicles longer than 22 feet aren’t allowed on the road, but there is room at the top to unhitch and park a trailer if you need to.  The road  isn’t very long; it’s over pretty quickly but it’ll get your heart racing for sure!

     The bottom of the canyon is technically referred to at the Curecanti National Recreation Area; there is camping, fishing, and picnicking available.  Some of the best fishing in the entire state of Colorado can be found at the bottom of the Black Canyon, though there are some strict regulations to be followed.  They can be found on the Park’s official website.  Out of 9,000 miles of trout steams in Colorado, 168 are considered Gold Medal Water and this is where you can find some of it.

     From Rim to River, the canyon contains four life zones due to differences in sunlight, temperature, and air quality.  Needless to say, being at the very bottom of the canyon was like being in a completely different world.

     I had arrived at the bottom of this dark canyon and now that I was here it was warmer and sunnier, not all what I had expected while standing on the precipice of the obsidian cliffside only moments earlier.    

     What is a dark silver ribbon from up above, is a beautiful river with a pearly opaqueness to it, like a rolling green marble.  As you stand in the heart of the canyon, your eyes have never seen so much green.  The water is green, the trees and plants are green, it seems to reflect off the sides of the canyon walls.  The light that filtered down is even green, somehow.  At certain points, the river is still as glass, making for perfect reflections.

     We wanted to be at the rim of the canyon for sunset so after an enjoyable little spell down by the river, we headed back up that steep road, and continued on through the park to get some views at the remaining overlooks.

     The Painted Wall is the tallest vertical cliff in Colorado, at 2, 250 feet.  The sun was just creeping below the horizon, shooting this powerful glare right into my lens.  For art's sake, I like these photos.  But technically, they're pretty bad.  They don't do much justice to the detail of this intricate cliffside. I believe this wall would make an amazing sunrise shot.

     Sunset Point was the final stop for us, and did it ever live up to its name.  There was quite a crowd at this overlook.  I’m pretty sure that almost everyone in the park was gathering here for the final show of the day.  

     Here is the progression of the sunset.  It softened the crags of the canyon; the magic light melted into the darkness and turned shadows blue and lavender.  The clouds above thinned out into spun sugar as the last rays pierced the sky sharply and then disappeared over the far rim of the canyon.