Thursday, July 16, 2009

Million Dollar Highway In Colorado

My Roadtripping over the Million Dollar Highway was part of a Roadtrip that began in Moab, went on to my second Lake Powell Houseboat experience, after another night at the San Juan Inn in Mexican Hat, just like I did the first time I houseboated, then a return to Monument Valley, back to Moab, then south to Durango, an overnight in the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton, followed by the Million Dollar Highway the next morning, ending up in Taos that night.

I have driven a lot of mountain roads. You spend most of your life living in the state of Washington, you do a lot of mountain driving. I prefer my mountain driving to have guard rails. As you can see in the picture there are no guard rails on the Million Dollar Highway. But, I have driven many a Washington and California, mountain logging road, with no guard rails, so the Million Dollar Highway's lack was not all that unsettling.

I did not find the Million Dollar Highway as challenging to drive as the Moki Dugway, or even the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park. The Million Dollar Highway does have a few moments, though, tight S-curves, a few steep drop-offs, without those reassuring guardrails, but all in all, the Million Dollar Highway is more scenic than scary.

This section of U.S. 550 is so-named due to way back in the day that it was built to better facilitate supplying mines and towns in the San Juan Mountains, a million dollars was a lot of money to spend to build a short stretch of road. Or so I've been told. Maybe it's called the Million Dollar Highway due to a million dollars worth of gold coming out of mines along the road.

Most people refer to the stretch of U.S. 550 from Silverton to Ouray as the Million Dollar Highway, but the actual Million Dollar Highway is the stretch of the road that runs south from Ouray about 12 miles through Uncompahgre Gorge, up to the summit of Red Mountain Pass. The Million Dollar Highway is part of San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway.

Below is a YouTube video that will take you from Ouray to Silverton, speeding up the drive from 40 minutes to 10.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Death Valley National Park

It's easy to get thirsty in Death Valley. The picture on the left was taken on my first visit to Death Valley. We were pretending to be parched. In reality it was spring and the temperature was in the low 80s.

This was part of a Roadtrip in an ancient Fort Pinto, camping at San Clemente State Park, going to Disneyland and Universal Studios. Then on to Las Vegas, before heading through Death Valley on the way back north.

The next time in Death Valley it was quite a bit warmer. It was in late June. This was towards the end of a Roadtrip that had climbed through the caves of Lava Beds National Monument on the way to Reno, before crossing Nevada on the Loneliest Road in America, then continuing on to Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks before a couple days in Las Vegas followed by a very very HOT Death Valley.

On the Reno Death Valley Roadtrip we wanted to get the full experience of the heat. We brought plenty of liquid and drank constantly. The air-conditioner was left off, both because we wanted the full HEAT experience, and the car over-heated, in the high heat, with the A/C on. At Badwater, that being the lowest point in North America, at 286 feet below sea level, was the first we got out of the car in Death Valley. Badwater is a big salt flat, you can walk out on it. And get very hot. Water is retained in the salty ground making it strangely squishy.

That is Badwater in the picture. If you look at the rock in the background you can see a white dot. That white dot marks sea level.

Death Valley gets very little rain. If a lot of rain does fall it collects at the low point, like it did in 2005, turning into Badwater Lake. The lake did not last long. I would have really liked to have seen Badwater Lake and all the wildflowers that that rain spawned.

On that second Roadtrip through Death Valley we hiked up a narrow side canyon til we could not take the HEAT anymore. A lot of the canyon was shaded, but even so, it just radiated extreme heat, as if you were walking in an oven. I loved it. Something about drinking so much water and then sweating, with the perspiration wicking off so fast you don't notice it, well, it's like an extreme natural sauna. I remember as we descended into Death Valley that day, I had a bit of a Las Vegas headache that seemed to melt away as I slipped below sea level.

The next time through Death Valley was the only time I stayed overnight. This was part of the most complicated Roadtrip I've been on. Houseboating at Lake Powell, overnight at the San Juan Inn in Mexican Hat, driving through Monument Valley, across Navajo Bridge to stay overnight in log cabins at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the next day we escaped a blizzard to make it to the Zion National Park Lodge and then 4 days in Las Vegas before heading to Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley and then a night at Mammoth followed by a sidetrip to Yosemite.

Getting to Stovepipe Wells was a bit of an adventure. Sometime after Badwater my van picked up a rather pointed piece of rock in its right rear tire, causing an almost instant flat. We were about 5 miles from Stovepipe Wells. I didn't think it was any big deal, but a pair of my fellow travelers went into what can only be described as panic mode. I usually find that breakdowns somehow manage to add to the fun, causing you to take a detour you weren't expecting.

A spare tire quickly replaced the flat, which was fixed the next day in Bishop, California, and we were back on the road to Stovepipe Wells Village. Our rooms were spread all over the village. I was closest to the pool. I believe it was a mineral springs pool. Very nice. We were in the pool soon after arrival and then again well after darkness fell.

Stovepipe Wells has a general store/gas station. There are souvenirs for sale in the gift shop. I got a Death Valley t-shirt and my fellow travellers bought me a Death Valley Sheriff's Badge for ramrodding this expedition.

We had dinner and breakfast in the Stovepipe Wells Toll Road Restaurant & Badwater Saloon. This is a wonderfully rustic eating experience in a building built from timbers from an old Death Valley mining operation.

After Stovepipe Wells this Roadtrip continued on to overnight in Mammoth Lake in California, then on through Yosemite on the way home.

The last time I was in Death Valley was prior to it becoming a National Park. My two oldest nephews flew me to Las Vegas the August before I moved to Texas. Our first morning in Vegas I read in the Review-Journal that conditions were such that Death Valley might break its temperature record that day.

The nephews were in for the hunt for a record breaking temperature.

So we headed towards Parhump, that being the closest way to Badwater, where the record breaking might take place. Unfortunately, it only got to 124. Not a record. We walked on the Badwater salt flats and checked out Zabriske Point before heading back to Vegas, making a big loop of that Day Roadtrip.

Death Valley used to be free to visit. Now that it is a national park you pay $20 per vehicle. In addition to Stovepipe Wells you can stay at the historic Furnace Creek Inn. It's a bit more expensive than Stovepipe Wells. Furnace Creek Ranch provides motel type rooms near Furnace Creek. At Panamint Springs resort you'll also find a more expensive place to stay than Stovepipe Wells. Panamint Springs also has camping sites. Stovepipe Wells has a few RV campsites with hookups.

Death Valley is open year round. I've had my most fun there when it is real hot in summer. The Stovepipe Wells visit occurred during October. It was quite warm, but not hot. In all my visits to Death Valley I've never gone inside Scotty's Castle, also known as Death Valley Ranch, it's a sprawling 2 story Spanish style villa with a complicated, convoluted history, that is a classic American story of the West.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Lava Beds National Monument

I drove right by the road that leads to Lava Beds National Monument many times on the way to Reno and points south. The I read Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. This book tells the true history of America's Indians.

One of those pieces of history, unknown to me, was the Modoc War of 1872-1873. This war caught the world's attention. The Modoc known as Captain Jack did not want to be on a reservation with an enemy tribe. So, they left. The Modoc took refuge in what became known as Captain Jack's Stronghold, in what later became known as Lava Beds National Monument.

Captain Jack's 53 warriors held off U.S. Army forces, ten times larger, for 5 months. Eventually it ended ugly. A sort of Branch-Davidian incident of its day. So, the first time I was in the area after reading about Captain Jack, I had to see his Stronghold. It was 2 days before Christmas. A lot of snow was on the ground.

The next time to Lava Beds National Monument was in summer. No snow on the ground. This time was part of a Roadtrip that initially was just to be to Reno, but ended up driving across the Loneliest Road in America, on the way to Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks. And then on to Las Vegas and Death Valley.

Lava Beds National Monument was established in 1925. It covers over 46,000 acres. In addition to being known for Captain Jack's Stronghold, there are over 700 caves in Lava Beds. Most in the form of lava tubes. Around 25 of the lava tube caves have been made spelunker friendly, with marked entrances, names on the caves, trails, and in some, steps and ladders.

It is recommended if you go in the caves you should wear a helmet, have a least 2 flashlights per person and wear thick protective clothing and gloves. You can buy a helmet for 3 bucks at the park visitors center. They come in a selection of colors and have the Lava Beds logo on them. You can also borrow flashlights, for free. But you have to have them back by 4:30 pm or the rangers will assume you are lost and will come looking for you.

When me, Dale and Big Ed went caving at Lava Beds, we wore no protective clothing, wore no helmet and had no lights. Obviously these were 3 not very bright guys. Though I do remember Big Ed getting a bit cranky due to Dale and me going deeper and deeper til it got totally dark and we got sort of lost. Rescued when other cave explorers entered.

Lava Beds is not far south of Klamath Falls, coming from the north, you are not long into California when you come to the turn off to the monument. There is a $10 vehicle entry fee, another $10 to stay at one of the 40 campsites.

If you are in the area and like the idea of exploring caves on your own, well, Lava Beds is by far the most fun I've ever had in caves.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Grand Canyon Hiking

When I blogged about my visits to the Grand Canyon, over the years, I mentioned that on one of those visits I hiked down into the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim.

I left out some details regarding that hike. The most important detail was hiking into the Grand Canyon was not planned. It was a spontaneous thing.

Walking along the South Rim, at the part of the park where the lodges and hotels and stores are, you come to the Bright Angel Trail. After very little discussion we decided to go down the trail for a bit, just to see what it was like.

Well, the trail sort of pulls you in. We carried no water or food. We figured we'd hike for awhile then turn around. But it kept seeming fun to keep on going. It's all downhill. Being young and, well, maybe a bit stupid, it had not occurred to me that what was easy going down was going to be hard work going back up.

And then the trail comes to an oasis. Water. So, the lack of water problem did not seem like much of a problem.

The deeper you go into the canyon the hotter it gets. It can be quite cool at the canyon rim and downright hot when you go down a couple thousand feet. After awhile it was seeming so easy we decided to go all the way to the river. At an overlook with about another thousand feet to go it was decided it was time to turn around and leave hiking to the Colorado for another day.

About a half hour after beginning the hike back, the reality began to set in. This was going to be hard getting out of the canyon. I was in young and in good shape, so I had that going for me. Others, in not so good shape, have had to be emergency lifted out by helicopter, at great expense.

In my case no helicopter was needed as the top of the canyon was reached about the time the sun totally vanished for the day.

So, I write of my Grand Canyon hike as a cautionary tale. When you start down the Bright Angel Trail there are so many people doing like-wise or heading back out, it just seems like no big deal. But it is a big deal if you naively start walking down such a trail with no food or water.

Below is a Park Service YouTube video that I wish I'd seen before I hiked down the Grand Canyon. But that would not have been possible, YouTube had not been invented at that time. Nor had the Internet. Or personal computers.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Navajo Bridge Across The Colorado River

The North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon are about 10 miles apart, for a bird, for a hiking person the distance is about 21 miles. In a car, the closest route is around 220 miles, crossing over the Colorado River at Marble Canyon on Navajo Bridge, via Highway 89A, near the site of Lee's Ferry, which at one time was the way to get across the river.

Marble Canyon is a boundary on the west end of the Navajo Nation. When the bridge was first operational, in 1929, it opened with great fanfare and a surprising number of people for an isolated area, as in about 7,000 people in over 1,200 vehicles showed up for the celebration that included the governors of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, with bands, choirs and Navajo dancers, for the dedication of what was then called Grand Canyon Bridge. Five years later the Arizona legislature, after prolonged debate, changed the name to Navajo Bridge.

I have only driven across Navajo Bridge once, on the way to a log cabin at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. That day had started out in Mexican Hat, traveled through Monument Valley, detoured to Page, Arizona to see Glen Canyon Dam, it being the structure that caused Lake Powell, which had allowed us to float in a Houseboat for 4 days before we got to Mexican Hat.

By the 1980s it was apparent that Navajo Bridge was not built to handle the wider, heavier, larger modern trucks and cars. There were many accidents, some involving pedestrians who were not supposed to walk on the bridge, but for many the temptation was too great.

After 2 years of construction, in May of 1995, the second Navajo Bridge was ready to handle traffic. I crossed the new bridge shortly after it opened. The original Navajo Bridge now only carries pedestrians.

Because the original Navajo Bridge opened during Prohibition it was christened with a bottle of ginger ale. In 1995 the new Navajo Bridge was christened with a bucket of Colorado River water.

The old rest area on the west side of the original bridge was re-born and enlarged as an interpretive center. On the Navajo Nation side of the bridge, that being the east side, there is an area set aside for Navajo Nation vendors. The Navajo Nation Trading Posts are one of my favorite things in this part of the country.

The original Navajo Bridge cost $390,000. The new Navajo Bridge cost $14,700,000.

Grand Canyon National Park

I've Roadtripped to the Grand Canyon several times. The first time was during a Roadtrip that originally was just going to Yellowstone. At Yellowstone there is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone that is so Grand I felt like the most famous Grand Canyon needed to be seen.

Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park come between you and Grand Canyon on your way south from Yellowstone, so this Roadtrip was the first visit to those parks too.

Arizona State Route 67 is the road that takes you to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. On that first visit, not knowing what to expect, the scenery turned amazing before you got to the main canyon as you started seeing hints of Grand Canyon on your left. That first Grand Canyon visit was a short one. We checked out a few overlooks. Vowed to return and hike down into the canyon. Then hurried on to Las Vegas.

The next visit to the Grand Canyon was to the South Rim. This was part of the longest Roadtrip I've ever been on, going through Utah, then Colorado, up Pikes Peak, across Royal Gorge, on to New Mexico and Carlsbad Caverns, then Texas before heading west, eventually getting to the Grand Canyon.

The South Rim is much more developed, than the North Rim, as in the South Rim is like a small town. I prefer the North Rim. The South Rim has quite a collection of places to stay, in addition to the National Park Lodge. Grand Canyon Village is a big mall like place. I don't remember much of the National Park campground, besides staying there. And, in the morning, waking to the most spectacular sunrise I've ever seen.

That morning the plan was to hike down the Bright Angel Trail, all the way to the Colorado River. The trail descends 4,380 feet to the Colorado. It is easy going, heading downhill. You don't think about having to go back up. Hiking into the Grand Canyon is the opposite of all other hikes I've been on, where the uphill comes first, when you're full of energy. There is water available along the trail at Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse, Three Mile Resthouse and Indian Garden. Indian Garden is like an oasis.

We did not make it all the way to the Colorado River. The picture above is as close as we got to crossing the river. It was another 1000 feet, or so, of de-elevation to descend to get to the river. Time was running out. So was food and energy.

The climb out of Grand Canyon was hard, the sun began to set for the last half mile or so. All in all, it was fun and I'd do it again. And bring more to eat.

The next time at Grand Canyon was back to the North Rim. This was part of a Roadtrip that had gone through Reno, then the Loneliest Road in America, then Great Basin National Park, then on to Bryce, Zion and Grand Canyon, before heading to Las Vegas and Death Valley. This visit to the Grand Canyon left me with one of those moments of of overheard memorable dialogue that sticks with you. I was sitting out on the patio of the North Rim's Lodge. The patio is made of rock and is huge. There are big wicker chairs to sit on. I overheard a Southern lady talking, saying something I thought only occurred in a Tennessee Williams play, not real life. She said, "When Papa went to the war it was just me and Sister Woman to fend for ourselves." On and on she went, always referring to her sibling as Sister Woman.

The next time to the Grand Canyon it was the South Rim again. Two days before New Year's Eve, staying in Flagstaff the night before. It'd been a Roadtrip to Disneyland for Christmas, then on to Las Vegas. After Grand Canyon the Roadtrip headed across the Painted Desert to Monument Valley and Moab to go to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

On this last week of December South Rim visit there was snow on the ground. You could not walk down the Bright Angel Trail due to it being ice-covered. We stopped at the various overlooks, like Hermit's Rest and Desert View, then hit the road.

The most recent visit to the Grand Canyon was not in winter, yet a lot of snow appeared. It was in mid October at the North Rim.

This visit to the Grand Canyon was part of a Roadtrip that had started with Houseboating on Lake Powell, then going down the Moki Dugway, then staying at the San Juan Inn in Mexican Hat, then Monument Valley, heading towards the North Rim via Page, Arizona, crossing the Grand Canyon on Navajo Bridge, passing the Vermilion Cliffs and ending up at the North Rim in plenty of time for our 6 o'clock dinner reservations.

We stayed in log cabins that are part of the National Park Lodge. That night, about midnight it started snowing. The snow turned into a blizzard. By morning we were snowbound. We had reservations for that night at the Zion National Park Lodge. We were told that snowplows were being brought in from Utah, that we should be prepared to evacuate as soon as they got the road cleared.

When the clouds briefly lifted the snow-covered Grand Canyon looked different than I'd ever seen it. I prefer the non-snow covered version, but I was glad I got to see this. About noon the snowplows made it through. A mass exodus ensued.

Eventually the North Rim of the Grand Canyon gets snowed in every year. The North Rim is about 1000 feet higher than the South Rim, which is only 10 miles away as a bird flies. As a car drives the closest route is 220 miles from Rim to Rim, via Navajo Bridge. Hiking it is 21 miles, via the North and South Kaibab Trails, from Rim to Rim. Few hikers can manage that in one day.

To ease the congestion, on the South Rim, the Park Service operates free shuttle buses on 4 routes. The routes interconnect, but do not overlap. The shuttles require no ticket. You just park at one of the lots and hop a shuttle, getting off at a viewpoint or Grand Canyon Village. This is a huge improvement. The traffic congestion was terrible at Grand Canyon's South Rim, Yosemite and Zion. Now all three have shuttles, and control the number of vehicles allowed in.

I hope to Roadtrip to the Grand Canyon again some day, staying several days at the North Rim, doing a lot of hiking, preferably with no blizzards.