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Summer Trip to Colorado -- July 2011

During summer, we took two weeks and traveled to Colorado to visit Liz's brother and his wife at their family cabin. We had a nice time visiting with them in a scenic and relaxing situation, and learned a bit about southern Colorado. During the trip, we camped at Navajo National Monument, Great Sand Dunes National Park (very cool bugs!), Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, and several US Forest Service areas. Map of the trip.

Colorado Trip
Liz hiking on Sandal Trail

July 09. Home to Navajo National Monument, Arizona.

We left home about 0700 hrs and drove southeast to Kingman (Arizona), then west to Flagstaff, and finally northeast to Navajo National Monument, arriving in camp about 1500 hrs. The drive was pleasantly uneventful, and we spent the afternoon hiking trails around the campground area. Cliff dwelling ruins are preserved in the park, but none are accessible without a long hike guided by a ranger. The Sandal Trail leads to a nice overlook with a view down into the Betatakin Ruin. We spent a pleasant night in the campground.

Colorado Trip
The Colorado Cabin

July 10. Navajo National Monument, Arizona, to South Fork, Colorado.

We left Navajo and drove more-or-less directly to Bill and Karen's cabin at South Fork, Colorado. The cabin is in a neighborhood on the banks of the Rio Grand River (yes, the same Rio Grand River that separates Texas from Mexico) with lots of pine trees and few neighbors around. In the evening, we took a nice walk along the old railroad tracks that run on the edge of the river. We stopped to inspected the work of beaver who had come up from the river and cuts trees in people's yards -- good thing Bill and Karen are back from the edge!

Colorado Trip
Beaver Lake

July 11. South Fork, Colorado.

We spent a nice day sightseeing around South Fork. We drove north several miles to release a Bushy-tailed Woodrat that we caught in the basement during the night, then continued north to the historic mining town of Creede. We returned to South Fork, then headed up into the mountains to visit to Beaver Lake and Million Reservoir. Back in town on the way to the cabin, Liz and Karen stopped at the public library, and I walked into the adjacent field trying to photograph Gunnison's Prairie Dogs. Unfortunately, they were too wary for good photos, but it was fun to hear them barking at me.

Colorado Trip
Rio Grande River
July 12. South Fork, Colorado.

Another nice day around South Fork. We caught a second Bushy-tailed Woodrat in the basement, so assuming it was the mate of the first one, we drove the several miles to release it with the first. We spent most of the day relaxing around the cabin, soaking up the pine-scented air and hiding from the afternoon thunderstorms.

Colorado Trip
Clear Creek Falls
July 13. South Fork, Colorado.

We spent another nice day sightseeing around South Fork. After a pancake breakfast put on by a local charitable organization, we headed north to see the sights. We stopped at the Alfred Packer Memorial near Lake City. Mr. Packer was a cannibal who survived a winter by eating his comrades, so it was actually a memorial for his victims, but "Alfred Packer" is the name people remember. We stopped for lunch in Lake City at the Parker Saloon, and I ate a massive Parker Burger in the Cannibal Grill. It took them over an hour to get lunch together -- perhaps they had trouble catching someone...

Colorado Trip
Sunset at Great Sand Dunes

July 14. South Fork to Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado.

Liz and I left the cabin after breakfast and drove southeast to Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge. The Rio Grand River was wet, but the refuge lands were pretty dry. We saw lots of nesting Cliff Swallows at headquarters, but otherwise the area was pretty quiet for birds.

We continued northeast to Great Sand Dunes National Park and were surprised to find the campground almost full. We quickly grabbed a site, and before we were done with the paperwork, the campground was full. We took an evening walk in the dunes and were thrilled to find one of the rare and endemic Great Sand Dunes Tiger Beetles. We also found an endemic robber fly eating an endemic moth. The dunes, it turns out, are great for finding bugs.

Colorado Trip
Medano Creek

July 15. Great Sand Dunes National Park to South Fork, Colorado.

Liz and I did a long hike along the edge of the active sand dunes to Medano Creek, a ribbon of water that flows along the edge of the dunes. The hike was scenic, and it was fun walking in the shallow water for the last mile or so. We carried lunch and had a nice picnic overlooking the sand and water. We saw some good birds, mammals, and bugs along the way. In the afternoon, we drove back to Bill and Karen's place at South Fork.

Colorado Trip
View from the cabin

July 16. South Fork, Colorado.

We enjoyed a layover day relaxing at the cabin. I took a short walk up into the hills, but generally we sat around, visited, and relaxed.

Colorado Trip
Slumgullion Pass Campground

July 17. South Fork to Slumgullion Pass, Colorado.

After a nice breakfast with Bill and Karen, we said our good byes and headed north over familiar terrain. This time we stopped at the Creede plant fossil beds and delighted in finding a few fossils of recognizable plants. These plants were caught in a volcanic eruption and covered with fine volcanic ash several million years ago.

We continued north, stopping for a picnic lunch on the Continental Divide, and then camping not far away at Slumgullion Pass campground. In the evening, we hiked cross-county to an unnamed peak at an elevation of 11,866 ft thinking that we might watch the sunset, but we decided against hiking down in the dark.

Colorado Trip
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
July 18. Slumgullion Pass to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado.

After a slow start because we spent so much time chasing Black-backed Woodpeckers around the woods, we continued north to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It was late when we got there, but we visited several of the South Rim overlooks near the campground and visitor center. We had some good rains, but we stayed dry enough.

Colorado Trip
The quintessential Colorado view

July 19. Black Canyon to Little Molas Lake, Colorado.

We hiked the Warner Point Trail in the morning and found a Flammulated Owl in a woodpecker hole along the trail ... oh ya, there were spectacular overlooks into the canyon too. On the way out of the park, we stopped at the rest of the main overlooks, then headed south. We took a detour from our route to see what was described in promotional literature as the "quintessential Colorado view," but found that there were no legal places to stop and take in the view. We stopped at a construction site to get the photo at left.

From there, we continued south into the high mountains, passing famous vacation and winter sports areas such as Ouray and Sliverton packed to the gills. Fearing that we would not find a campsite late in the day, we got lucky when someone abandoned the perfect campsite only moments before we arrived.

Colorado Trip
Near Little Molas Lake

July 20. Little Molas Lake to Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

We enjoyed the high mountain views from camp, then pulled out and headed south to Mesa Verde. We arrived around noon, secured a campsite, then headed for the archaeological area. We stopped in the museum for an orientation to the area, then walked down to Spruce Tree House, a site that is guarded by a ranger, but where a tour guide is not required. It had been many decades since either of us were here last, so it was exciting to be back.

Colorado TripCliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

July 21. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

We saw a lot of ruins in the Chapin Mesa area of the park today. In the morning, we visited Cliff Palace and Balcony House, two of the iconic southwestern U.S. cliff dwellings, on ranger-led trips. Cliff Palace is a walk-in site, but Balcony House requires climbing a 32-ft ladder to get in, then crawling through a 12-ft tunnel and climbing a 60-cliff with two 10-ft ladders to get out. These sites are remarkably well preserved, but much has been restored. In the afternoon, we visited sites and overlooks atop the mesa.

It was interesting to recall that after living on the mesa tops for 600 years, native people started building these cliff dwellings around year 1190. While farming the mesa tops, they lived in the cliff dwelling for only a century. By the late 1270s, the population began migrating south, and by 1300, the entire region was abandoned.

Colorado Trip
Long House, Mesa Verde National Park

July 22. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

In the morning, we went back to the Chapin Mesa and walked the 2.4-mile Petroglyph Trail. After being among crowds, it was a treat to walk silently among trees and cliffs, finding unexpected ruins along the way.

In the afternoon, we visited the Wetherill Mesa area of the park, which is west of the main area at the end of a seemingly long (only 12 miles), winding road. At Wetherill Mesa, visitors park in one big parking lot and ride a tram to the various sites. We took the Long House tour, another remarkable cliff dwelling.

Colorado Trip
Hovenweep National Monument

July 23. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, to Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.

We started the day with an early morning hike on the 2-mile Knife Edge Trail, a trail that follows the original road into the park. The trail skirts the northern-most mesas, providing spectacular views to the north.

We then left Mesa Verde and headed to town for groceries. To our surprise, the lawns edging the Safeway parking lot were covered with Gunnison's Prairie Dogs accustomed to nearby parked vehicles. Liz went shopping, and Jim sat in the car with the camera. Continuing, we drove an hour or so to Hovenweep National Monument. After Mesa Verde, a late afternoon hike through the main area at this little-visited park provided private and intimate visits to the ruins. This park works on the honor system: look closely, but don't touch.

Colorado Trip
Hovenweep National Monument

July 24. Hovenweep National Monument, Utah, to Navajo National Monument, Arizona.

After the warmest night of the trip in this lower-elevation desert area, we joined a ranger led hike down into the heart of the main area to visit a petroglyph site that is not visible from the canyon rim above. Later, we drove to and hiked around outlying sites. Mid-day temperatures probably reached near 100 degrees, so we decided to come back at a cooler time of year.

We left Hovenweep around 1530 hrs and headed back to Navajo National Monument. This time we drove through Monument Valley, with the iconic tower spires, so we only back tracked a few miles. We arrived just in time for a picnic dinner on the edge of the canyon with sunset colors settling in all around.

Colorado Trip
Condor release site viewing area

July 25. Navajo National Monument, Arizona, to Home, Nevada, Via Page, AZ.

We left Navajo early, driving northwest to Page, Arizona. We visited the Glen Canyon Dam visitor center at Lake Powell, then drove west across the Marble Canyon Bridge, where California Condors like to roost during winter. Continuing across northern Arizona, we stopped at the Vermillion Cliffs to see the site where condors had been released into the wild. At the viewing area, we learned that Liz has a wing span between the size of a Red-tailed Hawk and a Golden Eagle, both of which are much smaller than a condor.

From there, we sprinted across northern Arizona and southern Utah to St. George, Utah, then sailed down the interstate highway to home. Mocha seemed happy that the deserts were so hot that we arrived home a few days early.

Note: All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 111211

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