24 July – Walmart was reasonable accommodation overnight, except for the gardeners who arrived in the wee small hours of the morning with their weed-eaters. Back up the road to get the new windscreen fitted and less than an hour later and $140 lighter in the pocket we had good clear vision again. Headed out of Colorado Springs and up past Manitou Springs on an easy climb for another 15 miles or so to Woodland Park. This is a busy little town – full of holiday makers – must be good off-roading around here judging by the number of ATV shops. Turned off the main drag of Highway 24 onto a quieter Highway 67. Just 5 miles up the road we came to Southern Meadows Campground – another National Forest Camp – this one, one of the largest we have visited with 60 sites. We were coming up to the weekend, so were perhaps lucky to get the last site available. Nicely spaced out sites – in among pines and of course the meadows not too far away. Having already booked the Cog Railway up to Pikes Peak for Sunday, we checked in for three nights.
25 July – Nice to see that so many families take advantage of these campgrounds – they must come up from Colorado Springs in the most part, just for the weekends. We did a little bike ride but again got beaten by the altitude – little hills down lower are no problem but these had us puffing and panting so gave that away after a couple of miles. Drove back down to Woodland Park later in the afternoon in a forlorn search for a coffee shop, settling instead for a donut shop.
26 July – Today’s excursion had us driving back to Manitou Springs to pick up the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. The town itself didn’t lend itself to large vehicles, but fortunately the railway had a special place to pre-book for parking RV’s. Once parked and tickets picked up we just had a nice relaxing lunch before boarding the train.
What a neat experience – our departure had three carriages – two coupled and then ours which was a separate diesel powered one. The 8 mile journey from 7500ft right up to 14,110 ft took about 1 hr 45 mins with many long grades of 25% taking us first through the forest with glimpses of the plains where Colorado Springs sits, up to alpine meadows complete with inquisitive marmots, up beyond the tree line into the granite lined slopes. We had the best seats on the rain – right beside the engine driver’s seat with a full window in front of us. The views were spectacular at the summit – the carpark was full of all the vehicles who had taken the challenge of the 20 mile road with 150 switchbacks and no guardrails (our way was so much more relaxing!). 360 degree views right over the plains to Kansas in the east and to the west more high mountain chains on the continental divide. Colorado has 51 mountains over 14,000ft and poor old Pikes Peak only rates at no. 32.
The Pikes Peak hill climb is just the last 12 miles of the road up and the record for that is just over 6 minutes – reaching speeds of 179mph on the straight bits and 80mph on the hairpin bends. We had about 35 minutes at the top – a nice cool 51 degrees compared with mid 80’s down below. The railway was built in 1891 and has been in continuous operation ever since. The current engine carriage sets come from Brown-Boveri Co. of Switzerland. Chugging along at only 10 mph going up and 8 mph going down there was plenty of time to observe the wildlife (even saw some big horn sheep on the granite slopes) and also the plethora of wildflowers still in bloom – blues, pinks, yellows and whites growing in some really inhospitable areas.
We were so lucky with the weather as while we were waiting down in Manitou Springs a big storm passed through, but it was a short sharp one clearing out by the time we went up. At the top it was way off into the distance and didn’t spoil our views.
We thought getting active at 9,000 ft was getting difficult, but at 14,000 ft it was really noticeable – just a little wander around was quite exhausting. Back down at Manitou Springs there was no chance of stopping in the town – just nowhere to park and way too many people, so skipped that and headed back up to Woodland Park and Walmart carpark to pickup emails and provisions. Back to camp in the meadows for the last night.
27 July – Westward again this time, back down to Highway 24 and up a very pretty valley with more alpine meadows, nice looking holiday homes and the odd ranch to Divide (not much there) and Florissant where we toured the Fossil Beds National Monument on foot. Fossils from the Eocene period about 35 million years ago abound in this area including huge fossillised redwood tree trunks which would have reached 250ft high when alive. Most of the other fossils have been found in the paper shale rock – most impression fossils are of leaves and small insects, but very valuable to the scientists. Also part of the park was an original homestead belonging to Adeline Hornbeck – a single mother who bought up 4 children on her homestead ranch.
We had Ranger Ray give us a walk through tour of the buildings which was informative. Weren’t too sure where we might end up for the night, but only a few miles up the road in the Pike National Forest we came across a sign for a campground – Round Mountain – the road in was a little rugged but it wasn’t far and we were rewarded with yet another neat camp with just 15 sites. Apart from the host, we are the only other occupants and our site in among the Ponderosa Pines and granite rocks was really lovely. Had an evening wander further along the road from the camp – it opened out into a mixture of meadows and pines with loads of ATV roads and dispersed camping sites, which we wouldn’t be able to make use of as the road was not negotiable by Wanda.
28 July – What a nice quiet night! On the road again at a nice leisurely hour to climb over our first pass for the day – just a low one at at 9500ft but whammo when we came to the summit the views down the other side were astounding. Green open plains with the backdrop of the mountains of the Continental Divide, some with smidgens of snow on their tops. The range most visible was the Collegiate Range with peaks – Yale, Harvard, Princeton, etc. all over 14,000 ft. It was probably about 40 miles to cross over the plains – this was very much ranching country at 8,500ft, it must be too high for crop or even hay growing.
What looked green from above was fairly sparsely growing grassy stuff along with little shrubs and not a lot in the way of stock. Up and over another pass down into Buena Vista and the foothills of the Divide – here it was a little lower and hay was being cut; although a much smaller valley it looked reasonably prosperous. The valley floor was very green but the surrounding hills very sparse – very much like Otago. Turned south at Buena Vista heading towards Salida following the Arkansas river – a rafters heaven if all the tour companies stationed along the road down were anything to go by. Salida had some BLM land beside the river with about 20 odd free spots for camping, so we bagged one of those – nothing special, just parking on a clear bit of land a little off the highway but perfectly adequate for a night.
29 July – No noise from the highway overnight – into the metropolis of Salida for a walk around and morning tea. Probably about the size of Cambridge, nice turn of the century brick buildings containing loads of antique shops and all sorts of quirky arts and crafts. The river runs through the bottom end of the town and was full of kayakers and kids enjoying the rapids. Tried in vain to find a propane dealer open and in the end gave up and continued on our way along Highway 50 through Poncha Springs and up and up and up to cross over the Monarch Pass at 11,300ft. This road was an exercise in patience as they were doing resurfacing in several places, limiting the traffic to one way only. Continued through to Gunnison and a bustling agricultural town where we finally managed to get propane.
About 30 miles from there the road enters into the Curecanti National Recreational Area which caters so well for the recreational market – it is based alongside a large reservoir and only about half way along we had already passed about five campgrounds, several picnic spots as well as a few boat ramps. Chose a small campground called Dry Gulch with only 10 sites and managed to find a spot in the trees (comes with complimentary mosquitoes) where we will stay for a couple of nights. There are still another half dozen campgrounds further along the road so we might stop at more as we progress. Supposedly this is bear country (we have been in bear country most nights in Colorado but still yet to see any evidence). All we seem to have here are baby chipmunks and rabbits.
30 July – Took advantage of the lovely sunny day to get the washing done – who cares if we look like a Chinese laundry. With that done – R&R for the rest of the day and doing our best to avoid the annoying mozzies. Took a little evening hike up the back of the camp on a horse trail, which led us up a narrow trail offering great views back down over to the reservoir.
31 July – Just a short journey – first stop Lake Fork campground to take advantage of their pay-showers, then following Blue Mesa Reservoir, up and over another small pass, down into Pleasant Valley and at Cimarron another campground in the Curecanti Recreation Area. Only 20 sites and a nice host who rang up and booked a ranger led boat trip for us for Monday on the Morrow Point Lake which is a long narrow affair in a deep gorge, the dam being just up the road from our camp. The boat trip starts a way back up the road by Lake Fork and a steep walk down from the car park. We will have several days here and just go out each day.
01 August – Heard a lot of advertising on the radio for the corn festival in Montrose, so headed down the 20 miles to town; first up some shopping for supplies and while Bob was inter-netting I found their local craft supply shop to get some bits of quilting material and accessories. No sign whatsoever of a corn festival, but the local county fair was on so went in there to have a look around instead. Very much like a local A&P show – with cake competitions, flower arrangements etc. and animals. Turns out it was the junior livestock judging day – so rabbits, pigs, sheep and cattle were on display. After lunch the winners got to auction their animal – it seemed like mostly local businesses were bidding for them with some of the proceeds going to the local community. Their auctioneer was a treat to listen to, even if you couldn’t understand hardly a word he was saying until the final bid was reached. The prize pigs went for over $4,000 each and the rabbits reached $350. With that done, headed for the tourist info and found that the corn festival was actually in another town about 10 miles away. We flagged that and had a walk along main street instead – very nice with huge bronze sculptures scattered through the town which were on loan from a local rancher. Two were cowboy related and the third was animals.
Back home to Cimarron and up the road beyond the camp to have a look at the Morrow Point Dam – very impressive double curvature concrete arch structure – not so sure about being camped beneath it though!
Our camp host told us there was a nice place to eat up the road a couple of miles, so we took him up on that – well, he must have been a country boy with a bit of poetic licence thrown in – it was the local county store which did meals of sorts, but their homemade fruit pies were excellent. Back home to camp which is now about half full.
02 August – Most of the campers were up and on the way early so by the time we set off for the day only three campers were left. Back down Highway 50 nearly as far as Montrose before taking the road up to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (not sure how many NP’s our annual pass has now taken us in to, but will do a count up one of these days). Five miles climbing up through some very innocuous looking hills we then came across the stunning canyon. “Black” because it is so deep, with sheer walls and only a narrow gap between rims so very little sunlight ever penetrates down to the bottom. The deepest part is 2,700ft down from the rim, which is the height of two Empire State buildings – when looking down it is very hard to get the perspective of the actual depth. This compares to the Grand Canyon at over 5,000ft and the 3,000ft canyon that we saw in Yosemite, but is more dramatic being so close up. Started our discovery off at the Visitor’s Centre (where our camp host works part of the week) and found that he was on duty today to give us some advice on what to see.
A good little 20 minute video on the history of the Canyon, the early pioneers who had surveyed it and the hardships that they encountered. The original aim was to try and find a route for the Rio Grande Railway to go out to the Pacific West, but from Cimarron onwards this was eventually given up as being too difficult. Following on from this the 10 mile drive along the edge of the South Rim had plenty of scenic look-offs, each with little walks to the edge. At it’s narrowest it is only a quarter mile from side to side and for most of the drive we could see the North Canyon road on the other side. Drove to the end of the road and at High Point took a longer hike to Warner Point, where the canyon is at it’s deepest, which gave us fabulous views right over the valley to Montrose and beyond. This Park is one of the better kept secrets of Colorado – so very not overcrowded like the better known ones in Arizona and Utah, and much nicer to visit.
The various look-offs had jaw dropping views straight down the sheer cliffs to the bottom where at times you could see the Gunnison River flowing down at the bottom – the roar of the river did carry right up to the top. A nice quote from from one of the early group of explorers sums up the canyon: “Our surroundings were of the wildest possible description. The roar of the water … was constantly in our ears, and the walls of the canyon, towering half a mile above us, were seemingly vertical. Occasionally a rock would fall from one side or the other, with a roar and crash, exploding like a ton of dynamite when it struck bottom – making us think our last day had come.”
We managed to spend the whole day exploring and although it wasn’t a terribly fine day – good weather for walking around. The rain decided to make its appearance for real once we got back on the road to Cimarron and the campground.
03 August – Today’s excitement – a boat trip. Back up the road to Pine Creek and down a windy narrow gravel road until we came to a trail-head to park. Our real journey then began with a hike down 239 steps and along the Gunnison River bank following the old Rio Grande Railway alignment for about a mile to the boat dock. Out boat trip was run by the Parks Service with room for 40 people and a good range of US States were represented with only us the foreigners.
Ranger Curt got everyone organised with their PFD’s and then it was on to the pontoon boat for our trip along the Morrow Point Lake (a narrow dammed irrigation lake) and through more of the Gunnison Gorge. Our ranger was incredibly well informed about the geology and history of the Gunnison. The railway stopped operating in 1949, the tracks were pulled up and the path of the narrow gauge railway was converted into a very narrow road. In the early 1960’s most of the track was flooded when the dam was built.
The canyon walls rose above the lake – in places very steep and sheer cliffs – various side streams and waterfalls flowed into the lake and the most photographed site was the Gunnison Needle formation. This was the logo for the Denver & Rio Grande promoted as a scenic railway. We puttered up and back for an hour and a half and then it was all over. Really pretty scenery and extremely good value for money. After disembarking it was necessary to amble back to the carpark up all those stairs!
04 August – On our way again – first into Montrose and then out through Olathe (where the corn festival was actually held) – needless to say this whole Uncompagre Valley is heavily farmed, which is only possible because of irrigation from the Gunnison reservoirs. Stopped for lunch at Delta – a farming town but like so many of the smaller towns, loads of empty shops, whilst the shops that are in business don’t seemed to have changed much apart from pricing since the 1950’s; our cafe was no exception. Had a couple of options for camping up towards the McClure Pass on Hwy 133 and settled for NFS at just over 8,000ft – 10 sites, no fees, usual pit toilet and just a few sites occupied. Set in the aspens, spruce and pines, we found a pleasant shady place to make camp. Quite a bit of wildlife around – the mule deer are not at all worried by humans and you can get really close to them. Hummingbirds just attacked the feeder as soon as I put it out and then started the hummingbird wars as they vied for territory. One incredibly tame snowshoe rabbit appeared, along with the usual squirrels and chipmunks – the baby chipmunks are no bigger than mice and are just so cute.
05 August – Stay put day today and time to catch up on blogs etc. Walked back down the road to get a good view of the route that we had climbed only to notice in the little valley which goes behind our campground there was a small creek with about five beaver dams – they are a real work of art and the size of the logs that they use are not small. We have interesting neighbours who are travelling in a restored 1950’s Airstream polished alloy skinned caravan which they are towing with a 1950’s Willys Jeep. They have come up from Grand Junction for a few days and are exploring the 4wd roads in the area, some of which sound a bit challenging – 6 hours to go 15 miles! They told us of a good car museum not to miss back near Grand Junction, so change of plans for tomorrow!!
06 August – Backtracking a little to find this great museum – first to Delta then through to Wildwater, before turning off on Highway 141 to Gateway – yet another surprise going up this road – it was like being back in Utah – a narrow valley with huge red cliffs on both sides. We wound up towards Gateway and the only thing here is the hugely impressive Gateway Lodge complex along with their auto museum.
All this is owned by John Hendriks of Discovery Channel and what a set-up; you probably need to be quite a bit on the rich side to afford to stay at this establishment, but the museum was at least affordable for the likes of us. Another example of OTT though – probably only 30-40 vehicles on display, but it was a money no object restoration display including the $3million dollar Oldsmobile F88 concept car – the only one of it’s kind in the world and it was pretty special. A handful of early examples of American marques and the rest were mainly 1950’s – big fins, big bonnets and pretty colours but nicely presented.
Back down the scenic road we found a nice picnic area and decided to risk an overnight stay. Pretty little spot with a small stream running by and rocky hills on either side.
07 August – After an undisturbed night set off back to Grand Junction and a visit to another small car museum – the private collection of Tammy Allen which was displayed with large amounts of 1940’s and 50’s period wax figures and memorabilia.
Now headed along the I-70 eastwards for a fast track ride whizzing alongside the Colorado River, through interesting canyons, tunnels and past Glenwood Hot Springs then Gypsum, before exiting at Wolcott for a tiny BLM campground on the banks of the Eagle River. Only six campsites and we managed to pick one of the last available. No shade but fortunately it is not too hot.
08 August – Stayed put – had internet coverage for a change so able to catch up on local and international news. Noticed a railway track on the other side of the river so found the bridge where it crossed over and followed it for a nice afternoon walk. The track – like so many over here – had not been used for very many years; completely covered by mud in places, and weeds growing up through the tracks.
09 August – Well the best laid plans can always come to grief. We had aimed to follow the I-70 through to Denver to arrive around noon. The freeway had other plans for us though. After a brilliant drive up through to high passes and past very exclusive ski resorts of Vail, Copper Mountain and Frisco we came through the long Eisenhower Tunnel at the highest pass and then to a halt for the best part of half an hour while a truck vs. ute accident got cleared. Our thinking that Sunday would be a good day to get into Denver was a a little misplaced as the traffic coming out from all of the ski resorts was very heavy, even though there is no snow. We decided to get off the freeway for lunch at Georgetown, wait for the huge backlog of traffic to clear and flag away any hope of reaching the planned museum visit before closing time.
When we got back on to the freeway the traffic was at least flowing and finally picked up to a normal speed after about 20 minutes, then it was just normal all the way into and out to the west of Denver. Our Wallies target turned out to be a no-no for overnight staying so it was a bit of a task to find somewhere to park – Bob spotted a line of trucks parked on a side road so we headed for that and slotted into a spot between them all. Very noisy with traffic on the freeway right beside us, but the night passed without incident.
10 August – Two museums on the agenda for the day – first up was close by at the Forney Transportation Museum – a collection of cars, bikes, trains and wagons. The Big Boy loco was huge – it’s wheels alone were over 5ft high and with its enormous boiler it must have been a sight to see as it ploughed along the tracks. The cars on display were quite an interesting mixture – from very early to the mid 1950’s – not your pristine ‘money no object’ deal here – these were real cars straight from use on the road, many of them totally original and so many obscure makes. Together with the motorcycle display and a collection of carriages, we managed to while away a few hours there before setting off to the other side of Denver.
Fortunately the traffic had settled down from the morning chaos so it was an easy trip. Cussler Auto Museum was our next stop – Clive Cussler is a prolific author of adventure novels and has amassed an equally interesting collection with a large emphasis on rare town cars and boat-tail models, as well as many very exotic marques. The first room was full of 1950’s yank tanks in pristine condition, but boy when you moved into the other room it was something else. Rolls, Bentley, Isotta Frachini, Mercedes, Hispano-Suiza, Packard, Duesenburg and other American makes – another MNO collection. A lot of the cars have featured in his different Dirk Pitt novels which was quite a neat display angle.
Our day was suitably replete after those two visits, so we just had a short trip out of town a little way to a small county run campground on Standley Lake. Pretty spot with lovely views out of the reservoir and looking back to the lights of the city. Took advantage of the cool evening to sample one of their nice walking paths. Also managed to book ourselves one final fling before we leave the US – we are going up to fly up to Seattle for a week to spend time with our friends Joan and Eric who we met on the cruise ship coming back from South America.
11 August – Treat day today – Bob had on his list of museums the Matthews Collection but we had been unable to find out it’s location or opening hours from their website. So we emailed them and got the reply that they don’t open to the public, but where were we travelling from? When they learned that we were from NZ we were asked to phone them to set up a time. We duly arrived at the designated time and were met by Mark the son-in-law of Harry Matthews and he kindly spent the next couple of hours with us, taking us around their splendid collection – 1950’s Corvettes, only three McLarens (they did have 15 at one stage), several Vincent motorcycles, MG TF, Austin Healey, Jaguar and many other exotic American vehicles graced their spotless display room. Mark was very knowledgeable and just a really pleasant and interesting guy.
With that done it was time to hit the freeway north for a quick and hectic blat as far as Fort Collins – 50 miles of wheat and corn fields and very heavy traffic. So it was with a collective sigh of relief that we were able to find a quieter rural road to continue on to Laramie. Freeways are fine to get somewhere quickly, but sometimes with the constant traffic and loads of big trucks, getting off them is so much more pleasurable. Up on the plains there was probably more grass than we have seen for a while, but they could do with a bit of rain as it was looking rather dry. More interesting rock formations as we headed over the state line into Wyoming into Laramie. Not much in the way of camping available – but the local Walmart is a really nice rural alternative – clean, quiet and happy to accommodate us.