|Next, the national park lands. Colorado has
4 national parks, Rocky Mountain National Park,
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park,
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Mesa Verde
National Park. We had previously managed to visit
Verde owing to its proximity to the Four Corners
we had explored a few years ago.
Rocky Mountain National Park has been
on our must visit list for quite a while.
The map on the left (from the NPS site) illustrates the geography of the state of Colorado. Colorado is one of two states that is a perfect rectangle (Wyoming being the other one). The southern portion of the Rockies dominate the left half of the state. The Continental Divide runs diagonally across the state cresting the Rockies. Interstate 70 runs east-west and crosses the mountains in a series of passes including the Eisenhower Tunnel (completed 1979) that cuts right through the Continental Divide. Interstate 25 runs north-south and lies on the plateau just east of the mountains. The capital and largest city in the state, Denver lies at the crossroads of the two freeways.
Denver State Capitol and 16 Street
Pedestrian Mall. Drive Peak-to-Peak Scenic
Setup Camp in Moraine Park Campground in Rocky Mountain National Park. Old Fall River Road-Trail Ridge Road Loop
|Day 2||Hike 10 miles through Lake Helene, Odessa Lake, Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park|
|Day 3||Rocky Mountain National
Trail Ridge Road to west exit crossing
Continental Divide at Milner Pass.
I-70 to Grand Junction crossing Continental Divide.
Colorado National Monument: Rim Rock Drive
|Day 4||Colorado National
Monument: Visit Monument Canyon. US-50 to
Black Canyon of the
Gunnison National Park.
US-50 to Poncha Springs crossing Continental Divide at Monarch Pass. Collegiate Peaks view
US-24 to Colorado Springs
|Day 5||Pikes Peak Cog Railway. Colorado Springs (Garden of the Gods, US Olympic Training Center, US Air Force Academy)|
|Day 6||I-25 south to Trinidad. Highway of Legends to La Veta. Hwy 160/150 to Great Sand Dunes National Park|
|Day 7||Hwy 17/US-285 North to Salida. Collegiate Peaks. Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway to Aspen/Glenwood Springs. I-70 to Idaho Springs|
|Day 8||Mount Evans Scenic Byway. Denver Museum of Nature and Science.|
Total Miles driven: 2000
The vistas did not cease when we exited the park at Kawuneechee Visitor Center. The town of Grand Lake is by Colorado's largest natural lake. Next to it are the two man-made lakes, Shadow Mountain and Granby Lakes. Near the small town of Tabernash, we could catch sight of the solitary rock column called Devil's Thumb rising from the crest of the ridgeline that lay in front of us. Any thoughts of us driving up the Mount Evans Scenic Byway (highest road in North America) that afternoon were quickly dismissed on seeing the dark clouds that loomed over the area. We still had one more climb up Berthoud Pass (11307 feet) and crossing over to the eastern side of the Continental Divide before we reached the Interstate.
What is noticeable even to the layman is that the landscape had changed from the granite look of the Rockies to the reddish sandstone hues of the mesas that are typical of the Colorado Plateau. After crossing the Glenwood Canyon and driving to the Grand Valley with the Colorado River for company, we reached Grand Junction, so named because of the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers. Click here for a 3-D view of the junction of the two rivers as the muddy brown Gunnison river meets the blue-green Colorado river. The combined river flows further on as the Colorado river but the Gunnison river makes up for the loss of its name by dominating the color of the outcome. Also seen in the view are the mesas in the background and the "book cliffs".
Click the panel at left for the I-70 photo album
Forgetting about man made state boundaries, we can consider Colorado National Monument as situated on the Colorado Plateau, which is an area of about 150,000 square miles that straddles the common boundaries of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Apart from the distinctive red rock look that can be seen in places as far away as the Grand Canyon, the terrain is characterized by broad plateaus and deeply dissected canyons. It is also characterized by the greatest concentration of national parks and monuments (returning back to man made institutions). Among the National Parks in the Colorado Plateau are Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, and Petrified Forest National Park. Among the National Monuments are Dinosaur National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, Wupatki National Monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and Colorado National Monument.
Colorado National Monument is one of the national park service's best kept secrets. Just a few miles from Grand Junction, it seems to hide its wonders from the world around it only to reveal itself to those who venture into the 23 mile long Rim Rock Drive. From viewpoints on the drive one can see the deep canyons (Columbus, Red, Ute, Monument and Wedding Canyons) and sandstone spires that stand alone or huddled together in groups amidst the canyons. The escarpment is steep in places with the difference between the canyon floor and the plateau reaching to 2500 feet. The scattered spires and monoliths are in various shapes and stages of development. Some, capped with a layer of resistant rock, stand tall and angular. Unprotected ones are more squat and rounded. Balanced rocks, some as big as locomotives, rest precariously on narrow perches and seem to be ready to topple over at any moment. The fancifully named Wedding Canyon does get used for real weddings with the rock structures, though passionless themselves, seeming to suggest comparisons with real people in similar situations.
Panorama at the Coke Ovens Overlook, Colorado National Monument
We reached the eastern entrance of the park and drove through the 23 miles of the Rim Rock drive in the late afternoon light. We returned to the western entrance and spent an hour near the Monument Canyon enjoying the view in the morning light before moving on in the direction of the Gunnison River. This happily reunited us with the epic US Highway 50 which stretches more than 3000 miles from Sacramento, CA to Ocean City, MD on the east coast. We had spent the previous year's Thanksgiving holiday weekend experiencing the winter solitude of the Nevada section of the highway which is dubbed the Loneliest Road in America. On this occasion the highway would lead us through to Poncha Springs, which marks the northern edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains whose southern section in New Mexico we had encountered during yet another Thanksgiving holiday weekend back in 2005. Enroute to Poncha Springs, we spent the better part of the afternoon in yet another national park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Click the panel at left for the Colorado National Monument photo album
Gneiss-Schist. These are the names of the (metamorphic) rocks that give the canyon its distinctive appearance. The finer grain rock called schist results from lower temperatures and less strain compared to rocks that get lowered deeper into the earth which increases the temperature and pressure. This results in coarser grain rock called gneiss (pronounced 'nice') with crystals that tend to be larger. Various rock types lead to a variety of metamorphic stone, and minerals in some of these Black Canyon rocks suggest that they were once sedimentary. In some locations, it appears that the rock was of igneous origin, a lava flow or a layer of ash. An approximate age for the metamorphic rocks in the Black Canyon is 1.7 billion years.
Later, molten rock combing up from below intruded into the schist and gneiss, sometimes melting the existing rocks and sometimes just yanking the rocks along the side, folding them into the mix. Still later, more magma intruded into all of this rock. The additional ingredient of water in this magma made it a little more fluid. Instead of swallowing everything like the undiluted magma, this diluted magma oozed into the existing schist and gneiss or the mixture of both. Rich in potassium, this magma also cooled slowly and formed pegmatite. All of this happened deep inside the earth's surface. And that is where it metamorphosed due to the intense pressure and temperature to form the rock walls of the Black Canyon.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is steep and deep, with cliff walls that are more than 2700 feet deep in places. At the heart of the canyon lies the Gunnison River. The river sliced through this aged rock, revealing eroded features. Nearly 50 miles of the river are in the national park and the adjacent Curecanti National Recreation Area. The comparisons with the Grand Canyon are inevitable. What is similar is that the South Rim is visited more due to its accessibility and paved road. The North Rim is relatively remote and is only reached by unpaved road. Unlike the Grand Canyon, the rims are much closer making the canyon much narrower, sometimes as close as just a quarter mile across. While the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon drops an average of 7 feet per mile, the Gunnison river averages 43 feet per mile. In fact, in just 48 miles in Black Canyon, the Gunnison river loses more elevation than the 1500 mile Mississippi River does in its entire length from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. This rapid drop results in the steeper erosion profile in the Black Canyon compared to the profile in the Grand Canyon. Click here for a 3-D profile of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Painted Wall View, Black Canyon
The South Rim Drive from the Visitor Center is only 7 miles long to the terminus at High Point and has 12 scenic overlooks. We spent about 2 hours in the park stopping at a few of the overlooks including Tomichi Point, Gunnison Point, Pulpit Rock Overlook, Devil's Lookout, Chasm View, Painted Wall View and Sunset View.
Click the panel at left for the Black Canyon photo album
After exiting the Black Canyon National Park and returning to US 50, the highway passes through the scenic Curecanti National Recreation Area. The highway crosses the Blue Mesa Reservoir and then skirts the shore on the other side for quite a distance. Once past the town of Gunnison, it is quite going for a while before we encounter yet another Continental Divide crossing at Monarch Pass at 11312 feet. We are now in the vicinity of several unique geographic features. As if the landscape we left behind was not enough, we now descend towards the towns of Poncha Springs and Salida. The Sangre de Cristo mountain range (sub-range of the Rockies) begins here and extends south as far as New Mexico. This sub-range boasts of 9 peaks over 14000 feet. Next to the Sangre de Cristo range is the vast flat San Luis Valley that has been described as the highest largest mountain desert valley in the continent. To the west of this valley lies the San Juan Range, the largest sub-range of the Rockies. Packed in a corner of the valley at the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo range is a landscape that contrasts with everything else we have seen elsewhere in Colorado. These are the Great Sand Dunes. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We will worry about the dunes and San Luis Valley later.
At Poncha Springs, we turned left to Hwy 285 that is part of the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway that stretches 40 miles north towards Granite. To the left of the highway is the highest concentration of 14ers in the country. Part of the Sawatch Range (sub-range of the Rockies), the mountains were named in 1869 for prestigious universities - Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Oxford. Together they form the sturdy backbone of the Continental Divide. To the south of the Collegiate Peaks are two other 14ers, Antero and Shavano.
Unfortunately, it was past 6 pm when we reached here and the sun was directly behind the Collegiate Peaks. We stopped at the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Overlook but had to make do with unfriendly light conditions.
The Collegiate Peaks - Mt. Princeton (14197 ft.) is at center and to the right are Yale (14196 ft.), Columbia (14073 ft.) and Harvard (14420 ft.). To the left of Princeton is Mt. Antero (14269 ft.).
Three days later, I had another opportunity to return to the area in the middle of the day (on my way to the Top of The Rockies Scenic Byway) and had a much better view of the Collegiate Peaks.
Panorama at the junction of Hwy 285 and Hwy 24 just outside the town of Buena Vista
After crossing yet another pass (Trout Creek Pass at a mere 9346 feet, a trifle compared to the Continental Divide crossings we had done so far), we were so captivated by the beauty of the green meadow that lay in front of us (Antero Reservoir) that we forgot to make the right turn to Hwy 24 towards Colorado Springs and instead continued on Hwy 285 north towards Fairplay. We even took the photograph below that shows the path to Hwy 24 without realizing that we should have been on that road.
Junction of Hwy 285/Hwy 24 near Antero Reservoir
US-285 was another blast from the past as we had encountered this highway in another state, New Mexico in 2005. At that time it led us from Carlsbad, NM north to Las Vegas, NM. We also cut across the highway when we proceeded from the Rio Grande Gorge west towards Chama, NM.
Click on the panel at left for the Collegiate Peaks photo album
Pikes Peak seen from a Colorado Springs street
Cresting at 14115 ft (4303m), Pikes Peak was named for Zebulon Pike, who led an expedition sent out in 1806 by President Jefferson to survey the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase. He glimpsed the peak from a distance but could not scale the mountain and concluded that the summit could never be reached. Despite this prediction, it is perhaps the world's most "climbed" mountain given its proximity to two large cities and the presence of a well paved 19-mile highway (opened in 1916) and a cog railway (opened 1891).
The Pikes Peak Cog Railway offers visitors an easy opportunity to reach a 14er peak without any effort. Just drive to the town of Manitou Springs outside Colorado Springs, park your car outside the railway depot (on busy days they will only let you do this if you have reservations on the next departing train), collect your tickets at the window and board your coach and take your seat. A conductor/guide provides the narrative as the train makes its way from the Manitou Depot (6530 ft.) to Pikes Peak (14115 ft.) in a little over an hour. The journey passes through several life zones and eventually drops you at the top of a very large level peak which has room for a large gift/snack shop, a parking lot for several vehicles and generally room for a big crowd. One should not be fooled by the warm temperatures at the bottom as it is usually cold and extremely windy on top. Altitude sickness will also be a factor for those not acclimatized.
There are stations and a private residence on the way. The initial views of Moraine Lake come up on the left side of the train (reference facing the direction of movement) but as it nears the top, they appear on the other side. Given the relative isolation of Pikes Peak (no other 14er for miles and miles), the view from the top covers a huge swathe of Colorado from this central location. We could see Denver's downtown skyscrapers (60 miles away) but our cameras could not. The proximate streets of Colorado Springs gleamed in the morning sunlight. Katherine Lee Bates wrote the words ("purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain") for "America the Beautiful" after a trip to Pikes Peak summit in 1893.
View looking east from Pikes Peak with the city of Colorado Springs below
Click on the panel at left for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway photo album
Once a booming mining town, Colorado Springs (alt. 6035 feet, founded 1871).was founded as a model community for "upright" people and counted as its assets its clean, high altitude air and plenty of sunshine days. Within a decade the area was booming with polo and cricket fields(!), palatial hotels and sumptuous homes. Today it is a city of around 300,000 and is one of the top places for technology companies. Nearby Pikes Peak can seen from most of the city. After the Pikes Peak Cog Railway trip in the morning, we spent the afternoon visiting some points of interest in and around the city.
Unlike other urban parks in the USA, the Garden of the Gods was built around existing wonders of nature. It contains red sandstone rock formations that would have probably felt more at home in Utah. On a warm summer day, it was full of young revelers who were crawling all over the place. We spent just a short time there and enjoyed the view of Pikes Peak from the park.
Pikes Peak seen from the Garden of the Gods
The US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is one of three such centers dedicated to training US athletes for the Olympic games. The other two are in Lake Placid, NY and Chula Vista, CA. Some athletes preparing for the games live in one of these campuses for several months to a few years. Others visit periodically for participating in training camps etc. The facilities are mostly meant for US athletes but foreign athletes are occasionally granted access to the facilities.
The Colorado Springs center was the first built and has been the home of the US Olympic Committee since 1978. One of the factors for the location is its high altitude which is thought to improve training effectiveness. Its facilities include an Olympic size swimming pool, a shooting range, a velodrome, two sports centers housing numerous gymnasiums and training rooms.
Our enthusiastic guide favored the casual say-it-like-it-is approach and was frank in his views on the facility. He was simply in awe of the resources (he went on and on about the cafeteria!) as he showed us around the gymnastics room, the wrestling room, the swimming pool and the outdoors.
One of the displays in the visitor center showed the distribution of US Olympic medalists from the various states. We were impressed by the high concentration of US Olympic gold medalists that are born in the state of California. 94 gold medalists were born in the Golden State. The next highest number is 47 from New York and Texas/Illinois come in third with 22.
At the entrance to the visitor center is a statue of four athletes that is quite remarkable in that the females are airborne.
Statue at the entrance to the US Olympic Training Center
The US Air Force Academy is the youngest of the US Service academies. In 1954, President Eisenhower signed a bill of legislation to establish the USAFA. It operated at Lowry AFB in Denver before moving to its present location in Colorado Springs in 1958. The Academy stretches 18,500 acres along the foot of the Rampart Range of the Colorado Rockies. Approximately 4000 cadets are enrolled in the Academy. Nearly 50% complete majors in science and engineering. Upon graduating they are commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the United States Air Force
Visitors to the academy begin their visit at the Barry Goldwater Visitor Center which features exhibits on the history of the academy and cadet life. The 35,000 square foot building has a theatre, a restaurant and a gift shop featuring a large selection of Air Force and Falcon Athletics apparel and merchandise. From the visitor center, a 1/3 mile paved trail takes the visitor to the impressive Cadet Chapel which has halls for several religious denominations.
Cadet Chapel, USAFA
After viewing the impressive campus and chapel, we had the opportunity to
watch a group of cadets being put through the motions by their seniors. They ran
uphill and then got on all fours to crawl up the hillside while the seniors kept
barking commands and taunts at them.
Click on the panel at left for the Colorado Springs photo album
Denver is the capital of the state of Colorado and also its largest city. It is just east of the Rockies and is just a short (but steep!) drive away from the mountain wonders. The signage on I-70 East as you descend from the west keep warning truckers to stay focused and in gear as they drop rapidly down from the heights ("You are not done yet! Still a few more miles of this steep grade to go!" etc.).
Even those who never visited the city most likely spent a few hours in transit at Denver International Airport which is a United Airlines and Frontier Airlines hub. The airport has a distinctive white tensile fiberglass roof that is designed to mimic the snowcapped Rockies. It is the largest airport in the US in terms of surface area (third largest in the world after King Fahd and Montreal-Mirabel).
16 street Pedestrian Mall, Denver
Denver is popularly known as the Mile-High city due to its elevation of 5280 feet above sea level. One of the steps leading up to the main entrance hall of the Colorado State Capitol building is marked as such.
Click on the panel at left for the Denver photo album
Below is the link to the YouTube playlist. These are HD videos and can be viewed at 720p if you have a high speed internet connection. The videos are also embedded in the photo albums above.
Click here for the KML file for the trip. This can be opened in Google Earth.
Alternatively, you can view the waypoints and trip tracks in Google Maps below.
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