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From the National Park Service website:
“Writer and historian Wallace Stegner called national parks the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
Ken Burns did a documentary entitled “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”.
I don’t know that you could call it the “best” idea, but it’s a doggone good one, and it is one that never disappoints in the execution. Figuring it was time for a road trip, I set off a week ago with the goal of hitting three National Parks in Colorado: Rocky Mountain, Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde.
The longest haul of the trip was from Show Low to Grand Junction, CO. The first leg, from Show Low up Hwy 77, then going through Greasewood on Indian Road 15 to US 191, was a first for me. It goes through Hopi/Navajo reservations and it is pretty desolate territory. I call it Butte Country: mostly level or rolling land interrupted by the occasional upthrust. Pimples on the prairie, if you will.
There were a few sights familiar to us Texans of a certain age:
Despite the desolation (or maybe because of it), I saw a lot of buildings or signs for churches: Bible Church, Baptist, Lutheran. And a lot of signs for VBS and Revivals…sights also familiar to most Texans. But then of course it IS that time of year on the worship calendar.
After hitting Hwy 191 I was back on plowed ground, having tilled it at the end of my last trip with The Beast.
First time ever staying in Grand Junction. It’s a pretty town, sort of reminded me of my old stomping ground in Durham, NC: the streets, the trees, the sway of the terrain. Had a nice dinner at a spot called 626 on Rood which had a fun menu:
A small but interesting wine list (yes, they make wine in Colorado):
And they had a whiskey I’ve never seen:
Quinoa whiskey? I guess it’s the free market at work…
Second leg took me from Grand Junction to Estes Park. At this point things started to look like Colorado.
I-70 in western CO tracks right along the Colorado River for an hour or so.
Around Vail the road runs along the Eagle River. All very picturesque. And of course, the mountains are never far away.
Ran into a bit of traffic around the Eisenhower Tunnel. This stretch of I-70 may be one of the most scenic of the entire Interstate Highway System. I-40 in eastern TN/western NC or I-91 up into New England might be competition, but I’d award the prize to I-70, Grand Junction to Denver.
The weather acted up a bit once I got off I-70 and headed up north to Estes Park.
This took me through the town of Nederland, a place of some family history. It’s a beautiful little town, right on a lake. The middle of the town has a roundabout with roads spoking off in 5 or 6 directions, it seems. I drove through Nederland circa 2004 with my boys and I had to stop at the visitor center to find out which road I should take off the roundabout to get us to Vail. The visitor center was staffed by a little old lady from central casting, had to be in her 80s. She asked us to sign their visitor book, which we did, and she noted we were from Texas. “Well, we get so many visitors from Texas! In fact every year we go through the book and tabulate all the different places we get visitors from. Texas is almost always in first place. In fact, there on the wall is last year’s list.” A quick perusal of the list confirmed that the year before Texas had indeed led the pack with about 450 visitors. But in second place, with 200-some odd visitors was…The Netherlands! Huh? I guess they like to go there because of the name. I wonder if Nederland, TX observes the same behavior. I meant to stop again this time, but it was raining and traffic was heavy due to some festival or flea market or something they had going on. I’ll give it another 15 years…
Alright, day 3, down to cases. The goal: Rocky Mountain National Park, which was very close by, maybe 5 miles from my hotel.
Didn’t take long to get through the entrance, especially with my trusty Senior Pass (which is the best deal going for anyone who has attained geezerhood and spends time at national parks – parks like this may charge $25 a day or more, but with the Senior Pass, which cost me $10: bupkis!).
The plan was to drive the Trail Ridge Road, which runs along the northern and western edges of the park, for about 48 miles or so, from Estes Park to Grand Lake. There’s a ton of pullouts and scenic overlooks along the way and I stopped at quite a few of them. But really every turn of the road presents its own spectacular vista. It’s just one of the most breathtaking drives you can take. So I’ll give over the next 25,000 or so words of this post to the pictures.
At this point, maybe 15-20 miles into the drive the road starts to run above the treeline. This concept has always fascinated me. I’ve been that high before once or twice and it creates kind of an eerie peacefulness. The entry to the park is at about 8,000 ft elevation and goes as high as about 12,200′.
I think this is a marmot. At first I thought it was a carving because it was perfectly still, even though there was a crowd of people maybe 10 feet away.
These fellows were grazing maybe 100 yeards away.
About halfway to Grand Lake is a visitor’s center up on the tundra. I had never seen this construction technique before, but a sign inside the entrance explained it.
In the middle of the day on the way back from Grand Lake there was a bit of a traffic slowdown, for good reason as it turned out.
These elk were in no hurry. They were a little shy to cross the road at first, but then they stood on the road and nibbled something on the side of the road, like the little guy in the picture above.
This youngster was happy to stand by the road, maybe 20 or 30 feet from my vehicle.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a magical place: a feast for the eyes, a blessing for the heart, and for the soul? Well, chicken soup at least, if not homemade lasagna.
…to be continued