Western Colorado / Eastern Utah – 2006 Trip Report

Edited To Add: WordPress — as it often does — lost the links to the photos that would have taken readers to the SmugMug Gallery. The Gallery of these and more photos is at this LINK. All the photos at the gallery are annotated, adding to the narrative below.

As opposed to many short posts, I figure I will do fewer, but longer, posts.  This is exactly counter to what they say you need to do to build readership to your blog.  The way I figure it, people can read them over the course of three days. 

Here we go . . . 

In the middle of 2006, I was still recuperating from 26 years of automotive-related work (I started my current job in September of that year), but Melisa had taken a part-time job at Williams-Sonoma.  Because of her odd hours and erratic work schedule, we did not have that many opportunities for traveling.

But then she had a break on her schedule . . . a whole weekend off.

We decided to take a whirlwind tour of Western Colorado and Eastern Utah.  This was primarily a driving trip – a way to check out potential areas of interest for future trips.  The drive was a loop South, West to Mesa Verde National Park, North and West to Arches National Park, then back East to Grand Junction and the Colorado National Monument Park, then South through Aspen, and finally over Independence Pass to pick up US-24 and get back home.

The AAA TripTick put the total distance at 914 miles (not counting local travel at the various destinations), and an estimated 16hrs driving time.  To many, this may sound like a lot of driving in three days, but we both like driving trips.

Our 914 miles, three day trip route

Our plans for “let’s get an early start” evolved into “sleep a little longer”, and our estimated 6:30am departure morphed into an 8:30am “let’s get out there and mingle with rush hour traffic”.  I’ve written before about my opinion of Colorado drivers (of course, not anyone reading this – it’s the other drivers), so I will not get into it here.  Suffice it to say I did not relax until we passed Pueblo, and really only got into the spirit of a driving vacation once we got onto US-160 at Walsenburg.

That’s where the scenery starts; on the left, the valleys are lapping up to the Spanish Peaks, and on the right, the rolling hills and the Sangre De Cristo Range combine for a visual treat.  Traffic thins out; we relax and enjoy the views while beginning our three-day attack on the many snacks we’ve packed for the trip.  OK, the truth is that I begin a full-scale attack, while Melisa is held in reserve in case I tire (yeah, like that’s gonna happen).  Sad to say, few snacks would survive the trip, despite the numerous reinforcements joining the ranks along the way.

The trek up to and over the Continental Divide offers great views, with a couple of opportunities to stop and admire the sights, but with few photo opportunities because of an overcast sky.  The leg from Pagosa Springs to Mesa Verde offers little in terms of views, and much in terms of slow-moving traffic through a number of small towns.  Mesa Verde finally looms ahead, and since it’s still early afternoon, we head on up.

The remains of Knife Edge Road, the original road into the park.

Knife Edge Road must have been something else to drive.  The link will take you to a description of both the development of the park and of the road that opened it up to tourists.

The sign about the road, and a picture from the times

The 21 miles of road into the park offer many views, with a promise of wondrous sights at the end of it.  Now, you have to understand that I read a fair amount on the Anasazi, and the ruins they left behind.  There are also virtual tours online, and detailed descriptions of the various sites.   One thing I failed to read was the small detail that to see most of the sites you have to join guided tours (all except one).  The tours were all booked for the day (it was the 100th year anniversary of the park), and we made plans to come back in the morning.  Meanwhile, we went on the one self-guided tour that was available.

The only site open to a self-guided tour.

Astute viewers might notice some of these pictures have a different processing than my typical efforts.  I figure I would try something new, something I thought fit the subject.  Hopefully others beside me will like it.

The structures are impressive, although it seemed to me one would bake in them . . . we certainly were.

A strange thing happened while we were on the self-guided tour.  We were looking at ruins.  I tried to imagine how looking at different ruins the next day would bring more excitement and wonder.  All I could think of was of being surrounded by slow-moving people, trapped for two hours, listening to a ranger repeat everything I had already read.  Melisa and I quickly weighed the potential (but remote) benefit of possibly hearing something new, versus spending a large amount of time with other people (most of whom were probably Colorado drivers).

A decision was quickly reached; we would do the driving tour (you get to see some ruins from the road), and then head on up to Moab, giving us a full day for exploring Arches National Park.  That’s when it hit me!  We had solved the riddle of the Anasazi!  People still wonder why the left, but now I know.  You see, they lived in the canyons, but farmed the mesas.  That means every day having to climb up and down those canyons, and not only that, having to climb up and down their houses just to get around.  The idea of doing that for just two hours drove me away.

From the road . . . using a long zoom lens

This next picture is of the same area but shot with a wide-angle lens.

The canyons they built in . . . pretty impressive

Seriously, Mesa Verde is nice.  There are many areas of interest, and we’ll probably go back some time, but between the structured exploration, the crowds, and our limited time, we decided we would get more out of the remaining part of our trip.  We left and headed up to Moab.

A place of worship . . . if I remember correctly. A Sun Temple.

Along the way, we saw more nice scenery, our first arch (Wilson’s arch, along US-191), and a striking bell-like formation.  Again, you might notice an odd processing of the photos . . . the photo-realistic versions are in the SmugMug album (as usual, click on any of the photos).

Along US-191, something likely named Bell Rock. Much better than the one near Sedona, AZ.

US-191, just South of Mohab, Wilson's Arch

As we approached Moab, the landscape was dotted with all sorts of red rock formations, made to appear fiery by the setting sun.  No offense to the Mesa Verde ruins, but this was way better, and we were not even in the park.

We got ourselves a room (one of the last rooms available) and planned on getting to the park early the next morning.  Early turned out to be a little after 8:30am (“let’s sleep a little longer” striking again), and the first thing they told us at the park’s Visitor Center was that if we planned on hiking we should get our butts out there and be done before noon, when the temperature would be reaching uncomfortable levels.  Otherwise, they advised waiting until after 4:00pm.  We made our plans and decided to do the Devil’s Garden Loop (something like 7 miles for the whole thing).

Arches National Park proper

Getting to the Devil’s Garden from the Visitor’s Center takes about 30min.  It takes a little longer if you get behind RV drivers who don’t have the courtesy to use the pullouts.  You also get to practice maledictions aimed at said drivers, their ancestors, and progeny (sadly, it did look like most of them had, in fact, reproduced).

By the time we got to the trailhead and got ready, it was already 10:00am.  Did I mention the temperature was in the high 90s?  Did I mention that it was supposed to top at around 104?  We armed ourselves with plenty of water, an umbrella, 15+lb of camera equipment, a tripod, hats, and some snacks, and we headed off.

“An umbrella?” you ask?  Yep.  You see, the photographer half of our team is apt to stop often, and it is a scientific fact there is never any shade near the place from where I generally take pictures.  That’s fine for me since I’m willing to fry in the heat as I fiddle with all my lenses, various gadgets, and tripod.  Melisa, however, gets to just stand there and bake in the hot sun.  Ergo, the umbrella: portable shade.  The only thing she had to endure were the envious stares of people walking by, their skin slowly being dissolved by the unrelenting sun (it’s amazing how many people don’t even wear hats).

Edited to add:  a better map of Devil’s Garden Loop

The first arch . . . they are all named, and one can easily find the names on line. I would add them here, but people would likely forget them anyway.

Again, note the different look . . . for this arch I tried five different “looks” (available in SmugMug).  For most photos, I only have two; the “real” one and the fancy one.

For some reason I felt this particular "look" suited the landscape

Here I included Melisa in the picture to give a sense of scale . . . she is 12 ft tall, so you can do the math on the height of the arch

The famous Landscape Arch. It's one of the oldest geological features of the park, and they say it could go at any time. Of course, that means sometime between now and 500 years from now.

I tool a lot of pictures of this arch because both on the way in, and on the way out it was a convenient stopping place to have some water, eat something, and rest in a small amount of shade.

This was another shady spot, although I wondered about that "geological time" thing. I like the reflected sunlight on the underside of the arch.

At one point we reached an open cave, so I suppose it could have been a wide arch. We unloaded all out gear, and rested for a bit.

This is one of those rare instances I show what I look like, and how lovely my wife is.  Frankly, I don’t see what she sees in me, but whatever it is, I am glad that she does.

The unsightly stain is in part from the wet rags we wore around our necks, and from the strap of my camera case which was over my shoulder and across my chest.  I share this picture (and the next) precisely because I look like a goofball and I’m shown in a very unflattering way.  It helps keep the chicks from bothering me.

If you can avert your eyes from the clown waving, look to the far left of the picture where some of our gear can be seen resting as well.

This was the view through the last arch on the hike. We shared it with a couple from Germany.

By 11:30am, the temperature was noticeably higher, and we decide to forgo the last leg of the trail (1.8miles round trip).  We tell ourselves we just want to leave something for our next visit, but the truth is we were worried our shoes would melt.  Still, in a little over 5 miles we’ve seen some nice arches, impressive rock formations, and numerous vistas.  All in all, a good walk.  We took a small detour around some interesting formations, and chance upon this ancient prehistoric sloth, frozen in time.

At one point I thought it moved . . . but it was only the heat making me hallucinate.

On the way back we snapped more of the same pictures you saw earlier, so I won’t post them here, but they are available in SmugMug for the two people who will be interested.

This was one of the last pictures I snapped before we got back to the parking lot.

By 12:30pm we are back at the car, and take the time to reduce our food supply at a nearby picnic area.  At this time the temperature display in the car reads 104.  The plan switches to “drive in an air-conditioned car”, and away from “hike in scorching heat”.   We had planned to hike to Delicate Arch (Utah unofficial State Symbol) around 4:00 or 4:30pm, so in the meantime, we looked at other sights.

This is known as Sheep Rock . . . to me it resembles a Lion, but I'm almost used to others being wrong, so I let it slide.

This area is known as Park Avenue, supposedly because of the slabs of red rock resembling skyscrapers. I don't see that either, but they are very impressive slabs.

More impressive landscape . . . there is a name for this as well . . . frozen dunes, or something along those lines. Look it up.

Most places where there are red rocks there will be a feature called Balanced Rock.

This is one of the better ones I have seen because, unlike most others, there is no man-made shoring of the formation. The one here in Colorado Springs's Garden of the Gods has cement at the joint, helping to keep it upright.

Unfortunately, even after driving around for a few hours, the temperature showed no indication of dropping.  We opt for a visit to the observation point for the Delicate Arch (100yrds walk vs. a 1.5-mile walk to the arch . . . each way), and I take a couple of photographs with my 400mm lens . . . this next shot is from one mile away (according to the sign at the observation area).

Utah's unofficial State Symbol - there are a few more shots in the gallery

We’ve been at the park for about 9 hours, and have left many things for our next visit (we had planned to return in the fall, but that “job” thing came up).

By 5:00pm, we decide to leave and head up to Grand Junction.  That will give us some time in the morning (Saturday) to go through Colorado National Monument before heading back home.  We headed out on Hwy. 128, traveling East through a canyon carved by the Colorado River.  The area has been the site for many movies dating back to the ‘40s.  With towering walls of red rock and the Colorado River adding a dramatic contrast, it’s easy to see why so many cinematographers found these ideal locations for their sets. (Scenic Byway 128 information).  We were hauling, so while I did snap some pictures, they were not all that interesting.  I plan to drive that road again. This LINK has a list of the movies that were shot in this area.

Saturday finds us up a little earlier, and by 8:00am we are driving the Rim Road of the Colorado National Monument.  I’m too lazy to look up other words besides “impressive”, so that’s the one that I will continue using.  Even after having been spoiled by both Arches National Park and Hwy. 128, the sights along Rim Road are spectacular.

Colorado National Monument - one of the first views upon entering the park (up a very steep road with lots of switchbacks)

With Melisa’s eyes glazing over every time I stop for a picture, I become more selective about what I want to capture on (digital) film.  We do manage a mile-long walk on top of one of the many spurs and are rewarded with a great view of spires and canyons.  The place definitively seems to capture the image of Colorado.

You probably can't see them in this picture, but there are four climbers on the right edge, near the top.

That's the formation they are climbing. The early morning sun reflects very harshly off the red rocks, but it's still a beautiful sight.

I try my special processing, and I am not as pleased with it in this light.

A few pictures of the climbers; two guys and two women.

It looks neat, but the engineer in me wonders about the anchors and ropes.

I suppose it's safe if you know what you are doing . . . personally, I don't like that heartless bitch, gravity. Don't like to mess with her any more than necessary.

 . . . but it does look like it would be awesome . . .

This lizard startled us as we did not spot it until it moved.

A last few shots of the beauty of the place . . .

A last check on the climbers (they are nearly at the top) . . .

. . . and we leave the park; our next planned stop is Palisade (just East of Grand Junction).  Fruit stands – the place is rife with them, and we hit a few searching for great tomatoes, melons, peaches, plums, and assorted vegetables.

We find great looking produce, and load up.  This is a place that is worth a trip once a year.  Fresh produce is one of the things we miss from Michigan.  To the casual observer it looks like we bought fruit and vegetables, but what we actually bought was flavor; something that is lacking from the produce available around Colorado Springs.  Having eaten a number of peaches, and purchased as much produce as seemed reasonable, we head out.

Aspen is our next destination (we drove straight through, hence no pictures).  Melisa likes the scenery, green hillsides, and lush (relatively speaking) vegetation.  I’m more partial to red rock, but the place is nice.  Nice homes, nice private jets parked at the airport, nice manicured parks and yards, and snobbish people milling around trying to look important.

No, we did not stop, meet, or had a conversation with anyone.  It’s just that after being exposed to them for a number of years, you learn to recognize the type a mile away.  But I exaggerate a bit.  The place is fairly crowded, but only about half the people fit the above description, with the balance composed of normal persons going about the affairs of their lives.  Still, people aside, Aspen looks really nice.  It reeks of money, seems crowded, but it looks nice.

We continue on CO-82, heading toward the remains of the town of Independence, Independence Pass, and the Continental Divide.  Now we are back into some serious scenery.  Wildflowers and a stream flank the road that sometimes gets too narrow for two cars side by side.

A pleasant Colorado surprise are the wildflowers that seem to aggressively cover any open area. They have a short growing season, and they make the most of it.

Sure, the above picture looks nice, but I wanted to try my newly found (stumbled upon while screwing around) Goth Look.

Steep drop-offs, cliffs towering above us, and the occasional rock on the road to remind us that yes, rocks do fall off those cliffs.  With few places to stop, we soak in the sights on the move, relying on biological rather than digital memory.  This is a route that would be nice in the fall (when the aspens are turning).  We stop at the remnants of Independence, admire the views from the road up to the pass, and stop to walk around at the top of the Continental Divide.

Yes, I Gothified the landscape. Those are the remnants of Independence, a town that is no more. Yes, we are at Independence Pass (links at the beginning of the post).

But I do think the flowers, rocks, and odd pieces of wood look good with this treatment.

Especially when I take this . . .

And turn it into this!

OK, so maybe it’s not for everyone . . . maybe some morose teen will chance upon it and just love it!

Soon we are on US-24 and familiar ground.  Still beautiful, but not new, the scenery accompanies us toward home.  Getting into town brings us back to the realities of civilized life: noise, pollution, and congestion – the price we pay for the convenience of good shopping, high-speed internet, cable television, and a comfortable living.   Still, it’s nice to know these other things are close enough anytime we want a break from the ordinary.


The number of things we saw and did in a short time probably contributed to making it seem like we had been gone for a longer period of time (I mean that in a good way).  We definitively will go back to Arches National Park and plan to hit Canyonlands right next door.  We’ll plan for a longer stay, as I want to do more serious photography.  In fact, the rest of Utah will see a lot of us (we took a trip to Zion and Bryce last September) ), as I’ve been reading about all the other National Parks in that state, and the abundance of red rock.   

The mood will have to strike us for a repeat visit to Mesa Verde, but eventually, we’ll go back there as well.  We keep planning trips to Grand Junction once or twice a year (usually coinciding with the peak of the produce season), but events these last few years have kept us from making the trip.  We’ll try again this year.

All in all, this was a good trip. 

As usual, thanks for visiting, and reading my stuff.


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