A Travellerspoint blog

Canyonlands

Right across the highway from Arches is another National Park: Canyonlands. I drive to the end of the road, walk out to a viewpoint and stand at the precipice in awe. Out below me is a vast valley flanked by mesas and cut with deep canyons.

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Canyonlands is divided into three sections by the rivers that run through the canyons. The section I’m in is called Island in the Sky. From this vantage point, looking down into the canyons, the great expanse of the region comes into focus.

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All the dramatic geological scenery exposes the forces of nature still shaping the world. There are short walks to beautiful Mesa Arch, made all the more lovely by the way it frames the valley floor below, as well as Upheaval Dome, which appears like a giant grey-blue sand dune surrounded by red rock mountains.

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I liked the Island in the Sky area so much that I decide to drive down to the Needles area as well. And while I can see why it isn’t as popular (for one thing it is much more remote) there are great views of vast mesas and even petroglyphs to find in the sheltered eaves of the rock boulders.

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And it was that remoteness that lead to one of the coolest camping spots I’ve had so far. The regular sites were full so I drove just outside the park boundary and down a dirt road to a marked primitive site. I nestled my tent underneath juniper trees growing around the base of an alcove in a rock grouping the size of a house. At night I climbed to the top of the rocks and watched the sun set over the mesas in the distance. Stars started to appear in the clear sky above and little bats fluttered by.

Posted by Velora 18:09 Comments (1)

Arches National Park

I've never been fond of the desert. I just never thought it was very pretty and the dry heat didn’t appeal to me. But I believe I am now a convert.

The landscape is otherworldly, and not just the National Parks. Everywhere it seems there are mesas and arches and beautiful huge rock walls in people’s backyards and along freeways. You can’t avoid it.

The first place I visit is Arches National Park and from the very start when you pass through the entrance gates the colors and shapes of the rocks are amazing.

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But at the end of the paved road and down a dirt path I converge with other tourists flocking to a conglomeration of arches and formations called Devil‘s Garden. Here I find Landscape Arch (a personal favorite because of the thin and delicate swoop it creates) as well as many others.

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One of the great things about hiking out here is that the trail climbs onto huge pieces of exposed rock and at many times the path is only marked by stacks of stone. Walking on the rock makes it seem less traveled than a hard-packed dirt trail would (if only all the other hikers would leave).

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The park is small, and many of the arches are viewable from the roadside or down a short path. In many ways that makes it difficult to find a place to enjoy the wilderness of the desert. But, this park is more about the wonder of the arch formations, and it's nice that everyone can enjoy that.

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Posted by Velora 17:31 Comments (1)

Mesa Verde

I’d seen pictures of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde before but they never really appealed to me. Maybe it was the stark geometric architecture that I didn‘t appreciate. But seeing them in person was such an amazing experience.

The dwellings are built high in the canyon walls inside natural alcoves. Here under the shelter of the rock overhangs above, the temperature stayed cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. The people farmed on the mesa top above and gathered water in the natural springs that could be found in the backs of the alcoves. They reached their homes by rock climbing the sheer cliffs using foot and hand holds they had carved into the soft sandstone.

I also never realized that within this one area there are at least ten cities, averaging a population of about 100 each. From one cliff dwelling you can look across the canyon to the neighboring city. It seems a little odd with so much open space, but in a way it seems comforting that they had such a community.

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But then one day around 1200 A.D. the cities were abandoned. The Puebloans were a migrant people that moved often for agricultural and other reasons, and probably left because of a draught. But the cities were left intact.

I buy tickets for the two ranger-led hikes. I’m surprised they still let tourists walk around on the ruins. I predict that these tours won’t be allowed anymore at some point in my lifetime, so I‘ve got to see them while I can. The first one I take is the Balcony House tour. You can’t see this cliff dwelling from the road, which makes it that much more special. From the mesa top we walk down flights of stairs and a couple of precarious ladders and walk right into the actual cliff dwelling, which is underneath where our cars are parked. To be standing on the cliff’s edge like that, exactly how these people had done 800 years ago was thrilling. To see the soot from their fires staining the overhanging rock, it was almost like they had just left. And then we even squeezed head-first through a small opening to get out of the dwelling and climb back up to the parking lot.

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My second tour was of the more often photographed Cliff Palace. This tour was less dangerous to traverse and we did not walk into the dwelling as much as we stood on a ledge built by the park service. It was still nice to be able to get so close, but in comparison to the other tour it felt much more touristy.

So if you’re ever in Mesa Verde take the Balcony House tour before they cancel them because some kid sticks gum on the wall or the average person can’t fit through the small opening anymore.

Posted by Velora 07:07 Comments (0)

Crested Butte and Black Canyon of the Gunnison

I’ve heard good things about Crested Butte: it was recommended in both my guidebook and in a magazine as a great little small town. And since they’ve also got a hostel, I decide to go. The hostel turns out to be the newest and largest hostel I’ve been to, and I have it almost all to myself. But the town turns out to be pretty much shut down: it’s too late for skiing and too early for good hiking and wildflowers. In the morning, I find all the stores and restaurants closed. It’s a bummer. But walking down the deserted street I notice that even if everything were open it wouldn’t be my kind of place. The restaurants are mostly either Mexican or pizza. The stores are the kind that sell $300 hiking pants and bicycles that cost more than my car. It’s too bad. Such a beautiful setting for a little town.

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I stop in the visitor’s center and take their advice on a local hike. At the trailhead is a sign warning that mountain lions were seen in the caves at the top of the hill a couple days ago. I’m not terribly frightened of mountain lions, but when I get to the top of the mountain I see that the trail leads right in front of the caves, and the path is steep and slippery and muddy so that I can’t really take my eyes off the ground to make sure there aren't any mountain lions around. So I feel a little more vulnerable making my way past the caves, trying not to look like an injured deer as I slip a little. But once the danger is past I take a look back. The caves are pretty cool.

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The next day I come across Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. I’ve never heard of it. It’s a small park with a road along the rim of the canyon and a lot of pull-offs to walk out to the edge and snap pictures. The rock walls aren’t particularly beautiful in terms of colors, but there are a couple of ‘wow’ moments. One view is named Painted Wall for the ribbons of contrasting stone that band the cliff. Looking down at the vibrant green river way down below on the valley’s floor it’s hard to believe that such a deep canyon was created by such a small river.

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Posted by Velora 10:26 Comments (2)

Boulder and Rocky Mountain National Park

My first impression of Boulder is that it’s been overrun by the large mass of college-age kids and as a consequence is a town centered around two large shopping districts. It’s a pretty town though, and I do find some interesting things to do. For lunch I go to Dushanbe Tea House, a unique restaurant that was built by artisans in Boulder’s sister city of Dushanbe and shipped to the US. I have a delicious polenta cake topped with a spinach cream sauce, chicken and sundried tomatoes. The Ceylon tea I ordered was also very good, although I’m not sure that hot tea really matched well with the food. Then I continue my tea themed day by taking a tour of the Celestial Seasonings Factory. It was a pretty nice tour, with unlimited tea sampling and a walk through the spicy and fragrant factory. The original owner started the company in 1970 by collecting herbs and flora in the hills of Colorado to use in his teas. Now they order ingredients from all over the world to make their delicious herbal teas. I pick up a couple boxes of new varieties before I go.

I’ve seen a lot of beautiful mountains in Colorado, but I’m still pretty amazed when I see the rockies from Estes Park. They really deserve their National Park status. It’s the most beautiful and picturesque mountain range I’ve ever seen.

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I reach the gates of the National Park with the understanding that the main road through the park will be closed for the season ten miles ahead, but that doesn’t make it any easier to take when I hit the “road closed” sign. It adds a lot of driving in order to detour around it, and the road seems to end just when the scenery really starts getting fantastic.

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I hate to say it, but I decided to drive to the other side of the park before nightfall in order to make it to a hostel instead of dropping money on a hotel. As a result I didn’t get to hike on the eastern side of the park, but it appeared the trails were covered in snow anyway. The western side turned out to be much less jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I take a hike despite the snow. It’s a beautiful valley and the Colorado River runs right beside the trail (here it’s more like a creek). I’ve gotten used to hiking in snow. It adds a sense of excitement to it: you never know when you’re going to break through the surface and sink in. But I know that when my socks start to get soggy, it’s time to turn around.

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Posted by Velora 17:44 Comments (2)

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