Saturday, October 8, 2011

Colorado and RMNP

Friend Matt had promised to drive us to Logan and showed up right on time at 6:30.  There was a nice rosy glow over the Tobin as we dropped into Boston.  Unexpected early-Saturday traffic held us up but we made it there in plenty of time to queue for jetBlue 493 to Denver, leaving at 8:30.  Security was a drag too, coffee and sandwiches near the gate were expensive, our seats were in separate rows, and the plane was packed.  But we got the seats straightened out and rode out all the hassles to the Denver International Airport (DIA), arriving through some extreme turbulence under a very low ceiling to a rainy-slushy cold day at around noon, Mountain time.

Picked up the large suitcase and small duffle we’d checked and then crowded onto the Hertz shuttle and rode it out into the desert that surrounds DIA.  Hertz was hopping and after a long wait in line they set us up with a red Toyota Rav4 named Red (see below).  We dashed out through the cold rain and snow, inspected Red for dents, loaded our stuff where we’d need it, set up the MP3 player we’d brought along in the hope that the rental would have a jack (it did!), adjusted the wipers, lights, defroster, and mirrors, and set off out Peña Boulevard to route 470 North at 12:15.

Digression About The Car – We’d test-driven the Rav4 when we bought our Subaru Forester last year and it was far from making our final list, but we were glad to have the opportunity to rent a car that’s so much like the one we’d purchased recently.  We thanked our lucky stars many, many times for its 4-wheel drive and safety features, its better-than-average visibility and mileage, and its room and comfort.  It had an MP3 jack and fine speakers, nicely adjustable heat/defrost, and piercing high beams for the dark nights we would encounter.  I really dislike the rear tailgate, the interior layout, the small rear window that can’t be cleaned, the gas-fill that’s poorly placed, and other details of the Rav4, but we dealt.  The name “Red” was obvious: Red Knuckles is from that area of the world and is a big hero of ours.

Cruise control was a must, since many, many hours were spent going at max speed, straight over rolling prairies.  Max speed for us was usually not much over the speed limit.  The interstates were 75 and I set the control at 80 and back roads over prairies were 65 and I set it at 70.  BUT … many, many hours were also spent going up and down and left and right and repeat.  And many, many miles were spent on roads where the pre-eminent thought was “Holy shit, if we leave the road here we’re dead!” (actually if we had driven off the edge of some roads we traversed we would have had time to tweet our last farewells before hitting the bottom).  I ended up passing a lot of farm vehicles and laden trucks, but some turbo-charged pickups getting 8 miles to the gallon passed me.  We saw a Camaro after being on the road for 6 days and realized it was probably the first “sports” car we’d seen … stood out like a sore thumb.  So what I’m trying to say is that when Google Maps said it would take me 5 hours to get from here to there, I was doing well if I could cover that ground in 4 ½ hours … that number probably gave me as much perspective as any other number on the trip did!  The Rav4 did fine through all this, it sometimes approached 30MPG and for the trip ended up at around 27 … not bad at all.

Geez, it was raining and the landscape was bleak.  Did people actually live here?  We followed Denver’s beltway, route 470, counter-clockwise around to the North of town through the clay hillsides and scraggly sage to route 25 North.  Followed that for 11 more miles (past the Lifebridge Christian Church on Gay Street) and then turned 90 degrees West on route 66 towards Longmont  and what would have been (if there had been any visibility!) the road that slowly and then rapidly rose up and up into the looming, snow-capped Rocky mountains.

We stopped in Lyons for lunch at Tacos Don Jose’s, an enchilada verde for Sarah and a guacamole burger for me with a few Colorado microbrews.  Route 66 had turned into route 36 and we had entered the Roosevelt National Forest by the time we got to Estes Park, waited through a long traffic jam probably caused by a car skidding off the road, and then crossed the Big Thompson River (that drains the highest Rockies East into the South Platte) and stopped at Safeway (7522 feet) to get supplies.  For us that means PB&J makings, fruit, snacks, juice, yogurt, beer, donuts, and ice … the kind of things you can put in your cooler (we’d brought our large foldable one) and will do for lunch and a snack or an emergency dinner or breakfast if need be.  The Safeway in Estes Park is a very odd store: some things that we consider basics (like apple jelly) were just not there, and the store was laid out like a maze.  I ended up asking the deli guy WTF the bread was and he gave me a two-fold look like: “Gee that’s a good point, people just might want to buy bread here” and “What are you asking me for, I’m the deli guy!”  He was not helpful, but a customer pointed me in the right direction.

And the beer selection was pitiful!  I thought Colorado was one of those enlightened places where you could get good beer without even trying that hard, but as it turned out you had to try even harder than in Massachusetts.  Once you wade through the Coors, Bud, and Miller you can definitely turn up good stuff, but you have to know where to look and the Safeway was not it (see digression on beer below).  We staggered out to the parking lot after this negative Safeway experience and ended up heading across the strip mall to the “apothecary,” where we actually found some good beer.  We asked about bear pepper spray, which we had been led to believe was common out there and that sensible hikers should carry, but it was not to be had.  “Just shout at them,” we were advised.

OK, we were supplied up!  Time to head for the mountains … unfortunately there was a glitch.  We drove through the impossibly crammed mountain-tourist sprawl of Estes Park to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center (a lovely Frank Lloyd Wright building) at Rocky Mountain NP.  We had hotel reservations in Grand Lake for that night and had plans to drive up their Ridge Road to their Alpine VC and then over the Continental Divide to get there, and we wanted to get some advice on hikes along the way.  We started to tell this to the Ranger in their almost empty main VC but he interrupted immediately: “Grand Lake?!?  But how are you going to get there?” he gasped.  As it turned out the Alpine VC usually stays open until mid-October and they said on their web site that it would close on the 10th that year; but it had been closed early because of the recent snowstorm, and the Ridge Road itself was impassable.  The vacation had started with a major problem; it was 3:30 and we had to leave right away for the long road around the Southern part of the huge park if we had any chance of getting to Grand Lake that night.  The Ranger told us it would be a 4-hour drive if we were lucky.

As it turned out, the biggest problem was that we didn’t have a good map and this Ranger knew the first third of the route well but not the rest.  But we had fun!  We started South on route 7 through the Eastern parts of Rocky (as the park is called by people around there) and started going up and down some hills through the spottily developed land clustered around its fringes.  We passed a herd of elk cows and calves by St. Mary’s Lake and snapped a picture of them, then kept on South, whipping left and right and up and down around the foothills of the Rockies.  The houses ended, the overcast cleared off, and the scenery just swept us away.  Rocks, ravines, long green valleys, clusters of tall evergreens, patches of aspens, and meadows of grass and sage surrounded us for mile after mile.  We turned left on 72, still South through Gilpin County.

One of the amazing things about the trip was the extremes of elevation we encountered and the rapid changes in it.  We’d experienced elevation changes amazing to us in Arizona and southern Utah on previous trips, but that was nothing compared with the ear-popping ups and downs we went through on this trip.  We’d flown in to DIA at 5431 feet and climbed quickly to the Beaver VC at 7840 feet from Longmont.  For some Massachusetts perspective, Greenfield is at about 200 feet elevation and Whitcomb Summit in Florida MA is at about 2172 feet (the top of Mt. Greylock is 3489 feet).  We would sometimes go up and down this distance several times in a hundred miles.  On our way South we went gradually downhill but were still up pretty high, and when we reached interstate 70 West, even this major highway had severe grades and had to switchback (gradually) to get up and down some hills.  So please bear with me for listing elevation figures for the rest of this narrative … you may have had to have been there to get the real point of them.

We negotiated the lovely mountain-valley town of Nederland and continued South.  Suddenly the beauty was interrupted when we pulled into Black Hawk and were shocked to be surrounded by busses, high-rise hotels, and flashy casinos as well as the steep hillsides.  Casino gambling had been legalized in this area and it was packed with the most garish stuff you could imagine, quite a jarring change from the wilderness!  We turned onto 119 here, following the Ranger’s directions, and this turned out to take us a long way out of our way to Golden CO (5675 feet) … a detour we could not really afford but that was amusing as we wound down and down and down a river gulch past cliffs held back with chicken wire and through tunnels carved in the rock while an endless stream of busses and every kind of car you could imagine struggled uphill on the other side of the road from the big city on a Saturday night so that these people could lose their money (see digression on gambling).

We finally got down to interstate 70 at 5:30 and kicked it up to 80MPH as the sun approached the horizon.  We stopped for maps in Idaho Springs and realized that we’d made a mistake in our route but were now back on track and on schedule, but of course still had to cross the Continental Divide on our way to Grand Lake.  As mentioned, 70 itself was a bit of a tortured road, but after about 30 miles on it we headed back North on route 40 through Empire, and then things started to get way interesting as we rocketed up into the sky.  The sun really started to go down, the almost-full moon peeked through the clouds, and the temperature dropped as the cliffs became more precipitous, the switchbacks became more hairy, and the snow started again and resumed piling up on the road like Winter had started and would never end.

We finally crested the Divide in Berthoud Pass at 11,315 feet.  We’d stopped at a turnout right before then for a few pictures and walked around the car to experience the airlessness.  Once I get up over, say 7000 feet, I start feeling the lack of oxygen and moving with more effort.  At over 11K this was drastic and I think any effort besides driving would have quickly given me headaches and other symptoms.  But concentration was required … now we were going downhill and we could be hitting ice patches around any switchback to add to the fun.  This was one of those times when we were very glad we had 4-wheel drive.  We got back to a barely acceptable elevation at Winter Park and followed the Fraser River North on the long and now dark road to Granby in Grand County.  There we took a right on 34 and started back uphill around Lake Granby and Shadow Lake towards the West entrance to Rocky and the small town of Grand Lake (8367 feet) just outside it.  We pulled into town at 7:15 and checked into the Bighorn Lodge after the circuitous, 172-mile trip from Estes Park.

After a bit of badly needed decompression we headed down the street to the Grand Lake Brewing Company (see digression on beer).  We had brought Winter clothes as well as Fall clothes, and needed them that evening (in fact, Sarah wore her Winter coat every day on the trip).  We shared a pizza, and then tromped back to the hotel for downloading pictures, posting to FB and blog, recharging devices, and then a sound sleep while the light snow came down gently through the night.

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