I was now getting used to the pace a bit better, and decided to change up my plans again. I had originally planned to camp at the end of day 6 at Sand Island. Not (at all) because it looked like a cool place to camp, just because I thought I’d be pretty tired, and would only really make it that far. I recalculated, decided to shoot straight through to Moab at the end of the day, and went for it.
First up today was Mesa Verde National Park. This was actually something I was really looking forward to, as “ancient” cultures really fascinate me, and I’ve always been particularly amazed that people would be able to build entire cities in the faces of these cliffs, and survive out here in a really unforgiving place. I should have planned ahead a bit more and 1. realized how far the drive is from the entrance of the park, to everything you can look at, and 2. arrange a walking tour in amongst one of the cave dwellings. Since I did neither of those things, I felt a bit rushed, and had to settle for mostly just looking at the dwellings from the facing cliffs (luckily I picked up a pair of cheapo binoculars along the way which helped a bit). It was still a highlight though, and I got to see a bunch of dwellings, check out the museum, and learn a bit more about the people of the area.
One thing I saw in the museum at Mesa Verde that really stuck with me was the demonstration of how most common pottery shapes can be directly tied to the shapes found in traditional gourds (pictured above). Really interesting, and so logical in hindsight.
After getting lunch in the park, I was on the road again, headed down to Four Corners Monument so that I could take cheesy tourist photos along with everyone else (including the random woman featured in one shot below):
The monument itself is pretty weird, and feels super random. It’s out in the middle of nowhere (well, I guess technically it’s in the corner of four nowheres!), with scrubby, “desert” around it in every direction. You drive for a long, long time to get there, and then there’s nothing except this weird plaza, surrounded by small stalls. The stalls are (partially) filled with Native Americans who are selling trinkets and tchotchkes. It’s eerie. Then there’s a line of mostly-silent people, who orderly wait their turn to head to the center of the monument and take their requisite 3 photos each (as dictated by signs posted all around the center). Very strange.
Anyway, I got my selfie, touching all 4 states at once, so I guess now I have technically “been to” New Mexico (had not been before). I also bought some “Navajo Frybread” from a stall near the monument (mmm delicious and oily!) and then I was done. From there, I got back on the long, boring, flat, straight roads, and headed into Colorado again, then turned and was off into Utah.
I pretty much just drove right through to Moab, without really stopping. I think I pulled over a couple times just to stretch my legs, but didn’t really hang out anywhere. Once I got to Moab, I actually rolled right through, took a right on Highway 128, and started looking for a spot to camp for the night. The BLM maintains a number of campgrounds along this scenic byway, and since they’re first-come, first-served, I was hoping to get a spot not too far from town. I got pretty lucky and found a decent site in the Drinks Canyon campground, perfect for one small tent. I paid my $15, set up for the night, and enjoyed some pretty epic views from right on the banks of the Colorado River.
Day Five started with a bit of a sleep-in compared to previous days. I was up and packed up pretty quickly (wanted to avoid any more rain), but was only moving by just after 8am. With some hustle, I was down to the trailhead just before 10am, and immediately cooking up some breakfast (re-heating yesterday morning’s leftovers, which spent the night wrapped tightly in foil, in the toolbox of the truck).
After filling up on food (and coffee), it was time to rumble back down the county road and get back on the highway. Another mountain pass, and I was headed over to Telluride. The plan had been to camp the night at Alta Lakes, but with rain hammering down as I entered Telluride, and the prospect of another wet night confronting me, I decided to just stay the night in town, and get a hot shower while I could. That gave me more time to explore and get out for a ride as well, so a shower would be very welcome after that.
I grabbed lunch at Smuggler’s, an apartment at The Fall Line Condos, and enjoyed a shower after the sweaty hikes up and back from Blue Lake. With most of the afternoon left, I decided that a good ride was definitely in order, so I took the (free!) gondola up to the ski area, and headed out on Prospect Trail, following along via the MTBProject app on my phone.
What a ride! It had some climb, a bunch of downhill, loads of mud, and a bunch of pretty swoopy twists and turns. It was great. There were some areas that were rutted and rocky because of the recent rains, but it was still awesome. There were even a couple of creek-crossings, which were extra fun on the fatbike.
After that muddy ride, I was in need of another shower (and so was my bike!). I cleaned up, and then spent the evening strolling around town, doing a little shopping, and getting more food. I ended the day watching some of the Olympics from my room, and then passed out pretty early.
Since check-out from the hostel I was staying in the night before was 10am, I figured I could get in a morning ride, and still be back in time to have one last shower. Turns out it was lucky I could get that shower, because the ride was a sweaty one, with lots of climbing involved. The views were amazing though, so it was all worth it. I rode around in amongst the Lower Loop and Lupine trails, which start (and end) right in town. Super convenient.
With the ride done, and all cleaned up and checked out, I grabbed some coffee and breakfast, and hit the road for Cimarron. I was kind of expecting to get lunch there, but this was another case of underestimating a small “town”, and in fact Cimarron is not even really that. There’s a general store there, but otherwise it’s basically just a campground, and then a huge dam. I hadn’t actually realized there was such an impressive dam (Morrow Point Lake/Reservoir), but it turned out to be a great spot for a little hike, and a little fishing. I didn’t catch anything (even though I watched a young guy catch and gut 4 or 5 trout right in front of me!), but it was a nice break from driving regardless.
From Cimarron I powered through to Montrose, where I stopped at Horsefly Brewing Co for lunch and a pint. Then it was back out to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to find my campsite and check things out. My site was pretty mediocre (next to an RV, no trees or anything really), but I booked it pretty last minute, so I was just happy to get it. The canyon, on the other hand, was incredible. I drove out to the end of the outlook road, and then hiked the Warner Point Nature Trail. From there I worked my way back through some of the lookouts. I liked Dragon Lookout the best (amazing view down the canyon, and of the “Painted Wall” with the “dragons” on it). On my last stop I met a recent college grad who was on an absolutely epic (and crazy) roadtrip that had already been going for a month. He was stopping all over the place, but driving hours and hours and hours a day, so he’d covered half of Canada and the US, and had done something like 10,000 miles already.
Luckily I had stopped in at the Visitor Center, so I knew there was a night time session at the amphitheater that night, which I went and checked out. “Ranger Molly” put on a great session about the nightlife and stars and whatnot at Black Canyon, which was quite fun. From there I went back to my campsite, and was lucky enough to watch two different lightning storms off in the distance (in 2 different directions), without either of them bringing bad weather my way. The stars were stunning, and with very little light pollution in Black Canyon, extremely bright.
On the morning of day 2 of my roadtrip, I woke up early (about 6am) and packed up camp so that I could head to the dunes. I didn’t end up going all the way to “High Dune”, since I wanted to get moving, and wasn’t really hanging around for that long. I’d like to go back and try going for a hike deeper into the dunes though, maybe even camp in there. Camping would be tough just because you’ve got to carry everything, and hike through sand.
After the dunes I headed east through Monte Vista, on my way up to Crested Butte. I stopped off at North Clear Creek Falls (apparently Colorado’s most-photographed waterfall) to stretch my legs and take a look, it was pretty impressive. Rio Grande National Forest also looked pretty amazing, and I’d love to get back there and spend some more time on the river/in the park. Between the dunes and Crested Butte, I got a surprise when I came across a small group of guys on horses, in full Civil War regalia, riding down the side of the road. They were part of some sort of small town fair, but I hadn’t seen that yet. I also saw a dude dancing on the side of the road with headphones on, totally rocking out. It was a very Napoleon Dynamite moment. Here are some shots from along the way:
When I turned up in Crested Butte, I quickly realized a few things. First of all, CB is small. Like, tiny. Secondly, there was an arts festival going on (which shut down the main street of town) and thirdly, that Saturday night, in summer, is a bad time to turn up and hope to find some “last minute” accommodation. Being a cute little mountain town, it’s completely overrun on weekends. I called around all over the place, and the only accommodation I could find was a bed in a shared room in a hostel. Oh well, at least it had access to a shower.
Since I was a bit early for check-in, I went for a walk through town (and through the art festival), and grabbed some much-needed lunch at The Last Step. Then I could check in, so I went to get a quick shower (glorious), and claim a bed. I also met Kelsey, who was staying at the same hostel, and works for the Forest Service. We ended up hanging out in the afternoon and getting drinks/food together, since we were both rolling solo. We went to Montanya Rum (delicious cocktails), Brick Oven Pizza, and The Dogwood Cocktail Cabin.
After a few drinks, and another long day, it was time for a quick shower (just because I could), and then crashing in my dorm room.
On the first day of the trip, I wanted to head south through Deckers to go fishing, and then get down to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The fishing in Deckers turned out not to be too great (and it was drizzling), but it was beautiful nonetheless. The water was also a lot colder than I expected, so I really should have brought my waders/boots so that I could have gotten out there properly.
From there, I took 67 and 24 down to Colorado Springs, and then I25 all the way down to Walsenburg. I was going to grab something “local”, but things seemed to be pretty shut/quiet, and I ended up just grabbing a burger at Carl’s Jr (barf) before heading out again. Heading west on 160 (some beautiful scenery along here), and then north on 150 took me to the Great Sand Dunes, which were super impressive. This is where I picked up my “America The Beautiful” pass, so now I have no excuse not to get out to more parks/forests etc.
I had originally planned to hike in the afternoon, and then camp at Zapata Falls Campground, which is a few miles outside of the dunes. When I talked to the rangers at the park though, they suggested that since I had a high-clearance 4WD (yay new Ranger!), I should head up Medano Pass Primitive Road a bit, where there are a bunch of first-come-first-serves campsites. I got there later than planned, so I was going to be hiking the dunes in the morning anyway, so this made a lot more sense (coming back that way already).
To be honest I was a bit nervous about heading up this road, because I’d read a little about it, and it sounded like some pretty serious 4WD-ing. I hadn’t even turned the knob to make sure the 4WD worked on the Ranger, and definitely hadn’t taken it off-road. I was also driving alone, and didn’t feel super prepared for if things got ugly (no winch, no high-jack, etc etc). But… YOLO. So I headed off, and it turned out to be relatively fine; some good mud, some sand, a couple of small creek crossings and I was into my campsite (site #0, right after you technically leave the park, just over 5 miles in on the road).
I initially grabbed a campsite a little further up the road, but after fatbiking up and down to the next creek crossing, I decided to come back to the the very first one, which was more protected and looked nicer. It was a pretty awesome campsite, although it had been raining pretty heavily (and continued drizzling) there, so everything was wet. Getting a fire going was pretty tedious and involved a lot of stoking and blowing. Eventually I got something to hold a flame though (albeit with a bunch of smoke), which gave me something to do in the dusk hours.
When we moved to Denver, one of the primary reasons was to be able to get outdoors and enjoy nature a lot more. Between moving to a new city, then buying and working on a new house, I didn’t actually feel like we’d done much of that, so this summer I planned to fix that. With a three month from sabbatical, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I planned to take a road trip, and combine it with a bunch of hiking, backpacking, fishing and mountain biking. I spent a week on the road, heading south from Denver, then across the bottom half of Colorado, into Utah, back up to I70 and across to Denver again. It was amazing.
This post series will cover each day in a separate post, and will break down that portion of the trip, the things I did that day, and the things I saw. Keep an eye on this post, which will link all of them together.
As chance would have it, in the weeks leading up to my Colorado River canoe trip, I managed to hitch onto another canoe trip. This one was a little more “extreme”. A group of us were going to Minnesota for a friend’s wedding, and so the plan was to get there early, drive up to the Minnesota Boundary Waters, and head out into them on canoes for a 4 day/3 night adventure. Apart from this being the first time I’d flown into a different state to go camping, I’d also be going with 4 people I’d never camped with, and canoeing into very, very remote wilderness, where we had to portage our canoe between lakes, and were beyond the reach of motorized vehicles of any kind (let alone cell phone reception).
TL;DR: It was an amazing trip, the BWCA is stunningly beautiful, and we all got along great, and had a fantastic time! Here are some highlights:
- Day One (Monday July 25th)
- Almost everyone else’s flights into MSP were delayed, which actually worked out OK, because it meant we all ended up landing at similar times (otherwise I would have landed a few hours later).
- We grabbed our rental car, loaded everything in (whoah, 5 people + gear in a single SUV!), and drove up to Grand Marais.
- Lake Superior is pretty incredible. The largest fresh-water lake on the planet, and apparently holds about 10% of the Earth’s fresh water!
- That night we camped in Cascade River State Park, which is just outside Grand Marais (technically in Lutsen). We got rained on a bit overnight and into the morning.
- Day Two (Tuesday, first day in BWCA)
- Drove into the Boundary Waters and got to our put-in point, Seagull Outfitters. After chatting with the folks there, we decided to try to get to Lake Ogishkemuncie (aka “Ogish”).
- We put in at Seagull Lake, and got turned around a bit in amongst all the small islands, so that instead of going along the North shore of Seagull Lake as planned, we got South of Three Mile island, and effectively tracked the South shore of Seagull. Oops — mostly my bad. The hardest thing about navigating was getting a feel for scale and distance.
- Once we realized what we’d done, we got on track, and had a better sense for the scale of things IRL vs the map.
- Our first portage was actually the longest one we’d have to do the entire trip, from Seagull into Alpine. It’s roughly 100 rods (portages are measured in “rods”, which are approximately equal to the length of a canoe). It was pretty flat, but there were some ugly muddy patches which made it a bit tricky. It’s also just rough carrying a canoe on your shoulders for any real distance. I think if I did it again, I’d go for a lighter weight kevlar canoe, even though you need to be a bit more careful with them.
- Not too long after that we had another portage into Jasper. Since we were pretty tired at that point, and didn’t really want to attempt another two portages to get to Ogish, we decided to base camp at one of the campsites suggested by the folks at Seagull, on Jasper lake.
- That turned out to be a great decision — awesome campsite, so we stayed there 2 nights.
- The next morning we got a little more rain, but nothing too serious.
- Day Three (Wednesday)
- On Wednesday we decided to day-trip over to Ogish and finish what we started. We realized it would have been a really long day if we’d tried to get all the way there on the first day, especially having to portage all our gear. Since we were base-camped, our portages were much lighter/easier this time.
- In the afternoon, Brandon and I tried our hand at fishing. My Tenkara rod didn’t yield anything, but he caught a smallmouth bass on his spinning rig (in addition to hooking himself pretty deep on the thumb!). We kept the fish and ate it that night.
- I also managed to pick up a bunch of leeches on my feet, I think perhaps while I was fishing and standing in the shallows. I thought I remembered that you’re supposed to burn off, so I used a lighter and did that (Note: you’re not).
- We slept at our basecamp again, and saw a little bit of the Northern Lights (green haze, some streaking). We also stayed up and checked out some amazing skies/stars, including a huge, clear view of the Milky Way.
- Day Four (Thursday)
- We needed to be able to get out of the Boundary Waters, and back to the Twin Cities relatively early on Friday, so we paddled back to Seagull and went looking for a good spot to camp there for the night. Our requirements were in Seagull Lake, past a certain point (closer to our take-out point), and on an island. After going past about 5 of our shortlisted spots and finding them all taken, we started getting a bit stressed out, but ended up finding a really fantastic spot on an island just off the south-west tip of Three Mile Island (which is itself within Seagull Lake).
- Along the way, we foraged for blueberries and raspberries while portaging, and had a delicious healthy snack.
- I managed to get more leeches. My guess is that they were actually camping out in my sandals, and that when I put them back on in the morning, they all just jumped on. Either that, or I’m just really unlucky.
- In the afternoon, after setting up camp, Brandon and I went out with his spinning rod and each caught a fish! We had them both that night as well, combining three of my “bucket-list” items — going on a multi-day canoe camping trip, camping on and island on a lake, and cooking a fish that I caught over an open fire.
- This night we were treated to another absolutely amazing sunset, and then the real spectacle — serious Northern Lights. We had all sorts of green glowing, streaks, flashes and swirls. It was absolutely stunning (even though I know it wasn’t remotely as intense as it gets sometimes).
- Day Five (Friday)
- Up early (about 6am) and pack everything up quickly so we could get on the water. There was some mist floating around when we set off which was pretty dramatic.
- We paddled out within a few hours, got back to Seagull Outfitters and unloaded everything.
- They have a shower-block, so we cleaned up a bit and loaded everything back into the SUV so that we could make the drive back down to the Twin Cities in time for a pre-wedding pool party!
This was definitely one of the most memorable trips I’ve been on, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. The Boundary Waters are a truly special place, and I hope we can maintain and protect them for years to come. I’d love to return for another trip there, and would hope that things were exactly the same as I left them.
This was my first ever canoe-camping adventure, and actually crossed something off my “bucket list” — going on a multi-day canoe-camping trip. I’ve kayaked a fair bit before, but have only been canoeing once or twice, and only on lakes, so in very calm water. For this trip, I was lucky enough to just tag along on something organized by Erika’s friend, Tom. He has actually done a very similar trip a few times before, so it was good to have someone who knew the score to point us in the right direction.
We rented canoes through Rimrock Adventures, so we put in at their location in Fruita, and had them pick us up and shuttle us back there (where we left our cars). I found camping in canoes really awesome, and it was closer to car camping than it was to backpacking, in that we could carry a lot of equipment (and beer), without it being a burden. Since we’d just paddle all day, then pull up to a beach-front campsite, we didn’t really need to carry things around much. We also didn’t even need to paddle that much, since the current of the river carried us a lot of the way. We actually had to watch our progress and make sure we weren’t going too fast, and pull over and take a break if we were! Unfortunately, at the last minute we found out there was a fire ban, so we had to keep our meals simple enough to be able to be prepared on a small stove. Bit of a bummer, but not much we could do about it.
The first night we camped at “Cottonwoods 4” campground, which turned out to be a mosquito breeding ground. It was pretty brutal. I’ve never been amongst so many/such aggressive mosquitoes. I don’t even normally get bothered too much, and they attacked me. Others (including Erika) got absolutely mauled. We had to dash back and forth to the tents/waterfront, to try to avoid the worst of it, and all ended up turning in pretty early just to escape to the safety of our tents. That day was our first on the water, and we saw a bald eagle aerial-dogfighting with another bird, battled some crazy canyon-windtunnel-headwinds, and lounged around in camping chairs literally in the river.
Up early the next day, quick breakfast, and bail out from mosquito-town. We got moving, all hoping that our campsite that night was less painful. As it turns out, it definitely was, although it was a bit of a challenge to actually get to. Tom had warned us that it involved some technical paddling to get there, just because you had to make some quick maneuvers across some small whitewater and fast-moving current. I think we were all freaking out a little bit, and so we scouted ahead, figured out exactly how we were going to tackle it, and then headed in, one boat at a time. It was well worth it. Such an amazing campsite. We had our own private, beautiful, sandy beach. Earlier in the day, we also saw an Amtrack train (the line runs right down in the canyon, next to the river) which was pretty fun. Apart from some wind around dusk (my tent blew away and rolled up the hill before I had it staked down!) there was absolutely nothing to complain about at this site. It was gorgeous.
On the last morning, we got moving and kept heading downriver. Towards the end of paddle-time (noon-ish) is when we got into some really flat/open, boring landscape. It was pretty amazing how different it felt to the breathtaking canyons of most of the previous 2 days. We found the take-out, unloaded, waited for our shuttle back to Fruita, then squared up, packed the cars, and headed back to Denver.
I had an amazing time, and it really set me up for my next adventure, a multi-day canoe adventure in the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area (more on that soon).