Third Trip, Part 1: The Beginning, Boulder and Rocky Mountain National Park

Third. The traditional 2nd place loser. But this time so much different. This is the start of my third major American road trip this year. The biggest difference of this trip is I’ve taken the wisdom gained on my first two trips to make it even better. I spent August literally gearing up for this trip. I knew I’d want to take better pictures so I invested in a new camera.

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A Nikon D3200 to be precise. In the first week of its use I’ve been very pleased with the results I’ve gotten from it though I need to invest the WiFi chip to get the pictures from it to this blog as of post time. Unfortunately all the pictures you’ll see on this post will be from my phone.

At any rate, I’d been planning this trip since the end of the first trip I’d taken, as this is more an augmentation of the first then a permutation of the second. My planned route entails criss crossing the state of Colorado to all it’s National Parks and heading through southern Utah and northern Arizona to see the 5 National Parks and the various other natural areas in between. From there I’ll hit Vegas for maybe a day or two then head up to Great Basin National Park in Northern Nevada and cross the state to Lake Tahoe. From there I’ll slice through Eastern California into Yosemite, Death Valley and down into Joshua Tree. From the I’ll go back through Arizona into it’s parks and perhaps Havasu Falls. I’ll then tour through Southern New Mexico. To finish off the trip I’ll be driving to Big Bend National Park in Southern Texas before swinging back up to Wisconsin ideally sometime before Thanksgiving, perhaps taking Route 66. I’ll be seeing over 20 National Parks. Hopefully meeting many interesting characters along the way.

Without further aduie this is the first part of the story of my 3rd great American Road Trip adventure.

Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska the three states you have to drive through to get through to get to my first stop on my trip, Colorado. Summer driving has always been one of my favorite things. Nothing gets my blood flowing like loud music, the open road and the summer wind blowing in my face. Unfortunately, until you hit the Rockies in Colorado much of the drive analogous to this.

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Thus much of the first two days of the trip was spent behind the wheel. Regretfully I missed such landmarks like the World’s Largest Truck stop in Iowa (sorry Iowa, but I don’t need any votes in a Primary). I made it to the center of Nebraska in the first night of driving and it was POURING. The rain got so bad that no one but semis were going over 35 miles per hour. I half way thought we might be getting hit by a tornado at some point. Luckily I was able to safely get off the road and crash a few hours at a rest stop so that I could experience this Nebraska treasure:

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Thanks Nebraska… For whatever that is. The only other thing of note on the road were a few flipped garbage trucks. My Car, the Prius of course made it to Colorado in two tanks of gas, getting around 57 miles per gallon meaning the drive only cost me around $40!

When you first see the Mountains in the distance once you’re in Colorado you’re never quite sure if your eyes are playing a trick on you. You’ve been driving for hours on end seeing nothing but an endless flat horizon, but they they appear, seemingly out of nowhere to dominate the landscape. The closer you get the more their might over the land becomes clear. These aren’t just any dingy Mountains, these are the mighty Rockies. Carved from and formed from a fiery tectonic past they rise from the North American continent to form a barrier to the gateway of a wildly sector of the Earth, the American West. A place like any other in this world, where the beasts outnumber the humans and where harsh environments exist such that not even man is able to inhabit them. There was no better place than to start my third journey out west than the Rockies.

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To get into the Rockies one must first conquer the foothills. No slouch themselves, they reach upwards of 8000 feet in elevation, certainly not the epic 14,000 peaks that pepper the great state of Colorado but intimidating in their own right. No where are the Eastern Foothills of the front range more beautiful than Boulder Colorado.

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Boulder, Colorado sits nestled in the foothills, a city where it’s extreme proximity to the mountains lends to it’s very identity. It’s the last human outpost before one has entered the great Rockies.

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The people of Boulder are acutely in tune with nature, almost famously so. There are massive networks of trails right inside the Rockies which provide breath taking views of the city. My favorite was the ever popular hike to Royal Arch, a large stone archway sitting mid way up the foothills.

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The hike is difficult, but worth the endeavor. Climbing higher and higher into the thin semi Alpine air, your lungs gasp for breath far more often than they would at sea level. Once you reach the peak though you see what all the hard work was for:

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This view, which seems to stretch into infinity. Looking back, not only onto Boulder and Denver, but onto the entirety of Eastern American civilisation. This, the main physical and metaphorical delineation between East and West American, a land that carries the continental divide, is the very view of the East, from the West. Looking upon all that is behind you, you know what’s in front of you, the great and wild American West.

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A short distance from Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park, the Mountains so full of beauty and wonder it carries the distinct honor of being the National Park of the entire American Rockies. While driving towards the park from Boulder you start to notice the transition, no longer are the mountains mere presence the magnificence, but the wonderfuly pleasant and mysterious way weather other outside pressures shaped the Earth boggles the mind.

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One of my favorite stops in the park was the ever popular Bear Lake area. Here, you can hike to several different glacieted lakes with incredibly carved features that, only through millions of years of natural functions was nature able to form.

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Hiking about 10 miles will get you to 6 or so of the Lakes. When you get to each you are more blown away by their own unique beauty than the last.

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The Bears lake area truly is one of the more amazing in the entire Rockies. Blessed with such high peaks and glacier carved cliffs it’s the stunning section of the American Rockies this side of Glacier National Park.

Sleeping off the 10+ hours of hiking the day I had done before, I experienced a truly amazing sight,a Rocky Mountain Sunrise. When I rose early in the morning I was greeted by a truly amazing site:

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The sky was ablaze in colors I’d never seen before. I rushed to a nearby meadow to take a picture of the sun rising through the valley and caught a glimpse of what so many come to the Rockies to see:

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Oh, then there’s Gregory, the bird I developed a very brief but meaningful friendship with:

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I probably shouldn’t have fed Gregory that piece of cereal, but he was too cool to resist…

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To cross through the Rocky Mountain National Park, you must pass over Trail Ridge Road, which in itself is nothing short of an engineering marvel, completed in the early 1930s, this road takes you to the top of the Rockies. It scrapes the sky and has a uniquely harsh Alpine environment.  Viewing the vast expanses from my Prius you start to realize how mighty the Rockies are.

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The highway scrapes the sky with many portions over 12,000 feet in elevation you feel as if you’re on top of the world.

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The effects of being at such heights are immediately evident. The air has a chill to it, the wind howls, your lungs struggle for air but most importantly your bag of chips do this:

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The weather up here is unlike anything at sea level. Here thunderstorms can start at an instant and the cool air is already hard at work in September of ushering in another long harsh winter.

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Here, far above the timber line, there are no trees to slow the winds, they pierce you, seemingly instantly having no obstacles. Taking the time to walk from your car to an overlook can become a dangerous task even on the most docile seeming afternoons in almost an instant. Walking up these stairs to a view of seemingly beautiful afternoon turned into a race to the car to beat a soaking rainfall.

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Heading down off of the road, back past through the tree line, gives you a minute of relief, the air is thicker the wind does not chill you to the core with such ease, you are gliding downhill, into rapidly more favorable conditions for the human form to exist.

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Once done with the Trail Ridge Road, the road leads to an area known as the Coyote Valley. Leaving the valley brings you to the exit of the wonderful Rocky Mountain National Park into the small town of Grand Lake. As I sat on the banks of this great, ancient lake realizing though, I was feeling sad that I’d already crossed the first major landmark of the West.  As the sun started to fall further and further towards the horizon into the West I realized that it was not a moment to be sad as this was just the first in the amazing wonders of the West. These, the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the gateway to the wonders of the West, were the perfect start of a once in a lifetime adventure yet to come.

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