I am a day behind. This post is coming from Lincoln Nebraska on our way home across the plains (BTW kudos to Courtyard Marriott for providing what I consider to be my first “good” Marriott service post COVID-19). Today’s post is mainly about yesterday. In planning our journey home, we decided to spend two nights (a full day) in Fort Collins for a variety of reasons. One: I have been to FoCo and Louise and River has not. Two, River really enjoyed a short tour of CU Boulder and I have good connections to CSU and would be pretty happy if they ended up there.
Three: Pies and beer. The day dawned smokey but fresh. Louise had work to do in the morning, so I worked on photos and generally catching up with my own work with the decent internet back down on the Colorado foothills. After that we headed to campus for the self-guided tour after a chat in admissions. They had a mockup dorm room which was a clever move by CSU as it allows students to imagine life on campus. We then followed that with an app guided tour. CSU is very impressive, amazing facilities. In Australia we do not get the same level of “fringe benefits” like the rec center at CSU. I know I would very much like access to the climbing wall, gear rental and swimming pool. River did accuse us of enjoying the tour more than themselves a few times (they may have been right). Tour done we headed to a place I was introduced to by my good friend and collaborator, Brenda: The Waltzing Matilda. GREAT pies. I checked with Louise, and we agree this is the most authentic Aussie pie experience we have had outside of Australia (and that is a good thing). What pleased me more was seeing how River wolfed down their pie. You can take the kid out of Australia, but you can’t take the Aussie out of the kid. Next stop, albeit recently commercialized by a corporate takeover, was New Belgian brewing. I love the beer garden set up they have. So communal, beer, dogs, kids, and open space. Very Colorado. Back to the Residence Inn for a last night in Chicago. Catching up on email, writing yesterday’s blog and getting my head back in the game.. And, again, more looking at properties in the Lake County are.. Yes.. I think this thing may happen.
We decided to spend two nights in Fort Collins to give our Child a self-guided tour of the CSU campus. This also mean pack up day at the cabin could also include taking the longer route from above Twin Lakes to our hotel in Loveland. The quickest way to Loveland was the way we came from Boulder, along the major artery that is I70. But how could a trip to Colorado be complete without visiting a National Park? So We discussed our plans Tuesday night and decided to take the long way around. Going via Granby and up via the Trail Ridge Parkway in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). I did not know it at the time but this drive would take us through the absolute gem in the National Park system (and yes I capitalized that on purpose), the trail ridge parkway, or US highway 34 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._Route_34.
Before I talk about the amazing part of the trip let me first say the trip from Silverthorne to Granby was really no more than a race across rolling plains like Iowa and Nebraska. Albeit with some amazing geology but the landscape had been raped and pillaged. Not an issue unique to America form my world traveler point of view.
Anyhoo, back to Highway 34. This unassuming tarmac starts as a turnoff near a gas station in a dry valley just before Granby and climbs to reveal a massive reservoir replete with signs thanking fire services (stop burning carbon if you want to thank them, did I say that???). It is clear the residents had much to thank folks, professional and volunteer for. Scorched earth backing up to verdant green surrounding property. Something very Australian about this scene.
RMNP started with burned out fee stations and trees burnt and bent by fire forced winds. The underbrush was not spared, and it was clear parts of the park were in for a long recovery.
Turn outs and picnic stations taped off like a crime scene (like? Perhaps as a crime scene). Grassy glades were spared and provided a lush contrast against the black. Made all the more inviting for the death and destruction around. Fortunately, dear reader, things did change. First I will talk about something more pedestrian, the speed limit. In RMNP the speed limit ranged from 35 to 45mph (56 to 72 km per hour for my antipodean (and the rest of the planet) friends). With the overwhelming majority being at the former lower limit. This lower limit protects the wildlife, allows stopping for roadside safari and generally creates an atmosphere that encourages savoring rather that gluttony. As you may perceive I wholeheartedly relished this state-imposed slowdown.
Just after we finished though the sad burnt forest, we did a sharp right had turn with a 20mph warning sign with a number “1” denoting the first of many switchbacks. We climbed, stopping occasionally for wildlife, the views got better and better with glacier scarred valleys and peaks. In the end we had company of fellow travelers including a wonderful group of bikes who allowed locals and immigrants to pose on their bikes for photos, completely heartwarming. We hit the continental divide at Milner pass where we were treated to an alpine tarn full of anglers on floats. We thought, at 10, 759 feet (3279 meters, a full 1051 meters or 3448 feet than the highest point in Australia’s mainland) we were done with climbing… Oh no. The road pushed on to the tree line and above. What followed was the US Government’s attempt to introduce the public to the awe and majesty of nature. Successful I do hope and if not those whose hearts are not touched by this unique landscape are truly lost. Majestic peaks, resilient tundra, ice fields, crepuscular rays.. We hit 12,209 feet. Higher than the 12,095 of the Independence pass. Out highpoint for the journey. I could go in. It’s all there! A John Muir sampler box. I could go on but it is nearly 9pm the day after and I have 500 miles plus to put in tomorrow so I will let the numerous pictures in this post to the talking for the miraculous journey we had yesterday. More to come!
Last full day in the cabin. We will be eternally grateful to our friends for letting us stay here. No, more than that, offering the cabin to us when they heard we were planning a Colorado trip. They have managed to find a slice of heaven up here at the top of this nation. I will not go into details as I wish to respect their privacy but there are some awesome stories about this land dating back to the gold rush.
Our last day here dawned ominous. The radar showed heavy rain above the Sawatch range. Of course, radar coverage is pretty terrible here in the Rockies, one reason the Department of Energy is deploying its atmospheric observatory to Crested Butte (I’m an investigator on that!). Anyhoo, I digress. Radar and satellite showed current rainfall moving away from us, but new storms were popping up and we decided to scrub our walking plans and really enjoy the cabin and our friend’s property to the fullest. First task was to clean up our wood pile. We had all been enjoying scavenging fallen dry timber from the 5 acres we had been staying on. While a lot of the wood rots and you should leave this alone a lot of it is suspended on rocks and other trees and is just fuel for a fire, be it intentional or unintentional.
Fun around the cabin.
So, clearing clean fallen timber is a good thing. Of course, with 5 acres we barely made a dent! Today was also prime hummingbird watching day. Over the course of our stay, we had learnt more about our tiny, bejeweled friends and they had become more accustomed to us. I wanted to document the different species and, unlike earlier in the week knew they would let me get real close. So I affixed my very well used (20 odd years old) Nikon 105 macro lens to my not so well used Nikon Z7-II camera. The mechanical lenses do not autofocus with the new range of mirrorless Nikon bodies so it was full manual! The Macro lens allows a very close focus which is essential for these cicada sized birds.. Suffice to say I am super happy with the results. Louise got a batch of work from back in Chicago, so I continued to re-stock the cabin with firewood when I noticed a drone overhead. I followed it back prepared to ask the flyers, politely, not to fly over private land. Turns out they were hired by a local utility using LIDAR to look at what corridors needed clearing of fire hazards. Naturally I say, “carry on” and offered help. Louise’s work done the rest of the day was consumed with cleaning and making the cabin cozy for the next, very lucky occupants (and a little more real estate speculation!) Tomorrow. Off to Loveland!
Both Louise and I knew that leaving Chicago for two weeks would mean doing some work on the road. We are both at stages in our careers where, unfortunately, work can not go un-monitored for such a long time. I supervise a team at Argonne and always have on-going projects with deadlines. Louise, in her work, has a regular rhythm of deliverables for her employers main client, the US Postal service.
So, we were almost glad when the North American Monsoon (NAM) kicked into full gear yesterday. Gave us a chance to do washing, some cleaning and packing at the cabin and, today, a good hour plus at City on a Hill Cafe drinking coffee, eating cake and getting some work done.
And…. maybe a little real estate speculation on the side. Staying at a friends cabin has us wondering what the cost and logistics of owning our own little piece of Colorado would look like. We have fallen in love with the Twin Lakes and Leadville area. Of course we are completely spoiled as the place we are staying has an amazing slice of land. All dreaming at the moment but enough to leave our details with a realestate agent. Washing done, cleaning done and work done its time to head out for lunch! More soon.
It’s monsoon season in the mountains. Warm August sun heats the high peaks where the atmosphere is cold. This leads to unstable air and clouds and, if the upper atmosphere is not too dry, storms and rain. And the atmosphere is not to dry at the moment. This is good on so many levels, primarily it allows the high country to flourish and blossom. And it puts a damper on the fire danger. For visitors and locals alike, it means one needs to plan around the weather. I am no expert in Leadville local scale meteorology but through a 5-day in-situ study it seems that clouds build shortly after 8am, get taller and spread on ranges west and east of the Arkansas headwaters valley at around 10am, precipitation can start at around 11am with storms moving in after noon. The NWS had upped its wording for today (Saturday the 31st, last day of July) with stronger terms. Good forecast as it validated nicely, albeit later that forecast which seems to be a recurring theme, or, more on point, accurate with the probabilities assigned (a topic for a later post perhaps). Well, enough weather geekery! Seeing the forecast and discussing priorities with Louise and River we decided today was Kayak Day and we needed to go as early as possible. A call to Mt Elbert Kayak (can’t recommend highly enough) and we were booked in at open at 8. We made it to Twin Lakes at 7:30am, enough time for a Coffee and breakfast out of a WV camper. Delicious and a great view. Paul at Mt Elbert Kayaks was amazing. He made safety fun! He showed us the ropes (almost literally) and got our rental watercraft strapped to the Subaru. We were doing the full-on mountain life! The benefit of being up and out so early is the water was glass. The plan was to launch at the “Red Rooster” (no idea) boat ramp and paddle across the Interlaken “ghost town” resort for a snack. The same place I took some MTB photos earlier in the week! I suffered from some geographic embarrassment, not realizing we were in the west basin not the east of twin lakes.
It ended up as a happy mistake (vale Bob Ross) landing on an isolate beach for a rest break. Not a soul in sight but a screech from the trees alerted us to a predator. We were treated to what I think was a kestrel or some other hawk or eagle. Magnificent against the backdrop of the high Rockies (and uncapturable on an iPhone or all but the most expensive camera gear so this one is captured in our memories). Realizing our (my) mistake we headed out to the channel between the two lakes (Twin Lakes.. it is what it says on the tin) and headed towards the old town of Interlaken, made up of cabins of the well-to-do who wanted to enjoy mountain life (history, it seems, repeats). Now home to bats and a welcome rest stop for hikers, bikers, and paddlers alike. There is something special to a place that cannot be reached by vehicle. Pardon my arrogance, but the filter to the lazy means only those that put in the effort can reach the special places and this keeps them quite and nice. We enjoyed a very pleasant lunch of salmon bagels, cliff bars and water and boarded our craft for the paddle back. It was close to 11am and, as predicted there were some impressive clouds developing on Mt Elbert. Only a matter of time until they have overcome mid-level dry layers and “gone deep” producing rain and, much to my worry, graupel inside the clouds and lightning. Also, as those clouds were rising, they were sucking in air along the Saguach range (of to which Mt Elbert belongs) creating winds across the lake. So we headed back with a cross tail wind and some fun waves (but no mirror surface).
Back towards the channel with the full fetch of the wind across the east basin we had some small waves that were sometimes a hindrance and sometimes a fun benefit providing a bit of a surf. Through the channel the waves ceased to be part of the picture. Just as we approached the boat ramp the rain was starting on the southern shore of the Twin Lakes. We quickly hauled out and dropped out kayaks back in Twin Lakes. A highlight of the trip and as you, dear reader, can see from the photos, a spectacular, indelible memory for life. Arms sore, souls, again, very full we turned to fulfilling of the belly. And, boy, was the weather turning! Our luck was amazing (funny how clever folks are lucky). Back into Leadville and on the race across the Arkansas headwaters valley the atmosphere let off some fireworks with storms exploding all around us. With a couple of stops with Louise and River enduring the fact that, when the sky delivers, I am always on the clock we headed into Leadville for some chores and some great beer, food and company at 2-Mile-High Brewing. Don’t go looking for bowing and scraping service at this establishment. Beer was good. Not a fan of the larger, that need some work. All the ales were excellent, and food was great grub. Atmosphere was kind of the “Anti-Aspen”. I hope Leadville continues to value the down to earth nature of places like these. It attract folks like me who seek an authentic mountain experience.
Today was a sampler of some of the best of the high parts of Colorado. Pure mountain biking, pure Colorado “highways” and Aspen, a pure (albeit touristy) mountain ski town. First, the mountain biking. Herein follows a review of the Turquoise (LINK) lake single track just out of Leadville. MTB project touts that the reviews and rating are submitted by local riders. I do not doubt this is the case for the blue rated out-and-back 6 mile (so 12 mile if you do it out-and-back) trail along the north shore of Turquoise lake but it shows a rider who considers themselves to be “blue” (intermediate) based out of Leadville are far more skilled than us flatlanders from the midwest.
The trail starts very easy, some rocks to navigate but plenty of space to prepare and recovery from the feature. I say this is mountain biking (specifically XC MTB) at its purest as, even though the trail is maintained (no erosion etc) zero attempt has been made to make the trail “flow”. Totally un-artificial and I rode it to see the amazing landscape unfold as it can only do on a loop. Some parts were a joy to ride, and some parts were technical, some other parts got gnarly where you did not have a clean run at a feature and you had rock gardens followed by rock gardens so you could never really get back on balance and some part were hike-a-bike for all but living legends. If you take at the MTB project link above you will see the peak in the middle, that is where most of the hike a bike is. The rest is ridable by any solid intermediate rider who is used to the trail and elevation. This intermediate rider is NOT used to the elevation and was riding it blind so more than a few flubs of a run up to a rock garden forcing a walk to get started. Louise will be happy to learn that there were no spills today. So, to answer the question: Was it worth it? Do you like technical rocky sections? This is for you.
Do you prefer flow but are willing to suck it up for world class views? It’s worth it but judge your risk tolerance carefully. Good news, the whole trail has cell service for your significant other to send the authorities your way, as always set a “no contact panic time”. Are you familiar with the world class views Leadville has to offer and love the flow and think pushing your bike is for chumps? I would say avoid. Let me put it this way: I chose not to do the out and back again, opting to take part of the Leadville 100 route and then turn off for a mad descent to the dam wall and where I parked. Strava file here: Link .
Arriving back at the cabin we discussed priorities. The weather was forecast to close in so we opted that this afternoon would be Aspen. We climbed the Independence Pass again (discovering it was named for the, now ghost, town of Independence. This time, instead of stopping and turning around we descended the other side. The road down on the Aspen side is very different. It starts a lot mellower than the Twin Lakes side but quickly narrows, a lot! The story on the Twin Lakes side was avalanche scars. On the Aspen side it is rock falls. This means the road narrows in several spots to a one lane road with some unwritten rule making it work. Crazy there are not more issues (perhaps there are but we witnessed none today). Aspen sits at around 7,900 feet, the air felt so thick! First impressions: Wow, parking is a challenge. Asking a local he directed us to a road on the edge of town which connects to Aspen’s wonderful walking trail system. The forecasted weather was arriving so we hot-footed it to our destination: Aspen brewing and tap. Great beer, amazing pizza, phenomenal WIFI and pretty steep prices. Yes, Aspen is not Leadville.
It caters to the well-to-do. However very nice for a treat. And it was great watching the storm rage outside over the mountains enjoying the best pizza I have had in ages. All that was left to do was wait out the storm, head back to the car and enjoy a spectacular drive over Independence pass watching the clouds roll off the pine-covered slopes back to the cabin. We asked and the mountains derived pure majesty today.
For our third full day in the high country the main goal was outdoor cooking. We love cooking on open fires. In the Rockies this comes with special responsibilities as the area is very prone to wildfires. Dry air, a preponderance of downed timbers, landscape and winds all mean it is everyone’s responsibility to prevent fires.
This meant always having water on hand, dousing the area around the fire pit with water and always keeping an eye on the fire danger (high) and attending the fire. The preponderance of timber also was a fun opportunity: making our favorite butter chicken on a fire made entirely of scavenged downed timber (added benefit of, even if insignificantly, reducing the fuel load. I use the New York Times recipe with some twists, and I also greatly increase the cooking times in the Dutch oven. This means the chicken thighs start to fall apart.
Soon highway 82 was replete with aromas of turmeric, ginger, garlic, cumin etc… To top it off Louise prepared dough for naan which we threw in a cast iron pan on the coals. They were perfect. And while lunch (plus dinner, plus what will be snacks the next day_ was cooking I wandered around and snapped macros of the amazing wildflowers on Lois and Bob’s property.
Tummies full and the fire well and truly out (and hands washed after touching the coals to make sure it was truly out) we jumped in the car and headed for today’s outing: Independence Pass! When we were in Breckenridge a few years ago we discovered Louise is particularly prone to altitude sickness and her “line” is around 12,000 feet. So heading up to the pass at 12,112 feet, 3692 meters for the metrically inclined, we took it easy. This meant stopping at many of the turnouts to enjoy the view. It was worth it!
The view from the pass is spectacular. On the way back down, we stopped at a trail head and did a very short (~2km) hike enjoying alpine flowers and bubbling streams. I find it amusing that a quick trip to 12,000 feet somehow makes the air at 10,000 feet seem that much more breathable!
First let’s talk about last night… As we played Trivial Pursuit the day turned into night and just before bed, we went outside to see what the sky had to show. We were not disappointed! I grabbed my camera and headed outside. After learning more of the Nikon Z7-II’s settings I finally had it set to bulb and grabbed a very nice long exposure. The blurring is from the earth (or sky, depending on your perspective) rotating. Hoping to get a longer shot with star trails before the end of the trip.
Wednesday dawned bright and clear and it was time to test the red blood cell count and go mountain biking. Bob told me where to park. He also warned the single track on the southern side of the lake got challenging with rocks.. It did! But it was fun. All but a hike a bike section I could have and really should have taken the short cut around. Really testing the skills, heels down weight back letting the Yeti SB100 soak up the impacts.. Loving it. Oh and the views! Doing a loop meant you had views that were constantly training. Now those red blood cells, still need more of them until I am fully acclimatized. Started out of breath, got into a good rhythm then got tired and sloppy so took a few breaks to collect myself. Ride finished with some short sections on highway 82 (uphill slogs) and some nice flowy sandy single track to the car. Click HERE for Strava.
Soul fed it was time for the tummy. Gathered up Louise and River and headed to Leadville. First priority: Coffee. Destination: City on a hill. Good coffee, awesome vibe (lightning fast internet!). Second priority: Calories, protein and taste. Destination: Casa Sanchez. Arm sized burrito comes out (the Chipotle one for those who know) I think “no way I am going to finish that”. 20 minutes late my plate is mysteriously empty of said burrito. After a provisioning for tomorrow’s slow cooked butter chicken it was time to head home via Twin Lakes. We stopped in at the general store, a classic example of never judge a book by its cover. It looks a little rough from the outside but is a paradise for nature seekers inside. Home now, winding down and getting a bit more organized (ie finally organizing all the stuff we just dumped when we arrived). What will we do tomorrow? We will decide then!
I could not tell you the last time I genuinely felt delight. Not “oh that is nice” but genuine delight. There were a bunch of things today, our first full day in the cabin, that were nice, fun, phenomenal, awesome etc… But the delight came from… Hummingbirds. More on that later. We are staying, courtesy of a kind friend, at 10,000 feet above Twin Lakes Colorado.
Let me put that in perspective: The highest point in the lower 48 is Mount Whitney in Ca at 14,494 feet. The highest point in Colorado and the second highest point in CONUS is Mount Elbert which casts a shadow over the cabin, at 14,439 feet. The highest pass in the USA is Independence Pass at 12,095 feet, a mere 3 ish miles up the road from where we are. The air is rare. This is a special place. Dawn came clear and cool. After 1,300 miles of travel, we still had unpacking and organizing to do.
Once the cabin was ship-shape Louise and River went for a walk up an old ore mining rail line to explore and get some views of the valley and surrounding peaks while I fiddled with the solar powered 4G connection (again, more on that later, it is a sad/good fact with all that is going on I can only take a 90% vacation. With great opportunity comes great responsibility). The cabin we are staying with is replete with history. Appropriate given its owner who is the master of.
One thing Bob did not tell us about until we rolled into his property was the Hummingbirds. He pointed out the feeder and said they were fun to watch, and keep an eye on the orange ones, they are bullies. We had seen a Hummingbird or two on our property in Chicago and were mesmerized by them. We do not get Hummingbirds in Australia. They are endemic to the “new world” of the Americas. Louise refilled the feeder with “Aussie Strength” food and the party got started. From being amazed by one lone feeder coming in we were soon delighted (yes, there is that word) by a spectacle of what we coined “Jewelry birds” (we also had Taser Bugs… I will leave that to the reader’s imagination). What a perfect day to rest and build red blood cells in our acclimatization to the roof of America in what truly is a paradise.
Today was the day. Time to stop being a mile high and become two miles high, the drive from Boulder to Twin Lakes just outside of Leadville. But first I decided I wanted to ride the Yeti up Boulder Canyon. It was meant to be an easy ride to acclimatize to a reduction in oxygen.
For the Aussies Boulder sits at around 1,600m, so bottom of Thredbo. Rode easy up the canyon enjoying the river and unfolding vistas until I got to the end to the path and was checking the map when a local Boulderite came past (fit and as beautiful as they all are) and told me about some of the local trails. He failed to notice my considerable girth and directed me to a local dirt road (mainly closed, not the realm of hikers and bikers).
Well, present me is sending some huge gratitude to past me for starting my training months ago. The road was lovely, starting in dense pine forests and tight switchbacks which allowed me to look up the hill and see the climbing to come. Initially I said “lets ride until 7:15am and make a judgement call then” then it was 7:30, then 7:45.. Views just keep getting better and better so the ride ended up much more epic than intended. Ended up climbing 460 meters to spectacular views at the peak of flagstaff mountain. And then there was the descent.
The features on the road to divert water flow, when hit at 20+mph ended up being super fun little kickers allowing some great jumps. Rolling back into the hotel it was time to pack and say “see ya later Boulder” and we hit the road for Leadville. Raced along the front range and hit E470, ripping through tunnels and seeing vistas at every turn. Our Subaru Outback, Ollie, took it all like a champ even when packed to the gills with stuff.
I could write pages and pages describing the drive. From the awesomeness of the avalanche scars to the monumental if somewhat of a crime against nature sight of the Climax molybdenum mine. We rolled into Leadville at just after 1:30pm, grabbing phenomenal sandwiches at Buchi Cafe Cubano. After that all that was left to do was provision at safeway and drive across the alluvial plain of the Arkansas river headwaters, through Twin Lakes to Bob’s (Bob the living legend Graham) cabin. Bob met us and gave us the tour.
I could myself as blessed beyond belief to have made to many friends since moving to the United States 11 years ago. Quality friends. Genuine friends. And I am grateful to Bob for sharing his slice of heaven with us. I will talk more about the cabin in coming days but, suffice to say, this is rarefied land. And, yes, the altitude is hitting us all very hard. More to come soon, including our mimo antenna set up to get internet, the slowest internet on the planet but enough to keep things ticking over. Greetings from two miles high.