Monday, September 29, 2014

Monument Valley - A Photographer's Paradise

You've seen this place in countless movies and TV commercials... and for good reason. In Monument Valley you are immersed in spectacular vistas, impossible monoliths and mystical sensations. The photographer is tempted at every turn. 

The best time to take photographs is late afternoon and we were lucky to have a sky with interesting clouds. Here are a few examples of the fascinating terrain. It's not hard to get a great picture here. 

Monument Valley is on Navajo land and all of the tourism here is run by the Native Americans. You can take a guided tour in a large open truck (yuck) or pay a fee and drive the 17-mile dirt road in your own car. We opted for the latter to get more peace and solitude. 

This is our fourth visit to Monument Valley and we noticed a big growth in commercialism. There is a new hotel ("The View") and dozens of tour guides. Based on the number of foreign tourists, it seems that the Navajo have figured out how to market to Europe and Asia. Quite a contrast to the old days when you would pay the Navajo a few dollars and they would let you on their land. 

There is one hike available, a 3.8 mile loop around West Mitten. Interestingly we saw only a handful of people on this hike as most of the tourists seem to pile into the motorized guided tours. We really enjoyed the solitude and beautiful views and would heartily recommend taking this hike (bring lots of water - it's hot). 

Denise contemplates West Mitten from the Wild Cat trail
Denise on the trail with East Mitten and Merrick Butte
West Mitten looks much different as you circle it - the views keep changing. Here is a picture from the side.

I liked the clouds in this one - almost like a sail. 
Backlit with a halo around the thumb 

The hike took a bit less than 2 hours. We tried to get into "The View" hotel for dinner but they were booked with tourists so we had dinner at Gouldings Lodge. This was the hotel we had stayed in during our previous 3 visits. It hadn't changed... you don't visit Monument Valley for the food (enough said).

In the evening as the light was running out I took one more photograph. You've seen this one before - it's the "classic photo" taken from the patio of The View hotel and visitor center. 

Monument Valley is located on the Arizona/Utah border in the four corners region. It's a bit out of the way (Cortez CO and Farmington NM are the nearest cities) but it's worth the effort to get here.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Mesa Verde National Park

We really enjoy visiting Native American sites in the southwest and have been to many different ruins, but Mesa Verde is the most spectacular of them all. The ruins are very well-preserved and the National Park service does a good job of controlling the crowds to minimize damage and allow for good views.

The site is located at the top of a large table-top mountain (mesa). The Ancestral Pueblo people noticed that the soil at the top was much more conducive to farming and decided to move there around the year 700.  

The top of the mesa is green (verde) 
The Ancestral Pueblo people were good farmers and engineers, and around 1190 they decided to move off the top of the mesa and build structures within caves under rock overhangs. Nobody knows for sure why they did this, but these new dwellings were highly defensible and it might be that the original people wanted to defend their position from incoming visitors. This location also allowed them to build elaborate irrigation systems which helped combat the changing dryer climate. 

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde
The largest of these dwellings is called Cliff Palace, an apartment complex where about 54 privileged families lived. This is an elaborate structure with kivas and multi-story structures. You must take a ranger-guided tour to visit this site, and we took the last tour (5 pm) which provided good light and fewer people. 

Notice the kivas (round subterranean structures) used for religious and family gatherings

Cliff Palace has a prime location facing south (warmer in winter) and in a very defensible position. Here is a picture which shows how the tours operate. You can get up close and the ranger provides interesting commentary.

Tour at Cliff Palace

Well-engineered 3-story building
The people who lived here used to be referred to as "Anasazi". This term is not preferred by the current Pueblo people because it is actually a derogatory Navajo term which means "Ancient Enemy". We now refer to these people as "Ancestral Puebloans".  It took a lot of effort to change all the signs and there are still many places in the southwest where you will see the "Anasazi" term.

We also visited Spruce house, another outstanding example of a cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde. Here one of the kivas has been reconstructed with a roof as it would have originally looked. 

Spruce House where you can visit a reconstructed kiva
Unfortunately, some of the cliff dwellings including the right side of Cliff Palace are deteriorating due to rain water undermining the foundation. The ranger estimated that within 5 years there will need to be extensive reconstruction. This will have to be supervised by current Pueblo people because there are many cemeteries around and underneath the structure. I would recommend visiting Mesa Verde soon as they may have to close parts of the park to undertake this large project.

I will leave you with the famous mystery of the Ancestral Pueblo people. In the late 1200's they left these elaborate structures and moved elsewhere. This happened simultaneously in many locations around the southwest. Nobody knows for sure why the people left, but it's likely due to drought conditions and increased population. 

Mesa Verde National Park is amazing - go there. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Durango to Silverton Railroad

Silverton was a tiny mountain town until 1882 when the narrow-gauge railroad tracks from Durango were completed. It grew to a decent-sized mining town based on silver, and they were taking it out "by the ton." Today the mining has mostly been exhausted and Silverton is a small tourist town with a beautiful steam-powered train ride leading to it.

The train ride has many beautiful views, and you have plenty of time to take it all in because it goes very slowly. It's a 3.5 hour ride to Durango! We took the bus up the mountain (1.5 hour) and the train back - which is what I would advise to anyone unless you really want to be on a train for 7 hours.

Our steam-powered locomotive in Silverton

I would not want to be the guy shoveling coal
We splurged and took one of the first-class cars near the back of the train. The seats were very comfortable and the view through the roof glass was great.  

The train goes along the Animas river much of the way making for superb views. I was able to get a few good pictures as the train went around curves, and a couple of times the tracks traversed a narrow ledge above the river bank.

Along the Animas River

On the cliff overlooking the river 

It was a pretty amazing feat of engineering to build this in 1882, but the silver boom was a strong incentive. Today we tourists get to take advantage of their hard work!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes NP is a park with lower visitation, probably because it's kind of out of the way in southern Colorado near Alamosa. These dunes are big... the tallest in North America. 

The dunes are formed by the wind which blows mostly against the mountains and sometimes back the other way. They are constantly changing but always present. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park
We attempted to walk up to "High Dune" but the going was very slow... walk 2 steps forward and slide 1 step back. We made it part way and enjoyed the view.

Look closely to see 2 hikers walking on the ridge line
You can get an idea of the scale by looking at the photo above with the 2 hikers (left middle). They say that walking along the ridge is easier, and that may be true but it's still a slog. 

Part way up... the place was pretty empty
We happened by a sand-boarder
We gave up on the hike after a while and returned to our car. The view was nice from the campground and we decided to have a picnic. 

View from campground
We really enjoyed our visit to this different National Park. We liked the solitude and uniqueness of the dunes, and it's worth a visit if you are in southern Colorado. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Wheeler Geologic Area

While staying in Creede CO we rented an ATV and visited Wheeler Geologic Area. This is a very remote area in southwest Colorado which used to be a National Monument but was "demoted" because nobody showed up! The main reason that nobody came is because it's in the middle of nowhere and you need to take a 2 hour ride over a very rocky "road" to get there. Cars are a no-no on this track, and even Jeeps have to take their time. But we had no problem in our ATV!

I had never driven an ATV before and we had a blast! It was a beautiful ride over creeks, rocks, mud and dirt. Once we finally got to Wheeler, it was a 0.6 mile hike uphill (at 11,000 feet elevation) and the views were worth it.

At the trailhead

Wheeler Geology - similar to Bryce but a different color

Resting on the trail

After our hike we took the long 2 hour drive back in our ATV. Places like Wheeler must have been in the minds of those who wrote that ancient Chinese proverb...  

"The journey is the reward." 

Wheeler is a place that you have to want to visit because it takes determination. If that sounds good to you... go for it! 

Rocky Mountain National Park

While visiting Denver, we took a side trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. This is one of the big ones - high mountains, beautiful scenery and wildlife. We saw lots of elk, but unfortunately no moose (still need to check that box). 

We took a nice hike in the Bear Lake region and viewed a few alpine lakes along the way.

Nymph lake - RMNP

Dream Lake - RMNP
We took a drive over the the Trail Ridge road, which is the highest continuous paved road in the US (12,183 feet at it's apex). 

At the top of Trail Ridge Road

Pretty cold at the top - 38 degrees in August
We took the long way back to Denver over Berthoud pass (11,307 feet). I was glad we didn't have the motorhome going over that one!