Monday, Sept 14, 2020
After 2 weeks in Vernal/Flaming Gorge area, I left this morning heading south. I’ve spent the last few days trying to decide where to head. I didn’t want to head back north or west as that would just have me heading towards CA or Oregon/Washington and fire country. Anything north in UT, WY or MT is at best hazy with the western fires. Denver and East is not on my radar as I’d end up crossing the Rockies twice (going to spend some winter time in AZ). It’s still too early and hot to really head a lot further south. So it seemed like a good compromise to head south along the Rocky Mtns where hopefully the temps will stay below the 90’s and the smoke may stay further north.
There’s really no direct or semi direct road to the Fruita/Grand Junction and as shown in the above map, it’s a lot of mountain driving. Very pretty but not a lot of opportunity to take pictures. Then besides typical mountain driving there is a 20 mile or so section of steep southbound ascent followed by even steeper southbound descent with lots of hairpin turns. I think there were only a few places on the 10 mile long descent where the official speed limit was higher than 20mph. The road is narrow two lane and the drop offs aren’t life threatening, they are life ending.
The mapping program I use is set up for boat cruising and so doesn’t incrementally chart speeds above 20 mph. Below that speed, the route taken shows in different colors depending on speed. On the map above there is a small section which appears generally in the color yellow (a slower boat like speed). That is the Douglas Pass. A blow up of that area and color chart of my speed is below
I saw a lot of snow in Douglas Pass as well. Thankfully, none on the road. Well before the Pass there were some places to stop and look around. Additionally past the apex of the Pass there was a spot where I could see no traffic and could stop on the road and take a picture of the road below me where I would soon travel. That portion of the road shown in the pictures is probably only half way down.
I arrived in Fruita, CO, about 8 miles west of Grand Junction on I-80. I was unable to get a site at Fruita – James M Robb-Colorado River State Park Campground but did manage a spot across the road at the commercial campground Monument RV Resort but was only able to snag 4 nights. The main draw in the area is the Colorado National Monument (CNM), about 6 miles down the road.
Tuesday, Sept 15, 2020
This is my second visit here. I think I was last here, with Sharon, in 2003. Many travelers have never heard of CNM. It was awesome on the last visit and even more so today.
The highcountry of CNM rises far above the Grand Valley of the Colorado River at the edge of the Uncompahgre Uplift. The park is part of the greater Colorado Plateau which also includes wonders like the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands national parks. In many ways it reminds me of Bryce but without its multitude of hoodoos and of a smaller Grand Canyon. In all, you basically drive your car atop the canyon and look down vs Arches or Zion where most of the view is up above you. At CNM, for me, the road began at Fruita and ended about 27 miles away in Grand Junction after having completed a rough semi circle atop the numerous named canyons. Grand Junction could also be a starting point ending in Fruita. Either way, one will spend about an equal amount of time driving on the canyon side, or for me the wrong side, of the road.
The road, either way, is basically cut into the steep sides of canyon walls. I lost count, at 26, of the extreme hairpin turns. On the Fruita side there are two tunnels cut thru canyon walls and on the Grand Junction side, one. All three narrow and somewhat curved tunnels are 10’6” high on the sides by 16’ in the middle. When the road is not on the side of a canyon wall, it is a basically a ridge road meaning steep drop offs on both sides with little shoulder. For the most part, it seems the Natl Park Service ran out of guard rails. Since ones choice, as a driver, is to keep your eyes on the road OR drive off a 2000’ canyon wall, it’s a good thing that they built a lot of little one or two car turnouts and a number of real parking lots or else the driver wouldn’t see anything other than his/her white knuckles.
I must have aged some since 2003 ‘cause I remembered it as very scenic but didn’t remember how scary it was. I’ve never loved heights and the older me now has some balance, stumble and height induced weak knee issues. Even at the stops, I took my pics quite far back from the railing. There are many many miles of designated trails (46+ miles) some of which are from top to the bottom. I chose to walk about 1/2 mile on a short one thru the really pretty pinions and stunted junipers to the edge (or close) at Ute Canyon. Atop the canyon like that, the pinion and juniper trees showed what a hardy lot they are growing in the rocky and windy conditions. The ‘trail’ degenerates into whatever route you find thru the trees and on the way back I followed some footsteps in what I thought was the right direction and I got lost. I finally remembered I had my car fob in my pocket and pressed for the horn. Nothing. I walked further, this way and that and finally heard a very faint ‘beep’ which I followed and which eventually led me back to the Jeep.
I had one other most remarkable thing happen. On a steep climb, shortly after coming out of a curve and shortly before entering a hairpin, I saw a bighorn sheep crossing the road maybe 25’ in front of me. Now having seen one close up, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one before. It walked like it owned the road. Sadly there were no shoulders for me drive to/on so I had to stop right on the road. There was a vertical cliff across the lane on the drivers side and a steep ravine culminating in a humongous drop off on the passenger side. Thankfully, traffic is about 1 car from one direction or the other every five minutes. Unfortunately the sheep was off the road and down the rocky ravine before I could grab my iPhone and get a picture. One time in my life I get to see one in nature and I’ll only have a memory. It was magnificent! I probably stayed parked right on the road with my hazard lights on for 10 minutes or more. I got out and walked close to the road edge but it was gone. Where, I have no clue. As far as I’m concerned that ravine was so steep as to be impassible.
One other thing worth mentioning. I saw about a half dozen people who had lost their minds. I can only hope they’ve come to their senses. They were riding their bicycles! While I can’t imagine being able to make the climbs, I surely can’t imagine riding the downhills!! From the number of cars and RVs toting bikes, it appears that biking at 8,000 feet is a popular sport here. Go figure!
Tomorrow and Thursday will be easy days for me, I think. I plan to do some laundry, some grocery shopping and pick up some prescriptions between now and leaving Friday morning.