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Western Colorado

I woke up in a motel in Salida on a grey and gloomy morning. But the weather didn’t stop me from a stroll through the historic downtown. Salida was established in the 1800s as a stagecoach stop and later became a stopover on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. There are quite a few buildings listed on National Register of Historic Places which makes the ambience of the whole place quite pleasant. Eventually I met a family which was about to walk up the mountain dominating the town and I decided to join them. They were rally nice, especially once we discovered that we lived in some of the same places in the past. It was decent little hike offering splendid views of the town and surrounding mountains which dominate it. After reaching one of the viewing spots along the way I decided tu turn back as I had long day ahead of me. So I wished them farewell and walked back down to my car.

It was time to hit the road again. I took the US Hwy 50 heading out of town and drove west. Pretty much as soon as I left the town the weather got seriously bad. It was a mix of rain and sleet and eventually even snow, especially when I was crossing the Monarch Pass (elevation 3448 metres). But there were also some spells of better weather and luckily one of them happened when I was passing the town of Gunnison where I decided to stop for a brunch. The town had a similar “wild west” feel like Salida but had fewer historic building and looked like a more “down to earth” place. Still it is a base for some active tourism in the area so there were decent places to eat. I had a tasty and filling meal in a bar-cum-restaurant offering interesting fusion cooking. Pity I couldn’t drink as they had some interesting beers on tap as well.

From Gunnison I kept following the US Hwy 50. West of Gunnison the scenery opens up as one moves from the mountainous landscapes of the Rockies to the more open plateaus of western Colorado. But it doesn’t make views any less spectacular. In fact the stretch of tghe highway along the Blue Mesa Reservoir (on the Gunnison River) is very scenic indeed. Here I stopped for a break and decided to hike towards the Dillon Pinnacles. The return trail is around 6km long, quite flat, and allows one to see from up close some interesting rock formations. It is an ideal stopping point during a long drive. Unfortunately on my way back to car I really had to watch the weather as dark clouds were closing in.

Once I hit the road again the sleet and snow returned. At times the weather was seriously bad, with low visibility and the beginnings of snow accumulation. I started contemplating what to do next. Go straight to a motel and leave touring surrounding attractions for the following day? It was still too early for that. Seeing some breaks in the clouds I decided to take a risk and headed towards the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. I took Colorado Hwy 347 and started climbing towards the south rim of the canyon. There was a dusting of snow at higher elevations but it looked as my gamble might have paid off as the weather was clearing.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison was on my list of places to visit for a long time, just somehow it was never exactly on my route before. This time I finally made it and I wasn’t disappointed. Objectively I have to admit that the weather wasn’t “picture-perfect”. The sky was grey and overcast, fog was obstructing the views from time to time and it was impossible to take some of those stunning shots which you can share with friends. But nonetheless I loved the atmosphere. For a start there was hardly anyone in the visitor centre or on the short trails towards the overlooks. And the fog was creating a strangely magical atmosphere but at the same time the views were not completely obstructed (as I was fearing on my way there).

I followed the South Rim Road stopping frequently and admiring the views down to the canyon. Black Canyon of the Gunnison might not be as deep or as wide as the Grand Canyon but it is still more than 1km deep and incredibly narrow, in some places only 12 m wide. It makes for a very steep canyon indeed, with sheer vertical walls of rock in many sections. The South Rim Road eventually ends at the “High Point”. From there I followed one of the hiking trails which opened even more spectacular vistas, including towards the west, out of the canyon, where the landscape opens out considerably. I have to say that Black Canyon of the Gunnison is very spectacular and worth a visit, even just a short one.

But is was time to get back. I wanted to reach the town of Montrose and find a place to stay before it got dark. Just as well I did. The weather overnight wasn’t great, with heavy rain and cold wind. Luckily I got some decent local brews from a nearby liqueur store, ordered takeaway pizza and watched a NBA game in my motel room. I really like such low key “down time” during my travels around America. Not all holidays must be about chasing attractions or staying in “cool” places. In fact I enjoy staying in random motels in not so touristy towns. Prices are low, there is no pretence, no fake smiles, it is easy to blend in as yet another travelling worker etc. I really had a good evening, especially as Toronto Raptors beat Milwaukee Bucks.

The next day weather seriously improved and the sun was out. I headed north-west from Montrose towards Grand Junctions, but my destination was not the town itself but yet another natural attraction, the Colorado National Monument.

It is effectively a national park in all but name, and deservedly so. This National Park Service unit preserves some interesting geology as well as local mountain and desert wildlife. But it is definitely the geology which is the main attraction, in fact, as some say, it is a true “rock formation galore”. The easiest way to see the area is to follow the Rim Road Drive which winds its way through the whole unit.

I joined it at the eastern entrance and immediately started climbing via multiple hairpin turns. Once the road reaches the plateau elevation it is relatively flat but not boring at all. In fact it is one of the most spectacular drives I have ever done. Along the route there are a plethora of stopping points, each offering a better view than the previous one. It is virtually impossible to stop taking photos as the rock formations are truly spectacular. Despite the small size of the park the rock formations are very varied. There are pinnacles, canyons and sand dunes, to name just a few, in red, orange, yellow and grey colours. There are also short trails leading to even more spectacular vistas than are visible from the road, probably the best of them being Coke Oven Overlook (named after rock formations which resemble, no surprise here, coke ovens).

Because all of the viewing points and trails one can spend a long time in the park. In fact it took me the better part of the day to drive just 23 miles of the Rim Rock Drive. I just kept stopping for yet more photos, at every turn, twist and overlook. Eventually I reached the visitor centre located close to the west entrance to the national monument. Here I had a longer break before heading further north (confusingly the western entrance is more in the northern part of the unit then in the western). This short stretch of the scenic road is probably the most spectacular and if you have limited time this is the bit I would recommend.

Eventually it was time to leave the Colorado National Monument. I briefly joined the interstate 70 heading west before taking Colorado Hwy 139 heading north. I was going towards probably the least visited and most remote corner of Colorado. But why? Well more about it in the next instalment.

Colorado Springs

After a few visits on the eastern side of the American continent I was really craving the wilderness of the west. So when last year I spotted reasonable priced tickets for direct flights to Denver I didn’t hesitate a minute and booked my holiday.

I arrived in Denver one afternoon in late May. After going through the usual arrival shenanigans I got my rental car (a nice V8 powered Camaro) and headed straight to Colorado Springs where I decided to start my adventure the following day.

And I started it early. Due to the time difference after arrival in the US I’m always up early, at least for the first few days. It was bitterly cold morning as it happened to be unusually cold spell for that time of the year, but I still got on may way promptly as I had a busy day ahead.

First I headed to Pikes Peak, a massive mountain which towers over Colorado Springs and seems to dominate the town. It is one of the most prominent of the peaks in the Rockies, rising to 4302 meters above sea level (over 14,000 feet) and around 2500 meters above Colorado Springs. It is also one if the highest points in the US where one can actually drive to the top. I went there first because the weather was changeable and I wanted to use the good weather window while it lasted.

Pikes Peak Highway is one of the most famous roads in America and one that I had wanted to drive for a long time. It is a 19 mile (31km) long toll road with well over 150 turns. Unfortunately during my visit it was impossible to reach the summit as the cold spell I mentioned made the conditions on top dangerous and the road was closed above around 4100 meters. But it was still damn fun to drive, even if “only” to that point. And the views from the top section were absolutely amazing. To the north, west and south hundreds of peaks of the Rockies still covered in snow and to the east endless prairies as far as the eye can see.

Here I would strongly recommend admiring the views while stationary as the road doesn’t have guardrails and the drops are very long in some places. At the top (I mean as far as possible to drive that day) I got out of the car for a short walk and to take a few photos but it was incredible cold and windy. After 2 or 3 minutes my fingers where basically numb. It was time to drive back stopping in a few more places for some more photos. At the end of the steepest section every car has the brakes’ temperature measured before being allowed to proceed back down towards Colorado Springs. The Pikes Peak Highway definitely didn’t disappoint me.

Next on my itinerary was the United States Air Force Academy located around 10 miles north of Colorado Springs. As much as I like aviation technology and military history (couple of years ago I even visited the Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota) the reason for my visit here was actually the architecture.

Entry to the academy grounds is free but one has to pass through a quick security check at the gate, including providing an ID and answering a few questions from the guards. The main academy campus, located a few miles from the gate, was designed and build in the early 1960s in the modernist style and makes extensive use of aluminium on building exteriors, suggesting the outer skin of the aeroplanes. The architecture is so distinguished that in 2004 the Cadet Area of the Academy was actually designated a National Historic Landmark.

The buildings in the Cadet Area are set around a large, square pavilion known as the Terrazzo. They are low, with clean modernist lines and large windows. They don’t try to pretend to be “rustic” or “rural”, like many mountain developments, but yet they really fit the expansive surroundings of the academy which is set in the tranquil foothills of the Rockies and covers some 75 square kilometres. In fact it all resembles more of a headquarters of some hi-tech company in California, say in Silicon Valley, than a military establishment.

But the real masterpiece (and at the time of construction a very controversial building) is the Cadet Chapel. This was in fact the main reason for my visit in the academy as I wanted to see it since I first saw the photos online. The chapel is truly stunning but difficult to describe. Still let me try.

From the distance it might look like a very large and sophisticated tent, but come closer and its details begin to show. Suddenly “the tent” becomes a space ship. The main corpus of the building consists of 17 dramatic spires which are clad in aluminium and which tower over the nave. Apparently there should be 21 of them but the number was reduced due to budgetary constraints. The frame of the entire chapel is constructed out of 100 identical tetrahedrons, weighing five tons a piece. Each of the tetrahedrons in the chapel is coloured according to a pattern, some with clear aluminium and others with vibrant coloured glass. Oh, in case if you don’t know, tetrahedron, also known as a triangular pyramid, is a polyhedron composed of four triangular faces, six straight edges, and four vertex corners. Yes, I had to google it myself when I read the information panels during the visit. Basically it is a shape of the PG Tips tea bag (for the British reader).

Inside there are two levels. The spectacular upper level is the protestant chapel while on the lower level there is a catholic chapel, a synagogue, a Buddhist sangha and an all-faiths room. The protestant chapel is absolutely fantastic, one of the best interiors I have ever seen. So different from the Gothic cathedrals of Europe and yet somehow having the same soaring effect. The geometry of the space alone could blow your mind away but then you have to add the magical light due to stained glass windows. They are narrow but running through the whole height of the interior and give the place of worship a spectacular palette of deep blues and pastels when light shines against the roof. It really looked more like a Star Trek interior than a church. And I absolutely loved every minute inside. But after checking the academy gift shop it was eventually time to move on.

Before leaving Colorado Springs area I wanted to have a stroll around Garden of the Gods. This over-the-top name applies to the red rock formations located a few minutes drive from downtown Colorado Springs. It is in fact a municipal park after it was donated to the city at the beginning of 20th century by the previous owners. The main features of the park are the rock pinnacles formed of red, pink and white sandstones. Originally the sediments were deposited horizontally but subsequently the layers where flipped on the side, tilted, and then they eroded heavily giving us the current narrow but elongated rocky “fins”. There are multiple trails snaking around the area, some circle around the rocks, some lead through the narrow passages, it all creates kind of monumental labyrinth. It is all fun and photogenic. The only problem were the crowds. I was there on Sunday afternoon and the place was full of people. It took me a while to actually find a parking space at one of the multiple car parks along the one way road system. So after a brief stroll a decided to move on.

Now it was time to start the proper adventure. As much as I enjoyed Colorado Springs (which I definitely recommend as destination for a short visit) I came to Colorado to explore the wilderness of the west. For that I had to leave the populated foothills of the Front Range and head further west.

As soon as I left Colorado Springs and took Colorado Hwy 115 things got calmer again as traffic dwindled to a trickle. This is the American west the way I like it. Open road, big sky, breathtaking landscapes and low hum of the V8 engine. Especially the stretch of US Hwy 50 alongside Arkansas River that offered some amazing vistas and fun driving. I could go on like that for hours but as the evening was approaching I decided to stop for the night in the town of Salida. The following day western Colorado was awaiting me. More about it soon.

Buffalo

Maybe I should start with an explanation why did I go to Buffalo in the first place.

When I was visiting Toronto, Ottawa and surroundings in 2018 I decided to dash across the border to visit the US as I do like visiting that country (as anyone reading this blog might have guessed by now). Buffalo was conveniently located and allowed me to make a loop between Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo and back to Toronto.

But convenient location wasn’t the sole reason. I’m interested in the changes this region of the US, the famous (or rather infamous) “rust belt”, is facing. I had visited Detroit a few years earlier and I was curious how Buffalo compares with that more well-known metropolis. Especially after watching a video a few months earlier, which I randomly found on the internet, highlighting some positive changes and signs of revival in the city.

I crossed the border at the Thousands Island Border Crossing before heading via I-81, Oswego and some local roads (where I even got lost) towards Batavia where I stopped for a night.

Next morning I headed straight to Buffalo. My first stop was the disused Buffalo Central Terminal which served as the city’s main railway station between 1929 and 1979, before being abandoned. I had read about it earlier and really wanted to see it. To get there I had to drive through some rather rough looking neighbourhoods but during the day the area wasn’t feeling too unsafe. It was actually sad rather than dangerous. Lots of empty plots, once filled with houses, and Polish street names which highlighted the immigrant background of many past inhabitants of the area. The surviving housing looked rather poor and neglected.

The impressive terminal building really dominates the area. It is so big that it was in fact always too large for the city’s needs, even when 200 trains a day used it. The 17 stories tall office tower, with clocks on all four corners, resembles a tower of some Gothic cathedral more than a railway facility and dominates the rest of this vast brick-clad building. Unfortunately it is not in a great shape and it was closed during my visit. It is currently owned by the non-profit preservation group called Central Terminal Restoration Corporation. They occasionally open it for special events and try to collect money for renovation and reuse of this beautiful Art Deco structure. But I could still wonder around (ignoring some “no trespassing” signs) and take some nice photographs. I do hope they will eventually find good use for this building and it will be brought to life again.

From the Central Terminal I drove towards the Broadway Market. I was curious abou the Polish connections in Buffalo and I had heard that there were some Polish oriented shops and restaurants there. On my way I stopped to photograph at least two grand churches which were built in the heyday of the area, when it was populated by a vibrant immigrant population, including many Poles. Now these churches feel way too big for this area, especially in the middle of the week when their surroundings are basically deserted.

But there was a bit of life in the market, which was a bit surreal. I’m used to the vibrant Polish community in London. The difference with Buffalo is that the “Poles” there are mostly of the second or third generation but they try to keep some traditions and tastes alive. I actually ate decent pierogi at one of the stands and had a chat with some of the folks working there. Some of them have never been to Poland and didn’t speak any Polish. But the gift shop at the market had a better selection of Poland-related gadgets (including an impressive variety of T-shirts) than I have seen in many Polish gift shops, including at the airports I use in Poland. It was bizarre to say the least.

From the market I drove to the industrial areas along the Buffalo River, where it enters Lake Erie. What I wanted to see were the numerous grain silos which tower over the locality. Some are still working facilities, most are abandoned but some are creatively reused, for example the River Works complex, with restaurants, a brewery and leisure facilities. Then there is the Silo City, a collection of three huge former silo complexes which are now kind of abandoned but used for art projects, filming locations and tours. Unfortunately the tours had to be booked in advance so I could only look from the outside before a guard (looking more like an American hobo than a security personnel) politely but firmly sent me away. Those industrial areas, with all the silos are fascinating and a photographer’s dream. I could spend more time wandering around.

Anyway, after all this it was time to head to downtown to see how the core of Buffalo really feels. I checked myself into hotel, left the car securely parked there and went for a proper photo exploration.

Downtown Buffalo is actually quite pleasant and has a lot of interesting architecture. But there is only one place where one can start a visit, the Buffalo City Hall. This fantastic Art Deco skyscraper has 32 floors and it was constructed between 1929 and 1931. It might well be one of the most impressive municipal buildings in the world. Its façade is adorned with plenty of symbolic decorations and fantastic details highlighting industry, agriculture and history, depicting workers, farmers and pioneers. And the interior looks like something straight from a Batman movie set, with even more elaborate details. I loved it. On the top floor there is a free viewing platform accessible to visitors during the building opening hours. It offers an amazing panorama of the downtown, the harbour, the silos, lake and the surrounding areas, including all the way to Canada. It is good idea to head there first to get a good spatial orientation of the city.

On my way down, while checking my phone, I realized one can also visit the Common Council Chamber. I asked at the reception and they told me the relevant floor and recommended just trying if the doors were open. They were, and there was absolutely nobody inside. The chamber is as splendid as the rest of the building, full of symbols and decorations and with the impressive decorative stain glass skylight in the ceiling. It looks better than many state capitols or even some countries’ parliament buildings. But I felt it was enough of interiors. As the weather was glorious, it was time to head back outside.

In front of the City Hall there is the circular Niagara Square which is surrounded by some other important buildings, like the brutalist Buffalo City Court or the Art Deco United States Courthouse. In the middle of the square stands a monument commemorating president William McKinley who was assassinated on the steps of the city hall in 1901. A short distance away is yet another square, the Lafayette Squre. This one is dominated by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument commemorating “those who laid down their lives in the war to maintain the union for the cause of their country and of mankind“, as the plaque says. Many cities and towns in the North of the US have similiar monuments remembering soldiers fighting on the Union side of the American Civil War.

There are quite a lot of interesting buildings from the beginning of 20th century all over the downtown. Banks, departments stores, offices etc. It is all quite nice. It definitely felt better than one could expect reading stories about the decline of the rust belt. One of the most interesting buildings located on the Main Street is the neoclassical, Beaux–Arts style, branch of Buffalo Savings Bank. With its dome covered in gold it looks more like a temple than a bank. Not far away is located yet another historic skyscraper, the Electric Tower, a striking octagonal 14-storey structure clad in white terracotta and topped by a large lantern. I could list many more architectural wonders but it would make this little piece way too long. If you are interested in architecture from the golden period of growth in America, Buffalo is a great place to see many examples.

I continued my walk north. Eventually I left downtown and entered Allentown, a district located around a mile from the City Hall. It is a nice neighbourhood with a little bit of bohemian or even hipster vibe. Don’t worry it is not London, NYC or San Fran, it is all still unpretentious and actually quite pleasant, a place offering independent restaurants and a few galleries. All mixed with nice residential properties and leafy streets. I had a very late lunch there before heading back towards downtown and the lake.

Let’s not forget that Buffalo is located on the shores of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. The last part of the day I spent exploring the partially regenerated waterfront. Now, this being America, one hast to navigate areas under unsightly elevated roads from the 60s (here the Buffalo Skyway) but once on the lake the area is actually very nice. The glorious weather definitely helped the perception too. A popular attraction in this part of town is the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park where you can see ships (including a cruiser, USS Little Rock) and other military equipment. However tempting such things normally are for me, it was getting late so I skipped the military park and just had a stroll along the waterfront. I also spotted two small but intriguing memorials. One was the Irish Famine Memorial and the other highlighted Polish contribution in the WWII. This reminds you that America truly is nation of immigrants and Buffalo was hub for many of them.

In the early evening the area is a perfect place to admire the sunset and relax. There are restaurants and bars but I decided to call it a day and went back to my hotel. The following day it was time to head back to Canada and continue my trip. Toronto was awaiting for my first visit in well over 10 years.

Stay tuned.