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Dinosaur National Monument

As I mentioned previously I was heading towards the remote north western corner of Colorado. My destination was Dinosaur National Monument which is located on the border with Utah. But there was still long way to get there.

I just left interstate 70 and took Hwy 139 heading north. It starts as an unremarkable rural road serving local farming communities. But I soon left it all behind. Signs of human habitation quickly faded away and there was just me, the open road and the wild landscape. Traffic also quickly dwindled and there were times that I didn’t see a single vehicle for quite prolonged periods of time

It was the perfect driving territory and place where one could unleash the V8 engine. The road was winding gently through the rolling hills before reaching more mountainous territory at Douglass Pass, where it got properly twisted. After the pass the road went down again to a gentle and wide river valley. All this with minimal signs of human habitation, just some random gates here and there, most likely leading to waste local ranches. I stopped briefly in a few places to check on some Native rock art left by Fremont and Ute people and now protected by Canyon Pintado National Historic District. It might be a bit of a niche attraction but it was a good reason to break the long drive.

The town of Rangely was the first settlement after I left the I-70, some 70 miles (115 km) earlier. It looked like a typical dusty town up in the west and since I really wanted to find a motel closer to the Dinosaur NM there was no point of even stopping there. I took Colorado Hwy 64 and headed west towards the town of Dinosaur, another 20 miles away.

Despite its exciting name the town of Dinosaur is just a sleepy and dusty collection of buildings, with not much to see or do. I stopped for a quick photo of a sign highlighting the name of the town before taking the US Hwy 40 heading west towards Utah. The Dinosaur National Monument straddles the state boundary but the main access road is from the Utah side. So for my overnight stop I chose the city of Vernal. This “metropolis” of 10 thousand inhabitants was the largest settlement in the area and offered all the amenities I needed (motels, shops, fast food joints etc.)

It is worth mentioning that all those unremarkable settlements are surrounded by spectacular scenery. It is the American west at its scenic best. But the true highlight here wass my destination, the Dinosaur National Monument. Its visitor center is located around 25 minutes from Vernal and it was the place to start the visit.

The main attraction of the monument is the Quarry Exhibit Hall. To get there from the visitor center one needs a short ride on board one of the frequent shuttle buses, or a short hike. Now, what is the Quarry Exhibit Hall? As the name suggests it is bit of a rock face but enclosed inside a building. And this building is there to protect a truly remarkable collection of dinosaur fossils, left in-situ and partially exposed for the public to see. There are more than 1500 individual fossils in the rock face, despite the fact that many finds were removed over the years and sent to various famous museums around the world. The fossils date to around 150 million years ago and were deposited by an ancient stream. For anyone even remotely interested in geology or dinosaurs it is a fantastic place, one of the few around the world where dinosaur fossils are left in-situ. I have spent quite some time there admiring fossils of Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus and other species. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be specialist or even a geek, there are boards explaining the exhibits.

On the way back to the visitor center instead of the shuttle bus I chose one of the interpretive trails where visitors can see even more fossils as well as more fascinating geology in general.

This is the main attraction of the Dinosaur National Monument and worth spending a good 3-4 hours, but the monument covers a much larger and varied area. In fact from the visitor center I decided to head to some of its more remote parts. To get there it was necessary to get back to the main highway (US40) and drive back to Colorado where there is separate access point, a few miles east of the town of Dinosaur.

From the US Hwy 40 the very scenic 32-mile Harpers Corner road leads to the heart of Dinosaur National Monument’s canyon country. Multiple scenic overlooks offer fantastic vistas to the Green and Yampa river canyons. At the end of the road there is a short (1.5 mile) trail offering even better views. During my visit there was almost nobody there. At the end of the road there was one car which left as soon as I arrived so I had all this magnificent scenery all to myself. Only on my way out I passed another car (still, drive carefully as there is cattle roaming freely around). I guess part of the reason was that it was Wednesday in May, so still outside the main season. On top of that the weather was quite changeable, with ominous clouds threatening downpour. On my way to Harpers Corner there was even a dusting of fresh snow at higher elevations. For me it only added to the spectacular views but many people prefer picture-perfect sunny weather. It really is worth emphasising how scenic this area is. The canyon might not be as large as the Grand Canyon or as deep as the Black Canyon of the Gunnisson but the rock formations are equally, if not more, spectacular.

But in general this is remote park and nowhere near as popular as some of the others. And I like it that way. Nowadays more and more National Park Service managed areas are extremely popular and require advanced bookings to get in (like Arches NP). In that respect Dinosaur NM is refreshingly empty.

It was getting late and it was time to move. My plan was to reach Denver the following day so I wanted to be closer the the main highway. From Dinosaur I followed Colorado highways 64 and then 13 towards the interstate I-70 which is the transport backbone of Colorado. This was another spectacular drive through broad valleys and mountain ranges. This part of Colorado is very remote, scenic, rugged and sparsely populated. Driving across it is experiencing America the way I like it. One can admire the views but at the same time also have time to think. In fact for me driving time is one of the best “thinking times”. These are the moments when one is not constantly distracted by a smartphone, computer or even just reading. And driving in the American west is a very different experience than road trips anywhere in Europe, maybe apart from the northern stretches of Scandinavia. American roads are wide, empty and long, perfect for “cruising”.

Anyway, enough of that. Good things always come to an end. I just reached the I-70 corridor and in a sense was back to civilisation (and traffic) again. Next day Denver awaited.

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.