With the Dick Works family pounding the road toward Kansas bright and early this morning at 7 a.m., I got also got an early start on my self-prepared scenic tour of Western Colorado. The drive will be one of my most memorable, taking in some of the prettiest and most rugged sights in the U.S. The two major points of interest today were the San Juan Mountains and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, but the sinuous roads that weaved them together made the most impression, acting as perfect complements to the impressive geology over which they passed.
The first two hours were pure scenic pleasure, the early orange of the sun casting long, sharp and black shadows in the mountain valleys. Like the rest of the day, the first stretch passed through small mining towns, these still active with hundreds of coal cars lined along the highway, rising slowly up the curves of the mountains. I stopped often, amazed with the sun’s early shadows, but failed to get many good pictures. On one such stop, I wandered down to the parallel Crystal Creek, where a series of mysteries clouds of steam were pluming. Around each of these plumes, someone had stacked a circle of rocks, small dams creating natural hot tubs from the hot springs, seeping from the walls, from nowhere. I felt the water with a swift pass of a hand and it burned, very hot, from nowhere.
The first road would lift me up and over a series of passes, all relatively low elevation at around 8000 feet, but between each, the highway would eventually find the stream again, down around 5000 ft. and falling. Against a median guardrail I noticed a green Rubbermaid beverage cooler, the five gallon type, so I swung over and picked it up. It has lots of bruises, scrapes from its leap from the back of a pickup, I’m sure, but I think it’s in good shape otherwise — certainly usable, and that’s good enough for me. So it’ll be making the last bit of a ride home with me, a new traveling companion. Too bad it wasn’t a Coleman cooler, since that makes for a much better name than “Rubbermaid.”
My first intended stop was the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the south rim. But since the canyon is quite respectfully and repeatedly called “impenetrable” it was an 80-mile drive out of the way to get there. Fortunately, these eighty miles were some of the prettiest of the trip, closely following the weakening, but always impressive, canyon to the east to the Mesa Dam, the only crossing point (and not even close to the actual gorge). It was also extremely untraveled, only a few adventurous tourists making the long sinewy course, and almost no locals whatever.
At one scenic overlook, I met a guy from Pittsburg, Kansas — of course he mentioned he used to eat at a Mexican place in Humboldt, but couldn’t remember the name — whose friends and he make the ride to and around Colorado each year. He marveled at my trip as I told him I was having a hard time staying focused, not rushing straight home.
I’m not sure I was prepared for the Black Canyon. I had read up about it, of course, knew a dozen mind-boggling facts which I’ll set down here in a minute, but I was struck with an awesome sense of vertigo at my first look down the impossibly deep gorge, over 2000 feet at most points. The canyon is formed by some of the Earth’s oldest and hardest rocks — so hard the serious pounding of the river only erodes a hair’s depth per year, only an inch per century. And what’s more, the river that cut the canyon (for the past two million years) falls faster than any other river in North America, dropping 2150 feet in under 50 miles — that’s more than the Mississippi River falls in its 1500 mile journey from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. To put this in greater perspective, and this is the most fascinating stat to me, is that the span of the Arkansas River we rafted two days ago, fell something like 45 feet per mile. The Gunnison River drops an average of 96 feet per mile in the national park — a two mile stretch of it falls 450 feet!
The canyon is so sheer, so steep, and so rugged, that there are no trails along the bottom and passage by boat is almost never attempted (unlike the Grand Canyon, with its exposed layers, the Black Canyon is essentially one solid chunk of rock). I stopped into the Visitor’s Center and watched part of a video describing the early attempts to survey the canyon, most of which deemed it “inaccessible” and “impenetrable.” But in 1901, Abraham Lincoln Fellows and William Torrence floated it on a rubber mattress and said that an irrigation tunnel was feasible. Over four years, a 5.8 mile tunnel was carved, which still delivers river water for irrigation to the arid western Colorado deserts.
I headed back west, away from Kansas, for several miles to Montrose, so that I could drive the famed Million Dollar Highway, apparently one of the best-loved roads in the country. My guide described the road by saying that “no matter what you want from a scenic drive, the Million Dollar Highway has it in spades. Loaded with sublime natural scenery, historically fascinating and visually appealing small towns, and, most of all, sheer driving pleasure, the Million Dollar Highway more than lives up to its name.” And though huge thunderheads were forming out west, occasionally blocking the sun, I have to agree whole-heartedly, especially about the “sheer driving pleasure” bit. It was a fun ride.
The fun doesn’t really start until Ouray, when the highway leaps vertically from the small mining village, nestled in the valley. The two-lane highway, sans any guardrails, swirls through the San Juan Mountains, the wildest and ruggedest peaks I’ve seen in Colorado — “peaks” doesn’t even seem quite appropriate — with a very suitably cautionary 25 mph speed limit. The blacktop passes abandoned mine workings, rusting and rotting machinery, and back roads with gravel the size of softballs, jagged and loose. A mining company is undergoing some reclamation efforts to “clean up the water” which runs bright gold along the roadside, leaving its gold color on everything it touches.
The Million Dollar Highway (MDH) peaks at Red Mountain Pass, possibly the highest I’ve driven at 11,018 feet above sea level. There are several theories regarding the origin of the “Million Dollar” name — some suggest it was the actual cost of paving the highway in the 1930s. Some say it was first used after an early traveler, complaining of the steepness of the route, said, “I wouldn’t go that way if you paid me a million dollars.” Right. But the favorite explanation is that when it was originally paved, they used gravel discarded from the gold and silver mines — gravel that was later found to contain valuable ore, worth an estimated “million dollars.”
I had originally planned on taking a smaller road back towards Gunnison from Silverton, another small mining village where the MDH starts to fizzle out. But when I got there, I found out the “smaller road” was actually unpaved, and that I probably didn’t want to try to cross it with my car — I’d need four-wheel drive. And so, in lieu of backtracking across the MDH a second time, I pushed on southwards along the only route available, to Durango. The rest of my day’s driving, although lengthy, was rather unremarkable. It wasn’t terrible — not like the flat, endless plains I’ll have to deal with over the next two days, anyway. There were still mountains and exposed rock, tall Aspen and Fir trees, twisty roads and cute towns, but the thunderstorms from the west had moved in, thinned out, and turned into a thick gray sponge, soaking up all the prettiness from the landscape.
I stopped almost randomly at a national forest campground near the Wolf Creek Ski Area, once again on the western side of the Continental Divide. It is almost directly south of Snowmass — almost the exact same longitude — but I’m more in line with Humboldt now, a straight boring shot across southern Colorado and Kansas. I’ll spend the next two days making that drive because, although boring, I want to experience it, not fly straight through like I always have done. And so tomorrow’s ration is the rest of Colorado — a fair bit that I’m familiar with, direly familiar with, and assured will need no further exploring — and just enough of Kansas to say I’m there.
I’m terribly sorry I didn’t get Tuesday’s journal up yesterday. I tried, oh how I tried. I stopped at a few libraries and they were all having trouble with the new virus that is going around, I guess. I don’t know much about it — just saw a headline on TV the other night. But I wasn’t even able to find an internet cafe or equivalent either. So catch up on the past two journal entries and photos.