On My Way to Leadville

(March 7, 2008)

Sometimes I end up spending more time along the way than at my planned destination. On my Colorado Rockies trip last summer (June 28 to July 10), out of thirteen days on the road I only spent two in the Rockies, and on one of those it rained all day! But it was a successful trip nonetheless, improvising and exploring as I dodged bad weather and major forest fires. I ended up shooting a lot of places from my list - just not the ones that I had planned on, and have added new panoramas to no less than eight guidebooks.

My first night was spent at Pyramid Lake on the Paiute Indian Reservation north of Reno. You can camp almost anywhere along the west shore of the lake (though there are no facilities) and I was able to find a spot on a bluff top with no other campers nearby. So this trip began with a night of magnificent solitude , a great sunset, then an even better sunrise. Better entertainment than any casino-hotel in Nevada, as far as I am concerned.

Then I hit the highway and spent most of the day crossing Nevada to Salt Lake City. I had planned to revisit Temple Square and drive out to Antelope Island to camp, but the heat was oppressive and the air was polluted with smoke from forest fires, so I ended up in a motel.

But the day after that was great. First a couple of historic Mormon towns: the railroad town of Ogden, then Brigham City with the nearby Bear River Wildlife Refuge on the northern arm of the Great Salt Lake. The Salt Lake is a closed basin and in wet years the lake level rises, in dry cycles it recedes. There is an impressive new visitor center, replacing one that was flooded out a few years ago.

Late in the afternoon I got to Golden Spike National Historic Site. I expected not much more than a plaque out in the middle of nowhere (the railroad bypassed this area many years ago). To my amazement, when I got there I found the two historic locomotives standing on the tracks, nose to nose as in the famous photographs. They are replicas, very faithful ones, and had steam up ready to roll. You can stand on the tracks between them, directly over where the golden spike was driven. I barely had time to take a few different views, when they announced that the locomotives were going back to the train shed. So I hustled a mile down the tracks and shot them as they steamed past.

Some of the places I shoot are completely fortuitous, I just stumble upon them, or I see something intriguing on a map. It said "Thiokol Missile Exhibit" on the map near Golden Spike so I made a slight detour to check it out. It turned out to be a missile fuel factory, closed to the public, but with an impressive array of (dummy) missiles in front of the office building. It's a company with an interesting history.

Finding a cool and pleasant place to camp that night turned out to be a challenge and I ended up heading east into the Wasatch Range. I was pulled over by a state trooper for going 75 in a 50 mph zone as I came down the grade towards Logan. He let me off, presumably because I claimed (with total honesty) to have been distracted by the beauty of the view.

The next morning I went up to Tony Grove Lake in the Wasatch Range, north of Logan Canyon, named for the "tony" local elite who used to camp there. Then I followed the Bear River from Bear Lake south all the way up to its source on the north side of the Uinta Mountains, ending with the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway. Nice lakes and meadows but the most dramatic parts of the range are remote from any roads and not easily viewed.

There was a huge forest fire burning in the eastern Uintas, with smoke blowing east - directly towards where I was heading next. So I poked around the southwest corner of Wyoming for a couple of days. Fort Bridger is a fascinating bit of history, maintained as a state park. To camp I drove south to China Meadow in the Uinta Mountains, an area in Wasatch-Cache National Forest popular with locals and practically unknown to the outside world.

Evanston, Wyoming is an interesting old railroad town, which will be even more so when they finish restoring the locomotive roundhouse. This is rolling sagebrush country, thinly settled, with the original route of the trans-continental railroad running through it. Fossil Butte National Monument is famous for its fossil quarry and has an excellent visitor center, but what I enjoyed most was the road up to the mesa top.

Then south once again into Utah, the forest fire still burning, but the smoke blowing elsewhere. Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area was a surprise. I expected a red rock canyon, but not the adjacent high country - to get around the gorge the road climbs through miles of beautiful forest with extensive views, then drops dramatically to the Green River .

Next major stop was Dinosaur National Monument. The canyon of the Green River was scenic, but the famous dinosaur quarry was closed for rehabilitation, and the heat was intense. Some miles east I took the Harpers Corner Road that heads north from the tiny town of Dinosaur into the monument's backcountry. Another beautiful high mesa, ending with a short hike to a dramatic viewpoint above Echo Park, the junction of the Green and Yampa Rivers. I badly wanted to drive down to the river, but was feeling pressed for time - this was my Colorado Rockies trip, after all, and it was more than half over, with the Rockies not yet in sight.

On the way back to Dinosaur I saw lightning strike repeatedly in the flatlands below, then a column of smoke. It is not often that you actually see lightning start a fire (I phoned it in). I drove eastwards through rolling country, stopping for a great sunset (thanks to all the fires), then camped on the Yampa River at Deer Park in the eastern part of Dinosaur National Monument .

The next day I finally reached the Rockies at Steamboat Springs, where it began to rain and continued all day and night. But the next day the weather was clear and I made a loop through some of the best of the Colorado Rockies. First through the Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70, then back over the top on Loveland Pass and down past the Arapahoe ski resort.

West on the interstate again for a while, then south to Leadville. A very impressive and well preserved old mining town, free of the condo and resort development that has spoiled so many places in Colorado. Leadville was especially meaningful as I had just been reading Wallace Stegner's masterpiece Angle of Repose, a significant part of which takes place there.

From Leadville I crossed the headwaters of the Arkansas River) and headed west again, into the Sawatch Range and over Independence Pass to Aspen. I had intended to put some effort into documenting this interesting area, but Aspen was just too crowded and busy and I couldn't handle it.

Seeking a high cool place to camp I headed west and ascended Grand Mesa. This is an amazing and little known feature, a huge plateau of high country with desert all around. I spent the next morning exploring its little lakes in flowery meadows, and spruce forests .

The Lands End lookout at the southwest corner of the mesa was a CCC project, as was the road that zig zags up from the desert. A drunk driver had run off the road below the lookout just before I got there. The south side of Grand Mesa has a cluster of deep glacial lakes in forest known as the Land O'Lakes (silly name) with some beautiful aspen groves.

But the day wasn't over yet. On the way to my motel in Grand Junction I made the loop drive through Colorado National Monument. Some prime red rock scenery, but the air was smoky and the light just wasn't good. At Cold Shivers Point a young woman was sitting on the cliff edge past the railing, her feet dangling over the vertical drop, staring at her cell phone. I wondered if she was planning to jump, and if I should say something. But she didn't, and I saw her driving away a little later, so there was no drama after all.

My trip was almost over so I headed west on the interstate, with a short side trip to the petroglyph site in Sego Canyon near Thompson Springs and some road-side views of the San Rafael Swell country. It was smoky everywhere, but got much worse as I approached Salina, Utah. Sure enough, dozens of big fires were raging just ahead and traffic was backed up for miles. Over a hundred miles of Interstate 15 had been closed and I had to detour down the old highway along the Sevier River. But it worked out okay - I camped at Cedar Breaks National Monument that night.

This put me far from my original route (Highway 50 across Nevada), and fires were still burning to the north. So I headed across Nevada on the Extraterrestrial Highway, stopping at the Little A'le Inn for a beer. That night I camped very comfortably in the Jeffrey pine forest east of Mono Lake.

So, the trip to the Colorado Rockies was kind of a bust as far as the Rockies were concerned, but on the way there and back I saw: Pyramid Lake, Ogden, Brigham City, Golden Spike, Thiokol missiles, Logan, the Uintas, Fort Bridger, Evanston, Fossil Butte, more Uintas, Flaming Gorge, Dinosaur, Echo Park, Grand Mesa, Colorado National Monument, Cedar Breaks, and the Extraterrestrial Highway. Not so bad, after all.

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