Santa Fe al fresco

Every tourist has his or her own motives for visiting places. While Santa Fe is rich in art, history and Native American culture, that's not what drew Rich and me to the area. It was the setting. The outdoors. The climate. And we were not disappointed.

Just before reaching Santa Fe, we stopped to see the Upper Rio Grande. We started off driving down the canyon on a small lane next to the river, when it suddenly occurred to us that we had bikes on the back of the car. A quick change in the campground and we were soon cycling instead of driving. Much better!

Rich cycling the Rio Grande
Rio Grande

From the start, we opted to stay on the outskirts of the city. We were attracted to a VRBO home which offered a peaceful and attractive rural setting. The unique aspect was sharing it with owner, Kevin. After years of staying in host homes while cycling, we welcomed the opportunity to meet new people and take advantage of their local expertise.

We immediately felt at home in Kevin's comfortable adobe house. Just being there was vacation enough for me. My favorite morning spot was on the sunny front porch with my coffee and breakfast. For writing, I retreated to the back patio. One of our best evenings was spent watching the ever changing colors of the sunset from the patio over a glass of wine with Kevin and Jen.

Our VRBO home

Saturday morning was Farmers' Market Day, and Santa Fe has one of the best. It prides itself on the requirement that all produce be locally grown and that those who do the growing are the same people selling it there. I indulged in one of my favorite ways to spend a morning, wandering among the tables with fresh coffee and scone in hand. Admiring the colorful produce and listening to local music was great home grown entertainment.

Santa Fe farmers market
Santa Fe farmers market produce
Santa Fe farmers market musicians

Rich's pick was the Randall Dave Audubon Center. We arrived before dawn for prime birding opportunities. I will admit to going for a run while Rich sought out new bird species, but I did join him to hike in the beautiful environs preserved by the Natures Conservancy.

Rich at Audubon Center
Audubon Center

In between cycling the local trails and countryside, we did make sure to get to the historic areas of Santa Fe near the Plaza. We especially enjoyed visiting San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in the country. We also ate well, sampling New Mexican cuisine and local organic foods thanks to recommendations from Kevin.

San Miguel Chapel

We went for the outdoors, and Santa Fe treated us to a record warm spell. With unrelenting sunshine and temps in the 70s, it was the perfect escape from the cold Northland. Every moment spent al fresco was a delight.

 

Warm Welcome in Durango

Homeward bound, we picked Durango pretty randomly for our overnight stay. But by the time we finished checking into our motel we were already pondering staying for an extra day. Nestled in the mountains of Colorado with the Animas River flowing through it, Durango exuded an outdoor persona that naturally resonated with us. The forecast for clear sunny skies and temps in the 60s clinched it. Vacation wasn't over just yet.

The warmth of the welcome we received from our innkeepers, Nigel and Tammy, set the tone for our whole visit. Their enthusiasm for the area was infectious, and we left their office armed with recommendations for runnng along the river, cycling up the hillside, hiking the trails for views of the city and their picks for the best food in town. We followed every one of them.

Molly hiking in Durango

As an encore to our active outdoor pursuits we took a drive up the San Juan Skyway. It quickly ascended into the mountains and became a narrow twisty windy road through two mountain passes with constant up close mountain views. Cut from the side of the mountain in 1880, it is considered one of the most scenic drives in the US. While it was 65 degrees when we left Durango, the temperature quickly dropped to 37 and we found ourselves in pristine deep snow territory. We couldn't have picked a better day for the drive, with deep blue skies as a backdrop to the mountaintops and dry pavement. In slick conditions, the road is treacherous.

San Juan Skyway 1
San Juan Skyway 2
Rich at Moran pass
Molly at Moran Pass

Not wishing to retrace our route in the dark, we traveled only as far as Silverton. The real dramatic experience is the passage between Silverton and Ouray, known as the Million Dollar Highway. Its unprotected cliff dropoffs are said to be entirely unforgiving of driver error, and the views equally dramatic. Since we had already fallen in love with the SouthWest, we added that to our list for a return trip.

Dinner plans became trickier the second night due to the weekend popularity of the vibrant historical downtown area. Noting open tables in Chimayo Stone Fired Kitchen, where we had an excellent meal the night before, we opted to repeat rather than wait. We felt right at home, being shown to the same table where Dave our waiter remembered our names. My Butternut Squash Risotto Cakes equally rivaled the Cauliflower Steak from the night before. Clearly my kind of place, and yet Rich was equally enamoured.

Throughout our stay, we marveled at Nigel and Tammy's hard work to restore an older motel. Our freshly remodeled room was evidence of their endeavors, and we were there to applaud when they raised the new Adventure Inn sign to signal the new name and identity. We left with a longer list of things to do and see, and a promise to return. You don't find hospitality like that just anywhere.

 

A Snowy Farewell to the Grand Canyon

I was sure this Grand Canyon story was finished. We had covered the Rim Trail from end to end, had stunning sunrise and sunset views, and witnessed an awesome rainbow display. Surely we'd seen it all. Our plan was to exit early in the morning and move on to our next destination.

Mother Nature had other plans for us. Depositing an inch or two of wet snow overnight, she provided an entirely new view of the canyon. Could this really be the same place we were cycling in 70 degree temperatures just a couple days earlier?

Bikes on snowy car
Snowy bikes at Grand Canyon

We made slow progress out of the park, as we stopped at every pullout to check out the view. Although the snow lay in thick layers on the trees surrounding the canyon, there was none down below.

Rich photographing in snow
Grand Canyon with snow 1
Grand Canyon with snow 2

Eventually the sun came out and shadows played across the canyon.

Grand Canyon after snow 1
Grand Canyon after snow 2

We were in no hurry. As long as the canyon morphed and changed in front of us, we were happy to linger. It was a long, snowy farewell to the Grand Canyon.

 

Grand Canyon on Our Terms

We did two things right on this visit to Grand Canyon National Park. The combination of the two allowed us to avoid crowds and have easy access to all the best vantage points.

The first is coming in March. This is shoulder season in the park, with many of the amenities just opening up for the season and service just gearing up for the upcoming crowds. There are plenty of people here, and at times the parking lots have been full. Lines for the shuttle buses exist, but it appears most riders get on the first bus that arrives. Restaurants are busy, but it hasn't been hard to get in. All we can think is “What must it be like in the height of the summer?” We are die hard off-season travelers. It has certainly paid off this time.

Molly and Rich at Grand Canyon

The second is bringing our bicycles. There are greenways throughout the park, enabling us to walk or cycle just about anywhere we want. We haven't set foot on a shuttle bus, and don't have to worry about car traffic.

Our bikes and Grand Canyon

A few portions of the Rim Trail are open to bicycles. We made sure to ride those. In addition, the road from Grand Canyon Village to Hermit's Rest at the western end of the Rim Trail just closed to cars on March 1. Shuttle buses own the road, but bikes are allowed. We covered that over the course of a sunny, warm afternoon, with frequent stops for the views.

Cycling at Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon view

This is definitely our type of tourism. We get to see the Grand Canyon on our own terms.

 

Grand Canyon under Siege

“Let's go rainbow hunting!” That was Rich. We were holed up in our modest motel room, waiting out the first rain of our trip. He had visions of photographing a beautiful rainbow arching over the Grand Canyon. I was skeptical. Rich has overly-optimistic tendencies. But it beat sitting in the room, so I took the bait.

Arriving at our favorite spot at Yavapai Point during a lull from the rain, the sun was glowing on the canyon formations while ominous clouds gathered overhead. Rich was quick to point out that while blue sky days are pretty, the more interesting shots come with unusual weather conditions.

Grand Canyon before storm 1
Grand Canyon before storm 2

Weather indeed was headed our way. The dark clouds behind us advanced with rumbles of thunder. Rain began crossing the canyon. While we were still dry, it was consuming the scene in front of us.

Grand Canyon rain starting

Raindrops and lightning ultimately sent us fleeing for cover and safety. Retreating into the nearby Geology Museum, we watched from dry environs. Then suddenly, there it was. Just like Rich thought it would be. A rainbow!

Grand Canyon rainbow

Returning outside, we watched as the rainbow extended in length. Where it would normally reach the ground, the rainbow continued to arc into the depths of the canyon. Spreading faintly across the entire sky, it completed well more than a half circle. Not only that, but a faint twin developed to its left.

Grand Canyon double rainbow

The other spectators echoed our excitement over this amazing phenomenon. We all knew we were witnessing something rare and special. We stayed on watching as the rainbow began to shrink. As the sun disappeared. As the storm grew closer again.

Grand Canyon storm

Soon it was obvious. It was time to run for the car. The Grand Canyon was under siege, and so were we. But for once I was glad I was swayed by Rich's instincts. Rainbow hunting indeed.

 

Grand Canyon Sun Painting

It's taken me 62 years to get to the Grand Canyon, and now I'm wondering why it took so long. Seeing it for the first time as we cycled along the South Rim, I was naturally awed by its vast expanse, the colors of the strata, its depth and the unearthly rock formations. Each turn gave us a different perspective, new views to behold. But it paled in comparison to what happened when the sun worked its magic on the canyon.

Near sunset, we toted our cameras and tripods to the overlook at Yavapai Point. It was already crowded with people, both photographers and those there just to bask in the view. Although most had already staked out their spots, we had no trouble finding a good vantage point as we planned to shoot in the opposite direction. While the sun performed its light tricks in the sky producing brilliant orange and red hues, to us the real display was on the canyon rocks. The further the sun sank the greater the glow on the peaks before us. That was the real show.

Grand Canyon sunset 1
Grand Canyon sunset 2

Morning brought a repeat performance. We returned to the same spot, first selecting an East facing view to watch the sun come up. It was more beautiful to watch than what I could capture with my camera. As soon as it crested the horizon, we skedaddled to another position to look West. As the sun advanced in the sky, increasing sections of the canyon were illuminated.

Grand Canyon sunrise 1
Grand Canyon sunrise 2

When the light began to wane, I set out on another tour of the canyon. What better place for my morning run than along the paved Rim Trail? Covering five miles out and then back again, I had beautiful views to spur me on. Both the 7,000 foot elevation and some steep sections of trail took their toll, but I had the perfect excuse to stop and catch my breath while snapping photos along the way. I can't think of many more picturesque runs I have done in my life.

Grand Canyon Rim Trail 1
Grand Canyon Rim Tail 2
Grand Canyon Rim Trail 3
Grand Canyon Rim Trail 4

We haven't even been here a full day yet, and already I think we have seen the best the Grand Canyon has to offer. The rest will be pure gravy.

 

Sandhill Crane Capital of the World

Kearney signIt’s a pretty audacious claim. But we were due to travel during the migration season and Kearney, Nebraska was not far from our route south. Rich the birder was naturally interested. And I was assured by others that even I would find it fascinating. How could we resist?

Over 80% of the world’s sandhill crane population funnels through Nebraska then fans out to the northern breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. They stop along the Platte River for several weeks to rest and build up their body fat before continuing their journey. At the Audubon Center in the Rowe Sanctuary, they report that the count for March exceeds 460,000 cranes to date.

The cranes spend the day feeding in farm fields throughout the flat countryside. It is at dawn and dusk that they fly between the fields and the river, filling the sky with clouds of birds grouping and regrouping in ever changing clusters and V-formations. It is a noisy process, as their cries fill the air in a roughly melodious symphony. Seeing the birds without hearing them is only half the experience.

Our first attempt to witness this aerial display is at dusk. I pile on my vest over more fleece, top it with a down jacket and add Gore cycling gloves, wool socks and hiking boots. Walking out to an old railroad bridge over the Platte River we find it already populated with other heavily clad birders sporting binoculars and cameras with lenses of unbelievable proportion. I stop between the metal side walls that shield me from the bitter wind while Rich goes out to claim a prime photography spot in the wide open span of the bridge.

The sun is low in the sky, lending a pink and red glow to the low hanging clouds. We wait for the birds to fly in front of the sunset and come in for a landing on the river. But they don’t. Clusters of cranes fly overhead, and there are undulating swarms in the distance. All heading to a more attractive spot downstream.  A lot of good-natured bantering goes on among those of us huddled on the bridge, taking the lack of luck in stride as the birds pass us by. Then one by one the birders peal off. Tomorrow will be another opportunity.

Believe it or not, I am the one who insists we try again at sunrise. Rich is disheartened by the dreary sky, but what is the point of being here without seeing the sandhill cranes I argue. By the time we work our way toward the river, we can see huge numbers of cranes already in flight. Situated on a dirt road adjacent to farm fields with brown remnants of crops, the birds come to us. They fly in from all directions, swooping and swirling. Sometimes they settle in the field momentarily then rise again in great volumes. Flocks of birds crisscross in the sky traveling in opposite directions, only to have one group do an about face and follow the others. The crowded acrobatics over our heads are all the more amazing for the lack of collisions that would seem inevitable; the cranes have their ballet down to perfection. And of course, it is all accompanied by honking overhead.

I leave the bird photography to Rich’s superior skills. His video best captures the experience.

Meanwhile my lens is trained on the photographer to lend the personal view.

Rich photographing sandhill cranes Rich watching sandhill crane migration

By the time the action dies down we can say we’ve seen the sandhill crane phenomenon. This time it truly lends credibility to the world capital claim.

Click here for additional videos on Rich’s blog.