Million Dollar Views

We arrived in Durango, Colorado by pure happenstance two years ago.  Today’s return was very deliberate.  On our last visit, we took a short drive on the Million Dollar Highway, a 70-mile stretch through the Rocky Mountains with hairpin curves surrounded by snowy peaks in all directions.  We vowed to return to complete the journey.

We were selective about our plans.  For days we monitored the weather reports, only intending to make the drive if we had a clear sunny day.  Luck was with us, and with the promise of good weather we booked our room at the Adventure Inn once again.

Over dinner last night, we eagerly shared our plans with our waiter.  “You know, that road’s only been open for 4 or 5 days,” he said.  It never occurred to us to check the snow conditions.  At breakfast this morning, motel owner Nigel showed us videos of the double avalanche that blocked the road between Silverton and Ouray.  Two massive columns of snow blew down the mountainside, taking trees and boulders down with it as it ripped through the forest.  Crossing the road, it filled the 150-foot canyon below and “splashed” up the opposite side.  Leaving 60 feet of debris-filled snow on a lengthy stretch of the highway in the Red Mountain Pass, it took highway crews 20 days to reopen the road.  Little did we know.

Today we drove that highway under blue skies on perfectly dry pavement.  We had learned that they had record snowfalls this winter, topping 360 inches.  It was still very much in evidence even on this April day.  With each turn of the road, we had more snowy peaks to admire.  At our elevation, the snow was pristine with only a few snowmobile and ski tracks crossing its silky mounds.  Occasionally I could make out curvy trails through the mountainsides, evidence of some intrepid skiers enjoying pure powder.

Million Dollar Highway 1 Million Dollar Highway 2 Million Dollar Highway 3 Million Dollar Highway 4 Million Dollar Highway 5

The wintry journey from Durango to Ouray was well worth the return trip.  With the avalanche video replaying in my mind, I had renewed respect for the seemingly pastoral scenes passing outside my car window.  Million dollar views indeed.

Chilling out on Mount Lemmon

The forecast was for another day in the mid 90s.  Our northern Minnesota blood was too thick for the heat. Sylvia, our AirBnB hostess, had just the answer.

“Have you been to Mount Lemmon?  It’s always 30 degrees cooler up there.”  That’s all we needed to hear.  It was also on my left-over wanna see list from last year’s stay in Tucson.

At 9,100 feet, Mount Lemmon is the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains, the same range we’ve been admiring from our patio all week long.  It boasts a ski hill at the top, so there is a good paved road and a small community called Summerhaven near the summit.

Sunset view from our patio Tucson

We crossed town to reach the start of the Sky Island Scenic Byway.  I settled in to enjoy the ride, as the 27-mile journey is an attraction in itself. We started out in the now-familiar Sonoran Desert environment, surrounded by cacti and scrub brush.  As we rose, saguaro and a sea of yellow wildflowers took over the landscape.  The city of Tucson dropped below us, a miniature playset of streets and buildings just visible over the edge of the cliff.  Fortunately, there were frequent pull-outs for safe gazing.

Each curve delivered new scenery.  Saguaro giants gave way to real forest, with Aspens and Ponderosa Pines looming overhead.  Wildflowers changed suit as well.  But it was the rock formations that demanded my attention, and added a new term to my vocabulary.  “Hoodoos.”  Tall thin columns of weather-beaten rocks stood at attention on the slopes as we navigated the switchbacks.

Mt Lemmon rocky view

At Windy Point, I just had to get out and mingle with these giants.  Numerous other visitors populated this stopping point, clambering up rocky promontories for pictures and posing for selfies.  I enjoyed the same views and poses from safer flat rocks.  And there was no mistaking the refreshing breezes that cooled the higher air.

Molly at Windy Point Mt Lemmon 1 Molly at Windy Point Mt Lemmon 2Rich at Windy Point Mt Lemmon

A pool of cyclists congregated at this vista as well.  The byway is a popular challenge for cyclists, and by this point the intrepid athletes had already climbed 18 miles and 3,600 feet.  We would continue to see bicycles all the way up and down the mountain.  Never once did we wish ourselves in their seat!

Near the summit, we continued on past Summerhaven and beyond the ski hill to reach the very end of the road and a trail head.  Those last few cliff hanging miles justified the 10 mph speed limit.

Itching to get out and experience the mountain up close, I insisted on a hike.  Sylvia was right, the car thermometer registered 64 degrees, and we each donned an extra layer before setting off.  Left over snow was not confined to the ski hill, as we traversed thick patches on our trek.  We felt right at home in the pine forest.

Molly hiking in snow Mt Lemmon

We noticed the lookout tower in the distance, but it took a fellow hiker to entice us down another path to take in its views.  The wind whipped around us as we stood on the rocky promontory.

Mt Lemmon Lookout Molly and Rich Mt Lemmon Lookout 1 Molly and Rich Mt Lemmon Lookout 2

The trip back down the mountain let us view the whole scene in reverse.  Cyclists continued to struggle up and whiz down, even as the afternoon waned.  The temperature rose in reverse proportion to our elevation, but we had successfully missed the peak heat of the day.  Instead we had a delightful Minnesota type day, chilling out on the mountain.

Life with a Birder

The plan was to go hiking.  We were going to Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.  Even though it’s a birding destination, Rich assured me he was there to hike with me.  But there were caveats.  We had to stay near the flowing river.  Making our way up the canyon, I wasn’t allowed on the Nature Trail that ventured away from the water.  (This was the desert, after all, and birds flock to water.)

Medera Canyon

Reaching the top trailhead, we headed up the Carrie Nation Trail.  Yes, it followed a stream.  I tried to ignore the huffing and puffing behind me as I forged upward on the trail.  And then I heard it.  “I think I’m nearing my limit.”  He didn’t say he was done yet, so I kept going.

A young woman came down the trail toward us, and hoping to prolong this hike I pumped her for information.  How steep was it beyond here?  The news was reassuring.  But then she said the magic words.  “I just saw an Elegant Trogon.  He loves the sycamore trees, just above here.”

Suddenly Rich’s legs gained new strength.  He strode purposefully past me with a burst of energy.  He was on a mission.  I could barely keep up.

The Elegant Trogon has been in Rich’s sights for two years now.  The brilliant tropical bird’s range only barely reaches into far southern Arizona, Medera Canyon included.  Last year’s visit to this canyon was too early in the season and proved fruitless.  Last week’s visit was better timing, but also came up empty.  This trail is not where the bird had been sighted.  Rich wasn’t even looking for it.  But he smelled victory.

We soon ran into a handful of other birders toting cameras with obscenely long lenses.  They had already seen and photographed the elusive bird, and were hoping for another glimpse, more photographs.  Rich eagerly joined the little enclave, whispering, pointing, gesticulating and searching.  I did my best to melt into the background.  To remain silent and motionless, lest I spook the very bird they sought.

Tiring of the hushed drama, I left them to their hunt and continued up the trail.  We were here to hike, remember?  The trail petered out sooner than I expected, so I reluctantly turned around.  I found Rich and the pack further downstream than where I had left them.  But they didn’t notice me.  All cameras were trained on The Bird.

Birders photographing Elegant Trogon Rich photographing Elegant Trogon

Lenses pointed and shutters clicked incessantly.  Arms stretch out and fingers silently pointed when the bird moved.  Photographers shifted accordingly.  New vantage points, more photographs.  And still I was blind to the subject that took over the souls of these intrepid birders.  All I saw was trees and leaves.

The hunt slowed temporarily and Rich took in the fact that I was there.  “Have you seen it?” he asked excitedly.  I shook my head.  I didn’t even know what the bird looked like.

With hundreds of images already safely saved to the memory disks on their cameras, Rich and the photographers eased up a bit.  Rich pointed out the bird, and I finally focused in on its brilliant red breast, the luminescent green glow of the feathers on its back.  Despite my firm stand that I am not a birder, would never be a birder, I couldn’t help but appreciate the beauty of this particular specimen.

The solitary bird toyed with these camera toting devotees all the way back down the trail.  He flitted from tree to tree, never too far to disappear from sight.  Even I got the hang of glimpsing the red breast as he took flight and following it to his next perch.

The camaraderie of the little group grew as we inched our way along, and they even drew me into their huddle to make sure I could see the bird’s latest landing.  Having nothing else to do, I succumbed to the impulse to remove the lens cap from my own camera, hunker down to steady my zoom lens and click the shutter.  Oh cool, I got him!  I tried again.  And again.

Elegant Trogon 1 Elegant Trogon 2 Elegant Trogon 3

By the time we reached the trailhead, Rich was bursting with excitement.  And gratitude for my patience while he pursued the Elegant Trogon.  So I seized the opportunity.  “That’s okay.  You can keep birding.  While I take the Nature Trail back down to the car.”  I was happy for him.  But I still had some hiking to do.

Medera Canyon Nature Trail

The Big Bend Experience

Sometimes the feature attraction is not the star in the theater of travel experiences. In our recent visit to Big Bend National Park I’d have to say it was the entire cast of desert offerings that made the visit memorable.

It started with our accommodations. Choosing to stay just outside the park where there were more amenities, we had reservations in the Terlingua Nights Cabins. Situated in the desert dust, the little sleeping rooms were just that. We had electricity, a mini fridge and barely enough room to walk around the double bed in our pristine minimalist room. We shared the bathhouse and an outdoor living area with a fire pit with our cabin neighbors.

Terlingua Nights Cabins

Our Cabin at Terlinqua Nights

It was 93 degrees when we arrived, with a brisk wind sweeping through the grounds. By evening, it was comfortable to sit out on our porch to read. It felt like the desert.

The revitalized ghost town of Terlingua lay a few miles down the road. Driving over to search for dinner options, we surveyed some of the competing lodgings – tents, tepees, a pastel “Easter” motel and shacks dotted the dry countryside. Hardly your typical National Park tourist environs. We stumbled on a humble eating establishment and settled into the last two seats out on the shaded patio. The slow service suited the warm air and we lingered over our Tex-Mex meals while chatting with nearby diners.

The long bench on the porch of the Trading Company was reputed to be the place to watch the sunset play out on the distant mountains. I insisted we do just that.

Sunset from the Trading Company porch

We left our little cabin well before dawn in order to watch the sunrise in the park. We didn’t count on a rough dirt road to reach our chosen scenic location, and decided to detour on the paved but still-slow road. The Mule Ears rock formation materialized in time to stop for the sun’s arrival. Finally having light to see our environs, we took in the bluebonnets blooming on the roadside – uniquely tall and stringy, compared to their short, dense Hill Country cousins.

Sunrise behind the Mule Ears Big Bend Bluebonnets

Our destination was Santa Elena Canyon. A short walk took us to the Rio Grande and a view of the entrance to the canyon. But the best part was the hike into the canyon. Crossing a narrow flow of water from a side stream, we followed a well-worn path with switchbacks up the edge of the canyon wall. The trail stretched back into the narrow canyon where we could appreciate the river’s handiwork in carving this deep crevice. Nearing the end of the trail, faint musical notes floated through the air. The pipe flute blended naturally with the environment, lending a mystical air to the experience.Rich at Santa Elena CanyonMolly in Santa Elena Canyon

Our second hike of the day was in the Chisos Mountain area in the center of the park. A three-mile walk through scrubby desert environs took us gradually down into the valley. We were at the beginning of the desert bloom, with plentiful wildflowers of all colors and cactus flowers just popping out. The easy path ended with clambering over boulders and hopping across slightly flowing mountain streams. But the end view was worth it – The Window provided an opening with a straight drop below and a narrow crevice beyond. A fierce wind whipped through that window, and I kept well away from the opening.

The Window Hike 1The Window Hike 2Molly at The Window

We experienced the extremes of the desert climate when the next day dawned cloudy, super windy and 46 degrees. In no hurry to rush out into the chill we headed back into Terlingua to Espresso Y Poco Mas. Geared for the desert heat, the eclectic café offered only outdoor seating. Settling ourselves at a well sheltered table, we were surprisingly comfortable and delighted with the breakfast tortillas. But we were thankful for our Minnesota clothes stashed in the car!

Molly at Espresso Y Poco Mas

With low expectations we returned to the park under the cold cloud cover. But on our first hike, while scouring the environs for elusive birds (Rich) and wildflowers (Molly) the sun emerged. As the sky cleared, the temperature zoomed to a comfortable warmth.

Driving to Rio Grande Village at the far end of the park provided a constant panorama of its nature. We were surrounded by rolling desert land covered in bushy vegetation, surrounded by soaring rocky peaks and mesas. It was majestic in its own way, in sharp contrast to the dense forest and white capped mountains that define National Park in my northern mind. The wilderness experience is all relative. By the time we arrived, I regretted forgetting my swim suit to soak in the hot springs. It just didn’t enter my mind that morning. Instead, we walked the local nature trail where we watched nutria at play in the pond, and climbed to a view of the Rio Grande.

Rich on Rio Grande Nature Trail

We capped our visit with dinner at the popular Starlight Theater restaurant.  We lucked out that night, getting in without the normal 1.5 hour wait to take in the western décor among patrons clad in cowboy hats and listen to the local guitar playing singer.

I’ve decided on one word to describe the overall experience – Quirky.  How often do you frequent a former ghost town? Consider a tiny sleeping cabin to be among the best of the lodgings? Hike in winter jacket, mittens and hat, and remove them all within an hour? Explore a narrow canyon and wide-open desert land? Big Bend with its Terlingua neighbor was all that and more.

Wrangling the Cattle Grates

The motions were familiar. Clad in spandex and strapping on my helmet, I clipped in and pedaled down the driveway. Heading out of town to explore the countryside. That’s where the familiarity ended.

We had planted ourselves in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, where spring was a real season. The sun radiated warmth and wildflowers bloomed in abundance, unlike the cold snow melt weather back home. Here the countryside held the promise of carefree cycling.

I had already done my homework. A visit to Bicycle Works, the local bike shop, yielded the friendly advice I expected. The woman behind the counter stopped working on the bicycle she had up on a stand to fill me in on the local routes. Tracing the colored lines on the maps that they produce, she narrated each option. It didn’t take me long to note that the routes varied in length from 30 to 100 miles. This is serious cycling territory.

The town environs of Fredericksburg rapidly dissolved into wide open spaces. I followed mile after mile of quiet farm roads, flanked by ranches large and small. Sprawling affluent homes shared borders with tin roofed shacks. Chickens roamed the yards, fluffy lambs with jet black faces stared at me and goats remained intent on grazing. Big cows dominated the scene, including the iconic longhorn cattle.

Texas longhorn

Each time I turned down a new lane, that little nagging thought wiggled into my brain.  I sure hope it’s not a dirt road…  But I needn’t have worried – every road in the county is paved!  But they do come with a hazard.  While the roads were in remarkably good condition, they were frequently sliced by tubular metal grates that rumbled and shook my entire being as I passed over them. Timid at first, I crossed the cattle grates slowly, hesitantly. But with practice came confidence, if not full speed. They also came with a warning: “Loose Livestock” Sure enough, I passed directly between Bessie #73 and her cousin #99 grazing on opposite edges of the road.

Cattle grate

It wouldn’t be the hill country without a heavy dose of climbing. Roads ranged from long straight stretches to twisty windy curves, and all kept me pumping up and gliding down the hills. Frequent stream beds introduced spillways for flood season. For now they were all dry, but each involved a steep dip followed by a climb. It’s not a coincidence that I saved these routes for solo rides.

Crabapple Road bike ride

In contrast, Rich had a knack for mapping out routes with a purpose. Our first took us out to a local winery, where we were careful to limit our sampling to ensure a safe return ride.

Cycling to a winery

Luckenbach was our next destination, visiting on a quiet morning to take in the musical venue.

Luckenbach TX

Ranging further afield, he devised a bike ride east of town. It took us through the tiny enclave of Albert, where the Dance Hall appeared to be very active, flanked by a BBQ Pit, an Icehouse and an historic school. It made us wish we could return on a lively evening to see it all in swing. On the final stretch, we cycled Ranch Road #1 right through the LBJ State Park and across the river from the LBJ Ranch.

In nearly two weeks, my bicycle and I covered a lot of ground.  By then ranch country became a lot more familiar.  Even the cattle grates.

Bluebonnet Bounty

When you’ve seen the best, how can it possibly get any better?  That’s what we thought when we heard that this year the Texas Bluebonnets were a bumper crop – the best in 10 years.  We found it hard to believe that they could beat the ubiquitous blue carpet we saw back in 2015.

If the roadsides were any indication, our skepticism was well founded. We didn’t see the same dense pack of spiky blue blooms lining the roadways.  Patches here and there, yes, and occasional islands of color.  But still not up to par.

So we set out to cycle the Willow City Loop.  This 13-mile winding country road is the epitome for bluebonnet viewing.  Cars inch along as passengers ogle the flowers.  Everyone ignores the “No Stopping” sign, pulling off when they can to take pictures.  Grownups hunker down into the flowers, posting for the camera.  Propriety is tossed aside in the presence of the state flower of Texas.

With the benefit of a car this time, we parked at one end of the loop and doubled our pleasure with an out-and-back ride.  Starting shortly after sunrise in the crisp cool air, the low angle of the sun’s rays cast a golden glow.  We were alone on the road at that hour, well ahead of the traffic yet to come.

Relishing the silence, we also reveled in the pace and flexibility of our bikes.  We lingered and took it all in as we passed in slow motion.  Stopping was as easy as parking our bikes, allowing plenty of angles for photographer Rich, and even a few cheesy poses of our own.

As the miles went on, so did the bluebonnets.  Deep into the fields.  Crowding the roadsides.  Encircling the prickly pear cacti.  Swarming under fences.  Whole hillsides of them.  The scene began to match the one we held in such esteem.  Yes, we ultimately agreed, this could be just as good.  Maybe even better.  Photos tell it best.

Texas bluebonnets 1 Texas bluebonnets Willow City Loop 1 Texas bluebonnets Willow City Loop 2 Texas bluebonnets Willow City Loop 3 Molly w Texas bluebonnets Willow City Loop Rich w Texas bluebonnets Willow City LoopMolly and Rich w Texas bluebonnets Willow City Loop

After 26-miles, it really didn’t matter.  We knew we’d seen a bounty of bluebonnets.  That was good enough for us.

An Enchanted Hike

Bike touring is great, but it does leave many “nearby” attractions undiscovered.  I can’t count the number of times I have looked longingly at a sign for a promising sight while Rich chides, “Molly, that little detour is 12 miles round trip!”  We cycle on by.

After two bike tours through Fredericksburg TX, this year we chose to arrive by car with our bicycles on the back.  Settling into a tiny cottage just off the historic Main Street, we suddenly have access to all those missed opportunities.  Nothing qualifies as too far to detour.

Today’s destination was my pick.  I got my first glimpse of Enchanted Rock while on a long bike ride.  Navigating the winding, hilly backroads, I turned a corner and there it was – the big pink granite dome.  That was enough to put it on my bucket list for our stay.

View of Enchanted Rock

Waiting out the misty morning, we timed our arrival perfectly – just as the sun came out.  We also deliberately missed last week’s spring break crowds.  No bikes for us today, the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is for hiking.  Loading up with sunscreen, plenty of water and cameras we started off with the iconic Summit Trail.

Calling it a trail is a misnomer.  It’s a rock.  And you walk up it.  The big pink expanse beckoned and we meandered up the steep slope to the top.  Chatting with other trekkers made the journey far easier than we imagined it to be.  Wandering over the top of the dome, we admired the views, ogled strange rock formations and found wildflowers in the crevices.  The notion of hurry did not apply.

Molly atop Enchanted Rock

View of Moss Lake from Enchanted Rock

Rich on Enchanted RockMolly and rock formations on Enchanted RockWildflowers growing in crevasse in Enchanted Rock

Hiking back down an alternate swath of rock, we connected with the Echo Canyon Trail.  I quickly understood the Challenging classification, as I picked my way between boulders.  I was more at ease once it morphed into an easy walking trail.

Rich on Echo Canyon TrailMolly on Echo Canyon Trail

Skirting Moss Lake, we finished on the Loop Trail.  The highway width crushed rock path was impossible to miss, and the unshaded sun baked our northern bodies.  But it delivered on the wildflower scale and provided some fun rock monuments.

Wildflowers at Enchanted Rock 1 Wildflowers at Enchanted Rock 2 Enchanted Rock formations

Tomorrow we’re back on the bicycles for our favorite loop through the Texas bluebonnets.  But today I was glad Rich humored me for an enchanted day of hiking.