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.

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.


Following the Clark Fork River

It was a day of contrasts, but the one constant was the Clark Fork River. We cycled along its east bank for the entire day. That kept us nestled between the Cabinet and Coeur d'Alene mountains, surrounded by tall pines and and frequently within sight of the ever changing river.

Returning to our preferred routine we were off early, shortly after sunrise. We love the early morning hours, when the sun casts a golden glow and the rest of the world has yet to surface. The road was blessedly deserted despite being a state highway, and it was flat easy traveling. Even the river was quiet, reflecting the mountain scenery.

There was a downside, though. With the sun so low, it was a chilly 42 degrees and I'd underestimated the amount of warm clothes I needed. I kept adding layers as we went along, but could hardly wait to reach our breakfast stop to hug a hot mug of coffee.

By the time we emerged from the breakfast cafe, it was warming quickly. Once again the day was transforming from cold to hot. There seems to be no in between. With half our mileage already completed and plenty of day left, we took a leisurely ride through the park in Thompson Falls to see the dams and waterfalls.

For the remainder of the route, we followed the advice of last night's motel owner. We would never have found Blue Slide Road without his directions, and it took us off the highway on a beautiful country road all the way to our destination. We saw nary a car along the way, and reveled in the peaceful and beautiful mountainside scenery.

Of course we did know that venturing off the main road would entail more ups and downs, and this route had some doozies. They weren't as long as yesterday's climbs, but were much steeper and twisty. I managed to cycle up them, but even I needed some rest stops. One look at Rich's face will tell you the toll they took on him!

Even with the hills, we didn't realize just how high above the river we had climbed until the trees opened up to give us a view of the river – way down below.

Near the end of our ride, the river widened out into a huge reservoir, which is a popular recreation area. It makes for a lovely place to sit and relax after the day's travels. Here the breeze helps keep the heat at bay, and I feel I earned this nice rest. Somehow it even makes enduring the morning chill worth while.

I don't know what tomorrow will bring for cycling and weather, but I do know we have another day following the Clark Fork River.



Summer Returns

I really had no idea what to expect weather-wise on this trip. Looking at forecasts for the areas we'd be in was marginally helpful, as things can change quickly. So I packed all the same clothes as for last year's trip, with many options for layering as fall weather approached. I worry more about being cold than getting too hot.

While the first two days may not be a true barometer for the trip, we are certainly off to a warm start. Despite the cool nights, each day has been cloudless from morning 'til night. With the sun beating down all day long it feels positively like summer. In fact, more like summer than we had in the past three months in Duluth!

Today's ride took us up and over a small mountain pass, which gave us plenty of hill work. Perhaps that's why it felt so warm – we were cycling hard! Once up on top the land plateaued and we rode through a very dry valley, dominated by grazing lands and barren ones at that. It felt like the wild, wild west even if we didn't see the promised bighorn sheep.

Rainbow Lake was a welcome sight up there in the hills, and was the precursor to a five mile downhill into Plains – our destination for the night. It was a whole lot hotter at the foot of the hills, registering 88 degrees at 6pm! Perhaps it was just as well we spent most of the day in the higher altitudes.

Our motel for the night, the Dew Duck Inn, claims to be the “Best little Motel in Montana” and I don't think it's overrated. Erich, the proprietor, gave us a verbal tour of the town with everything we could possibly want to know, and then some. And he provided great routing and restaurant suggestions for tomorrow. From the looks of it, he's has quite a green thumb which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Tomorrow's forecast promises more of the same. We're planning an early start to beat the heat. I can't believe I'm saying that in September in an area that is as far north as Duluth. I'd never have guessed that we'd be back in summer again. But I'm not complaining.


Glorious Glacier

With only one day to explore Glacier National Park, weather was going to be a critical factor. Fortunately for us, it definitely made our day. I had my heart set on driving the Going to the Sun road, which seemed a perfect fit for our limited time frame, but was highly dependent on getting clear views.

We set out from West Glacier making our way along Lake McDonald. The mountains in that stretch were modest and tree covered, and it was a more pastoral scene than awe inspiring. The morning was chilly and although it was sunny, it brought low hanging patchy clouds that seemed to catch on the treetops and cling to the hillsides.

Once past the lake, we began to climb. The road hugged the mountainsides, curving with the contours of the rock and demonstrating the amazing feat of engineering it took to build it. Soon the vista changed dramatically. Sharp rocky peaks filled our field of view, and behind them snow-topped mountains appeared. Grandeur surrounded us. But it was still shrouded by clouds. It made for some dramatic views, with the sun radiating from behind. Yet we yearned for the full vista. Driving through Logan Pass, we ourselves reached the clouds. There was no incentive to stop to look or hike, so we ventured on.

As soon as we dropped over the other side, the weather pattern changed. As we've learned, in the Rockies it matters a lot which side of the continental divide you are on. Suddenly, the skies cleared and we could see the tops of the peaks surrounding us. It became a whole different show. One of our first stops was at an overlook to see Jackson Glacier. It is one of only 25 remaining glaciers out of an estimated150 that covered the park back in 1850.

We couldn't resist snapping our own pictures at one of the most photographed spots in the park. In Lake Mary, tiny Wild Goose Island stands out in sharp contrast to the towering mountains in the distance.

Reversing our direction at the far end of Lake Mary, the return trip provided an entirely different set of views. We could see all the mountains that were behind us on our way in. And the weatherman came through – the clouds lifted by the afternoon as promised, clearing even the western side of the route.

I had fond memories of Lake McDonald from my only other trip to Glacier around age 11. So I enjoyed revisiting the old Lake McDonald Lodge, and trying to re-envision the view of the mountains reflecting in the lake that has stayed with me all these years. But I found an even better spot from which to experience the lake further down on a stretch of rocky shore. There I reveled in the peace and quiet enhanced by the supremely clear water lapping gently on the shore. That may very well be one of my new favorite mental images of the park.

It was a most successful day. I think we experienced Glacier in several of her moods. But I will remember it only as being glorious.


Farewell Snow Mountain Ranch

A world of white greeted me on my final morning at Snow Mountain Ranch. Deep powder blanked my car and was still being plowed from the campus roadways. Arriving at breakfast earlier than usual, the low sunlight caught the sparkling white branches of the pine trees atop the hill at the Commons with mountain peaks glowing in the background. It begged for a photo, but for once I had no camera with me.

By the time I finished packing the car a thick low fog had descended into the valley. All was indeed white. And so were the roads. The snowpack and ice were an unwelcome addition to the roads that were clear pavement just the afternoon before, and it was a slow and treacherous drive through the local countryside.

The Berthoud Pass, which was my most direct route to Denver, had been closed the day before and through the night due to a snowslide, but fortunately reopened early that morning. I was glad for the clear sunny skies which worked their magic on the road, uncovering patches of pavement that gave my tires greater purchase as I wound my way around the switchbacks in the mountain pass. Unaccustomed to driving on my own in dicey conditions, I prided myself that my knuckles never turned white and I safely navigated the pass. My reward was stopping at the first exit on the freeway (which was mercifully clear) to rid my wipers of ice and stand in a long line in order to savor a latte.

wpid-Photo-20140310113131.jpgFinally I could relax a little and reflect on my time at SMR. That last week there finally cemented my affection for the place, and I could understand why so many senior volunteers return year after year. Good weather (no strong winds!), lots of fresh snow, excellent skiing, plentiful social events and good company all came together, and at last I knew how it felt to be part of it all. It takes a while to get acclimated to the way of life at SMR and really get to know people. I was indeed part of the SMR family. And wouldn’t you know, I reached that point just about the time I had to leave. I only wish that Rich had been able to stay and enjoy the same benefits and rewards. It was a great experience, and left me wanting to return for more.

At the Denver airport, Rich and I were reunited after a long 10 days apart while he stayed with his Dad in the hospital in Florida. We ended up cutting our time at SMR short by about 5 days, but under the circumstances, we were both ready to head for home. It was a bittersweet experience, but the bitter is fading fast leaving mostly sweet memories for me. Farewell, Snow Mountain Ranch – at least for now.


Of Summits and Snowflakes

With my stay at Snow Mountain Ranch drawing to a close, I wanted to make the most of the time I had left. My final day of work I was scheduled for an afternoon shift, which left me plenty of time to get in a decent ski earlier in the day. There was only one major trail that I had not yet skied, so imagine my delight to find that it had been groomed that very morning. Others had broken trail with back country skis, but that didn’t appeal to me, and this was the first time it had been groomed in two months. I set my heart on completing the trail.

My first hurdle was the advice I received from more experienced skiers in the Nordic Center. They warned me of the steep terrain and difficulty of the climb. I hadn’t fully grasped the fact that this trail rose 2,000 feet in elevation! Learning that I didn’t plan to bring any food and drink, they pressed a granola bar on me and I left with some doubts.

When I reached the turnoff for the Blue Ridge Trail, it did indeed climb. But I decided that I’d pursue each leg of the switchbacks and go as far as I could. As it turns out, the trail did climb relentlessly, but the climbs were not steep. And as long as I stopped periodically (okay, frequently) to catch my breath, I was able to continue. To further spur me along, the higher I got, the better the views. Feasting my eyes on at least 180 degrees of mountain ranges was inspiring, and further excuse to pause along the way. The grooming was impeccable with a firm surface despite the warming sun, and I relished the fact that my ski tracks were the first ones there. Reaching the summit was almost an anticlimax, as there was no sign to commemorate my accomplishment, nor a clear peak to the mountain at 10,670 ft. Even the selfie photo I took to show me at the summit really doesn’t prove much of anything – but I knew I’d made it.

The return trip was a glorious ride down. I was tired but thrilled I’d completed the whole trail and happy that I reached the summit. And that granola bar did taste good at the top.

On my final day, I set off with two friends for a women’s snowshoe hike. Fran has been coming to Snow Mountain Ranch as a volunteer for years, and offered to lead the hike. Patti was new to snowshoeing, so we were a motley crew of experience but eager for a day out. Undeterred by the steady snowfall, we donned our layers of clothes, snowshoes and packs with food, water, extra clothing and emergency supplies.

From Grand Lake we took the East Inlet Trail, which immediately led us into Rocky Mountain National Park. Lacking trail markers, we were glad that we could see vague indentations from previous snowshoers. New snow was piling up quickly, and our view was curtailed to our immediate surroundings. But the beauty of the heavy woods draped in snow made up for the mountains we were missing in the distance. The trail was fairly flat, following a branch of the Colorado River for a while, and meandering through the woods. Progress was slow but satisfying, allowing us to drink in the quiet of the woods.

With an out-and-back trail, the inevitable question is when to turn around? It always feels good to reach a specific destination, and Fran had one in mind. As soon as we saw the large rock formation, we knew we’d reached it. The trail narrowed along a ledge and seemed to whither away with the rock looming overhead. We all agreed it was the perfect stopping point, not wanting to test our skills scampering around the end of the rock. Taking a short time out for a snack and drink of water, we began to retraced our steps. With temperatures hovering right about freezing, the falling snow was saturating our clothing and gloves. Keeping moving was the only way to fend off the resulting chill.

Although Fran had frequently seen moose and other wildlife on that trail, we saw not a single critter. Even animal tracks were in short supply. We were the sole inhabitants of the woods, or so it felt. But that was okay. It was the camaraderie that was best about the hike, spending time with new friends and sharing an adventure.

Yes, I think I did well. Both outings were satisfying in different ways, and brought closure to my stay. And I have left plenty more to explore, hoping we’ll be back next year.