24 Oct 2014

US Road-trip - Drive to Black Canyon

The drive from Estes Park towards the south-west of Colorado took us across the Trail Ridge Road, an extremely high pass, just west of the town. The weather wasn't great as we set off and soon we were in thick fog. Cars passing didn't seem to think headlights would be helpful, in spite of limited visibility. When we reached a parking area we stopped to look at the "view" just as the cloud seemed to disappear beneath us into the valleys below.

We had a brisk and breathless hike up across the tundra to a hoodoo formation, where the views came and went as the fast-moving clouds rolled by. My hat would've been a welcome addition to my apparel, as the wind was bitterly cold. As we got back to the car the cloud below us thinned and we had lovely views of the hills beneath us.

We continued on with the drive, eventually losing the altitude we'd gained, through more changeable weather.

At the bottom of the pass, near Granby Lake I stopped to photograph a couple of areas of beautifully coloured aspens (which even had hints of peach and red to the leaves, not just yellow). I strode out across a meadow towards the trees, armed with tripod and camera, but soon became a bit spooked when I heard a crashing noise at the edge of the meadow. It was just a dead branch falling to the ground, but it got me thinking about elk. And bears. I continued on, but realised that this was indeed elk habitat (I knew that before I set out anyway, as I'd read a sign saying that the area was closed at dusk as it was elk rutting season). The ground was squelchy and a couple of times I nearly got bogged down. Patches of grass were flattened here and there, presumably where the elk slept. The sun peaked out a couple of times, but was directly shining on to the trees; autumnal aspens look the prettiest when back-lit by the sun. The best photos I got were back at the safety of the road using a telephoto lens, so perhaps my journey was a little wasted.

We stopped a few more times along the way for me to capture some more leaves. I took some lazy shots through the windscreen when I couldn't be bothered to stop (hubby was driving).

We joined the I-70 briefly and then drove south through Breckenridge where we stopped for a quick, disappointing cup of coffee. Some ski resorts off-season just have no atmosphere, and this was one of those places. The rain that had come and gone all day, but was very much present as we got out of the car, didn't help.

Our final stop for the day was a town called Buena Vista (that I subsequently found out is pronounced "byoona vista" as the mayor wanted it to sound like the word "beautiful"!). It was a strange little place, with views of the mountains to the west hidden under thick cloud and a fast river flowing through it; the site of some white-water rafting competitions. I picked the town as a place to over-night as it looked pretty, had a fantastic new apartment-hotel - the Surf Chateau - that was pretty reasonable, and had a well-renowned brewery. The hotel was built in a new part of town, near the river, which looked almost like a model village, only with life-size houses. It was quite quaint, but a bit desolate. The whole town had a speed limit of 15 mph, which was a little frustrating, and the two policemen drove around (at 15 mph) presumably looking for some trouble. There didn't appear to be any; they'd even built a couple of skate-parks to entertain the teenagers. We ate and drank at the Eddyline Brewery, a stone's throw from the hotel. The beer was fantastic (the Crank Yankee IPA one of our favourites from the trip, which we had in cans beforehand on our balcony overlooking the river), but the food was a little disappointing.

The following morning fog clung to the hills opposite the hotel. The sun was trying to break through, but didn't quite manage. The overnight cloud had left a delicate sprinkling of snow on the mountain peaks to the west, which was sometimes visible through the lingering clouds that passed by. I don't think that we saw Byoona Vista at its most beautiful, sadly. Perhaps it needed more people...

We headed up the 15 mph road through the old town and finally got on to the road towards the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a little-known national park with an impressively deep and narrow canyon and some spectacularly stripey walls. Along the way were many more autumnal aspens, some a deep peachy-orange. Near one stop we saw a magnificent abandoned mine, which was marked very clearly "PRIVATE" so no investigating more closely was possible, which was a shame.

Towards the canyon we passed a strange area called the Curecanti National Recreation Area, made up of a series of huge reservoirs that the road meanders alongside for ages. Perhaps it would look more attractive under blue skies, but under overcast skies it looked dry and desolate; apparently there's a big boating community out on the water. We carried straight on until we reached the turn-off for the south rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, just before reaching the town of Montrose. The weather was worsening, with ominous black clouds on the horizon as we climbed towards the canyon rim. When we reached the entrance we drove along the road that winds around the rim for seven miles, stopping at a few of the view points to gawk at the huge drops below us; all of the overlooks seemed to be very close to the road. The most famous of them is that opposite the aptly-named Painted Wall, which has pinkish seams running through the otherwise-dark rock face. Unlike Rocky Mountain National Park a couple of days earlier the park was almost empty, perhaps given the inclement weather; only a handful of us were braving the blustery drizzle to enjoy the views.

Not far from the Painted Wall is the Chasm View. I watched the beautiful pattern of the rain as it fell elegantly down into the canyon, until I realised that it was coming towards us. We rushed back to the car - only a minute or so dash away, but our legs were instantly soaked (we were wearing waterproof jackets, at least).

The storm passed by relatively quickly, during which time we drove to the end of the road at High Point and then sat in the car at Sunset View until the rain eased. We revisited the Painted Wall and a couple of the other sights we'd missed on the way in, but the rain was hovering around and only stopping temporarily, so we cut our losses and drove down into Montrose. The weather-forecast for the following morning was better, so I decided I'd return and try to capture the canyon at sunrise.

Montrose is a rather strange town - spread out along the main roads that meet there - with a small central Main Street, which was completely dead. We stayed in a great motel, the Region Inn, which served fresh cookies and coffee in reception all day and were welcomed by incredibly friendly staff. We looked on TripAdvisor, as usual, to find somewhere to eat and decided on the Indian place in town. We walked down there - neither of us wanting to miss out on drinking by having to drive - and found it completely dead with bright lights - not very inviting. We continued on; I remembered reading about a Thai place - that would have to do instead. It turned out to be about 2km away, so we worked up quite an appetite. The food was fairly average and the place wasn't licensed, so we could have driven, after all. On our way home we stopped in the local craft beer pub, had a quick drink, then had an early night.

I woke up in the dark and crept off to get my hoped-for sunrise shots, leaving my husband fast asleep. The canyon was eerily quiet when I pulled up at the Chasm View parking spot, and it was still pitch black, but the light came very quickly; within minutes of my arrival it was light enough for me to walk to the viewpoint without needing a torch. The horizon was blocked by scattered clouds, some of which turned a vague pink colour. It wasn't easy to capture a dark canyon with a washed-out sky above. I tried a couple of long exposures as the clouds were moving quickly. The canyon didn't really look like this, but with a bit of photoshop it looked far more impressive!

I rushed off to the Painted Wall hoping that it would catch any colour in the clouds, should any materialize. I should've stayed put for longer, as I turned round to see the sky on fire for only a minute or two, but the foreground wasn't the best looking eastwards.  Again, a little photoshop helped, although I don't like the HDR look.

I stayed a while, hoping that the sun would come up properly, but the clouds were stubborn and it only came out for brief moments. Once or twice it revealed itself and the whole wall glowed. I returned to the Pulpit Rock overlook, where I watched the sun continue to peak out tantalisingly, before disappearing again.

I'd decided on leaving by 8.15, so that I could be back by 9 am, so that I could enjoy the free breakfast on offer at the motel (fresh, local eggs!) and get on the road at a reasonable hour. On the way back down from the canyon the sky cleared to the south and the sun shone on a bright field dotted with hay bails. The golden hour light that had mostly been missing on the canyon rim was finally there for me.

Next stop: Telluride

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