America is uniquely suited to roadtrips. Innumerable stretches of highway, affordable gas, and an abundance of places to see make such an undertaking tantalizingly easy and accessible.
Even before car travel, the itch to head West was strong. The appeal of being "on the road" is such that the phrase has secured its own place in our cultural lexicon (Willie Nelson's song, Jack Kerouac's book, various perfectly-curated Instagram shots proudly proclaiming #roadlife.)
“Go West, Young Man,” Horace Greeley wrote.
Greeley may have been writing in the age of Manifest Destiny, but the sentiment still sticks. It's an adage I have heard many times, turned over in my mind until it took root and refused to let go.
This past winter, one of my oldest and closest friends returned from 27 months abroad. Independently, we both made plans for our futures, but kept one eye looking forward to summer, to the possibility of "getting away." With both of our lives poised to change, to tilt toward regularity and stability, we felt opportunity's call. On the eve of graduate school, when else would we have the time and freedom to embark on a journey like this?
Our goal was to explore the national park system in this special centennial year, and to experience "The West." Original plans had us barreling across the South, getting up-close to cacti and Route 66 relics in the deserts of Texas and chasing the golden California coast, before catching raindrops in the Pacific Northwest and turning east for home. Simple math proved that we were far too ambitious.
Acutely aware of just how big this country is- and of the folly of favoring quantity over quality- we ultimately settled on a one-month swing through some of the blockbuster Western parks, as well as some of the parks less trodden. We would swim in alpine lakes, hike snow-capped mountains, shade our eyes in simmering deserts, sweat through red-earth canyons, and glaze over endless swaths of prairie. A "sampler" of many ecosystems, climates, and terrains.
Plane tickets were purchased, a rental car booked, dozens of parks and campgrounds and hikes and directions researched. On July 4th, perhaps the most appropriate of days, we were off.
National Park Service: Centennial 1916-2016
It began as mere coincidence that we were visiting the National Parks during the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service, but the more we dug into the history, the more serendipitous it seemed. 2016 marked the 100 year celebration of what has been called "America's Best Idea," as well as both of our 25th birthdays. The year is a time for the NPS to commemorate, evaluate, look back and look ahead. It felt very much the same for our friendship, and for us as individuals.
Brief History of the National Park Service
National parks and national monuments were individually managed, until August 25, 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service into law. Its mission:
"to promote and regulate the use of the... national parks... which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
The NPS emblem was established in 1951. The arrowhead shape represents historical and archeological values; the sequoia tree and bison represent vegetation and wildlife; the mountain and water represent scenic and recreational opportunities. Today there are 412 units in the NPS, including 59 National Parks.
Week 1: July 4-10- Colorado
On the morning of July 4, we left Denver (with a shiny new 2017 rental car) for the central Rocky Mountains. We camped at the beautiful, but deceiving, Guanella Pass for our first two nights. We arrived mid-morning and set up our tent in a secluded campground by a quick-moving stream. We went into the nearby hamlet of Georgetown for the day, to meet Kara's sister (who happened to be in CO!) We got ice cream, watched an old-fashioned brass band, and enjoyed other Americana festivities.
While we had enjoyed the day, we were not prepared for nightfall. Back at camp at an elevation of 10,000 feet, we experienced hail, lightening, and below freezing temps. It was a restless night.
Our hike the next morning was no picnic either. Mount Bierstadt is considered one of Colorado's "easiest" 14'ers (mountains over 14,000 feet.) Since we were already so high up, we figured "why not?"
We woke up at 5:00 to hit the trail by sunrise. The combination of no-sleep and high elevation gave me a little altitude sickness, so we abandoned the hike about an hour in. The views were spectacular, but not worth injury or illness on our first outing.
However, once we got down, we decided to hike to a few alpine lakes on the same trail system, and those were equally beautiful. Still, we were glad to leave Guanella the next morning, bound south for Colorado Springs.
Garden of the Gods
Designated a National Natural Landmark 1971, Garden of the Gods was inhabited by Native Americans beginning around 1300 BC. It is not part of the NPS system, but is still a main attraction in Colorado Springs.
Known for its sky-high sandstone formations, the park was formed by "uplift" of the Rocky Mountain range and the subsequent ice age, with alternating forces of erosion and melting glaciers. There is also evidence that it used to be part of an ancient sea.
As for the name? In 1859, two surveyors explored the area. One said it was a great place for a beer garden (aye, captain). The other said it was a place “fit for the gods."
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
I had explored the North Rim of the Black Canyon in May, while I was at Elsewhere Studios. This time, Kara and I decided to check out the South Rim. We hiked the Oak Flats loop, which actually took us into the canyon a little bit. This is one of the least-visited national parks, so it's easy to assume it will be boring- but the steep walls and sheer drops are breathtaking.
Telluride- A Classic Colorado Mountain Town
We took the (free) gondola into the town of Telluride for the day. We strolled along the San Miguel River to view Bridal Veil Falls, had lunch, and enjoyed downtown.
Telluride has a reputation as a glitzy vacation spot, and it is. But, it was still charming, and it was a fun distraction to spend time in town for a day. Coincidentally, the annual "Ride Festival" was taking place that weekend, with Pearl Jam headlining. While we didn't have tickets, it was still neat to be around town on a buzzing day.
We stayed in the nearby Matterhorn Campground, part of the Uncompaghre mountain range, which had some of the best views yet.
Opus Hut- A Unique Lodging Experience
On Sunday July 10, the last day of our first week, we stayed at a backcountry ski-hut called OPUS Lodge (Ophir Pass Ultimate Ski.) In the winter, this is used as a basecamp for advanced backcountry skiing in the San Juan Mountain range, between Telluride and Silverton. Opus still operates in the summer, with hike-in access.
Normally, visitors drive up Ophir Pass (a dirt road closed to vehicles in winter) and park alongside the road, walking a simple 1/4 mile uphill to the hut.
Not so for us. Our two wheel drive, low clearance Kia Rio was not going to make the entire drive. We were instructed to park about 2 miles up the pass, and walk the remaining 1.5 miles. We were not prepared for how strenuous that "walk" was, but since we only had one night's clothes and a few toiletries, we weren't burdened by big backpacks. The hike took a while, and we were definitely beat. But once we got to the hut, we were rewarded with sublime mountain views, and the most solitude we would find on our entire trip.
Opus provides meals and bedding, so visitors essentially just bring their own gear. We were the only guests and had the place to ourselves (except for the hut host, Austin.)
We went on a little hike around the property, with not another soul in sight for miles. Snow still capped the mountaintops. For me, this moment of total peace, total isolation, was one of the trip's highlights.
In the evening, we played cards, read, and relaxed. Austin prepared a delicious dinner (oh the joy of homecooked meals after a week of road food) and homemade mulled wine, and the three of us chatted for a few hours before hitting the hay early. In the morning, Austin delivered yet another great meal, and we left Opus and the beautiful San Juans.
Opus was a relaxing conclusion to our first week, and to the state of Colorado. During our second week, we would move into the Four Corners region, leaving the alpine mountains behind for the expansive, arid deserts of Utah and Arizona.