Photography



Day 1 of spring break meant waking up in the fair city of Grand Junction, affectionately located along the Western Slope. For outdoor enthusiasts, Grand Junction offers easy access to snowboarding, hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking, and road and mountain biking. I find myself stopping in Grand Junction whenever I’m on my way to a mountain bike tryst in Moab or Fruita, when I’m road biking at Colorado National Monument, or when I’m riding the locals’ favorite, Lunch Loop Trails.

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Because of the timing of my trip (the last week of March) and because of the lackluster snow season this winter, I pared down my available sports to four instead of the usual six or eight. This trip would be centered around mountain biking first, hiking second, golf third, and I brought along the snowshoes, just in case. I thoroughly researched the trails along the 50 most western miles in Colorado, which quite closely resemble Utah. I had planned for rides from the most southwesterly town in Colorado, Cortez, which also has some killer mountain biking, especially east of town at a little shooting range called Phil’s World.

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As before all solo road trips, I studied my maps carefully, and this time I was including some serious BLM time on my trip. BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management, and BLM land is characterized by primitive camping that is usually free. BLM land would be less populated by bipeds this time of year, I surmised, and I was right. The tricky part would be finding appropriate and accessible camping sites for a low clearance 4WD vehicle.

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The BLM office in Grand Junction is staffed by friendly folks who know their land and can talk to hunters, mountain bikers, and miners with equal ease. This BLM office has realized the need to educate folks on the proper ways to enjoy the natural beauty contained within its boundaries that it has produced quality maps for each of its areas, including highlighted hiking and biking trails. It was at the BLM office that I discovered the Uncompaghre Plateau was still snow-covered and/or muddy, and that recreating or even camping there at this time of year was not going to be fun. So I picked up a few brochures, one on camping sites in BLM land, and a much-coveted map of the Y-11 Fiasco trail, a mere 45 miles to the south of Grand Junction in a tiny little town called Gateway.

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The road from Grand Junction to Gateway takes about an hour and a half. I had been on this road only once or twice before, but I remember the scenery quite well. In fact, when I have pleasant dreams I imaging myself driving alongside topography that looks just like that which abuts the Unaweep-Tabaguache Byway. Tabaguache is pronounced TAB-uh-watch.

The butte that abuts Gateway Canyons Resort

Gateway is a town with no services save for the Gateway Canyons Resort, a new spa-gold course-hideaway whose scenery is incomparable. The following day I would ride the aptly named Y-11 Fiasco Trail. But I first had a date with the stars and scenery and solitude of John Brown Canyon.  

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Normally Day 2 would follow Day 1 of a road trip, so here goes: On Day 2 SheSpoke awoke in a dank and dark smoke-stained room of an overpriced motel In Monte Vista, Colorado. (It was the only room available for miles.) She had spent more than a few hours of the previous evening researching the weather and camping options at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Cold and rainy. And by cold I mean sub-freezing and by rain I mean occasionally hardened into little sleetovals or even hail.

Now, SheSpoke is hardcore. She has camped out in single digits, blizzards, and really un-awesome conditions. But SheSpoke turned 40 last year and even though she’s got an extra coating (thanks to hormones and a slowing metabolism), camping out alone in weather that makes driving dicey is no longer her idea of a good time.

The paved path to some historical tidbits

So as she drove east toward the Great Sand Dunes with dreams of sandboarding, she spied the familiar sheet of white in the sky, touching not-so-daintily down to the ground. This forced her to look west, which were boasting clear skies.

The southern end of the San Luis Valleydidn’t look much better and SheSpoke knew the northern end led to a mountain pass, so west it was. When in doubt, it seems, head west.

Looking south down the San Luis Valley

SheSpoke had spent all of her morning and some of her afternoon recounting the amazing powder day she had at Wolf Creek Ski Area the previous day, so she was feeling more indoors than outdoors, on this particular day.

But outdoors was what was in store, so she turned the Subaru around and headed west to drier but certainly not warmer climes.

A few hours of daylight lay ahead, which meant setting up camp in Penitente Canyon, across the valley to the west, would be done with relative ease.

Alas, although SheSpoke has lived for many years with just a fireplace or a wood stove as the only means of not-central heating, she had trouble getting the campfire going and missed the brilliant luminescence that the San Luis Valley usually provides as it ducks under the western horizon. Still, she snapped a phone picture before sunset and was glad the clouds were moving quickly east.

After a tenacious half-hour, the fire got going and the pierogies got hot and the tea got started. SheSpoke ate about 3 meals in one that day in anticipation of a cold night and a physically demanding day on Day 3 of the road trip.

Almost sunset in the San Luis Valley. Sangre de Christos across the valley

Some time after sundown as SheSpoke was poring over maps of the San Luis Valley the coyotes started some eerie karaoke. SheSpoke drifted off until 8AM the next morning. A good 12 hours of camping sleep.

The next morning was prep time for a bike ride she had been anticipating since the prior spring on her last trip to Wolf Creek. She had heard about this trail years before from some blokes riding about on the trails in Durango. It was time to see what mountain biking Penitente Canyon was all about.

At the main trailhead I met up with Justin, who worked in the Forest Service in the nearby town of Sagauche (pronounced sa-watch). SheSpoke has been to Sagauche many times, as it is the gateway to beautiful Crested Butte, if one is into driving the backroad of Colorado Highway 114  and mountain biking the Continental Divide along the way. Buffalo Pass Campground is a cheap ($5) option for an overnight stay on 114. Driving into Sagauche one encounters some super cool topography:

Sagauche, straight ahead

On to the ride. Justin told me the way to go, as detailed trail maps can only be gotten from the Forest Service office in Sagauche, which was closed on this Columbus Day. The Loop A trail is north of the climbing trailhead and Grand Central of this particular outdoorsy playground. You ride for a mile or two on dirt road and just as you begin to wonder if you’re going the right way, a singletrack appears to your left.

Flecks of white appeared 50 yards away and even though my horror film warning light went off, I abandoned the trail, drawn to the out-of-place colors in the earth-tone palette of Penitente Canyon:


Horrifyingly, this little ball of fur was just a few yards away:

Hey, dude! You dropped your coat.

Folks overuse the word haunted quite a bit. But that’s how my ride started that day, until I came across more petrified bone, this one all eaten up and holey:

Holey bones!

But rides are made to be ridden, so I set off with the kind of singlemindedness that hedge-fund managers would envy. I wanted to ride.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Day 3 of this Road Trip.

Read about Day 1 here.