LoCo Fall Drive

Our last sojourn with the club was spring of last year. If I’m counting correctly, that means we missed two trips since then. So we’re due for a weekend outing. This time we’re sticking closer to home and shortening the trip to two days/one night.

Mike has now put so many of these trips together that he’s probably driven every paved mile of every state and US route west of I-25 at least twice, and certainly many miles of county road as well. His routes are well designed and documented, and thoroughly scouted. Thanks Mike!

Saturday, September 28

Our rally point was an Alta station in Woodland Park. A quick drivers meeting at 9:45 for a 10:00 departure. We left the house at 7:30 and would grab breakfast and stop at a Subway to make our picnic lunch on the way. We hit the superslab and went through the Springs. This may have been our first suboptimal decision. I think the route through Deckers is as fast, but I figured food would be easier the other way.

I’m not a big fan of Interstates to start with. But the stretch between Denver and Colorado Springs is at the top of the list of Interstates I particularly dislike. There’s been too much traffic for twenty-five years and it only gets worse. A bunch of people go too fast, and another bunch never gets out of the left lane. Now the level of difficulty has been bumped up with a twenty-one mile stretch of construction: narrow lanes, lane diversions, concrete barriers, reduced speed limits.

But today is a beautiful, clear Saturday morning in early fall and perhaps a lower than average number of inattentive drivers are out and about. The worst offenders today are the ones who you catch up to at a steady rate but speed up when you go to pass them. If that’s the worst behavior we encounter all weekend, that would be great.

We had a fast food breakfast, got our picnic lunches, and made it to the rendezvous with time to spare.

This trip is not only 2/3 of the normal duration, but about 2/3 of the normal number of cars. The Lotus contingent is a Europa, four Elises (one each of red, yellow, green and blue), and a Westfield 7. In theory, we could have had two more Elises, both orange, but the passenger count required larger vehicles so two M series BMW’s were substituted (an M4 and an X3). Also on the substitution list were two Esprits. One went down with an electrical problem a few days ago, so it is replaced by a Range Rover. The other is an X180R and is not as well-suited to these trips as the Jaguar XK-R. And, finally, a sharp, sporty Cadillac piloted by a former Elise owner.

Our first stop was the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. It might be natural to try to compare Dinosaur National Monument to this place, but they’re not at all the same. Florissant is six thousand acres of sub-alpine forest, while Dinosaur is high desert with deep canyons and is thirty-five times bigger. Forissant’s treasures are 34 million years old, a world dominated by mammals, while Dinosaur’s are, well, dinosaurs.

Only photo I have that shows the scale of these stumps

Thirty four million years ago, the Florissant area was prime lakeside land in a forest of giant redwood trees. Then a nearby volcano erupted and filled the place with lahar and ash, preserving the stumps of the giant trees. In addition to the giant stumps, there are layers of “paper shale” that hold fine specimens of plant and insect fossils.

The place has a smallish visitor center. There are displays that describe the geology and have examples of the fossils and interactive dioramas. There’s also the usual gift shop. Outside, there is a set of large stumps with roofs over them, and several trails that go out into the fields. We took the one mile loop and saw a number of the stumps in various conditions.

The fossil beds were notorious a century ago and people came from all around to take home pieces of the stumps. The place was comprehensively looted. As late as 1956 it was still going on. Walt Disney visited Florissant and arranged to buy one of the stumps. I understand it’s still on display at Frontierland.

After a bit more than an hour at Florissant we hit the road for Victor and Cripple Creek. These were flourishing towns in the gold rush days. In those days, most of the fortunes were made by the people who supplied and supported the miners, rather than the miners themselves. A story I find amusing is that of the guy, building his hotel in Victor, who struck gold digging the foundations.

Cripple Creek has lived on tourism and gambling for decades, but gold mining made a bit of a comeback. The road from Victor to Cripple Creek passes around the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mine, operated by Newmont Goldcorp. Newmont is the second largest producer of gold in the world, but this is not one of their larger operations. It is large enough, though, that I expect the mine to completely level a mountain.

We had our picnic lunches at a park in Cripple Creek. They had a festival going on, with the main drag downtown closed to traffic. A stage was a the top of the road with a live band playing sixties radio fare. Lots of the usual sorts of vendors, and a few food trucks. We’d heard that there was a car show, but we missed it. We did see another group pass through: a few Corvettes and a Ford GT.

“Acclaimed all over the world”

Our third leg of the day takes us to the Royal Gorge over a series of Teller County roads. Much of this leg was on roads I’d never been over before. There wasn’t much traffic. We weren’t going particularly fast, but it’s always nicer to pick our own pace.

At one time, the Royal Gorge was the highest suspension bridge in the world at nearly a thousand feet above the river. There are now a couple higher bridges in China. Those probably are used to get from one place to another. The Royal Gorge, though, is a bridge to nowhere. When I was a kid, you could still drive across it. Even then there wasn’t anyplace to go on the other side: you had to cross back over the bridge.

Today, of course, it’s pedestrian traffic only. I haven’t been here since I was a kid, and nothing was familiar except the bridge. A forest fire burned through the area a few years ago. It burned some of the facilities but not the bridge. So the place is mostly brand new, with a large visitor center and a number of thrill rides on the other side. We didn’t stop for very long: get some photos, walk around, take a comfort break.

From the Royal Gorge we headed west on US 50 to Salida and our lodgings for the night. We’ve been seeing a surprisingly large number of RVs so I expected to get held up in the canyon. But there are several passing lanes and the only RV we came across pulled over after two of us passed it.

Approaching Salida we ran into a construction zone that had several sections of unpaved road. We also started to smell smoke. The Decker fire is burning nearby. It’s not a particularly big fire, having burned about 1,500 acres (so far). It was started by lightning and is burning an area with lots of beetle-kill. We saw fire fighter trucks from various places; the fire is only about 5% contained but the forecast is for strong winds, so that won’t help.

We had dinner at the Boathouse Cantina. They made room for our large group near the front door. The room was dark enough to make reading the menu difficult, but we managed to decide what we wanted. Genae had the scallops while I had the tacos al pastor (pork and pineapple with jalapeno and cilantro, with a slice of lime).

Sunday, September 29

We’d spend the morning driving: over Monarch pass to Gunnison, then north through Almont, past Taylor Park Reservoir, and over the newly-paved Cottonwood pass to Buena Vista. While I enjoyed our visits to the fossil beds and the bridge, I most anticipated the drive over Cottonwood pass and it ended up being the highlight of the trip for me.

Decker fire

Genae jokingly (I think) suggested we hit the pancake house down the street. Somebody else did go there; said it’s a crowded place and you have to get there early. I wasn’t going anywhere early. Breakfast in the hotel was underwhelming. Their bagels were miniature, too small to put in the toaster. Almost everything else on offer was sugary. So I had toast.

Down to ten cars with the departure of the Cadillac, we were were a relatively easy group to wrangle. Everybody was ready to go. We left promptly at 8:30. We’ve done the drive from Salida to Gunnison a number of times. We had very little traffic this time, which is nice, but Monarch Pass is a fairly run-of-the-mill road.

Part of the fun of the trip is to see the aspen. Yesterday, I’d say the aspen looked a lot like my car: mostly green with some yellow. Today there was more yellow, so much more scenic. The western side of Monarch is grassy, with cottonwood near the water. The cottonwoods had turned, a bit more gold compared to the yellow of the aspen.

To get to Cottonwood Pass, head north out of Gunnison to the confluence of the East River and Taylor River. This confluence forms the Gunnison River. From here it’s county roads to all the way until it turns into Main Street in Buena Vista.

Taylor canyon is quite pretty. The river is still flowing nicely, and the road is often close to it. It is open range, so there are quite a few cattle guards. I’ve driven many miles through open range and rarely see cattle. Today there were some, right on the side of the road when we resumed after a short rest stop.

At Taylor Park Reservoir

Cottonwood Pass doesn’t have a storied history. No notable expeditions of exploration crossed here, no railroad conquered it. And only this year did it finally get paved. It is now the highest paved through road in the state. Only the roads to the summits of Mt. Evans and Pikes Peak are higher. The road was built in spring of 1880. Nearby Tincup Pass got a road at about the same time, but although Cottonwood is higher, it was used more than Tincup because of the gentler grade.

Cottonwood Pass has some character. Almost all the passes in Colorado on US highways have been widened and straightened to handle high traffic loads. Wolf Creek used to be so treacherous they wrote songs about it. Today it’s three or four lanes all the way over the pass. Cottonwood still has a healthy number of hairpin turns, even if it lacks precipitous drops. It’s twisty and turny: a nice Lotus road.

East side of Cottonwood Pass

The road crosses the Continental Divide Trail at the summit and the Colorado Trail a few miles down the west side. I was expecting to see another crossing on the east side as well. The CT splits: hikers can use either the Collegiate East option or Collegiate West. Each is 80 miles, and we’re passing between Mt. Yale and Mt. Princeton. It doesn’t get much more collegiate than that.

At the summit we parked next to a small SUV with writing all over the back windows: “Triple Crown AP 2017 PCT 2018 CT 2019”. Seems to me they’re running a bit late. Certainly, if they’re only this far on their way north they won’t finish.

Roadside colors

We arrived in Buena Vista about noon. We split from the group here. The itinerary called for a lunch stop here for an hour and a half or so, followed by everybody going their respective ways: the Springs folks down US 24, the Denver people down US 285. This is where we made our second suboptimal decision. We left early and went north to I-70.

This takes us through Leadville and over Fremont Pass and by the Climax mine. We stopped in Silverthorne for lunch. The electronic signs near the Dillon exit indicated “Up to 90 minutes to Denver”. That’s not bad. With no traffic it takes an hour. So thirty minutes of delays on a Sunday afternoon doesn’t sound too bad. And “up to” means it could be less, right?

Only that’s not how it turned out. It took us half an hour just to get to the tunnel. Then it was stop-and-go off and on to US 6. We’d have been much better off going 285. So it goes.

It was a really nice weekend. Big thanks to Mike for all the effort he puts in.

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