As we did last year, my girlfriend and I took a trip this mid-August. Seizing the opportunity presented by a friend’s wedding in Denver, we decided on a week-long road-and-camping trip, working our way south to the Grand Canyon with stops at Gunnison National Forest, Mesa Verde, and Page, AZ along the way.
Before we begin, a tip of the cap to Megan, whose tolerance for and skill in trip-planning greatly exceed my own. Some brief descriptions and reflections follow — but I’ll try to let the pictures do most of the talking. Enjoy!
Gunnison National Forest
Our trip began with a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver to Gunnison National Forest. After failing to secure a Fiat for Italy, I was adamant about renting an on-theme car. And so we navigated the serpentine Route 285 in a Jeep Sahara (admittedly a car with more amenities than I had pictured).
The drive was scenic, thanks to the Rocky Mountain Range. The Rockies are immense, way bigger than anything we have in Massachusetts. At one point, 10,000 feet up, we were craning our necks to view still-higher peaks. The valleys between the mountains were dotted by ranches and yellowing rolls of hay.
When we arrived at Gunnison, we set up the tent and went for a hike. The cool thing about this particular location was that, aside from the presence of small, sparse clearings and a dirt trail, we were basically alone in the woods. We didn’t register or pay anyone; we just drove into the forest and set up camp. Sadly, we didn’t have the fortitude to fully enjoy the free-wheeling atmosphere. After hearing a mountain lion (or something) roar at dusk, we retreated to the car for the night.
One last thing I’ll say is that I was struck by how much trust this kind of camping requires: campers leave their gear unattended; the state doesn’t try to absolve itself of liability with a waiver; no one is monitored to enforce rules. The imperfect analogue that comes to mind is ski resorts, where people leave expensive gear unlocked and unattended, yet theft doesn’t really seem to be a problem. In both cases, I suspect a kind of sub-cultural solidarity is at play.
“Technically, it’s not a mesa, it’s a cuesta.” This seeming piece of pedantry was reiterated to us a couple of times by park staff. It is significant, though, because the south-facing slope of Mesa Verde’s plateau was responsible for the agricultural fertility that, for a while, allowed the Pueblo Indians to thrive there.
Mesa Verde is covered in cedar trees, including many that were burnt in one of the wild fires to which the site is apparently prone. Their white husks cover the mesa, creating an ethereal scene made more so by the prevalence of large, unflinching crows.
The most famous site at Mesa Verde is Cliff Palace, a 700-year-old, 150-room compound built under a rock shelf. Barring some minor restoration by the National Park Service, it’s held up remarkably well to its mysterious abandonment — unfinished building projects on site suggest the Puebloans left in a hurry, and may have intended to return.
Cliff Palace is unquestionably wonderful, a fitting monument to one of America’s oldest cultures. I get the sense that at the time of its abandonment, the Cliff Palace dwelling would have represented the pinnacle of regional architectural and technological development. At the same time, you have to remember that it was finished around 1,300 AD — not that long ago, in the grand scheme of things.
Page, AZ (Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon)
Even though they border each other, Arizona and Colorado have very different terrains. While Colorado is mountains, plateaus, and ranches, Arizona looks like someone did an OK job of terraforming Mars. It’s red and dry, the occasional outcropping rising from the expanse.
We found Antelope Canyon by Googling “things to do in Arizona.” It looked pretty, and besides, we needed something to break up the drive from Mesa Verde to the Grand Canyon. Antelope Canyon was carved by floods that, over time, eroded the sandstone into a narrow, winding series of passages. It still floods every once in a while, according to our tour guide.
We found Wahweap Campground, and thus Lake Powell, by necessity, the result of another Google search. But it should have been a destination in its own right. Situated on the border with Utah, Lake Powell is what you might call the Southwest’s answer to the beach. The water was fresh, clear, and warm.
The Grand Canyon
After years of wanting to go to the Grand Canyon, I was not disappointed. Everything you’ve heard about the Grand Canyon is true. In fact, it’s understated. Its beauty is freakish, prehistoric. From the top, it dominates the landscape — it is the landscape. But looking down on the Canyon only gives you a feel for its magnitude. To really appreciate it, you have to venture down.
Our hike in and out of the Grand Canyon is a tale of unforced error and dogged perseverance. We started our descent at 10:00 am, beginning at the Southern Rim and heading to Bright Angel, a campsite ten horizontal miles and some 7,000 vertical feet away, with about 20 pounds each of camping gear. We’d planned for a three-day voyage: 10 miles the first day, halfway back the second, and the final leg very early in the morning on the third day.
Things didn’t really go as planned, due to a combination of errors and bad luck. The play-by-play is pretty funny, but this post is already too long. So to summarize:
- We started way too late the first day. Ten sounds like an early start. It’s not. It’s not recommended that you hike between 11 am and 4 pm because of the mid-day heat. We didn’t arrive at Bright Angel until 7:00 at night.
- We didn’t pack right. We brought too much we didn’t need and virtually nothing in the way of snacks (just eight apples). All the food we did bring was dehydrated, and needed to be boiled to eat.
- Our cooking fuel spilled in my backpack. This caused us to have to make the trip back in a single day. A ten-mile uphill hike motivated by necessity wasn’t quite what we’d bargained for.
We made it back to the trailhead at night, guided by flashlight. Per Meg’s Fitbit, we climbed the equivalent of 408 flights of stairs that day. There were definitely points along the way when I thought we might not make it. I’ll never forget eating our last two apples while we struggled to hide from the sun on the edge of a switchback.