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1997 West Vacation - September 13 through 27, Part 1 of 6


My 1997 West Vacation - 14 days, 5440 miles.
Days 1-4, Home to Colorado Springs, CO.

Planning and Background

My 1996 Vacation spurred an interest in visiting amazing places in the United States. That trip taught me that the wonders in this country aren't in the East. It's in the West, where geologic and climactic catastrophes took place over and over again to shape the continent. It was those immense forces -- land shifts due to Earth's land mass movements to countless volcanic eruptions to ice ages that carved mountains and valleys -- that created the landscapes and vistas that have to be seen to be believed.

My 1996 trip also taught me the two differences between the East and the West. Distance and population density. The East is crowded, the West has places that officially have zero people per square mile. In the East, the main towns are one days ride by horse from one another, while in the West, the towns are where the railroads built them as depots for supplies, or where there was an easy water port on the ocean coasts, or where there were inland water junctions.

What my 1996 trip didn't teach me was the vast number of ever changing landscapes that continue to amaze me today. It also didn't tell me that my idea of what a mountain was like was completely wrong. I had been through the Ozarks and the Allegany's, but they were no match for the Rockies.

My destination in 1997 was the Grand Canyon.

I'd never been to the Grand Canyon. It's one of the places that's always mentioned as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It would be the furthest Southwest I'd be going (well, close to it), so it became my destination. But as I looked around the Grand Canyon for some other interesting places to go, I found out that there were dozens of interesting places to visit. Zion National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Bryce Canyon National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument...

I plotted a bunch of points to stop at in a mapping program, and the result looked like a perfect fit for my vacation. Perfect if I didn't spend any time at any of the parks. Hmmmm....

Adding in a day at the Grand Canyon, another at Zion, another at Arches and Canyonlands, not to mention all the other places I had on the map, and my first pass at planning this trip looked to be about 4 weeks. A bit too long. So much of the trip was gutted, but what was left would amaze me to this day. But still, it was too much for the time I had, and if I were to plan it today, with what I know, I would have planned it differently. But I don't know how...

July 2013 note: Actually, yes I do know how. My 2008 Vacation followed almost the same route as this road trip, but in the opposite direction. It was almost completely different in planning and execution, but had a common thread. Exploring the Grand Staircase. I would revisit some places (if only to take panoramics in the digital era), go and visit many of the places that were gutted from this road trip, and perhaps fulfill a promise or two I made to myself. Oh, that's also why there's so many links to my 2008 vacation in this report.

Road Trips in the late 90's were still a pioneering experience for me. I didn't know how many miles per day I could do, and really hadn't experienced the vast emptiness of the West. So I made no reservations, anywhere. I'd only pay for that only once, but it taught a valuable lesson. When I had some reliable numbers on how many miles I could do per day and how long a day should be, I started making hard reservations at the more popular tourist destinations.

So while the route was well planned, the time table was not. I would leave September 13 to play tourist on my own for a while, then I would pick up Jo in Denver on the 16th.

Nebraska - September 13

Nebraska is as wide as Illinois is tall, and just and interesting... (That's sarcasm if it didn't translate in text form.) Once you get to the Western portion of the state, there's some interesting things to see if you get off the Interstate. Of course, I didn't do that until 1998...

I overnighted in Kearny, Nebraska.

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Wyoming - September 14

Tree Rock
Tree Rock, one of those iconic landmarks of the West. The first transcontinental railroad was diverted from its surveyed route to pass this tree. Later, it became one of the landmarks on the Lincoln Highway.
Even back in 1997, I was doing things like driving into Wyoming, just to say I'd been in Wyoming. Since then I've been in a bunch of places in Wyoming, but when you're new at going places on the road, it was another state you were in...

I stopped in at the Summit Info Center at the Summit Rest Area, where there's a Lincoln Memorial because this was (and still might be) part of the Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast road for cars. I had nightmares about this thing. There's a 30 foot tall Lincoln staring down at you and he looks pissed, and the only thing keeping him from squashing you like a roach is the stone prison he's in. Creepy. Maybe if he was looking over the plains it would have been less intimidating.

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Colorado - September 14

My first foray into Colorado was to experience the Rocky Mountains. During my drive down US-287 from Laramie to Ft. Collins, all you had to do was look right, and you saw mountains. Far away mountains, but a lifetime in the flat plains of the Midwest doesn't prepare you for things that just stick out of the ground like that. Unless their steel and glass. But it was more striking because of the flat plain to the foothills, then having towering mountains over that.

My introduction to the Rockies, was up State Route 14, chosen for no other reason that it was the squiggliest (if that's a word) line on the map. And it was gorgeous...

I stayed the night in Fort Collins, and much to my dismay, I had parked under a tree where a flock of birds roosted over night. (Birds weren't there when I parked...) Had to find a car wash. I can't believe I didn't take a picture.

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Rocky Mountain National Park (Part 1) - September 15

GPS reading
My first time (not in an airplane) I was above 10,000 feet.
State Route 14 may have been my first introduction to the Rockies, but Rocky Mountain National Park was the indoctrination. Here you'll see the very definition of 'Purple Mountain Majesties', with bald granite peaks rising above the tree line as far as you can see. The sheer immenseness of the mountains puts oneself in its place.

It was the first time I'd been above 10,000 feet, where it's always cold and windy, and it doesn't take much to realize there isn't as much oxygen up there than there is closer to sea level. So not only does your (non-turbo/supercharged) car have less power, but the same applies to you. But there is twice the ultraviolet, so bring your sunscreen.

I took Old Fall River Road up to Fall River Pass, an unpaved, one-way road that was once the only way to get to the Pass. There are little pull offs all along the road, where you could pull over and let the opposing traffic by. That must have been insane... :-)

I was back in 2005 for a class, and stopped in to take some panoramics, which still don't do the park justice. I probably would have gotten some great shots if it didn't rain every day I was there...

And I was also there in 2008, where we had to wait until noon before Trail Ridge Road opened due to 6' snow drifts by Lava Falls...

Oh. We'd also be back in two weeks. Enough time for it to snow.

Rocky Mountain National Park (part 1)
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Colorado Springs Area / Garden of the Gods - September 16

I used Colorado Springs as a base camp for a couple of days, while I played tourist at some of the dozens of things to see around the area.

One of the things I wanted to do was Pikes Peak, but there was never a time when I was close where the peak wasn't shrouded by clouds...

Colorado Springs
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Garden of the Gods is a 1300 acre city park, an interesting foreground to Pike Peak. It has some of the reddest rocks I'd seen, but would pail when I got to Arches later in the trip. They also boast the "Garden Of The Gods Trading Post, Colorado's Oldest And Largest" (i.e. The souvenir store.)

Garden of the Gods
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Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument - September 16

My eventual destination for the day was the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, but that was only an excuse to go driving through the mountains... About 30 miles west of Colorado Springs, conditions were perfect 35 million years ago to trap plants and animals under tons of volcanic ash and lake bottom silt. They've found over 100 species of trees and 1100 species of insects.

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
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Cripple Creek, Colorado - September 16

The first major gold strike happened in 1891, and they've pulled over 350 million dollars in gold from this place since then.

Cripple Creek, CO
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The only reason I seem to go to airports anymore, is to pick someone up or drop someone off. I'd been solo up until now, and Jo was going to join me for the rest of the trip.

My most vivid memory was driving down I-25, and watching a freight train with four locomotives crawl up the long inclines next to the Interstate in the thin air...

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End 1997 West Vacation - Part 1 of 6.

Jump to: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

  • 08/4/2013 - Rewrite and update to v3.11
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