Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Journey North

Having enjoyed our stay in Chama, it was time to work our way north to Montana and a visit with our friends at the Lee Metcalf NWR. On our first day, we headed west from Chama, then turned north to Durango, Colorado (lots of tourists and traffic), to Cortez, then a few miles south for two nights at the Ute Mountain Casino and RV Park. I don't know about you, but for us, the words "casino" and RV Park" just naturally go together. Surprisingly, it was a very nice casino with a pretty good restaurant, and the RV park was above average, with shade, grass, and free WiFi. We wanted to explore the area, especially Mesa Verde National Park, and are glad we took the time. What an impressive place! Entering the park, we climbed to the top of a huge mesa into pinion pine (hence the name "green table"), following a paved loop road which took us to a number of scenic overlooks. The mesa contains 600 cliff dwellings, some, like the "cliff palace" are huge, while other, small dwelling are scattered almost under every overhang. Looking at the dwellings, it hard to imagine how the occupants journeyed to the river for water and to forage for food; most of the dwelling are high above the valley and look like they would require a large number of ladders to reach - here, sending the kids "out to play" must have been interesting! We spent most of the day here, and would like to return during a cooler, less crowded time to explore more of the park. Leaving the park & casino a few quarters lighter, we continued north into Moab, Utah where it was a warm 107 degrees. We arrived early in the afternoon, and had a chance to make a quick visit to Arches National Park. Southern Utah is a wonderland of colorful, magical shapes; here, the red sandstone contains over 2000 natural arches and many interesting formations, like "elephant head" pictured. It was blazing hot and the skies were hazy from the smoke of distant wildfires. After a circuit of the park, we took a drive up the Colorado River Canyon, and were amazed at how large the river is and how steep the canyon walls were that towered above. It's a very scenic area but July is not the time to visit; the next day we were off early, traveling through green valleys to Provo for a night's stay, then on to Hill AFB and the base family campground (Famcamp). Here I had the chance to show Brenda one of my old stomping grounds (it's a much nicer place to visit when you're not working) and we had the chance to stock up at the commissary, rest, and visit the Great Salt Lake. We visited Antelope Island State Park, the largest access area to the Lake, crossing a long causeway. The shore on each side was full of California gulls on one side and beautiful American Avocets on the other. On the island, Pronghorn Antelope were everywhere and the view across the lake to Ogden was pretty. While it's a one-of-a-kind place to visit, beware - the whole place smells like dead fish and the brine flies are everywhere. Not a place we'll return to. Leaving Hill AFB, we headed north on I-15 to Blackfoot, Idaho, then off on a lonely road through Atomic City (home of the first nuclear reactor) and finally a stop for the night in Arco. The next day the scenery became beautiful as we picked up the Salmon River Valley in Challis, then on to Salmon, and finally, North Fork. At North Fork, we spent three days at the most beautiful park we've been to. With only 8 RV spots, River's Fork Lodge is on the banks of the Salmon River and we were able to pull forward to a spot on the bank within 20 feet of the water. Our windshield view was filled with river, forest, and mountain, and in the evening we watched as Elk came out of the forest to feed. The owners went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable and even had the post office call them to tell us our mail was in! What a great place - we can't wait to return. At North Fork, the Salmon turns west from the highway and we were able to drive along the river for over 25 miles into the boundary of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. The river flows through a broad valley where we saw nearly a hundred Elk grazing, into a narrow, rocky canyon where the water flows fast and there are large stretches of rapids. Along the way there are the ruins of old mines and cabins, and in the spring the river is crowded with fisherman as Steelhead, an ocean-going trout, make their return to spawning grounds. The smoky haze of wildfires kept us from getting clear photos, but hopefully you can see how rugged the area is. After three memorable days, we headed north over 7200' Lost Trail Pass (the motorhome performed flawlessly!) and into Montana. We'll keep you posted on our travels; come back and visit!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Charmin' Chama

We've always wanted to explore the mountains of northern New Mexico, and have been intrigued by the area around the small town of Chama. Located just south of the Colorado border, Chama sits in a beautiful valley surrounded by high, green mountains with large aspen groves and meadows. With just a small main street and the usual tourist shops, the town is best known as the southern terminal of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, an 1880s steam-powered train that travels on a route from Chama to Antonito, Colorado. We spent a week at the Little Creel Resort, a crowded but adequate RV park on the banks of the Rio Chama. The weather was a change from the desert of Albuquerque, with evening temperatures in the 70s and overnight lows in the high 40s. Since we were there over the 4th of July holiday, we expected the area to be crowded, but were surprised at how may people, mostly Texans, had discovered the area. Fortunately, we had made advance reservations for the train ride, opting for the Chama to midpoint (Osier) and back trip. The train departed Chama at 10:00 with lots of steam, smoke, and whistles and began a slow climb over windy point and Cumbres Pass on it's way to Osier, two and one-half hours away. Climbing over the pass, the train descended into the Los Pinos valley and then again climbed to our lunch stop at Osier, a deserted mining town at over 9600'. There, a large building hosted a cafeteria-style lunch of turkey, meat loaf, salad bar, and lots of desserts. For such a remote location, the food was surprising good (the buttermilk pie was remarkable!), and we thought it was a nice touch that as we left, the employees all lined up trainside to say thanks and wave goodbye. On the ride back to Chama, we spent time on the open flat car, with the breeze (and cinders) in our face, enjoying the view and listening to the brakes squealing as the train made it's way down the mountain. Arriving back at the station at just after 4:00, we had time for a quick ice cream cone before heading back to the RV park. The train ride is a truly memorable experience; we highly recommend it if you are in the area. We also had the chance to drive the mountain backroads and on one day journeyed to Dulce, a small, predominantly Jicarilla Apache town that conspiracy theorists believe has a huge, secret alien/human base under the adjacent Archuleta Mesa. You have to read some of the web sites on the subject; they're hilarious. Although we looked everywhere, we didn't see any aliens, although some of the local residents looked suspicious. Back at the all-human (mostly) RV Park, we were visited by our good friends from our time in Dayton, Joe and Susan, who have also retired and now live in Monument, Colorado. We had a great time remembering our days as working (sorta) people, and caught up on old friends and family and our beer-drinking. It was great seeing them again and we're happy that they're also having a wonderful "second career". Finally, each day we watched as a pair of Lewis's Woodpeckers flew back and forth to feed their single baby. The Lewis's is a striking bird and we watched as the baby started poking it's head out, screeching like some sort of crazed banshee. All in all, our stay in Chama was truly memorable, and we hope to return some time in the fall when the mountainsides of aspen turn to gold. We're off on our journey north, so check back and see our latest adventures - Thanks!