Colorado National Monument (Jan 3, 2015)

Susan expressed a desire to ring in our 2015 New Year in the southwest somewhere, as we did in 2013.

During our many trips to the southwest we've driven past, and even through, Colorado National Monument (CNM), but we'd never spent any significant time or even hiked there. So, we quickly decided to spend a few days in the "Monument" and do some hiking and scenic photography.

On the morning of New Year's Eve day, we made the decision to make the trip, and within two hours we had all our gear packed in "Tina" and hit the road. We elected to stay in the affordable town of Fruita, on the west end of CNM.

For some reason, CNM hasn't been on my "national park radar" the way so many other national parks and monuments have been. I think it's because of the name -- Colorado National Monument almost sounds like a state-focused park.  Plus, other states don't have their own "national monument" -- i.e., there's no "Delaware National Monument".  (Oops, as I researched this post, I discovered that Delaware just got its first national monument in 2013, First State National Monument. I guess we have to add that to our list of places to see.)  :-)

Colorado National Monument is very compact -- only 32 square miles, about 40 miles of hiking trails, and the 23 mile scenic Rim Rock Drive. Interestingly, CNM was made a national monument in 1911, four years before Rocky Mountain National Park (1915). And it's very accessible, just off I-70 between Grand Junction and Fruita, along the Colorado River, about 300 miles from our home.

We arrived just before sunset and couldn't resist a drive up into the Monument before we checked into our room at the La Quinta. Though we'd missed the best evening light, the views from the first few viewpoints along the Rim Rock Drive were gorgeous.

New Year's Eve at Colorado National Monument; 450' Independence Monument at lower center

Near Window Rock viewpoint, New Year's Eve

After we ran out of daylight we headed back and checked into our room. We hit the sack early, as we wanted to be in the Monument before the sun came up.

We decided to shoot the sunrise from the cliffs and viewpoints overlooking Monument Canyon. This was about 4 miles up the road from Fruita, near the campgrounds and the Saddlehorn Visitor Center and included the Window Rock viewpoint/trail, the Book Cliffs view, and part of the Canyon Rim Trail.

Our first photograph of 2015, looking over the lights of Fruita

It was a cold and partly cloudy/sunny morning; only 10ยบ Fahrenheit. Our multiple layers, wind pants and mittens kept us warm and comfortable, and our MicroSpikes kept our footing safe on the powdery snow and occasional ice along the cliffs.

Looking up Monument Canyon

Happy New Year!

The sky was variable with the clouds changing and obscuring the direct sun. The morning light kept coming and going, but it was fun to catch the fleeting light on the red rocks. And with these cold temps, we were seeing parts of sun dogs, but never a complete halo.

A partial sun dog at upper left

First broken rule of 2015 :-)

Looking southeast past The Sentinel into Monument Canyon

Western Scrub Jay, our first bird of 2015 :-)

Looking north toward Window Rock, Fruita, and Book Cliffs

After a while we drove on up the road, stopping at all the viewpoints, sometimes with good light and sometimes not. We took our time, doing little "micro-hikes" out to viewpoints, and eventually worked our way to the east end of the park.

Looking toward Grand Junction from the east end of the Monument

We were both getting pretty hungry, having mostly skipped breakfast so we could get out the door early, so we decided to have our first meal of 2015 at the modern Dream Cafe, in downtown Grand Junction.

After an excellent meal, we headed back into the Monument, this time to do a little hike to Devil's Kitchen, an interesting rock formation only 3/4 miles off the road, near the east entrance.

Hiking to Devil's Kitchen

On the trail

Susan at Devil's Kitchen

Looking straight up from inside Devil's Kitchen

Looking out from the Kitchen

The rock formations of Devil's Kitchen

After the hike, the short winter days meant that driving back over Rim Rock Drive we might catch some evening light on the rocks, but again, the light was variable, but fun to try to capture.

Canyon Wall near the top of Serpent's Trail

Soon we were out of daylight again, and headed back to our room to have a light snack and go to bed early, so we could get out for sunrise again.

The next morning we drove to the nearby trailhead off Broadway/Hwy 340 to hike the lower Monument Valley trail we'd looked down on from our drive the day before. The hike begins in pretty much a residential neighborhood, and the trail meanders along inside the park boundary fence, and we were looking at the backyards of homes as we started out.

Soon, we found ourselves climbing into the red rock Monument Canyon, heading to the base of Independence Monument. We enjoyed such magical light on the rocks! It is hard to beat the "red, white and blue" of blue skies and red rock country in the snow.

Morning light in Monument Canyon

Sunlight on the Trail; Fruita in the distance

Red light on the snow reflected from red rock canyon walls

One of our first views of Independence Monument (450' high)

There's a Colorado National Monument tradition of climbers planting a US flag on the summit of Independence Monument each July 4th -- since 1911! Click here for NPS photographs of this. Also, there's a great PBS video celebrating CNM's 100th anniversary and chronicling John Otto's story.

Looking southeast in the canyon; more reddish snow from reflected light off the canyon walls

We hiked a little past Independence Monument, and considered going on to the base of the Kissing Couple formation, but it would've been walking straight into the sun, so we elected to head back via the undeveloped Wedding Canyon trail. Same distance back, 2.5 miles, but this meant we would circumnavigate the "Island" formation separating Monument and Wedding Canyons.

At the trail junction

The "Wedding Canyon" and trail were so named because CNM's first park ranger, John Otto, and his wife were married at the base of Independence Monument, in 1911. Unfortunately, his wife Beatrice, from Boston, didn't care much for life in rugged Colorado, and she left after a few weeks, never to return. :-(

Wedding Canyon

Detail from a red rock boulder in Wedding Canyon

Independence Monument

Juniper tree and red rock

Looking back to the trail out of Wedding Canyon

The CNM border fence near the trail

We were pretty tired after the hike, especially after being on the undeveloped trail, so we headed back to our room, and ended up napping before going out later for a drive to several nearby locations to scout out more places we wanted to visit and hike.

Chief among these was Rattlesnake Canyon Arches in the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness, a concentration of rock arches of the southwest second only to Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, a place we visited in the fall of 2011. Unfortunately, the two main ways to get to this remote area involved either a 15 mile hike, or a 13 mile drive with some 4x4 roads which were inaccessible in the winter.

After this we drove to Palisade, Colorado to check out another possible hike, and did a scenic drive through Palisade's fruit and wine country. And after a stop at De Beque Canyon Winery to taste a few Colorado wines, we had a brewpub dinner at the Palisade Brewing Company, just across the street.

We headed back to Fruita, and packed up for our trip home the next day with a planned stop in Breckenridge.

After a late lunch the next day in Breck, we got caught up in holiday ski traffic on I-70 (and an accident-caused traffic jam) which caused our normal 3 hour drive home to take over 5 hours!

This was a great little trip and a wonderful way to begin 2015!

Monument Canyon on New Year's morning

Milky Way over Lake Irene (Oct 24)

Astrophotography interests me, but I'm not really an astronomer-type with a camera and telescope (like my talented photographer friend Pat), but I do enjoy trying to make images of the stars.

I like being outside, especially in a really dark sky area and observing and photographing the Milky Way. The last really good dark sky experience was in Walden, Colorado when we went there to see the Perseids meteor shower.

Image from near Walden, Colorado during Aug 2013 Perseids

Though most of Rocky Mountain National Park isn't in a truly dark sky location, it's still better than being in Denver or Estes Park where there's quite a bit of light pollution.

Light pollution map for Colorado (from 2006 satellite data)

But ever since I saw some of Erik Stensland's night sky photos taken at Lake Irene in RMNP, I've been wanting to get up there. So finally we did.

We went up the day after my hike to Estes Cone, partly because the skies were supposed to be pretty clear, plus, on this date, there was a new moon which had already set earlier in the evening. This, combined with the shorter days in late October, we could go out pretty early and have it be pretty dark.

Lake Irene is about an hour from our house on Trail Ridge Road, so we left about 9pm and arrived at the parking lot to find only one other car (which was one more than I expected!).

We took our Saab convertible up there and shortly after arriving, we put on a bunch of layers and then put the top down. Susan laid down in the back seat to stare up in to the sky, and I wandered around the parking lot with the camera and tripod getting accustomed to the darkness.

Night sky above Lake Irene

The Milky Way above the parking lot at Lake Irene

In 15-20 minutes our eyes got used to the darkness and the Milky Way was there in all its glory. And not only that, staring up into the sky allowed us both to catch the occasional meteor streaking by.

After awhile, we decided to turn our headlamps on and walk on the maintained path to Lake Irene. I was hoping to find still water on the little lake to catch reflections of the stars.

Lake Irene

For the most part, we weren't disappointed. :-)

The starlit trail along Lake Irene

We walked along the edge of the lake, eventually walking around a good bit of it. I was concerned that maybe there was another photographer there because of the car in the parking lot, but we never saw or heard another person.

We were having lots of fun stumbling around in the dark and did a couple of light-painting experiments.

A favorite shot of Susan shining her headlamp on the trail near the lake

Finally, we decided to leave and see what else we could find on the way back home.

We stopped for a few minutes at Rock Cut, but this was even closer to the city lights from Denver, Longmont, Loveland, and Fort Collins.

Continental Divide from Rock Cut

Looking west from Rock Cut with a car on Trail Ridge Road

We made one quick stop at Rainbow Curve for a photo of the lights of what we call "the Valley", and then headed home and to bed.

Looking east from Rainbow Curve

The shot above from Rainbow curve is really interesting. First, you can see there are far fewer stars visible because of the light pollution from the I-25 corridor. You can clearly see the outline of Deer Mountain right of center, with the lights of Estes park to the right. The two light streaks at bottom center are other cars coming up Trail Ridge Road. And there are two small reflections (not lights) in Horseshoe Park -- those are Sheep Lakes! And if you go full screen you might even see meandering Fall River.

If you're curious about camera settings, here's some info. These were shot with a Canon 5D Mark III and a "fast" lens, the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L. A tripod is a must. Most shots were about f/2.0, about 2500 ISO and about 25 second exposures. You're "supposed" to use a shutter release, but I often just use the 2 second timer. The hardest part is getting good focus. I switch the lens to manual focus, find a very bright star, and then switch to "Live View" and use 5x or 10x magnification on then adjust the focus ring until the points of light are focussed.

It was a great night to be out, and I finally got to capture the night sky from Lake Irene. I didn't get the fine art results someone like Erik gets, but it was a lot of fun to try!

Lake Irene

Hike to Estes Cone (Oct 23)

Some friends recently moved here from the northeast and Tim had asked for recommendations for good "starter hikes" to do for someone who's active and fit.

I thought about it some and realized that the hike to Estes Cone is a really nice moderate hike of about almost 7 miles round trip, with a nominal gain of about 1,600' (about 2,000' with all ups and downs). The hike starts at the Longs Peak area at an elevation of 9,400 with the summit being at 11,006'. Definitely something to get the heart pumping and lungs inflating!

View of Estes Cone (foreground); Meeker, Longs, and Mt Lady Washington in background; taken from Lily Mountain

Map of the Estes Cone hike

After giving him my recommendation, I invited myself to go along and I'm glad I did. Spending several hours hiking is a fun way to have good conversation and share the outdoor experience. And I especially enjoyed talking with Tim about photography, as he's done that for a living for many years.

Estes Cone from the Longs Peak trailhead parking lot

I really like the hike to Estes Cone as it has some nice hiking in the woods, with only the last third of mile being strenuous and a little scramble at the top.

The weather was good this day and we started the hike a bit before 9am. We took our time on the trail and summitted at about 11:30am.

Tim summiting

Estes Cone is a fantastic summit experience with 360 degree views of Longs Peak, the peaks along the Continental Divide, Estes Park, and Twin Sisters (less than 3 miles away).

Meeker, Longs, and Mt Lady Washington (almost 4 miles away to the SW)

Looking WNW towards the Continental Divide (about 6 miles away)

We scrambled around on the rocky summit rocks for awhile, taking in the views, making photographs, and trying to stay warm in the fairly windy conditions.

Tim on the summit

I hadn't been on Estes Cone since the Colorado Floods last year and realized we had a really great perspective on the massive landslide that happened on Twin Sisters, stopping just short of Aspen Lodge.

View from the summit to the east; Lily Lake at left; landslide on Twin Sisters at right

Detail of the landslide on Twin Sisters; Aspen Lodge is at lower right

Looking ENE; Estes Park and Lake Estes are at center left; Lily Mountain Center, Lily Lake at lower right

After about 30 minutes we headed back down off the summit and hit the trail to the car.

One last view of Longs from the rocky summit

Tim starting the scramble down from the summit

Hiking profile for Estes Cone (elevation part even looks like a cone!)