Friday, August 31, 2007

Royal Gorge Railroad

The historic Royal Gorge Route Railroad departs from the Santa Fe station in Canon City and travels 24 round-trip miles alongside the Arkansas River, including through Royal Gorge with its 1000+ foot canyon walls. Since we boarded at the far western end where our raft trip ended, we rode the train back to the station.

It was in 1879 that the first passenger train rode this route, a route long engulfed in a turf war between the Santa Fe and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroads. Here is the 1950s era F7 locomotive picking up 40 rafters from various raft companies at the western end of the route.

Although seats are available inside a passenger car, we spent the entire 2 hour ride in this outdoor car, enjoying the scenery and beautiful summer day. As we entered the gorge a bit later, this car quickly filled up.

Here is a shot of the interior of a typical passenger car. For an upgrade cost, you could also ride in the domed observation car.

Raft trips are also available through the canyon, and involve negotiating numerous rapids rated at 4 and 5 on a scale of 5. Participants all wear helmets as well as personal flotation devices. The photo below shows several rafts alongside the train. It is said that over 200,000 people raft this area each year.

The famous Royale Gorge suspension bridge, built in 1929 and the highest in the world, is a highlight of the trip. I recall decades ago walking across it and noticing in the middle a sign indicating it was 1000-plus feet to the river below. Next to that sign was another that simply said: No Fishing from Bridge!

Immediately below the bridge, the train tracks are also built on a "hanging bridge." Since the canyon walls at river level are a mere 30 feet apart at this point, a metal plate about 300 feet long, suspended from the canyon walls on each side by massive steel beams, supports the tracks. Hence the trains travel across a bridge as they pass under the Royal Gorge bridge 100 stories above.

Rafting the Arkansas River

We took a double-activity tour -- rafting the Arkansas and then riding the Royal Gorge Railroad. Rafting came first, and here we are at Pinnacle Rapid put-in, a BLM facility along Highway 50 west of Canon City. Our rafting company is Arkansas River Tours.

Our guide, Dan, is all smiles as this is his final run on the Arkansas. During the winter, he is on Copper Mountain Resort's ski patrol and is an EMT, but next week he heads to West Virginia to guide rafts down the New and Gauley Rivers -- true big water.

Ellen mirrors his big smile. This is her first whitewater raft adventure and she has taken to it quickly, as seen in her smile following the first rapid -- which was a mere warm-up to the class 3 and 4 rapids to come.

This river runs as much as 2900 cfs (cubic feet per second) in the spring and really rips along at a fast rate, but today's 650 cfs makes it a slower but more technical river, as the guides must get us around continuous rock combinations which are under water at the higher flow levels.

Our run today is 9+ miles in length and will take about 2 hours. It was a lovely 75 degrees air temp, and even the water isn't horrendously cold. We naturally got wet from wave action, but noone on either raft in our party became an involuntary swimmer.

We are rafting through Bighorn Sheep Canyon and the more demanding and technical rapids we'll be tackling have names such as Prelude, 3 Rocks Falls, 5 Points, Spikebuck, Shark's Tooth, and Last Chance. Ever notice how many names of rapids are ominous sounding? Part of the hype, I reckon.

The river has Highway 50 on one side and a rail line on the other, though the rail line is only used near Canon City, hence the empty and idle coal cars we see in the photo below, just sitting around as if they are on a siding.

All in all, it was a very fine morning on the river. Or as my paddling buddy, Mike Fox from San Antonio, always exclaims sometime during a paddle, "Another lousy day on the river!" Of course, he means the exact opposite.

Skyline Drive: Driving the Razor Edge

Following the raft trip and the train ride, we drove Skyline Drive -- a true adventure not duplicated elsewhere in the country.

This was my third drive on Canon City's famous Skyline Drive. The first was three decades ago with Uncle Jake who then lived down the road in Pueblo, and the second was when my sons were young.

This 3 mile paved, single lane, one way road was built by prison inmates in 1932 and towers 800 to 1000 feet above Canon City. No -- RVs and vehicles over 20 feet long are prohibited.

Drivers who are acrophobic and passengers who fear heights and steep dropoffs (like my Mom) should also avoid the drive. This area was an inland sea stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic during the Cretaceous, so there are many trace fossils (the result of ancient animals burrowing, walking, feeding, and being fed upon) in the rocks up on the drive.

But for the rest of us, it is a unique driving experience. The road below on the right is Colorado Highway 50. The drive begins a few miles west of Canon City, and the exit is on 5th Street in the city. Make a right turn and you'll get back to Hwy. 50.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Colorado Midland Centennial Trail

The Colorado Midland Railroad built standard gauge tracks over the mountain back in the late 1880s, and the original rail bed comprises much of this 5.5 mile trail. The roadbed ascends at a 1 to 2 percent grade and switches back 3 times across the mountain side. The trestles are unfortunately gone, but a few remnants of railroad ties and even snow sheds remain. Here Ellen hikes uphill with the magnificent vistas obvious behind her.

Marlene makes her way up the old wagon road which was the main street of the construction workers' homes in the town of Douglass City. Most dwellings were tents, but the remains of a few of the permanent log buildings can be seen, perhaps parts of the 8 saloons and 1 brothel which served the workers.

Rest stops reward hikers with food for thought as you gaze over the scenery. I wondered if the workers constructing the railroad were able to appreciate and enjoy the views as much as we did. "Forever" views indeed stimulate introspection and remind one of the vastness beyond self and the greatness of the Creator.

The highest point of the line was at Hagerman Tunnel, a mere 450 feet below the summit, making this at the time the world's highest elevation full standard gauge railroad tunnel. The opening is in the cleft in the center of the photo, though the original right-of-way has become partially blocked by fallen rubble over the last century.

A cautious climb over the fallen boulders allowed this closeup shot of the tunnel entrance, replete with winter's remaining ice and snow, hidden in the tunnel entrance and unmelted by the sunlight. The tunnel 600 feet lower than this one (which replaced Hagerman Tunnel after merely 3 years of service) is chained and gated shut, but Hagerman is ungated -- though large warning signs tell of the dangers of falling rock inside.

This is the view that would greet the engineer as he brought his train out of the tunnel -- the high mountain beauty, Opal Lake, and the magnificent mountains beyond...

...and a half mile later on the descent down the grade, the engineer would again be rewarded with views of Hagerman Lake, another high mountain gem of a lake.

What a wondrous day! We hiked over 12 miles on two different mountains, all over 11,000 feet elevation, and ascended over 2000 feet total -- and for the first day did not have rain. And people wonder what magic keeps drawing me to the high country! One trip up here would answer that question and no doubt create a new addict!

Native Lake Trail

Today was another day of acclimating to altitude, this time on the Native Lake Trail, another gateway into the Mt. Massive Wilderness.

This trail was rated intermediate, with an elevation gain of 1200 feet the first 3 miles, at which point we savored the views and then returned to do a hike on a neighboring mountainside.

Ellen gets a photo of a very large red mushroom with white spots like measle markings.

Don't let the smiles fool you -- they are just for the camera. When you are doing strenuous exertion at 12,000 feet, you are sucking air a lot more than you are smiling, though the vistas are a payoff that makes the effort worthwhile.

Monday, August 27, 2007

It's crooked and something's wet!

These were the words I heard exclaimed by Marlene as we began hiking from the fish hatchery trail head. It turned out to be a reference to her day pack water bladder which was on crooked and was leaking water, and it referred to a problem far less interesting than what I had imagined from the statement.

After a mile or so of uphill on the Blue Diamond Trail we reached the Mount Massive Wilderness of the San Isabel National Forest...

... and continued the uphill slog for 2+ more miles -- an altitude gain of over 1200 feet - until we reached the Colorado Trail. We had planned to take it over to the Highline Trail which we would then descend back to the car, but the intense August rains had so swollen the creek that we couldn't find a safe way across, so we returned by the same route. After all -- it all looks different going the other way!

The Leadville fish hatchery is the second oldest in the country at almost 120 years and it raises over a half million cutthroat and rainbow trout for Colorado's waterways. Below is a section of wooden pipe from the early days, used to bring water down from Rock Creek to the hatchery.

Our 6 mile hike was a good start to our getting acclimated to the 10,000+ foot altitude, and we were ready for some rest and a good meal in town at the Golden Burro Restaurant.

Leadville, Colorado

Leadville is a quaint historic town, advertising itself proudly as the country's highest inhabited town at 10,152 feet. It possesses a decided western air, and its heritage as a mining town is evident all along the main street as well as with the mining museums. Most buildings are originals from the 1800s but well maintained and fully functioning, and its citizenry are charming and welcoming. Nearly every weekend hosts some event to draw tourists -- from 100 mile endurance runs to movie festivals to bike races and, my personal favorite, the annual "Get your ass over the pass race," where a runner has to race over the pass while holding the lead to his burro.

Local businesses capitalize on word-play in their advertising...

... and also display a sense of humor on inside signage.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Molly Brown Campground

We met Len and Marlene at the Molly Brown Campground outside Leadville, Colorado, one of numerous campgrounds run by the San Isabel National Forest. We set up camp but weren't able to do much hiking in the campground area because we were beset by frequent though brief rain showers.

You really appreciate having a good quality tent when it is so wet, and both of these tents are good ones. We also spent several hours in our vehicles reading and talking during the rains. But despite the weather, we were never bothered by rain at mealtimes or while hiking in the high country (see next few posts for the hiking photos.)

Turquoise Lake is a huge reservoir that borders most of these campgrounds and provides marvelous views, and there is a 12 mile trail along its shore.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Salida Trail System

Salida Colorado's bike trail is only three miles long or so, starting Downtown at the Waterfront Park and ending just behind the WalMart, but as you see, it is a lovely ride.

Not the usual sights you see biking any of the Chicago area's hundreds of miles of wonderful trails.

The end of the trail is unceremoniously abrupt in my opinion.

Splishin' and a splashin'

We've moved on to Salida, Colorado (one of the first Colorado towns I ever visited way back in 1959 when Uncle Jake the forest ranger lived here) to get a motel and enjoy a real bed, a shower, some restaurant food, and high speed wireless Internet. I took Ellen on a tour and we stopped in the downtown where she bought her new replacement hiking boots. Here she is showing them off at Riverside Park.

By the way, Riverside Park, smack in the downtown, is a popular place, especially on a 90+ degree afternoon, as seen in these photos below:

Obviously, white water kayaking is big out here, and many towns have done as Salida has done, and created a water course with rapids for the residents and visitors. A shop right on the river bank rents kayak ""play boats" to those interested in running the rapids and practicing moves and eskimo rolls.

Tomorrow we head up to Leadville (10,000 feet elevation) to camp 3 nights with Len and Marlene, and then we head into the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness for a 4 day backpack trip in the high country (up to 13,000 feet, and with several 14er's nearby.)