Cross Country Trip

Road Trip Day 27: Utah to Colorado

Sign for Arches National ParkThis morning we got up around 7 am and availed ourselves of the lovely showers at the campground. (If you’re ever considering tent camping in Moab, I highly recommend the Up the Creek Campground.) The music from the Relay for Life was still going, though by the time I got back to the tent, they were wrapping things up with “I Had the Time of My Life”.

We made bacon and eggs for breakfast, and then Dave and I packed up all our stuff. Michelle and Eric decided to stay at this campground for another night, since they were planning to spend the entire day at Arches and leave the next morning to continue visiting Southern Utah’s other national parks. We said farewell, and Dave and I were off by 10 am.

We stopped briefly at the farmer’s market at Moab’s City Park. There wasn’t much produce to speak of, and no meat at all that I could see, so we bought some muffins to eat for tomorrow’s breakfast and then headed on our way.

Arches National Park is just up the road from Moab (only about 5 miles), so Dave and I figured we would breeze through, take some photos of some arches, and then hit the road. Somehow we ended up spending a lot more time there than we expected.

We stopped by the visitors center for a bit to buy some postcards and get a sense of what we should spend our time on. By 10:30 am we finally were driving up the scenic road that is the backbone of Arches National Park. The road is about 18 miles long, one way. There are many lovely views from the road itself, and there are also a number of spur roads off the main road that allow for views of some of the park’s most popular arches, as well as trails to get up close to those arches, and/or to view arches that aren’t visible from the road.

The weather today was breezy (though not as windy as yesterday) and the high was predicted to be around 85 degrees – thankfully not blazing hot as it normally would be in August.

At our first couple of stops along the road we were surrounded by French people, who were part of a tour group that we kept leap-frogging. Thankfully we managed to breeze past them before long – it would have been annoying to deal with all day long.

Courthouse Towers, Arches National ParkWe stopped first at the Courthouse Towers, which are a couple of very large towers (apparently resembling a courthouse to the original explorers). Then we stopped at Balanced Rock and walked all the way around it. I tried not to get annoyed at the numerous tourists who disregarded the multiple prominent signs exhorting visitors to stay on the trails and be careful not to tread on the delicate desert foliage.

Jenn and Dave at the Turret ArchAfter this we took one of the spur roads off the main road and drove over to The Windows Section. Here we parked the car and walked a very short trail to see the North Window, South Window, and the Turret Arch. These were pretty cool, and any visitor could easily walk right up and under the arches. It’s a spot where you could easily spend several hours just hanging out among the rocks and poking around the trails. It’s also adjacent to another set of rocks that feature the “Cove of Caves” and the “Double Arch”, which we didn’t have time to explore.

We got back in the car, stopped briefly to take photos of the “Garden of Eden” formations, then continued along the road, admiring the amazingly varied scenery.

Delicate ArchA bit later we turned off the main road again and drove to the parking lot below the Delicate Arch. There is a trail from Wolfe Ranch that allows visitors to hike all the way up to the arch, but we chose to hike a much shorter, quarter-mile trail to a viewpoint from which you can take better photos. I found the one bit of shade at the top of the viewpoint and tried to stay out of the sun while Dave took pictures of the arch.

After this, we went back to the main road and pretty much drove straight through to the end, stopping only once or twice to take photos from the car. The rock formations at the end of the scenic road were pretty cool. Here are trailheads to some other hikes, including the “Devil’s Garden”, which seemed pretty cool. However, we needed to get going.

We returned to the visitor’s center and filled our water bottles, and left Arches National Park about quarter after 2 pm. We went back to Moab, fueled up the car, grabbed a quick meal at Wendy’s, and were on the road before 3 pm. It was much later than we had planned to leave, and with a 6 hour drive ahead of us, we were a little anxious.

We chose to take Highway 128 back to I-70, to enjoy the “second most scenic drive in America” from our car. It really was beautiful, driving along the Colorado River, and enjoying the towers and canyons one last time. It was about 40-50 miles, and took about an hour. At approximately mile 35, the scenery completely changed, and we found ourselves on a nondescript open range – no canyons, towers, or arches in sight. It’s amazing how fast the terrain changes.

View along Highway 128

We were on I-70 by 4 pm, and pretty much stayed focused on driving for several hours straight, out of Utah and across Colorado. The interstate follows the Colorado River for the most part, cleverly winding through the river valleys of successively higher mountain ranges. It’s a beautiful drive, especially as you climb higher and higher into the heart of the Rocky Mountains.

My favorite section, where we didn’t get to stop and to which I hope we can return, was Glenwood Springs. This is also the exit for Aspen. The river here had some great whitewater. This was near the beginning of a section of White River National Forest. If the view from the interstate was gorgeous, I can only imagine what the backcountry must look like. The only bad part here was that the speed limit was ridiculously low here, which was nerve-wracking considering the number of miles we needed to cover today. Here the highway was divided so that the westbound traffic was higher than and in some places actually on top of the eastbound traffic – the only way they could squeeze four lanes of traffic into such a narrow canyon and still allow room for the river to flow alongside it.

The highway continued to climb higher, along with the mountains, as we continued to drive eastward. We drove through Vail, where I saw another American Recovery and Reinvestment Act sign, but the only construction I saw was the creation of a new resort. Hopefully that is not our tax dollars at work! I actually saw three stimulus signs along this drive in Colorado, but no construction work that seemed to be related. Hmm.

After Vail, we climbed a pass over 10,000 feet high. Then we wound around Copper Mountain, and passed the exit for Breckenridge.

Eisenhower-Johnson TunnelThere had been a couple of spots where the interstate drove through tunnels in the mountain, but the most significant was the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel not far beyond Vail. It was here that we crossed the Continental Divide, but we didn’t get a photo because we weren’t expecting it. At approximately 1.7 miles long, the tunnel is the longest mountain tunnel in the Interstate highway system.

We finally stopped for dinner after 7:30 pm in a tiny former mining town called Georgetown, CO. We had a light dinner at a pub called The Raven Inn. Our waitress, Amy, was very friendly. After dinner, we put more gas in the car, and were on the road by 8:30 pm for the last leg of today’s drive.

Here we left the interstate and took Highway 40 north along the mountains. The sun had completely set by now, and it was VERY dark, and a little scary because the road is very curvy here. It had also apparently just rained in this area, and we were thankful that at least we didn’t have to be driving in the rain.

Thankfully, as we turned off Highway 40 onto Highway 34, the road flattened out a bit, and there was a lot more civilization (and therefore light). It was still pretty dark, though, since to our right were dark mountains and even darker lakes that we couldn’t even see. We got some great views of the mountains, as the storm had crossed the ridge but remained on the other side, with the lightning giving us a spectacular show. We were glad to be enjoying it from this side of the ridge. =)

We drove through the town of Granby, skirted the edge of Lake Granby and then Shadow Lake, and finally found ourselves at the town of Grand Lake, just outside the southwestern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.

I had made a pre-paid reservation at the Elk Creek Campground, which is just a mile or so from the park entrance, knowing that we wouldn’t get there early enough (especially for a Saturday) to get one of the Park Service’s first-come, first-serve campsites. What I didn’t know is that we would get a hassle at this campground. We pulled up to the campground office just before 10 pm and found a “Late Check In” envelope on the door. This is standard – what is not standard is the note we found inside. It informed us that if we were arriving after dark, “for the sake of your own safety please do not go to your assigned site”. It suggested that we “find an alternative” or spend the night in the parking lot. Dave thought this was ridiculous so we set up our tent anyway. With our headlamps, the full moon, and the campfire of the neighboring campers, we weren’t really in any danger. All we needed to do was sleep, and we were leaving early the next morning anyway.

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