Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving Getaway

I'm a little slow blogging about Thanksgiving. So much so that it's already being relegated to my cluttered drawer of memories. But honestly, if I have a choice between blogging and going out and doing something fun, the fun is going to win every time. Sorry, guys.

For quite a while now I've been wanting to get out of town, at least for a couple of days. And even with a four-day weekend, a couple of days were all we had - C had things to do closer to home on Saturday. So we seized on the opportunity to make a quick trip which we had intended to do a couple of months ago but were unable. As so often is the case for me, this inspiration struck me while pushing my mouse around on Google Maps.

Flaming Gorge is an area in northeastern Utah in the Ashley National Forest. The Green River is dammed up to create a large reservoir that spans the border with Wyoming. I didn't know anything about the place, but it looked worth checking out. And Dinosaur National Monument is right in that area, too, so between the two, I expected that the family should be able to find a good time.

I left work early on Wednesday, we hopped in the truck, and headed west on I-70. At Rifle, Colorado, we headed north through the dark on state highways, dodging the occasional deer in the road. Around 10:00 we pulled in to our hotel in Vernal, Utah.

On Thursday we got around relatively early and headed out. Some of the food we had meant to bring from home was forgotten, so we stopped by a grocery store to pick up the ingredients for our Thanksgiving feast - PB&J sandwiches!

The drive from Vernal to Flaming Gorge winds through hills full of geologic and paleontologic interest. There were several road-side signs describing the kinds of fossils found in each area, much of which had formerly been a prehistoric coastline. Most of the amenities at the Gorge were closed for the season, but that was okay with us. Had we planned on camping, it would have been more of a problem. We drove across the dam and around the reservoir, taking in some scenery.

Flaming Gorge dam

Flaming Gorge reservoir

Worrying that any more time in the truck would result in a munchkin mutiny, we turned back to the main road and parked at the Swett Ranch trail head. By that time, the sun had warmed things up as much as it was going to, but it was still quite cool. So we bundled up, grabbed our packs, and went for a hike down one of the forest service roads. Lots more deer in the area.

F, M, and C hiking down a forest service road

Swett Ranch is situated in the valley between the highway and the reservoir. It was a picturesque setting.

Swett Ranch

A stand of aspen near Swett Ranch

M with sticks, wielding his trekking pole

F, who isn't so much into sticks

We found some rocks just off the trail where we could sit and have our lunch. Then, back to the trail head. After relaxing in the hotel room for a little bit, we went down and played in the swimming pool for a while. There weren't many restaurants open that evening, so supper was of the microwaveable variety supplied by the grocery store, eaten in our room at whatever tables and floor space we could make work.

Friday, after breakfast, we packed most of our stuff and then headed back to the pool. Then back on the road. The internet told us that the visitor's center on the Colorado side of Dinosaur National Monument was closed for the season. So we decided to make for the Utah side instead. A quick glance at the map told me that a non-highway route should be straight-forward, but I missed a turn and we ended up taking a long, very pretty drive to a dead end at a fish hatchery at Jones Hole. Backtrack and take the highway. Lose a couple of hours. No big deal.

Some cliffs near Jones Hole, UT

There are hourly tours to a dinosaur fossil quarry from the visitor's center. This quarry turns out to be an ancient river bed which was lifted up and turned about 70 degrees. The man who discovered and excavated it arranged for the bones to be left in place and a structure erected over it, so you get to see everything preserved as it was embedded in the earth millions of years ago. I think the ranger said there are some 1500 fossils in this wall.

Dinosaur quarry

F posing near an allosaurus skeleton (cast)

You can touch some of the fossils

We returned home by the same route we took on Wednesday, and much on the same schedule. We were back to I-70 just after sundown, so I was able to see the deer in the road much better this time. We were kind of burned out on listening to music, so we listened to a few episodes of the Dirtbag Diaries which were cached on my phone. We got home at 10:00, happy to sleep in our own beds again. Which is to say, we were happy for the kids to each have their own beds - those two trying to share a bed in the same room as C and me just doesn't work very well.

So it was a bit of a whirlwind getaway, but it was just what I needed. I got to spend Thanksgiving with two of the things I'm most grateful for: my family and the beauty of nature. And we got a chance to show the kids that experience is more valuable than unnecessarily large meals. As far as adventure goes, it may seem pretty pedestrian, but it was possibly the best Thanksgiving I've ever had.

I have no idea.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Sunday on Mt. Meeker

It's been a couple of months since the last time I got out for a really good hike on my own. Not that I haven't been out at all - I've gone on group hikes with CMC folks, either as part of the Wilderness Trekking School class I took, or as part of the prerequisite work for taking their Basic Mountaineering School next spring. But there's something very different about group hiking - it's not quite what I'm usually looking for when I venture out into the mountains. So with a break in my schedule and some inspiration gained while looking at some topo maps, I struck out yesterday on a gem of a route that doesn't get a whole lot of attention.

Mount Meeker, in the southeastern part of Rocky Mountain National Park, is one of the more prominent peaks visible from Denver. But if people know which one it is, they usually think of it as being the thing in front of Longs Peak. But it turns out that it's a great mountain in its own right that merits a closer look.

The feature on the map that captured my imagination was Meeker Ridge, which extends southeast from the summit. So that was the route I chose. Meeker also shares another approach with Longs Peak on the Loft route. But I did that one back in September, and the best parts of that climb are after the turn-off to Meeker.

View Meeker Ridge in a larger map

I drove to the end of CR 113n in Meeker Park on Sunday morning. Daylight savings time had just ended, so the sun was already up by the time I hit the trail at 7:15. The weather was pleasantly cool, and there was a fair amount of snow below tree-line. A single set of out-and-back tracks, presumably from the day before, were the only sign of other hikers I saw on this trail.

After following the trail to the saddle between Meeker and Lookout Mountain, there is an almost-clearing that marks the point where the beaten path is left behind.

A view of Lookout Mountain from the saddle

As you bushwhack up the hill, there are several outcroppings of rock which afford nice views over the treetops.

Horsetooth Peak

By the time I gained Meeker Ridge proper, the snow had cleared out, either scoured by the wind or melted by the sun, now unimpeded by the forest shade. Along the ridge there are great piles of rock which I dubbed the Ancient Ruins, owing to their similarity to many of the toppled castles in Europe.

Ancient Ruins on Meeker Ridge

The wind was a sustained 20 miles per hour, with stronger gusts regularly buffeting me as I worked my way upward. And the sun was hidden behind an overcast covering of clouds for the entire morning. I made enough headway to squeeze through the window of time I had set before turning back. Just after noon, I was approaching the fantastic knife edge that leads from the so-called ridge summit to Mt. Meeker's true summit. The wind was unnerving as I made the last very exposed moves onto that edge, but I couldn't let my efforts be foiled by a little bit of fear. Of course, it turned out to be pretty fun.

Mt. Meeker, from the beginning of the knife edge, with Longs Peak in the background.

Quite by chance I stumbled upon the summit register stuck down in a hole beneath some rocks. The paper had fallen out of its tube and was wet with snow, so my writing was blurred and clumsy.
Meeker summit register

When I stood back up, I saw the only people I would encounter all day - two guys who were approaching the summit from the Loft route. I talked to one of them for a little while as his partner worked his way up the summit boulders, but I didn't want to linger, as it felt as though daylight would fail all too soon.

As I returned to the ridge, I discovered a small Bodhisattva statue nestled in an alcove of rocks.

A Bodhisattva statue on Meeker's summit

The sun was out for much of my descent, casting a golden glow on the tundra grasses on the mountainside. The wind was still constant, but it felt a little warmer. By the time I got back to the trail head at 15:50, I was thoroughly spent. But the true aches from the day's jaunt wouldn't be felt until this morning. This is what a Monday is supposed to feel like.