Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Last day of our trip - and we missed the monsoons!

We watched lightning and listened to thunder as monsoons rolled into Kayenta last night, glad we arrived before the rain. Today we left at 6am, saving breakfast until we reached Flagstaff to beat the monsoons that are forecasted to start in early afternoon.

Kayenta is a fairly large town of about 5000 people in the Navajo Nation. It sits at 5700' elevation about 25 miles south of Monument Valley. We rode on US 160 west out of town, with the early morning sun turning the hills a warm red.

Perhaps it was because of all the rain recently, or riding so early in the morning, but the air smelled bright and clean with a sharp, herbal freshness. I notice outside smells more on the motorcycle vs riding in a car, even when the car windows are open.

US 160 ends at US 89, where we headed south toward Flagstaff and breakfast. Flagstaff, a city of about 70,000 people, is at the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau and within the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest in the United States. We watched the San Francisco Peaks, high mountain peaks just outside Flagstaff, come into view as we rode closer to town.

Franciscan friars named these mountains in 1629. The Navajo call them "the summit which never melts". Humphreys is part of San Francisco Peaks, and is the highest mountain in Arizona at 12,633'.

We stopped for a quick breakfast then continued south on I-17 to home in Prescott, watching the clouds build over the mountains south of our town. We were home for about 2 hours when the monsoons hit, triggering flash flood warnings throughout our area.

We rode 1755 miles over the past week through Arizona, Colorado and Utah, stopping to visit our sons in Boulder, traveling on familiar roads and finding some new destinations. In two weeks we fly to Ireland where we'll rent a motorcycle from Celtic Rider and enjoy exploring Ireland for a few days. We'll trade hot weather and sunny skies for rain gear and more shades of green than I've ever seen.

Scenic byways and lost highways on the BMW motorcycle

What a gorgeous ride we had today! We love riding on roads with little to no traffic and jaw-dropping scenery, and today's ride had it all. We left Grand Junction at 6:30am both to beat the heat and to avoid late-afternoon monsoon weather. Summer is monsoon season in the West, with thunderstorms, hail, and often torrential downpours that cause low-lying areas to flood. Definitely not a good time to be on a motorcycle!

We started our day riding south on CO 141, the Unaweep Tabeguache Scenic Byway. We were on this road a couple of years ago heading into Grand Junction, and we weren't disappointed with the trip in the opposite direction.

People lived in these canyons and river valleys on the Colorado Plateau at least 10,000 years before the arrival of the first Europeans - the Spanish. Miners came here in the late 1800's looking for gold, copper and other minerals, and today there are a few, isolated ranches scattered across the valleys.

I spotted a ruined sandstone building to the side of the highway, and later discovered that it's the Driggs Mansion, a one-story sandstone house built around 1918 by Italian stonemasons, using local stone from nearby canyons. Today it's on the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties.

Soon after we passed the Driggs Mansion, our odometer turned over to 49,000 miles. We reached 48,000 miles on the first day of this trip, and have a few hundred more miles to go before we reach home. 

The Dolores River runs through the canyon, with rock cliffs that tower over 1000' above us on both sides of the 2-lane road.

We stopped to learn more about the Hanging Flume, a 10-mile long engineering feat built in the late 1800's to funnel water from the Delores River to provide enough pressure for hydraulic gold mining for the Lone Tree Mining Company. The wooden trestles cling to the rock canyon walls hundreds of feet above the river below, and originally supported wooden boxes to channel the water. 

Look closely at the right side of the canyon wall, and you'll see what's left of the original Hanging Flume. Here's a close-up:

We continued curving and twisting our way south on CO 141 through more canyons until we reached Naturita, a small town of around 650 people where CO 141 turned into a wide, open valley, leaving the canyons behind.

This section of CO 141 is marked by Butler Motorcycle Maps as a 'Lost Highway', meaning it's remote, often without cell service or stops for food or gas, and very lightly traveled. We loved it! At one point I saw a sign stating "Disappointment Valley" and I could easily understand how someone might be highly disappointed moving here.

CO 141 ends at US 491, on the northern edge of Canyon of the Ancients National Memorial. We headed northwest, quickly crossing into Utah and stopped in Monticello for lunch. Much of this part of the West was settled by Mormon pioneers in the late 1880's, and from 1948-1960 it was the site of several uranium mines. Today there are 27 windmills outside town.

We turned south onto US 191, riding through small towns on the dry Colorado Plateau, and encountering a mama cow and her calf running alongside the highway on the Ute reservation. Most of the day we rode through open range land, with the possibility of cattle or horses near or on the highway - and the cattle have the right-of-way!

Our last turn of the day was onto US 160, riding past Carson Mesa and Comb Ridge toward Kayenta in the Navajo Nation. 

We rode 288 miles in about 8 hours, taking our time to enjoy the changing scenery, bright blue skies, and the highway mostly to ourselves. Tomorrow we'll end our week-long journey, and hopefully miss the monsoons!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Tunnels, twisties, and temperature changes on the BMW in Colorado

Today was all about the three T's:  tunnels (9!); twisties up, down and through the Rocky Mountains; and temperature changes from a low of 50 degrees near the top of the Continental Divide to a high of 96 degrees as we finished our ride into Grand Junction.

We started the day early, leaving the hotel at 6:30am to beat the traffic around Denver. The Front Range of the Rocky Mountains defines this entire area. The temperature was in the mid-60's, but since we expected it to get cooler as we crested the Rockies, I wore a long-sleeve shirt and one jacket liner. As usual, we took the winding, twisting, scenic route on US 6 heading west into Clear Creek Canyon, a steep gorge with high rock walls on both sides of the 2-lane highway.

We rode through 5 tunnels on this twisting route that was the site of some of the most intense activity during the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859.

US 6 turns onto I-70W to cross the Continental Divide and provide a major East/West transportation route through the Rockies. We rode through 2 more tunnels:  The Veterans Memorial Tunnels near Idaho Springs, built in 1961 and the Eisenhower Tunnel that is the highest vehicular tunnel in the world at 11,112' as it passes over and through the Continental Divide. We stopped in Silverthorne for gas and to put on more liners and warmer gloves to better tolerate the temperature - now hovering around 50 degrees.

We descended down the western side of the Continental Divide and rode through 3 more tunnels as we wound our way through Glenwood Canyon. Because the canyon is so narrow and deep, the 4-lane interstate was specially constructed with two, 2-lane highways, one for east-bound traffic and the other for west-bound traffic, that are nearly on top of each other.

We usually avoid Interstate highways in favor of smaller roads with less traffic but there aren't a lot of choices going East/West across Colorado. I-70 in this area feels more like a smaller highway with plenty of twisties to keep us happy.

We turned off I-70 at Glenwood Springs where we promptly stopped to shed the warm gloves and extra jacket liners as the temperature started climbing. We wound our way first on CO 82 and then CO 133, which to our delight climbed and curved over McClure Pass which at 8,755' isn't the highest pass we've crossed on this trip, but it has gorgeous views of the Elk Mountains.

As we descended down the western side of McClure Pass, we rode past Paonia Reservoir, built between 1959 and 1962 for irrigation storage in this high, dry desert area of Colorado.

We were surprised to see huge coal mining operations near the town of Somerset in the North Fork Valley, and learned that this area used to house 3 major coal mines. With the recent decline of coal, only one mine remains open.

The Hightower Cafe in Hotchkiss advertises "Strudel, Trout and Walleye". We couldn't pass it up, and stopped for lunch. Mike discovered that our waitress moved here 4 years ago from Craftsbury, VT. Small world! Since the temperature was now close to 90 degrees, Mike put on his cooling vest and we both added our neck coolers.

The high desert countryside reminded us of northeastern Arizona. We typically think of Colorado as much greener than Arizona, but the Western Slope is primarily desert.

We turned onto US 50 heading west into Grand Junction where we are spending the night. Grand Junction is the site of the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers and has a very friendly, walkable downtown area with sculptures, parks, and many restaurants with outdoor seating. After 302 miles on the BMW, we're ready to relax for the evening before continuing toward home tomorrow.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Riding north from Salida to Louisville, Colorado

On the third day of our trip from home in Prescott, Arizona to visit our kids in Boulder, Colorado we rode from Salida north on 285 for almost the entire day. The Collegiate Peaks  are a section of the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains, with several named for prominent universities such as Mt. Princeton at 14,204', Mt. Harvard at 14,421' and Mt. Yale at 14,202'. The clouds hovered above, and sometimes just below the mountain peaks and kept my gaze for the beginning of our trip.

We continued on 285 north through the South Park basin, a 1000 square mile grassland flat at 10,000' elevation. There isn't much in South Park except for long-distance views of the Rockies and miles and miles of grassland populated by herds of cows or horses every few miles. The largest town, Fairplay, has about 700 people which says a lot about the wide-open spaces in this part of Colorado only a couple of hours' drive from Denver.

285 took us up and over Kenosha Pass as we continued north. The Colorado Trail, a 500-mile hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking trail that stretches 500 miles from Denver to Durango crosses the highway at the top of Kenosha Pass.

We ended our 158 mile ride at our hotel in Louisville, where we'll spend the next 2 days visiting our boys who live in Boulder. We start our ride back home on Monday, looking forward to 3 more days riding through the West.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Colorado mountain passes plus rain and hail

Yesterday our ride from home in Arizona to Cortez, Colorado was hot and sunny. Today, on our second day of our Colorado trip, we spent the day dodging rain and hail with temperatures dipping into the low 50's. We were ready for it!

We spent last night at the Retro Inn in Cortez, and said good-bye to the Elvis statue on the front lawn as we headed out of town.

We rode east on 160, passing Mesa Verde National Park, where there are over 600 cliff dwellings that were home to the Ancestral Pueblo people from AD 600-1300. We stayed here several years ago and absolutely loved the ride up to the top of the mesa along the curving road, and the ranger-led tour gave us an in-depth look at the cliff dwellings.

As we rode through the Mancos Valley into the San Juan National Forest, storm clouds starting building in front of us.

160 took us into Durango, where we turned north onto 550 for a motorcyclist's dream ride through the mountains with hairpin turns, curving roads, and stunning views.

The storm clouds kept building as we climbed Coal Bank Pass at 10,640', and then onto Molas Pass at 10,910' where we stopped for a short break.

It started raining soon after we left Molas Pass, and luckily we stopped to put on our raingear before the temperature dropped 15 degrees and it started raining hard. We rode in and out of the rain as we descended into Silverton, an old mining town that is a National Historic Landmark and the southern end of the Million Dollar Highway that winds through the San Juan Mountains from Silverton to Ouray. In the late 1800's this area was prime mining country, and remnants of mining activity are easily visible from the highway.

We've ridden this route before, although never in the rain. The narrow 2-lane highway hugs the mountains on one side and drops off thousands of feet - without guardrails - on the other. I managed to get some video in-between the rain as we headed into Ouray.

Ouray sits at 7,792' nestled in the San Juan Mountains alongside the Uncompahgre River. We stopped for lunch and sat outside on the roof enjoying our sandwiches and watching the traffic on the street below us - until it started to rain again.

550 winds along the Uncompahgre River to Montrose, where we turned east on 50. It was a good thing we kept the raingear on, as we rode through intermittent rain and a couple of spots of hail. It's fun to watch the rain streaming down from the clouds - until we're in the middle of it!

We rode along the Curecanti National Recreation Area, a series of three reservoirs along the Gunnison River. Normally we see numerous boats on the water, but the weather today kept everyone home.

We even managed a photo opportunity during a delay for road construction, and were lucky that the rain held off while we were stopped.

We crested the last pass of the day, Monarch Pass on the Continental Divide at 11, 312' - our highest pass of the day. Storm clouds and rain were all around us as we rode down the Pass into the Arkansas River Valley toward Salida, our stop for the night.

We had been looking forward to this day since we planned our trip since we love this mountain route on the BMW. Tomorrow we have a shorter ride planned to Boulder, where we'll stop for the weekend to visit our kids. Our trip home starts again on Monday - and since we haven't planned our route yet, you'll be surprised right along with us!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Colorado bound on the BMW

We started a week-long trip to Colorado to visit our kids today, riding from our home in Prescott, Arizona to Cortez, Colorado. It's our first time wearing our new helmets; a high-vis yellow Bell helmet for me, and a Scorpion helmet with high-vis yellow stripes for Mike. No one is going to be able to say they didn't see us!

We started at 6:30am to beat the heat, heading north and east. After a few short, quick miles on I-17 we turned east on 260 at Camp Verde, riding through the pines in the Coconino National Forest as we climbed up the Mogollon Rim.

There was almost no traffic on this Wednesday morning, which made for fun, fast riding - until we were stopped for road construction on 87N.

Mike had to ride slower than usual due to loose gravel on the road for several miles, before the construction ended and we rode into Winslow. A couple of short miles on I-40 and we turned north again on 87, riding through the Navajo Nation and then into the Hopi Nation.

This is very sparsely settled land with nothing in view for miles and miles. The Hopi Nation covers 1.5 million acres, and there are only 12 villages within the entire Nation. The Navajo Nation is much larger and is located in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

Our route took us from 87N to 264E, when we did a happy dance as the odometer rolled over to 48,000 miles. We purchased the BMW 5 years ago, but only rode 6000 miles the first year. The last 4 years we've averaged 10,500 miles per year - and we're ready to do more!

It's monsoon season in Arizona, which means our normally bright-blue, cloudless skies are covered in large, puffy white clouds that can quickly turn into thunderstorms and downpours of 2-4" of rain per hour. We were lucky today and enjoyed only the puffy white clouds.

We rode for 6 hours before stopping for lunch in Chinle on 191N because there simply aren't many places to eat when you're riding through northeastern Arizona. The stunning landscape makes up for the lack of towns, with mesas, rock formations,and even a horse grazing by the side of the highway to keep us interested.

We rode past the Four Corners Monument, the only place in the United States where 4 states come together in one point:  Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. Just a few short miles later we crossed the San Juan River, turned east on 160, and rode into Cortez, CO, our stop for the night.

We're staying at the Retro Inn, a fun local motel with a statue of Elvis sitting on a bench out front. Tomorrow we continue riding northeast, heading toward Salida, CO. Keep your fingers crossed we don't encounter thunderstorms!