Saturday, November 24, 2012

Colorado Plateaus

After a set of complex maneuverings in Chris and Robyn’s backyard, we were headed out of Summit Cover in our favorite direction: west. Just one more 10,600-foot road bump (Vail Pass) then we started our long descent toward the 12.5 mile long scenic Glenwood Canyon. There we pulled off into the one rest area that had space for larger rigs. During a 2002 vacation trip we had stopped and hiked the very vertical Hanging Lake trail (looking for birds, of course). However, this time our 35-foot rig would not fit in the pull-off where the the trail head was located. No worries. The canyon is quite scenic wherever one stopped. Anyone who has ridden through it on a Union Pacific train will surely remember the views.
By early afternoon we pulled into James M. Robb Colorado River State Park (Fruita Section) just west of Grand Junction. In doing so we had given up almost five thousand feet in elevation. Goodbye to the Rockies for a bit.

Devil's Kitchen - Colorado National Monument
Carol - Colorado National Monument
Parked at the base of the Colorado National Monument, we took a few days to explore the monument and add a handful of western bird species to our annual list: Chukar, White-throated Swift, Dusky Flycatcher, Gray Vireo, Plumbeous, Vireo, Pinyon Jay, and Juniper Titmouse. Nearby Fruita is known for its fruit production but more recently has grown as an outdoor sports destination. The area’s recognition in the field of Paleontology has long been known with the discovery of dinosaur fossils in the 1900’s.
Since going full time RVing, we have spent considerable time sorting out possible destinations. Our general plan is usually weighted heavily toward how we might best pad our annual bird list. 2012 was no different as we pondered whether to try for target birds of the Pacific Northwest, or, head toward Arizona to catch hummingbird species before they migrated south. Both routes were enticing. Why oh why should choosing always be so tough? Retirement shouldn’t be this difficult!

Centennial RV Park
even when it rained there was always something nice to see
In the end we realized that there wasn’t enough time for a full blown quality trip to the PNW that allowed us to bird and catch up with friends in WA and OR before we had to be back in Texas in December. The high cost of diesel fuel also played a factor. So, a more southernly route to Arizona it would be...with a few stops along the way. Carol for years had tried to coax me into visiting that ‘big hole in the ground’, the Grand Canyon. I mean really. It’s just a big hole in the ground, right?
So with Arizona in our sights we dipped to the southwest. To our delight we could now include a visit with our dear RVer friend Robin Kinney and her faithful companion Golda who were parked near Montrose, Colorado.

our site at Centennial RV
Carol, Robin and Golda
It was an easy eighty-five mile chip shot from Fruita to Centennial RV Park where we found ourselves in semi arid, high desert lands of the Uncompahgre Valley of Western Colorado. We had the San Juan Mountains to our south and east and the Uncompahgre Plateau to our west. Not too far away was the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. many possibilities!
When we arrived Robin was absent from the park, busy wrapping up a business trip to Alaska. Golda, being cared for by a couple in an RV next to ours, was very, very happy to see Uncle Tom who is rarely without a treat to share. Initially we thought we would only stay a few days but that meant we would miss seeing Robin. Besides, the area offered so much to do. We’d be crazy not to stay at least a week.

Carol and Sue with Black Swift on nest inset
Our first order of business was a return visit to Box Cañon Falls in Ouray where in 2002 we had seen our first Black Swift. It was getting close to the time when the swifts would begin their long migration. We didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see them. For a nominal fee one may venture into the falls’s catwalk system which is where we bumped into Sue Hirshman. Sue is a member of the Black Canyon Audubon Chapter and a park volunteer who has steadfastly kept a detailed study over several years of Black Swift breeding phenology and breeding success rates at Box Cañon. Some weeks later while getting our truck’s oil changed in Arizona, I read an extensive article in the September-October 2012  issue of Audubon Magazine (“Out of the Shadows”) about recent discoveries of Black Swift migration routes which also included a description of Sue’s contributions. In brief, global tracking has revealed that Black Swift populations in the U.S. winter in the waterfalls and cliffs of Brazil. Future population studies are aimed at learning more about this critically endangered species. We had also learned from Sue that we had just missing bumping into Robert Ridgley and his wife Peg (a friend from Madison) who had visited the falls just a few days earlier!

Canyon Bird Road
Ouray seemed to be the “Jeeping” capitol of the world where one could bring their Jeep, rent a Jeep, or be driven in a Jeep on a guided tour over rugged back-country 4WD trails. Robin had worked for a local Jeep tour company for a few summers. She provided us with off-road information as to where we might take our 4WD truck. We had hoped to catch sight of more Black Swifts hunting high along canyon cliffs but no such luck. However, our drive up the narrow Canyon Bird Road (better suited to smaller and more nimble 4WD Jeeps) netted us some pretty extraordinary breathtaking scenery.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Black Canyon of the Gunnison overlook
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was another day-long destination. Here the life zones were characterized by high desert flora and fauna, deep canyons and “pygmy” forest consisting of short Pinyon pine and juniper. Geologically the park is in the Colorado Plateau a broad region with its center located in the “four corners” region where UT, CO, NM and AZ converge. The Colorado Plateau has the greatest concentration of national parks and monuments (ten national parks and seventeen national monuments). A pretty historic and scenic rich area to say the least!

Gunnison River
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The visitor center at the South Rim offered a comprehensive introduction to the park by way of exhibits and an introductory film of park highlights. Much of the park’s access involved scenic drives along canyon’s rims. The seven mile long South Rim Road (paved) offered twelve pullout overlooks. The North Rim Road was reached via a gravel road from the east end of Crawford State Park and offered access to six overlooks. Most overlooks provided dizzyingly views of 2,000 foot tall canyon walls that dropped to meet the roaring Gunnison River. The East Portal Road (paved) with 16% grades and hairpin curves allowed direct access to the Gunnison River. We managed the South Rim Road and East Portal Road during two separate visits to the park.

Navajo Taco - made fresh at the Ridgway market (half order!)
Billings Artworks entrance is to the right and down the steps
an inauspicious doorway that belied what was within
A bit closer at hand was the town of Ridgway, billed as the “Gateway to the San Juans”. The area may already be familiar to many who have seen “True Grit” which was filmed in the area. Acting on a recommendation from Robin, we visited the local farmer’s market (oooh, fresh veggies!) and then sought out Billings Artworks, a most remarkable shop buried in the basement of a three story wooden building with an unremarkable entrance. 

that's John on the right
As we stepped up to the doorway, totally unsure as to whether or not to enter, we were warmly greeted by a bearded man who bid us enter. As we stepped across the threshold and our eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room, we found ourselves in the world of John Billings. Hardly a name most people would recognize, John moved his business from Southern California to the sleepy town of Ridgway where John and a small crew have, for the past thirty-six years, crafted, ground, polished, painted, plated and assembled, what anyone who has achieved greatness in the music world has received - the Grammy Award.

we could have whiled away hours
Taylor Swift's "oops"
 We walked around the tight quarters of shop and office while John regaled us with Grammy tales, happy to answer all our questions. Walls and shelves were jammed with music memorabilia. Several newly minted Grammys destined for the Latin Grammy Awards ceremony were being boxed. We could easily have spent hours talking with John and poking around the piles of music artifacts - photos, posters, original Grammy’s that for one reason or another (damaged, lost, or stolen) had wound up back at Billings's. When a Grammy slipped from Taylor Swift's hands, it was returned, along with an autographed photos. A replacement Grammy was shipped immediately. Did you know that you if you are the recipient of a Grammy Award that you may never trade, sell, swap, or hock a Grammy? If you’re ever in Ridgway, especially if you're a music aficionado, be sure to pay homage to Billings Artworks. And, if Grammy lore isn’t enough to stop, it’s right across the street from the Colorado Boy Pub and Brewery.

lower road to Owl Creek Pass
there were Boreal Owls somewhere...just not today
the Needles, Owl Creek Pass
The weather, while we were in the Montrose area, had its ups and down. A fair amount of clouds and rain limited some of our exploring. It was mostly overcast the day we ventured up and down Owl Creek Pass (dang, no Boreal Owls). A second visit to Ouray was cool and cloudy with intermittent rain (ducked into the Ouray Brewery for lunch). On one of the hotter days, just outside of Gunnision, we tried our luck on a gravel road purported to be good for Gunnison Sage-Grouse but, as we had anticipated, it was the wrong time of the year. Best to catch ‘em on their leks in the Spring. However, we enjoyed a scenic hike on “Bambi’s Trail” on BLM land in the Hartman’s Rock Trail area (a favorite of mountain bikers). We stumbled upon the Dennis Weaver Memorial Park as we traveled between Ouray and Montrose. Then there were a few shopping trips into Montrose and of course our times to hang with Robin and Golda.

Dennis Weaver Memorial Park

RV sites at Centennial RV Park were spacious and wide. Hiking trails near our site lead out into pastures and up to overlooks behind the park. Not too far away was a rut road that lead up to the Colona Cemetery. Beside the Black Swifts, our week near Montrose netted a few more bird species: Dusky Grouse, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Gray Flycatcher, Sage Thrasher, Virginia’s Warbler, Townsend Warbler, Western Tanager, Green-tailed Towhee.
As always, our week went too quickly. It was time to push on. We bid Robin and Golda farewell, packed up, and set our GPS for Cortez, Colorado. One more tip from Robin lead us to pause for breakfast in Ridgway at Kate’s Place (Robin sure has  great tips on where to eat!). Then we were off to wind our way through the San Juan National Forest. 

female Dusky Grouse - another fairly sneaky bird to see
road trip with Uncle Tom!
Colona Cemetery
bit of Colona Cemetery history
Not too many days after leaving Centennial RV we learned that Robin and Golda had an unexpected encounter with a mountain lion on a trail behind the park. Along with Robin we have long wished to see a mountain lion in the wild. However, "huntress" Golda, who loves to chase, took off in pursuit. Several anxious minutes and prayers later, Golda reappeared. Thankfully, Golda was unscathed by the lion but in her effort to give chase, she had pulled leg/hip muscles from which she is still on the mend. Honestly, we couldn't think of a good reason to chase a mountain lion, Golda...and we still can’t!

Uncampahgre River
Navajo Taco being rolled out

1 comment:

  1. So glad you guys decided to take the southern route & come hang with Golda & I for a bit. Western CO has much to offer!