Peaks and valleys of Colorado and the Badlands

I remember years ago when I took two of my cousins on their first Boundary Waters trip. This was in 2009, not long after the movie Into the Wild was released based on Jon Krakauer’s best selling book of the same name. During that trip, both of my cousins stated that I reminded them of Christopher McCandless — the young man who left everything behind to travel and be alone in the wilderness. At the time I’m pretty sure I smiled at that thought, but I have learned a lot since then.

Part 1: Good omens and My Morning Jacket at Red Rocks

When My Morning Jacket announced they were playing two nights at Red Rocks in Morrison, CO, my friends and I jumped at the opportunity and got tickets. August 2nd and 3rd were now circled and I immediately thought about making a road trip out of it although everyone else had plans to fly to Denver.

I hit I-35W from Minneapolis at 7am on Wednesday, July 31st and pushed south. It was a beautiful summer morning and the easterly sun blasted intensely from the left until I hit Des Moines, IA and moved west. A Grateful Dead recording got me that far, and then Dr. Wayne Dyer’s The Secrets Of The Power Of Intention kept me company as I traveled through a dark and rainy central Iowa and into the flat plains of Nebraska where the sky broke into heavy white clouds. I made it to the west end of the state by early evening and thought about setting up camp at Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area near Ogallala. I spotted the large man-made lake on the map, and when I drove around exploring the area, I didn’t like the vibe at all and so I moved on.

Fueled by homemade sandwiches and cold press, I made it to eastern Colorado after driving over 12 hours. That night I stayed at the worst motel of my life off of I-76 in the agricultural town of Sterling. I didn’t get much sleep, and when I spotted dusty sun rays shining through the cracks of the door in the early morning, I showered and headed off quickly towards Denver. We had a beautiful Airbnb waiting for us in Lakewood but I couldn’t occupy it until 4pm so I picked up some local coffee beans for us at Corvus Coffee Roasters and explored downtown Denver.

A rain shower moved through in mid-afternoon and ten minutes after I got to our rental, a rainbow filled the sky towards the Denver skyline. The house was elevated into the side of a hill and provided a nice view from the balcony that surrounded two sides. I knew this was an omen of good things to come. My friends arrived a few hours later and we imbibed in plenty of drinks and laughs that night.

rainbow and downtown Denver
Mile High Stadium (where my favorite team plays)

The next day was hot and sunny and we made a big lunch and rested until going to the show in the late afternoon. I was in some pain after straining my left quadriceps badly in my kickball league the week before. I stretched and felt a bit better when we arrived at Red Rocks where I had one of the best concert experiences of my life. Being there with my friends was special and I felt so many moments of sheer bliss that night. The music, the lights, the incredible crowd, the sky, the rocks — it all aligned divinely.

Red Rocks park
My Morning Jacket night 1 crowd at Red Rocks
candid in the golden glow (pic by Dan)

My friend Brian and I both needed a ticket for Saturday’s show. Tickets were selling for three or four times the price on StubHub and Craigslist was littered with scammers so we made a decision to go to Red Rocks and walk the parking lots to try our luck. We passed a deer on the side of the road in Morrison near the venue. I casually mentioned that I consider deer to be my spirit animal and didn’t think much of it. We had a plan to break up the group and Brian and I would head off together in search of tickets, but our driver who was a very kind woman, had a feeling we’d have better luck if she took us to the top parking lot. For whatever reason I knew she was right.

Dozens of people were in line and I walked it to the front and turned around. A woman came out of line and asked if I needed a ticket. Within five minutes of arriving, I had my ticket and only paid face value. I was ecstatic, and our friend Rachel smiled and said, “It’s because you saw that deer!” Brian didn’t have the same luck initially, so I walked to the bottom lot with him in over 90 degree heat with my quad aching. Many people were looking for tickets and he was giving up hope and talking about heading back to the house. We hiked back to the top and regrouped, then he headed off with his girlfriend to search one last time. Just before the doors opened, he found his ticket so we were all in once again for night two.

It was another beautiful summer night at Red Rocks. We found spots in the 25th row left of center and the view and sound was perfect. My Morning Jacket played a good show, but it wasn’t nearly as epic as night one. Later when we returned to the house, everyone was tired and went to bed early. My friend Dan and I had a drink on the balcony then he retired too. I stood alone with a cool mountain breeze passing by, gazing towards Denver as the skyline literally sparkled. Loneliness was already setting in.

On Sunday we packed up and my friends were leaving in different directions with different plans. All of us but one met in downtown Denver and had a nice brunch and some good laughs before going our separate ways. After I hugged everyone goodbye, grey clouds moved in on the horizon and I felt a deep sadness overtake me as I drove southwest towards Aspen and into the mountains.

Part 2: Into the Mountains

Rains fell steadily once I passed Denver and gained elevation. I took I-70 West then south on Highway 91 before getting on CO-82 West which meanders back and forth through the Rocky Mountains. I rode over Independence Pass at 12,095 feet enshrouded in thick rain clouds gripping tight at the steering wheel. Not long after, I made it to Aspen in the early evening and all of the good campgrounds were full. After backtracking, I found a spot several miles outside of town at Lincoln Creek Dispersed Campground. I set my tent up in the cold rain and went to bed, praying that the weather would kick up some beautiful light in the morning at Maroon Bells.

camp view from Lincoln Creek Dispersed Campground

At some point late in the night the rains stopped and in the morning before sunrise, I could see my breath thick in the damp cold air. To my surprise the sky was almost completely clear and a few stars sparkled above. I drove through Aspen and then up towards Maroon Bells, one of the most photographed scenes in all of America.

When I arrived, the sun had just broken the horizon behind me and there were already dozens of tourists and photographers around. I set up my tripod and took some photographs but I felt like a phony. It takes little-to-no effort to photograph Maroon Bells from the alpine lake in front of it, and I didn’t stick around long. Since I wasn’t able to hike, the backpackers and hikers that were starting journeys on the trails evoked some envy in me but I wished them well before returning to my car. After grabbing coffee and a pastry in downtown Aspen, I got out of that beautiful touristy mountain town as soon as possible.

Maroon Bells at sunrise

It was a gorgeous day to drive in the mountains. I followed CO-82 west to Carbondale, then dropped straight south on Highway 133. North of Redstone the mountain views became absolutely incredible and pass after pass I howled in pleasure at the views around me. The Rockies were lush with vivid green spruce and fir trees, and the Crystal River roared and sparkled in the late morning sun to my left. There was very little traffic and the sky was blue with a few perfect white clouds moving by. I stopped at a few lookouts but struggled to find good photo angles and kept moving south and west towards Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The drive was glorious until I moved out of the mountains and into the hot and dry sage-speckled high desert near Somerset.

Part 3: An impassible black canyon

The Ute Indians who lived in the area for thousands of years had superstitions regarding the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. Its shear vertical drop made the canyon virtually impassible, and there are no traces of human existence along the river’s edge at the bottom. With one side nearly always in shadow giving it its foreboding name, the Utes kept their distance and worked around the magnificent canyon.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

I arrived to the north rim entry point around noon and found a very nice campsite with lovely juniper trees providing much needed shade. The morning drive through the mountains had lifted my spirits greatly, and I was excited to explore a new area I had only learned about weeks before. I spent a few hours reading at camp before grabbing my camera and walking through the campground to a nearby lookout point. I met an older gentleman named David there and we talked about Colorado and he gave me a lot of great points to consider in my travels. He was no longer married, but had grown children and spent weeks at a time out on the road exploring his beautiful state. I felt we were kindred spirits in many ways and we chatted for nearly thirty minutes before I headed back to camp to get my car and drive the north rim road to its many lookout points.

When I returned, I invited over a solo camper named Zachary who I had met earlier in the day. He was a professional musician in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and traveled for weeks during the summer after his performing season finished. I got a fire going and we passed around cold silver tequila and told stories and drank ales. I managed to set my car alarm off twice on accident, and we got a great laughs out of that while other campers in the area were likely not so enthused. Being flat and far from any light sources, this area is well known for star gazing and I witnessed firsthand why. Above us, every star was out and I let my camera fire off 30 second exposures for over two hours before running out of firewood and going to bed.

stars above camp
campfire glow and star trails

In the morning I had a few cups of camp coffee along with smoked salmon, rice crackers, and hard gouda before packing up my dusty campsite and driving back into the mountains. I took David’s advice and headed further southwest into the San Juans.

Part 4: The beautiful San Juan Mountains

David told me that the drive down Highway 550 between Portland and Durango is one of the most beautiful in all of Colorado. It was a Tuesday morning and there was thankfully little traffic after I passed through the larger towns of Delta and Montrose. Once again, the sun was shining bright and a few clouds passed by as I moved south seeing the San Juans grow larger in the distance. Once I made it through Portland, I drove through the heart of the range and the views were stunning. Unlike the Rockies to the north, the San Juans possess a unique beauty and disposition I have never witnessed in my life. Rolling softly but with magnificent peaks and valleys, I was enthralled.

The town of Ouray boasts itself as the “Switzerland of America” and this entire area was part of the gold and silver rush of the late 1800s. Surrounded by mountains in every direction, it felt quaint and peaceful, but just after passing through town that peace quickly dissipated. Highway 550 switched back and forth on narrow pavement with a shear drop-off to my right and oncoming traffic and the rocky side of a mountain to my left. It’s been a long time since I felt vertigo, but it came and went several times as I moved at 5mph before the pass opened up with more room.

San Juan Mountains near Ouray

The gorgeous views continued and I decided to find a place to camp before it was too late. I stopped by several campgrounds and most were already full. I was running out of options and considered staying at Haviland Lake Campground which had a beautiful lake view but a lot of noisy families around. As I sat in my Rogue contemplating what to do, a doe came out of the woods chewing at branches by the sign to the campground. I watched it for some moments before it saw me and scurried down the entrance road. I followed it out and took one more look at Little Molas Lake which had free dispersed camping but was full earlier in the day. When I arrived, one spot was open near the entrance. I backed into a nice campsite surrounded by tall thick pines and set up camp and made a nice dinner before walking down to the small alpine lake at sunset. Light rain brought mosquitos in so I returned to camp to take cover in my tent to do some writing. It rained heavily that night and the winds blew hard for several hours and I didn’t sleep well, hearing the pines move above.

Little Molas Lake

At over 10,000 feet, it was quite cold in the morning and I stopped at Silverton to get breakfast at a cafe. I contemplated driving east to Great Sand Dunes National Park, but wasn’t confident my leg would hold up well to hiking in the sand. So I headed north on 550 once again. When I hit Montrose, I moved northeast and drove the south rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park since my car pass was still valid. A few hours later, Gunnison National Forest welcomed me, and it was a beautiful drive with healthy looking prairie farmland flowing towards the mountains.

I reached the ski town of Breckenridge in the late afternoon while light rains fell. The town was buzzing with energy and I got a hotel room nearby in Frisco and it felt great to shower. After grabbing pizza and beer at a local joint downtown, I returned to the hotel. A lack of social connection weighed heavy on me that night.

Part 5: Traffic jams in Badlands

It wasn’t until I hit the Nebraska border that I stopped feeling the powerful pull of the mountains. I drove north through farm country on two lane county roads with nothing but fields at my sides. When I made it to the South Dakota border, I crossed and entered the Pine Ridge Reservation. It felt like another world and saddened me. I was on my way to Badlands National Park and passed the location of the Wounded Knee Massacre. A handsome mutt of a dog ran across the highway towards some shacks in the distance as dry yellow grass swayed in the hot summer breeze. Part of me wanted to stop at the massacre site, but another part of me said keep going.

I drove through an old ghost town named Scenic with one open bar that was full of Sturgis bikers and entered the national park from the south on County Road 590. I camped that night at Sage Creek Campground — a free dispersed circular campground in the middle of the tall grass prairie with barely a tree in sight. Prairie dogs scurried in and out of holes making little cackling noises which humored me.

After dinner I drove off without a map to find a nice sunset view. I had no idea where to go but spotted a lone biker kicking up dust in the distance who looked remarkably peaceful in the early evening light. I followed him and a mile later we came upon a herd of bison. At first I only saw a few in the distance, so I parked on the side of the road and got out to take photographs with my telephoto lens. When I drove up further hundreds more came over a hill. For an hour I was trapped inside a bison herd as they slowly crossed the gravel road that separates the high prairie from the more rugged parts of the Badlands where they were going to bed for the night. Some of the younger bison bucked around playfully, while others were shy and stayed very close to their mothers. The air smelled of sour musk and some alphas bellowed aggressively within feet of my car. It was a memorable experience making eye contact up close with the sacred beasts.

bison in the Badlands
bison in the Badlands

It was dark when I returned to camp and the waxing moon shined bright above. I had a beer and some bourbon at my picnic table and spoke with a chatty guy from New York state who was driving west. The mosquitos were atrocious however and I found shelter early. The mosquitos were still relentless in the morning when I woke before sunrise and packed up to go explore the park.

Not having a map, I drove in the opposite direction from which I entered and took a wrong turn down a narrow farm road for a few miles. I came upon a female cow and her brown calf standing in the ditch near the edge of a field. The mother was limping badly and was in obvious pain and I felt an overwhelming amount of empathy for her. I believe she broke her front leg in the cattle grate I later passed over next to a large fenced in herd. Since this was private land and I didn’t see any farms, I didn’t know what to do and hoped the rancher who owned her would find her soon. For the rest of the day she was on my mind.

I found my way to Highway 240 that loops around the park and I stopped at several lookouts. In some areas sharp rocky peaks cut through the prairie grass, and in others, buttes were carved out by the wind and rain and showed history layered in their sides. The Badlands are full of dinosaur bones and looking out for miles, it is not hard to imagine them roaming the area. But by noon, fellow tourists and minivans were out in full force and I had seen enough. I moved straight east towards Sioux Falls to meet up with a great friend and his wife before I ventured back home to Minneapolis. It was very nice to be around friends again.

Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park

Christopher McCandless wrote “Happiness only real when shared” in a book before he died alone in the Alaskan wilderness. While I don’t totally buy that line, more than ever I understand the importance of true and meaningful human connections. Shared experiences always win. But a desire to get away and be alone in nature still calls me, even if that howl is slowly becoming fainter.

Badlands self-portrait

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
– Henry David Thorough