Sunday, August 20, 2017

Hot and Smoky Montana

Post by Henry

Back when we decided Montana would be our destination this summer, I had visions of cool, refreshing temperatures and Loretta was worried it would be cold.

Nope. Didn't happen.

When we arrived, temps were in the low to mid 90's every day, with the fifteen (15) day forecast showing no end in sight. Add to that the fact that Montana is also in a severe drought, and you get forest fires. There wasn't just wildfires in Montana. Idaho had some too, and British Columbia was having severe wildfire problems. The smoke from all the distant fires lead to very smoky conditions all around the western part of Montana.

Smoky View in Glacier

Our original intentions were to be in Montana until early September, but after we couldn't even see the nearby mountains anymore, we decided to leave in mid-August. Mostly, the first half of our stay was just pretty hot temperatures, and the second half, the smoke moved in. That doesn't mean we didn't enjoy ourselves while we were here. We experienced some of the best that Montana has to offer!

We hiked out to the Granite Butte Lookout Fire Tower and spent two (2) nights there. 

Granite Butte Fire Tower

The fire tower had been recently renovated in 2016 and was available to rent for overnight stays. It's listed on the national register of historic lookouts and sits directly on the Continental Divide at 7,587 feet above sea level. There's a few basic amenities in the lookout tower, like a wood stove, bed, a couple of cots, table and chairs, dishes and cutlery.

Cozy Little Fire Tower

One important thing that's NOT available is water. You can actually drive to the lookout if you have a high clearance vehicle, but our HHR is not, so we had to do a four mile hike to get there.

Now a four mile hike is not usually a big deal, but add to that our sleeping bags, minimal extra clothes, a few odds and ends, and two (2) days of food and water. The water was the kicker. Two days worth for drinking, cooking, and cleaning up and our backpacks were pretty heavy.

Beginning the Uphill Climb

We parked the car at Stemple Pass (where the Unibomber lived) and we had two choices to get to the fire tower. Hike up the road or hike the Continental Divide Trail. I had looked over some maps and the CDT didn't look like too rough of a hike and I thought it would be more interesting than hiking up a road. Well, it may have been more interesting, but it ended up being one butt kicker of a hike with some really steep ascents and 2/3's of the way, we dropped 700 feet elevation and then had to regain it again to reach the tower! 

Up...Then Down

OUCH! On the hike out two days later, we went down the road instead, and it was nice and gradual downhill all the way to the car. And you know what else? Hiking back along the road, we discovered that we could have driven the car to within a mile and a half of the fire tower! Yep, I may never live down THAT decision. We did have some pretty spectacular views and saw lots of wildflowers along the hike, so it wasn't totally painful.

A Sampling of Wildflowers

Beargrass in Full Bloom

At the Granite Butte Lookout, though, life was pretty grand for two days. It was peaceful and at that elevation, the temperatures were milder. We had windows and a deck on all sides of the tower, so we had 360 degree views. 

Taking in the Views

View from Fire Tower

View from Fire Tower - 2

The wildfires hadn't really kicked in yet, so the skies were nice and clear. We saw some good birds, including two new ones (for us), the Evening Grosbeak and the Pine Grosbeak (no decent picture).

Pine Grosbeak

Clark's Nutcracker

We thought we would see more wildlife, but unless you count some cattle, we only got a brief glimpse of two mule deer and later, a coyote on the hike out. Overall it was a great experience!

We spent some time on the east side of Glacier National Park. 

Glacier National Park

The day we arrived, we had smoky skies, but the next ten (10) days were nice and clear. Glacier National Park is known as the Crown of the Continent, and it is one beautiful place!

Wild Goose Island
St. Mary's Lake

Jackson Glacier

Historic Many Glacier Lodge

Trick Falls - Running Eagle Falls
Flows Right Out of Rock!

Two Medicine Lake

Mountains, Valleys, and Clouds

Just like so many of the other national parks, it is one popular place, too. In July, the park set an attendance record and we were just two (2) of them.

We did a few day hikes, including two where seemingly hundreds of other people were on the same hike.

Trail to Hidden Lake

Snow Along Trail to Hidden Lake
(In July!!!)

Hidden Lake

The Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot at the top of Going to the Sun Road was full by 9:00 a.m. every day, and then full of vehicles circling the lot hoping to catch someone pulling out.

Every campground was full every day and usually full by mid-morning.

The park does have a great shuttle bus system in place to help with the congestion, but still almost every hiking trail parking area and pullouts on the side of the road are full all day long.

The National Parks are being loved to death.

Even with the crowds, though, we saw a good number of wildlife and amazingly gorgeous scenery.

Mountain Goat and Friend


Look Closely
Big Horn Sheep Butts

After East Glacier, we moved to the West side of the park and into the Flathead Valley near Flathead Lake. This is where the smoke settled in and where we hooked up with our friends from Alabama again, Ken and Trisha.

Ken and Trisha at Glacier

The Flathead Valley is known for their cherries and WOW are they delicious! After buying several pounds at roadside stands a few times, we decided to take matters into our own hands and go to a 'You Pick' orchard. 

Loretta Picking Cherries

Just a dollar a pound and the trees were hanging full of cherries! It took Loretta and I about 20 minutes to pick four (4) pounds, flitting from tree to tree - cherry picking. Ken and Trisha picked seven (7) pounds!

Hand Picked Flathead Cherries

And the result of the cherry picking.....

Yes, We Did!

The National Bison Range was near to where we were staying and we enjoyed this so much, we went more than once. Yep, there's buffalo there.

Bison in the Rut

 And bears. 

Twin Bears

And pronghorn.

Pronghorn (Antelope)

 And deer. 

White Tail Deer

And lots of birds, including another new one for us, the Lewis Woodpecker.

Lewis's Woodpecker

So, let's see. There's buffalo, pronghorns (also known as antelope) and deer.

Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Unfortunately, once the fires got out of control, the skies were smoky all day, which was discouraging. So, since our house has wheels, we decided to move on from Montana. We had hoped to do more hiking in Glacier National Park and get up into Canada more, but we will have to return another time. 

Sunset from Granite Butte Fire Tower

Friday, July 28, 2017

Back to Colorado

Post by Henry

Continuing our journey North, we spent a month in Colorado in the same RV park as two years ago, about thirty (30) miles from Salida. This allowed us considerable time to spend with our friends, James and Mary, who we 'met' when we were here two years ago. Meeting them here in Colorado was kind of weird considering James and I worked for the same company in the Atlanta area for several years, but didn't really know each other. Now, we've become best of friends and it's like we've known them forever. (See post from July 2015.)

Mary, Henry, James (in front, seated)
Angie & Robert (James and Mary's daughter-in-law and son)

First off, Salida is just a cool little town. It's a lively little place with something going on all the time. There's coffee shops, restaurants, consignment stores, various artsy stores, festivals, a great farmers market, and several tasty breweries. Oh - and the Arkansas River runs through town. And everybody bikes!

Salida Farmers Market

Fun Salida


The kayak festival was happening while we were there again. 

Getting Ready for FIBArk

This was the 69th FIBArk (First in Boating the Arkansas) Whitewater Festival, with world class kayakers, a parade, live music, arts and crafts, and a crazy event called the Hooligan Race. Huh?

KISS in the Parade!

To quote the FIBArk website, the "Hooligan Race is open to anything that floats that's not a boat". Hooligans dress up in costume and the winner is chosen by crowd support. This spectacle of "controlled chaos" is a local tradition that always produces a huge turnout.
They're not kidding, either! The venue was packed with folks on all sides to watch the spectacle of homemade rafts coming through the rapids, some of which fell apart almost immediately, and others that should've collapsed but somehow made it through intact.

Lining the Bank of the Arkansas River
The Hooligan Races

Here Come the Hooligans!

More Hooligans...

Another event was dare devil Hooligans riding their bikes down a ramp and flipping into the raging waters of the Arkansas! This brought lots of cheers from the crowd.

Hooligan Riding/Jumping Bicycle
into Arkansas River

Another Hooligan

We visited a roadside attraction called Bishop Castle. 

Bishop Castle

Hmmmmmm, how to describe Bishop Castle..........Well, this very interesting guy, Jim Bishop, has been building a castle - rock by rock - for over 40 years - by himself - since he was 15 years old! He is kinda eccentric, but I'll have to admit, the castle is quite impressive.

Towering Cathedral Windows

His family business was ornamental iron, and he incorporated a LOT of ornamental iron into the castle design.

Exquisite Ornamental Iron Walkway

You can read more about Bishop Castle here. So, if you ever make it to Colorado, check out this one of a kind attraction. 

We took a trip to see Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Usually when you think of Colorado, you imagine looking up at the Rocky Mountains, but here you look down into a magnificent canyon carved by the Gunnison River.

Gunnison River at the Bottom of  Black Canyon of the Gunnison

We checked out a spot not far from where we were staying called Russell Lakes State Wildlife area. It's a pull off on the side of the road overlooking a pond with ducks and other water fowl. We'd been here before, but this time, we discovered there's a trail at the back that wanders back from the road to several other hidden ponds. We were able to see additional birds that we would normally associate more with the Gulf Coast than Colorado.

Look Closely for the Second American Bittern

Loretta and I spent a few days tent camping at Maroon Bells National Recreation area. 

Maroon Bells

I was lucky enough to score a hard-to-get reservation for a campsite just 5 miles down the street from the Bells. Our campsite overlooked East Maroon Creek and the sound of the rushing water made for some great sleeping. During the day though, our eyes were wide open taking in the beauty of the Maroon Bells, which are said to be the most photographed mountains in Colorado. 

The Maroon Bells

Hiking through the Aspens

Looking the Other Way

We did a loop hike there we enjoyed so much, we did it again the next day! 

Crossing Maroon Creek

Hiking along Clear Water and The Bells

The Maroon Bells in view around every bend, crystal clear waters of Maroon Lake and creek plus the wildflowers were spectacular, including the state flower, Colorado Blue Columbine.

Colorado State Flower - Blue Colombine


Our friends from Alabama, Ken and Trish were in Colorado towards the end of June and we caught up with them for a couple of days. We had lunch in the cool little town of Creede, and toured Bachelors Loop through the historic mining district above town. 

Last Chance Mine

A few miles further up the road, we saw the most photographed water falls in Colorado, North Clear Creek Falls.

North Clear Creek Falls

The next day we got in a good hike through another explosion of wildflowers. We'll be catching up with Ken and Trish again later this summer in Montana.

Elephant Head

We ended our stay in Colorado on the 4th of July, Salida style, with a nice little All American Independence Day parade and James and Mary's neighborhood cookout. And we didn't have to go far for the grand finale. We simply set up chairs on the street right in front of their house to watch a most impressive fireworks display over S mountain. WOW!

Fourth of July Fireworks

And BOOM, just like that our stay in Colorado came to a close.

It was a bit sad parting ways with our Salida pals, and we were tempted to stay longer, but instead, we may pass this way again on our journey south in the fall.

Bonus Pic
The Maroon Bells