This was probably the most eventful day of this whole trip. Our destination for the end of the day was Grand Lake (elevation 8369 feet), located at the western entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park. There were a couple of options under consideration for the route to get us there. Either way, we would head out west into the mountains on Interstate-70 for the initial part of the drive, but once on the highway, there were two different options to consider to get us to Grand Lake. One route was shorter than the other. Our decision would depend on the time at our disposal. We ended up taking the longer route.
Our first destination for the day, Mount Evans (elevation 14258 feet) had been chosen just the previous evening, at the last minute, after hearing about the plans that friends had to visit the place. They were going to try to see the sunrise. That was much too early for us. We could perhaps get to the Fourteener later in the morning. (My original thought had been to instead stop at Berthoud Pass, a pass that has been, and still is, notoriously difficult to traverse – on the shorter route to Grand Lake.)
The morning started just like the one before, with a sighting of the dawn.
We first stopped at the local AAA office near our hotel to get a paper map of Colorado in case we had networking and/or GPS issues during our travel. We also stopped at the Safeway grocery store for lunch items, and also for Dramamine for the road. After a check of tire pressures at the gas station, we were on our way!
We were still climbing into the mountains when we exited I-70 at Idaho Springs (elevation 7526 feet) and then headed southwest on highway 103 towards Mount Evans. After entering the park just beyond Echo Lake,we started our drive up the road to the top of the mountain. Wow, wow, wow! This road, about 14 miles long, tops off at 14,140 feet, near the top of Mount Evans – climbing into the open spaces of the alpine tundra, above the treeline, and traversing many spectacular mountain sides, clinging to the mountainsides, dangerously in some places, and even passing a beatiful mountain lake (a tarn), before reaching its destination. Note that Echo Lake, where the road starts its climb up the mountains is at only about 10,600 feet. This road to the top is claimed to be the highest paved road in North America (and 5th highest in the world). It is clear that the road is a difficult one to maintain. It is closed in winter. While climbing up the mountain, it quickly becomes a narrow road without a divider, with sections where vehicles have to pass each other with extreme caution. There is no protective wall on the side to prevent one from tumbling over the mountainside. The condition of the road as it passes Summit Lake is extremely poor, with huge potholes, and the pavement itself undulating up and down in a dangerous way. This section has to be passed very carefully.
We arrived at the parking area near the top of the mountain to find ourselves in a fog. The temperature had fallen quite significantly by now, and there was snow around us. There was an open structure beside the parking lot.
We explored this area quickly and used the restroom. There was an observatory nearby that we could not even see at that point. We then started climbing to the actual top of the mountain on foot. The conditions were a little dicey, but, having gotten this far, we were determined to finish this last section. I was having trouble breathing. I needed to take it slow and easy.
The exposed rocks, fortunately, had a good grip!
We managed to get to the top safely. It was still misty – but the fog gradually began to lift.A spectacular view opened before our eyes. Here is a picture including Summit Lake (elevation 12840 feet).This is the geological marker at the top of the mountain.
This is a picture of Summit Lake.Interestingly, the park here is owned by the City of Denver, and they charge you for its use. Apparently the Denver Mountain Parks system is an over 14,000 acre collection of parks in different parts of Colorado.
We had lunch at Echo Lake, and then got back on the road to Idaho Springs. At Idaho Springs, we headed west on I-70 towards the town of Silverthorne.
It was at the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial tunnels on the highway (highest elevation 11,158 feet) that we ran into our first unexpected situation. This is the highest point on the Interstate system in the United States, and it is among the highest vehicular tunnels in the world. As we were emerging from the tunnel, we saw a sign just outside that warned about ice on the road, and cautioned drivers to slow down. We had entered the tunnel in a location where it had been sunny and dry, and we were not prepared for what happened next – in spite of the sign. As we exited the tunnel, we hit a patch of rough pavement, and felt and saw the snow around us. We were coming into a gradual curve, and I had to steady myself. I could not panic! Fortunately, the tires found their grip on the road surface, between the patches of snow, on a clear twin path that had been created by vehicles that that previously exited the tunnel. There was an official vehicle with its emergency lights beside the road, and another vehicle seemed to have smashed into the side of the hill next to the road. It was snowing! Everything slowed down. I sneaked a look at the thermometer in the car. It was 38°F outside.
The roadway was a mess for a few miles after this. The pavement was flooded in parts. The road spray from the 18 wheelers on the other side of the highway was flying over the divider and onto our windshield, temporaily blinding us. We ourselves were in danger of hydroplaning and losing traction in some sections that were waterlogged. By this time the rain also was coming down in sheets, in bursts, and visibility was also suboptimal. Our vehicle was heavy enough to hold steady. I proceeded with caution. The good thing was that traffic was light. We made it safely through this section.
The weather had cleared up by the time we got to Silverthorne, but there were threatening clouds in the direction of the mountains. It was still cold.
The sun was out as we headed north on route 9 in the direction of Kremming. Just before we reached Kremming, we turned off the main road and headed west on Trough Road, a part of the Colorado River Headwaters National Scenic Byway. We followed this mostly dirt road till we got to the Gore Valley Overlook, where we could see the Colorado River flowing below us.
Having followed the Colorado river all along its flow. all the way into Arizona, during previous trips, I was appreciative of seeing this section of the river also.
The railroad line running through the canyon is a historical one. It is part of the earliest railroad connection across the Rocky Mountains between the east and west of the continent, and this is part of the section between Denver and Salt lake City. This line includes the historical Moffat Tunnel. Amtrak’s California Zephyr still runs on this line.
We headed back to the main road towards Kremming. We drove further north on route 9. Once we reached Kremming (elevation 7313 feet), we made a right turn onto Highway 40 to head east towards the town of Granby (elevation 7935 feet). Our route paralleled the Colorado river and the railroad line during this part of the drive. The skies looked threatening ahead of us, and we did encounter some rain.
It was in a section of the road that ran through a canyon that we had our second unexpected event of the day. It seems like the rains had losened up rocks along the canyon wall. We would come across small rocks randomly littering the road, in small enough number to not be of great concern. There were signs along the road that indicated the presence of the rock falls. We were managing the driving quite nicely until we came upon a section of the road where the attempt to avoid driving over the rocks resulted in one of the bigger rocks going right under the car. It seemed small enough to fit under the front end of the car – and it did. Unfortunately, we also heard a loud bang from under the car. It was an “Oh, crap!” moment to put it lightly, but the car continued to drive properly after the event. We thought we had made it OK. Soon after that encounter, we arrived at the turnoff from route 40 onto route 34 towards the town of Grand Lake. As we approached our destination, the sounds from below the car bagan to get more obvious, especially to the nervous driver. When we reached our destination I looked under the car. A piece of plastic has come loose and was dragging along the ground.
There was no way that we were going to go any further in this car. The area in which we had ended up was far off beaten path and I did not think I would be able to find a place to fix the problem anywhere close by. While the others checked into our cabin for the night, I made a call to the rental company. They quickly decided that the only way to resolve the problem was to get us a new car. They had to find a place from which to send it to us. They would also take the damaged car back with them. They indicated that they would address the problem within 8 hours! We were to be contacted as soon as they figured out the details. This sounded good!
Meanwhile, we headed out into town for dinner.It was a small place, and one could walk from one end of town to the other other in a matter of minutes. The place seemed to be set up for the tourists, but this traffic tends to be seasonal in these parts. The entrance to the western end of the Trail Ridge Road across the Rocky Mountain National Park was nearby, but this road is closed during the winter time.
While we were out in town, I got several messages related to our car problem. The person calling the first time seemed to be confused about what problem they were addressing, and where they were supposed to go. Soon after I corrected that issue, I got a text message that the problem would be addressed in half-an-hour. A company had been found to send me my replacement car and to take the old one away. I then got a call from the person who was actually going to bring out my new car. It was going to take about three hours, not the half hour that was initially promised. The person had to drive to the Denver Airport to get the new car since there was no agency of the rental company closer by that could be of use.
While the others settled in to try to get some sleep, I sat up in the living room awaiting my new car. It took more than the three hours promised for the towing company to arrive with the new car. The person doing the car exchange was very professional. He got the job done quickly and quietly without disturbing the people in the neighboring cabins. He was smart enough to do the unloading of the new car from the tow truck, and the loading of the damaged car onto the tow truck, on the main road, away from our sleeping neighbors. I was impressed by how he got the job done.
It was about 11:30pm by the time I could get to bed. It had been a long day and I was super-tired.
But the trip could also go on as originally planned! Things turned out OK in the end – except for perhaps a bill for damages that I could expect, and take care of later. The number of different things that one was exposed to on that long and exciting day made for a very memorable episode in the life of one Mr. Joseph of Planet Earth.
I slept well!