Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 3, 2012

Colorado: Small Places

As I’ve been reporting in recent blogs, Dad and I were in Colorado in late October, primarily to see the national parks and the state’s remarkable scenery. As every traveler knows, lesser-known places can be just as memorable as the destinations one has in mind.

I’ve already written about discovering intriguing mining towns in the Colorado high country, HERE.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Our first planned stop was Rocky Mountain National Park, an hour or so north of Denver. We knew before we arrived that we wouldn’t see as much of the park as we had hoped; the main route to drive through the park’s mountains, Trail Ridge Road, had been closed for the winter season just days before. There wasn’t a great deal of snow on the mountains yet, but the strong winds that are common in those high, steep valleys can turn an inch of snow into drifts many feet high. The National Park Service doesn’t relish dragging stranded flatland touristers out of five-foot drifts during howling gales, so they close the route. This meant we could drive up from Estes Park, on the east side of Rocky Mountain as far as the barricade. Then, if we wanted to see more of the park, we’d make a long south-and-west-and-north loop to re-enter from the west side. And that’s what we did.

We missed a lot of terrific scenery and dozens of mountain peaks above 12,000 feet (3,657 meters) and many above 14,000 (4,267 m). We also weren’t able to drive over the road’s highest point, 12,183 feet, the highest major road in North America. Too bad. That’s not to say that we didn’t have a delightful look at the scenery (click on any photo for larger image):

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Early Mechanized Mining

As a consequence, though, we saw different things, including some towns I described in that article referenced above. We drove through Nederland, now home to a nifty 1923 Bucyrus B-50 steam shovel (actually steam-powered) that saw service digging the Panama Canal before it was shipped back to the States.

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Nederland, we learned later, is also home to Frozen Dead Guy Days, but you have to be there in March for that.

Rocky Mountain NP – West side

On the next day, we drove up route 40 to the western entrance of Rocky Mountain NP. We knew, of course, that we’d have the same experience there: we’d encounter the Road Closed barrier before we got into the really high country. Well, you see what you can see. The abbreviated visit let us focus our attention on a landscape we’d probably have passed by had we followed our initial plan: a wide valley formed by the Colorado River.

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The valley is braided by numerous branches and tributaries of the Colorado, which, itself, is a long hike out across what would be difficult terrain to cover. It’s a place that merits more exploration, since it’s occupied by beaver dams and is a foraging area for elk, bears and lots of other wildlife. We weren’t equipped for that sort of trek, so we satisfied ourselves by looking at the sun on frost at Coyote Creek.

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It was about 20° F (about -6° C), and the clear, cold air was still. We saw no other humans. A “small” look at a very, very large place.

South and West along the Colorado

Now we had some other country to cover, following the Colorado watershed south and west over rolling high country, flanked by mountains on either side. Driving down a grade with a narrow ravine at our left, I spotted one sight I was on the lookout for: beaver dams:

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There was a series of dams, the stream cascading from one into another. Remarkable engineering. By the side of the stream were small stems that the beavers had cut to gather their raw materials (we saw no beavers: they’re primarily nocturnal).

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We found a couple of little towns to poke into, including Ward.

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Doesn’t look like much, and, frankly, we couldn’t find a navigable path that would get us down the steep ravine into the town itself. This lack of infrastructure is explained by the fact that Ward is, according to Wikipedia, a “Home Rule Municipality,” meaning that the 150 or so residents of this onetime gold mining town are independent from the state and county governments and, presumably, don’t get any assistance in the way of street maintenance, fire, police, and so forth. One finds accounts on the Web indicating that Ward is a wild and woolly place, occupied by a lot of people who seriously want to be left alone. We may have been fortunate not to figure out a way to go nosing around there!

We went farther south, looking for a right-hand turn onto Colorado River Road, which Dad’s research indicated would take us along a picturesque and sparsely populated stretch of the river. We missed it (no sign) on the first pass, and stopped in another little spot, McCoy, population 24, to ask directions.

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There IS a post office in McCoy, which one assumes serves a lot of surrounding countryside, and not just 24 people.

Directions in hand (thank you, Postmistress), we headed down unpaved but well-graded Colorado River Road. Worth the search.

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This isn’t wild country; it’s a land of ranches and numerous small places like Ward and McCoy, and only 45 minutes from Interstate 70 to the south. There, with the sound of water riffling over rocks and echoing off the bluffs, was a reminder of what awaits just off the beaten path, under western skies.

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2017

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Responses

  1. Nice post, thanks. And you are correct, often what you’re not looking for is the best part. The one spot I remember most clearly from Yellowstone NP was in the Hayden Valley, at a stop on the roadside on the way from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (and the falls, of course) to Old Faithful. Large meadows full of early spring vegetation, mountains in the background and the meandering Yellowstone River in the middle of it all. I’d post a photo but sorry, it’s still on film in a 35mm slide mount somewhere at home. Yikes.

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    • Thanks, John. I should point out to readers that, if my memory is correct, you were on a bicycle trip through the park.

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      • Yep, your memory is spot on, bike trip. Fortunately the mountain passes in northwest Wyoming are a little lower in altitude than in Colorado.

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