Monday, August 29, 2016

Bighorn Lake ~ The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Wyoming!

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     Bighorn Lake ~ The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area!
     A few articles about western travel destinations that offer relief from the heat have been published in this website this summer.  As anybody in the Desert Southwest knows, the only way to escape the extreme heat of summer is to head for the mountains or head north.  Vacation destinations, like Utah, Colorado and Wyoming only take a day or two to get to from the Southwest.  These western states offer plenty of wide open spaces and the summer time temperatures are comfortable.  
     Wyoming is a land of extremes.  The western end of the state is laden with volcanic activity and geysers.  The High Plains of South Central Wyoming stretch out forever and the land is as flat as a pancake.  Summertime temperatures can be in the high 80ºs in the vast lush valleys of North Central Wyoming, while the high Bighorn Mountain elevations can see light snow as early as mid August. 
     There are many micro climate environments in the Bighorn National Forest Region.  The Bighorn Mountains have towering peaks that are over two miles high and the temperatures are icy cold.  The mile high lush mountain meadows and forests in the Bighorn offer comfortable daytime temperatures and chilly cold nights, even in late August.  The western face of the Bighorn Mountains have a harsh barren high desert climate, while the eastern slopes of the mountains are lush and green.  The low valley elevations surrounding the Bighorn are either dry high plains or lush farmland.  There is even a large lake on the edge of the Bighorn National Forest that stretches out over 70 miles north into Montana.  As one can see, the Bighorn National Forest is about as diverse as it gets.
     Bighorn Lake is located on U.S. Highway 14A at the base of the northwestern edge of the Bighorn Mountains.  The lake was formed by a dam about 70 miles north near Fort Smith, Montana.  The Yellowtail Dam backed up the Bighorn River and filled most of the vast Bighorn Canyon.  Parts of Bighorn Lake are wide enough to stretch out to the horizon, while other parts of the lake are only a few hundred feet wide where the steep canyon walls climb up to the sky.
     The temperature of Bighorn Lake is at a peak in late summer, but the water is still cold enough to keep the swimming time short.  Even so, all is not lost, because Bighorn Lake is a boater's paradise.  There are plenty of boat launches around Bighorn Lake, but most are located on dirt roads.  The fish are active during summer season and there are plenty of hidden coves in the Bighorn Canyon that offer great fly fishing.  The wide part of the lake offers unobstructed water skiing territory and plenty of room for house boats.  Taking a week vacation on a house boat on this lake somewhere in the long Bighorn Canyon is just about the ultimate way to get some peace and quiet, because relatively few people visit this National Recreation Area even on a holiday weekend.
    If camping or boating on a lake in a vast wilderness area that offers relatively cool summer temperatures sounds like a good idea, then Bighorn Lake belongs on the lifetime travel destination bucket list!  In places like the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, visitors are pretty much on their own and it can be many hours or even days before help arrives.  So by all means, carefully go over the camping or boating gear checklist before setting off for Bighorn Lake, because the closest big town is quite a ways on down the road.     

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming - US 14A West!

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     Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming - US 14A West!
     The Bighorn National Forest covers a vast expanse of land in north central Wyoming.  The geography of this protected land is unique.  This National Forest actually is a tall mountain range on the high desert plains.  The drive going up the mountain is steep, but at just over 7,000 feet above sea level the terrain turns into a paradise of high mountain meadows and rolling hills.
     U.S. Highway 14 runs through the Bighorn National Forest from Greybull to Sheridan.  Highway 14 also branches off in a westerly direction as Highway 14A (Alternate Hwy 14) at Burgess Junction.  Just to give fair warning, Alternate Highway 14 West happens to be one of the steepest roads in America, so large RVs and trailers may have a tough time on this road.  The steep downhill run can even be a challenge for cars and this thrill ride will surely test the nerves of the passengers.          
     Taking a drive on Alternate Highway 14 West will result in plenty of majestic sights to see and plenty of things to do.  Deep evergreen forests and grassy rolling hills are overlooked by many towering mountain rock outcrops along this road.  There is a 3 mile hiking trail that leads to an ancient native Medicine Wheel on top of a mountain peak.  The views from the Medicine Wheel and the cliffs along the western rim of the Bighorn Mountains overlook a valley that stretches out to the horizon.  This is a place where the mountains tough the clouds!           
     The U.S. Forest Service describes the Bighorn as "a land of many uses" and this is clearly evident upon arrival at the high elevations.  The Bighorn is a haven for wildlife, cattle ranching, horseback riding, sheep herding, outdoor sports, winter sports and off-road recreational vehicles.  The Bighorn can be described as a playground for outdoor enthusiasts and rightly so.  
     This National Forest offers some of the best elk hunting and fly fishing in west.  There are many spring fed streams and rivers that run through the ravines and valleys.  ATV and snowmobile trails run just about everywhere on the mountain.  There are Nordic Ski trails and plenty of hiking trails too.
     Wildlife viewing and nature photography is what many people like to do in the Bighorn Mountains.  When conditions are right, there is plenty of wildlife to see.  Moose, elk, and mule deer are fairly easy to spot during the summer months.  It takes a little more effort to spot some Bighorn Sheep on the high rocky outcrops.  When hiking through rocky terrain, small animals like marmots and chipmunks pop up from underground burrows everywhere to say hello.  
     There are a few bears, coyote, wolves and mountain lions on the mountain.  These predators are rarely seen, but it does not mean they are not there.  Keeping an eye on small children and pets is advisable in the Bighorn, just like any wilderness area.  
     Keeping an eye on the adults is advisable in some cases too.  In this modern age of taking selfie photos, some folks get a little bit too close to the wildlife and this can lead to disaster.  Moose and elk sure do look docile when grazing, but by taking one step too close, a wild moose or elk will stop at nothing to defend its territory or offspring.  Many people on the Bighorn agree that an angry moose is the most dangerous animal on the mountain, especially if it is a mama moose with its offspring!  So by all means, keep at least 100 yards between you and the docile looking big wild animals!  
     The drive to the Bighorn National Forest is quite a distance from anywhere that visitors may come from.  This means that to get the most out of a venture to the Bighorn, it is best to plan on spending a few days on the mountain.  There are plenty of campsites and a few rustic lodges that visitors can call base camp.  It is best to stock up on food and camping gear at cities and towns near the base of the mountain, because there is nothing but restaurant food on top of the hill.  Satellite communications are just about the only thing that works on the mountain, so those who do e-business while on vacation should keep this in mind.
     No matter whether the vacation plan calls for a week of rustic camping in the mountains or just taking a scenic drive through the wilderness, one simply cannot go wrong.  Experiencing the Bighorn National Forest is something that belongs on the lifetime bucket list.  This Wyoming wilderness area offers plenty of fun things to do and plenty of nature to explore!           

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Blue Mesa Lake - Curecanti National Recreation Area, Colorado!

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     Blue Mesa Lake!
     In the old days, a station wagon full of kids, dogs, coolers and camping equipment with a boat trailer in tow meant only one thing.  A week long vacation of fun in the sun at the lake!  
     Spending some time at the lake is a traditional thing to do during the summer season.  Some people have their own favorite lakeside campground or cabin that their family has visited every summer for many generations.  When the announcement is made at home about how it is vacation time, often the first thing that is heard from the kids is "Wow!  I hope we going back to the lake!"
     For people that are cooped up in the big city all year or for those who are locked up in an endless suburban routine, a vacation at the lake is an escape like no other.  There are no tall buildings or traffic jams.  There is no strict schedule or bills to worry about.  There is only cool blue water, fresh air, sunshine and the call of the wild.  A few hours at the lake is enough to provide stress relief and a week long vacation at the lake is enough to cause visitors to completely forget about the mundane daily routine altogether.
     I have camped out at eastern lakes in Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina.  I also worked as a chef at a lakeside resort in the Poconos for one summer.  Eastern lakes are fun, but because there are so many big cities nearby, on a holiday weekend the lake can get so crowded that visitors wonder what ever happened to peace and quiet of mother nature.  
     Just like back east, lakes out west are usually located well away from civilization in remote wilderness areas.  The difference is that western wilderness areas nearly stretch out forever and the drive can take all day, especially when towing a camper trailer or boat over the mountainous terrain.  Some say that half of the fun is just getting there and the wild west scenery makes the long drive all that much better.  
     Some of the well known western bodies of water, like Lake Tahoe, Lake Powell or Lake Mead have hundreds of miles of shoreline, so these places rarely seem crowded even on a holiday weekend.  There are plenty of lesser known lakes out west that are smaller and easier to navigate.  Many of these lakes are located in majestic mountain landscapes and these bodies of water are remote enough to cause visitors to feel like they are the only people there.  If solitude or some extra breathing room is a high priority, then venturing to a remote lake in the west is the way to go.
     Of course there is a middle ground too.  There are lakes in the west that are located along major travel routes that are large enough to not be crowded, while still being small enough to make navigating a boat relatively easy to do.  Blue Mesa Lake is one such place!
     Blue Mesa Lake is one of three alpine lakes in the Curecanti National Recreation Area.  The three lakes in Curecanti are actually reservoirs created by dams on the Gunnison River high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  U.S. Highway 50 runs through the Curecanti National Recreation Area and it crosses Blue Mesa Lake on a causeway that is just a few feet above the water.  The views overlooking Blue Mesa Lake from the highway are truly breathtaking!
     Blue Mesa Lake is surrounded by rock outcrops, canyons, rolling hills and majestic mountain peaks.  The air is crystal clear and the skies are nearly always cobalt blue in this pristine environment.  As far as summertime lake vacation destinations are concerned, Blue Mesa Lake is as picturesque as it gets!         
     The surface of the lake is over 7,000 feet above sea level, so it may take time to get adjusted to the thin air.  Altitude sickness can occur during physical exertion, so it pays to slow down when the first sign of dizziness occurs, in order to avoid blacking out.  Staying hydrated is the best way to prevent altitude sickness, so it is advisable to drink more water than normal in the high dry mountain air.
     The water temperature of Blue Mesa Lake is very cold in early summer, but by the month of August the water warms up a bit.  Even so, swimming for an extended time is not recommended, because the combination of cold water and thin mountain air may put swimmers at risk.  This does not mean that visitors cannot have fun playing in the water.  Blue Mesa Lake is a haven for water skiing, jet skiing and sailboarding.  The fishing on this lake is great too and there are many shallow coves that are perfect for fly fishing in waders.          
     There are picnic areas, campgrounds, lodges and boat landings located at several sites around the lake.  Watercraft rentals of every kind can be found in the area too.  The historic town of Gunnison is a short hop away and this is where visitors can find modern amenities and places to stock up on camping goods.
     August is when the water at Blue Mesa Lake is relatively warm, but this will not last for long.  The seasons change quickly at high elevations, so it will not be long before snow drapes the mountain peaks.  With the change of season comes high winds and this is good to be aware of, if spending a week on a houseboat is in the plans.  
     Blue Mesa Lake is one of those scenic places that causes a traveler to stop and say "I sure would like to spend some time here whenever I get a vacation from the job!"  If a summer vacation at a pristine lake in the Rocky Mountains is long overdue, then Blue Mesa Lake definitely should be moved up to the number one spot on the western travel destination bucket list! 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Scenic Highway 50 ~ The Colorado Rockies!

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     Scenic Highway 50 ~ The Colorado Rockies!
     Some people like driving endless miles on a boring interstate highway, while others prefer to take their time while leisurely traveling on roads that offer far more points of interest.  The old roads from the original 1920's Highway System still exist out west and these old highways are usually the road less traveled.  In fact, a stretch of Highway 50 that runs through Nevada has the reputation of being "The Loneliest Road In America."  A reputation like this is music to the ears of travelers that relish the thought of having a little more elbow room while on vacation!    
     U.S. Highway 50 is one of the old original Highway System roads and this pathway runs coast to coast.  Highway 50 runs through the entire State of Colorado, so this route is a gateway to the Rocky Mountains.  As one can imagine, this old highway has a lot of history to tell and there are plenty of interesting sights to see along the way.  
     Part of the benefits of traveling on U.S. Highway 50 instead of Interstate 70 through Colorado, is that a driver does not have to wait for an interstate highway offramp to get off the road.  This means that travelers on can pull off the road where they please and see what they want to see.  There is plenty to see along this road, because way back in the old days Highway 50 was a premier western tourism route, just like Historic Route 66.  This guarantees that there will be plenty of majestic scenery and fresh air to take in.  This also means that there will be plenty of cool roadside attractions and weird tourist traps to check out!
     Traveling west to east on Highway 50 in Colorado is as easy as getting off of Interstate 70 in Grand Junction, Colorado and hopping on U.S. 50.  Some interesting attractions near Grand Junction include a dinosaur museum and the picturesque Colorado National Monument.  After getting on U.S. 50, it does not take long to realize that this is road is not as busy as it was back in the old days.  This actually is like a sigh of relief.  With fewer cars on the road, there is more time to enjoy the great scenery in the western end of the state where the mesa land meets the mountains.
      Highway 50 heads southeast from Grand Junction to the town of Montrose.  This town has an old main street shopping area with some interesting eateries.  Points of interest include the Ute Indian Museum.  This part of Highway 50 is surrounded by National Forests and Conservation areas, so there are plenty of outdoor outfitters.  Everything from river rafting excursions to hunting guides and saddle horse rentals can be found on Highway 50 from Montrose going east to the Rocky Mountains.
     The Rockies definitely are the overwhelming main attraction during this part of the drive.  When the tall mountains come into view on the horizon, the mood changes to one of awe.  The anticipation of the steep drive up the mountain and the majestic views literally takes over and nothing else matters.  That is, until one sees the roadside signs for Antiques, Gem Stones and Native American Art!  
     Tourist trap aficionados will not be disappointed, because there are still a few odd tourist traps along Highway 50.  Many of the weird tourist traps from the golden age of automobile travel may have closed down over the years due to fewer cars on this road, but often the remnants remain.  Some of the old tourist trap ruins do present an opportunity to photograph a really weird looking old sign or rusty old gold mining cars.  
     By far, the leaders of the pack for modern Colorado tourist traps these days seems to be the Western Antique Shops and local restaurants that have an entertaining unique theme.  There are several old original 1950's drive-in burger stands, classic diners, saloons and western steakhouses on this road too.  "Antiquing" is big these days and there usually is at least one big antique shop near every town. 
     The climb up the Rockies actually is fairly easy on Highway 50.  The rise in elevation begins with rolling hills that turn into mountains and there are relatively few steep grades.  Just above the mile high level, the mountain meadows stretch out forever.  Green pastures and farms fill the valleys that weave their way between the mountain peaks.  There are plenty of campgrounds and log cabin lodge resorts along this stretch of road that touches the clouds.  The Curecanti National Recreation Area offers picturesque views of mile high rivers and lakes.  Blue Mesa Lake is a boater's paradise and this is a popular place to do some high altitude water skiing in the Rockies.   
     While winding through some narrow gorges on the climb up the Rockies, the evergreen forests become so thick, that the panoramic views are limited.  Fortunately, there are a few scenic view turn-outs on the way up that offer great views of the lush forested mountains and valleys below.  When standing at a scenic overlook that is as high as the clouds, the first thought is to look and listen for eagles.  The tall pines tower overhead and the dead silence of the breeze whispering through the trees is mesmerizing.  The silence is only broken by an occasional passing car and oddly enough, it can be over 20 minutes between cars going uphill.  Peace and quiet is easy to find on this old highway!    
     The steep slope at the top of the Rockies on Highway 50 is fairly easy for an average passenger car loaded with luggage to traverse.  Motor homes and travel trailers will also have a much easier time crossing the Rockies on U.S. 50, than on the much steeper Interstate 70.  Those who drive "Muscle Cars" will have a blast while letting it all hang out on this steep section of road.  I did the trip in a Dodge Hemi Challenger with a stick shift and I still chuckle about how good this car performed on this big hill climb!  Even so, the drive over the highest point of the mountains is a doozy of a long steady climb up to Monarch Crest, which is over 11,300 feet above sea level.  The overlooks at Monarch Crest offer some of the most majestic views of the Rocky Mountains that one could possibly hope to see.  
     After looking down on the clouds at Monarch Crest, the first part of the downhill drive going east is steep enough to heat up the brakes, but after the summit starts to fade away in the rear view mirror, the land of mountain meadows returns.  Farms, pastures and several interesting tourist attractions are what travelers will find around these parts.  Pioneer museums, trading posts, antique shops and old historic lodges dot the landscape on this scenic stretch of road.  
     Near Poncha Springs, Highway 50 starts to make its final descent out of the Rocky Mountains.  U.S. 50 runs through the steep winding Arkansas River Canyon all the way to somewhere near Cañon City.  The road parallels the Arkansas River between steep canyon walls, so the going gets tight and narrow at times.  RV's and travel trailers usually move slow through this section, so this is a good area to pull off of the road to take a break and get some fresh air.
     There are many state and national recreation areas along the headwaters of the Arkansas River in this part of Colorado.  This is a great place to park the car and relax a spell.  There are many campgrounds and picnic areas along this section of Highway 50 that offer the kind of scenic views that make a visitor want to stay forever.  The recreation areas along the river are sheer paradise, especially if one is into fly fishing, panning gold or kayaking! 
     The long run through the river canyons ends when Highway 50 flattens out in the High Plains of eastern Colorado.  With the exception of a few large towns, U.S. 50 is pretty much relegated to being a two lane farm road from Pueblo, Colorado, to well into Kansas past Dodge City.  For the most part, the endless flat prairie landscape is about enough to make a traveler reach for the snooze button on the imaginary alarm clock, but then again, after the harrowing drive down the steep Rocky Mountains, a little bit of flatland does the nerves some good.  
     Checking out a few points of interest while driving east on Highway 50 through the vast flat prairies definitely helps to break up the monotony.  There are many cultural destinations and museums in the Pueblo area that are well worth taking the time to see.  
     On a high note, recreational marijuana tourism has turned into a multimillion dollar enterprise.  There are a few great recreational marijuana shops in the Pueblo area that are well worth checking out, especially if a few hours of rest and relaxation is just what the doctor ordered.  Even if visitors prefer not to participate in consuming Colorado legal recreational marijuana products, they can still pick up some nifty mementos.  A t-shirt or a ball cap from a legal weed shop in Colorado is practically guaranteed to be a good conversation starter back home.  I must admit, the hat from Maggie's Farm in Pueblo is one of a kind!    
     As Highway 50 exits the eastern end of Colorado, there still are a few more historic sights to see after entering the vast endless sea of flat farmland.  Many of the locals proudly preserve the historic past in this region and the main street area in each small town is worth taking a look at.  The Star Schoolhouse is an example of how charitable donations are put to work preserving old landmark buildings for all posterity.
    It is easy to see that taking old Highway 50 through Colorado, instead of the modern Interstate 70, is the more relaxed way to go.  Not only does a traveler get to see majestic views of the Rockies, there are plenty of opportunities to visit recreation areas that appeal to the outdoorsman in all of us.  Highway 50 in Colorado is one of America's great summer vacation roads!