Friday, 25 July 2014

From Aspen to Leadville

Heading out of Aspen and upwards to the Independence Pass, the road becomes exciting and beautiful in equal measure. For much of the ascent, the road is extremely narrow, and passes through steep, narrow canyons in the rock. Occasionally the road has a precipitous drop on one side and I would be nervous towing a long trailer on this route. At nearly 3,700m the road is likely to be hard work in ski season, and given how narrow and winding the road is, I expect that most of Aspen’s winter visitors come from the lower Roaring Fork Valley side, through Glenwood Springs and Carbondale.

There are a number of trailheads along the way up to the summit of the pass, but there was torrential rain during much of the drive, and a mountain pass at 3,700m is no place to go for walk in a thunderstorm. Thankfully the rain eased as we reached a good viewpoint, and we got fantastic views over the surrounding mountain ranges.

We had intended to camp for the night at Elbert Reservoir, near to Twin Lakes on the east side of Independence Park, in the shadow of the 4,400m high Mt Elbert, but the heavy rain would have made it difficult to get out and enjoy the surroundings. Instead we headed north on Highway 24, and drove into the historic mining town of Leadville, America’s highest incorporated town at 3,100m. The town retains a lot of charm, and the old buildings and surrounding peaks reminded me of Silverton. The town was full of interesting characters whilst we were there, in town for the exciting sounding ‘antique glass bottle convention’ that was being held over the weekend. We spent a couple of days in Leadville, visiting the antique shops, and watching Brazil get humiliated by Holland in the World Cup playoffs at the historic Silver Dollar Saloon.

When we left Leadville, we drove back the way that we had come on Highway 24. Around Buena Vista, Nathrop and the Chalk Creek, there are a cluster of hot springs, most of which are on private land. There are a few developed resorts, and we chose the large Mt. Princeton site. The setup is similar to the pubic springs that we visited in Ouray, with a number of pools at various temperatures, and we spent the day at the site, bathing in the pools and watching the World Cup Final in the packed bar.

Mt. Princeton Hot Springs has no provision for RV parking, and so when we left in the evening, we drove east on County Road 162 into the San Isabel National Forest looking for somewhere to park. Unlike most national forests that we had visited, there were ‘No Camping’ signs at almost every turnoff, and many of the dirt roads lead onto private property. Fortunately we got speaking to the friendly host at one of the paid-for campsites on the road, and he directed us to a nearby area of the forest where dispersed camping is encouraged. We drove eight miles east and south to the Browns Creek area of the San Isabel Forest, off of Country Road 272, and easily found a beautiful, secluded riverside campsite to spend the night, surrounded by the +14,000 foot peaks of Antero, Princeton, Tabegauche and Shavano.

In the morning, we drove back the Highway 24, and headed east, in the direction of Colorado Springs.

Aspen - A Great Place to Make a Spectacle of Ourselves

Glenwood Springs is a pleasant town, but there wasn’t enough going on to keep us there for more than a day. We were fortunate enough to meet a great local guy, who directed us to an undeveloped hot springs site south of Glenwood. We left Glenwood on the 82, and diverted south at Carbondale onto the 133. The springs are not signed and are not easily visible from the road, we drove past them twice before we stopped at a local hotel and got directions. Penny Hot Springs can be accessed from the fourth layby on the east side of the road, once you have passed the hotel/hot springs resort on the west side of the road near Avalanche Creek.

When we arrived, there were a couple at the springs already, tending to one of the pools that have been built up on the edge of the river to capture the steaming water that exits from the creekside nearby. When we visited, the springs were exiting from fissures in the rock a little above the waterline; however in spring, when snowmelt is at its highest, the pools are flooded and often the rock walls built up over the summer are washed away. Each summer, as the water level drops and exposes the springs, the pools have be reconstructed to make them comfortable.

I guess the pools hadn’t been used much yet this season, as when we arrived, the pool had a dangerously hot stream of water on one side, and a freezing torrent rushing in from the river on the other side. With the help of a more experienced local guy we reconstructed the pool by blocking most of the cold water ingress and allowing what was left to properly mix with the hot spring water before it entered the pool. It is important to get the mixing right, as the water that comes from the spring is hot enough to burn you extremely quickly. After a bit of work we could enjoy a hot, but comfortable pool, watching the fast river flowing by to our side, with the red rock mountains in the background. By the time we left, others had arrived and were enjoying our hard work.

We left in the afternoon and drove back up the 133, turning east at Carbondale and driving to Aspen on the 82. I suppose it was predictable for such an expensive town, but almost every street in Aspen is subject to parking restrictions, most of which require you to pay if you wish to stay more than 2 hours. In addition, there are no RV parks anywhere near the town. I guess that the intention is to prevent vagabonds like us from flooding into the town, lowering the tone of the neighbourhoods, and abusing the excellent free services available. Sadly for them we were not dissuaded so easily, and after a bit of exploration we found a street on the southeast side of town that offered free parking from 6pm to 8am, and parking for the rest of the day for $8. I would normally have continued searching, but for $8 we got access to an extremely fast unsecured Wi-Fi connection courtesy of a luxury apartment/hotel complex next door.

If you have bulging pockets, Aspen is an excellent place to spend your money, but for people of more modest means like us, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy yourself in Aspen without spending much money. Aspen certainly doesn’t have the relaxed, frontier town feel of some of the other mountainous historic towns that we’ve visited in Colorado, but there are some beautifully landscaped parks, a number of well maintained walking trails into the surrounding mountains, and a constant stream of free(ish) events. A mark of the wealth in Aspen, was the fact that the public toilets in the park have been designed by an architect, and are nicer than many American's homes!

Whilst we were in Aspen we visited a free contemporary kinetic/immersive art exhibition, a free funk concert in the nearby ski resort of Snowmass (connected by a free shuttle bus), and enjoyed listening to a classical performance at the permanent concert tent adjacent to the Harris Concert Hall. For most of the summer Aspen has a classical music festival; the larger performances are all in the tent and the adjacent concert hall, and for the higher profile performances there is a charge. Fortunately the tent has sides which are left almost entirely open, and any cheapskate like us, can sit on the grassy mound outside and enjoy the performance without paying.

Whilst at the classical music concert, we met a local lady who invited us over for breakfast at her house the following morning, another example of the kind of hospitality which would be almost unheard of in England. She lived in an astonishing house in the mountains outside of Aspen, and it was an honour to be invited. The house in itself was a beautiful mix of local architectural styles, but it was filled from floor to ceiling in fantastic art, from contemporary paintings to ancient Indonesian sarcophagi. Again it made me feel embarrassed for all the Americans that must come to Europe and be shocked by the way which they are treated.

Once up in the mountains we took the opportunity to visit the nearby abandoned mining town of Ashcroft, high in the mountains in the White River National Forest.

On our second and third nights in Aspen we parked on Lone Pine Road, one of the few roads in town without expensive parking restrictions, where you are allowed to park for 72 hours without paying. I’d be willing to take bets that there is a local parking clause preventing you from sleeping in your vehicle, but nobody checked and we were left alone. On the morning that we left Aspen, I noticed an unusual hissing sound coming from the engine from the moment that we pulled out of our parking space. It sounded too quiet to be a problem with the compressed air braking system, and so I guessed that it’d be a problem with the air intake or exhaust system. Within a few hundred meters, an MR (engine) fault light had come up on the dash, and it was clear that we were well down on power. I found a quiet place to pull over and began to plan what to do next.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Grand Mesa National Forest - A Great Place to Fix a Webasto Water Heater

Driving north from Ridgway on Highway 550, the road starts to descend, and soon the mountains are behind you. Past Montrose, the surroundings are flat farmland, and unless you look behind you, there is little evidence of the rugged mountains that you’ve left behind. The descent is gradual, but persistent, and by the time we had reached Cedaredge, we had lost more than a kilometre in altitude.

As with most areas of Colorado west of the Front Range, the flat terrain does not last long, and as we headed north on the 65 we began to climb steeply up to Grand Mesa National Forest. Grand Mesa is a strange site; from below it appears like a giant wall rising out of the valley floor. It is known as the largest flat topped mountain in the world and this is not a misleading description. The climb up to the mesa top is akin to the driving one does on the way up to a ski resort, steep grades and hairpin bends the whole way up, but at 3,000m, instead of finding snowy peaks and roaring mountain streams, you find flat grassy meadows and tranquil lakes. At the top of the mesa, you would have little inclination that you are not at sea level, were it not for the cool temperatures, and the staggering views you get from the edge of the mesa.

One of the many hundreds of lakes on Grand Mesa, Colorado

A view from Grand Mesa, Colorado

Wild flowers in bloom on Grand Mesa

There are hundreds of lakes dotted across the mesa top, and even with the weekend crowds come to fish and drive their ATVs through the forest, it was not difficult to find a quiet spot near some water to camp for the night. We had been warned in advance, and it should come as no surprise given the volume of water in Grand Mesa Nation Forest, but there is a major mosquito problem throughout the forest. After our experience at San Blas, almost any mosquito issue seems fairly tame, but it was still difficult to avoid getting bitten on our forays outside. Thankfully at over 3,000m it is plenty cool enough to leave the doors and windows closed and so we managed to retreat inside when it became too much.

Parked in a quiet spot off the road, I set to work trying to fix our non-functioning water heater. There are a few manufacturers of diesel furnaces for use in boats, trucks and RVs, but the most popular manufacturers for the smaller units seem to be Eberspacher and Webasto. We in fact have units from both manufacturers installed in Jim, an Eberspacher D2 blown air heater which came fitted to the truck when I bought it, and a Webasto Thermotop 50 water heater which we use to heat water and the radiators. The instructions for the Eberspacher units are extremely detailed, and the ones for our air heater, include an in depth description of how to identify the cause of running problems, and how to disassemble and reassemble the unit. For our Webasto unit the same is not true. The water heater came with detailed installation instructions, but the implication beyond, is that if there is a problem with the unit, it should be returned to a Webasto service centre.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Ouray and Telluride

Arriving in Ouray after a short but steep drive from Silverton, we stopped at the beautiful Box Canyon falls for a short walk around the thundering canyon cascade.

We then drove into town and spent the afternoon watching the USA getting knocked out of the world cup in a local brewpub. We missed all of England’s games as we were in remote parts of Utah without access to a television, and so it was a pleasure to finally watch some football. Relaxing in the truck after the game (read: stealing a Wi-Fi signal), we had a knock on the door and were told politely by the local sheriff that overnight parking in Ouray was only allowed at the local RV park.

After waiting for the effects of the beer to wear off, we drove north out of town until we had passed the ‘city limits’ sign. We took the first forest road we found, and drove up County Road 14, into the Uncompahgre National Forest. The dirt road passed a few private communities and large gated homes, before entering the mountainous forest beyond. After a few miles, we reached a rough river crossing which would have made for an uncomfortable experience. Fortunately we had driven past a few campsites in which we could spend the night, and so we drove back to a flat riverside spot, started a campfire, and spent the evening drinking bourbon, roasting marshmallows, and listening to the roar of the river.

In the morning we walked some of the Dexter Creek trail, before heading back into Ouray for a day of luxury. We started with a soak in the public hot springs, before indulging in beer, ice cream, and finally more hot springs. After a day of relaxation and indulgence, we drove back up County Road 14, and spent another night in the forest. In the morning we crossed the river on foot, and walked up the rest of the road. There are small number of campsites beyond the river, but fairly quickly the road gets extremely steep and poorly maintained; at the end of the road is parking area for a trailhead. After our walk we descended to the highway, and headed north towards Ridgway.

Beyond Ouray, it had been our intention to continue north to the Grand Mesa National Forest. However it was now July 3rd, and not wishing to waste our first experience of Independence Day in the wilderness, we diverted at Ridgway and headed back into the mountains to Telluride. Staying with our generous host in Flagstaff many weeks earlier, Mark had recommended Telluride as a cool place to be on July 4th. At the time we though it extremely unlikely that fortune would have us near telluride on the correct date, but luck was on our side and so we took the opportunity.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The San Juan Scenic Skyway

Driving North out of Durango on Highway 550, it became clear that once again I would have to adjust my presumptions on how long journeys would take in Colorado. The 50 miles to Silverton included a 1,300m climb to Molas and Coal Bank passes, and a 600m descent into the town, and in a heavy truck like Jim, these kind of journeys take while. It would be reasonable to assume that the upwards climb would be the slower section, but this is not always the case. Whilst lighter vehicles can descend steep grades using the engine to slow them down, in a heavy truck this is not always enough.

Even in first gear, Jim needs additional braking force to prevent him running away on steep downhill grades; on a short descent, it would be fine to use the foot brake, but on long descents the brake discs would become dangerously hot, and I would risk warping the discs or suffering dangerous brake fade. Thankfully Jim has an engine retarder, which partially closes the exhaust, and creates a braking effect through the driveline. Using the exhaust brake uses the engine to slow the truck down, and means that on long descents the brakes do not heat up, saving wear and improving safety. Many big truck have multi-stage retarders, either of the exhaust brake or jake brake type, which allow the driver to apply a different amount of braking force depending on the situation. Unfortunately the retarder on Jim has only one stage, and on steep mountain grades it poses a problem.

In first or second gear, the retarder on Jim is sufficient to hold the truck at a constant speed on all but the most absurd grades, but this limits top speed to around 15mph. If the road conditions and speed limit permit faster speeds, I must to go into a higher gear, and in places like the Rockies, the retarder is no longer powerful enough on its own to prevent the truck running away. At one end of the scale I can drive at antisocially slow speed and avoid using the foot brake entirely, and at the other end of the scale I can drive at the speed limit, relying almost entirely on the foot brake to slow the truck down. Most of the time I find a suitable compromise; I’ll put the truck in a higher gear and periodically use the foot break to slow the truck down. If there are no vehicle queuing behind me I drive slower and rely more on the retarder, and if there are inpatient motorists on my tail I drive faster and use more of the foot brake. Either way, I usually descend at speeds well below the posted limits.

Mercedes offered trucks like Jim with a magnetic retarder, which wraps around the prop shaft and uses strong eddy currents to slow the truck down. It was not a popular option in the UK for obvious reasons, and so I rarely see them, but in the future I can explore the option of fitting one from Voith or Telma to add additional braking force.

After a slow descent into Silverton, we parked in town and enjoyed a walk around this rough-around-the-edges historic mining town. We stayed for a beer at the awesome Handlebars Restaurant, before getting back on the road and heading up into the mountains.

There are a huge number of scenic backcountry roads around Silverton, but on the whole they are 4x4 only, evidenced by the huge number of vehicle rental places in town, all offering extremely capable vehicles such as Jeep Rubicons and dedicated off-road ATVs. We had been told that the road up to the ghost town of Animas Forks was passable in most vehicles, if not the mountain passes beyond, and so we headed out of Silverton, following the Animas River.

Mesa Verde

Unlike the other National Parks we had visited in Arizona and Utah, Mesa Verde was awarded National Park status, less for its natural beauty, and more for the significance of the pre-colonialist archaeological sites.

The native Americans that existed on what is now the USA for more than 20,000 years before the Europeans arrived, successfully lived off the land in a generally sustainable way. It is a great achievement that not only did they manage to survive, often in difficult terrainss and climate, but that they did so without leaving a significant mark on the environment. Academically, the way in which the pre-invasion population lived is of great interest; but archaeologically, the remains left are smaller compared to civilisations that existed south of the border. 

Mesa Verde is the largest archaeological site in the US, with over 4000 archaeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings of the Anasazi people. In the context of the limited archaeological remains left by the native Americans, those at Mesa Verde are undoubtedly significant, nevertheless, I found it difficult to get excited by the sites. In Mexico, the Olmec’s were building their colossal stone heads 1,200 years before the Anasazi started to construct the cliff dwelling for which Mesa Verde is best known, and in Europe, The Pantheon in Rome had been built and rebuilt a thousand years prior. I know that it is not fair to compare one civilisation to another, and I also know that an a civilisation does not need huge heads or giant marble structures to impress, nonetheless the adobe and stone dwellings at Mesa Verde are not as visually impressive as the archaeological sites we had visited a few months back in Mexico.

Naomi appreciated the unique architecture of the sites more than I did, and whilst I enjoyed visiting mesa Verde, I have little desire to continue exploring the regions archaeological sites such as those at Canyon of the Ancients National Monument.

Most of the sites at Mesa Verde are on a large flat topped mountain, around 800m above the valley floor. On the way into the park, Jim had felt a little low on power when driving up to the mesa top, but on the way out of the park, it was clear that power was down on normal. The engine was running fine and there were no warning lights on the dash, and so I expected that the problem would be a simple air or fuel problem. Tipping the cab on Jim is slightly more time consuming than a regular truck, due to the additional bolts clamping the back of the cab to the box body; it probably adds 30 minutes to the job. Pretty much everything engine related, including the fuel filter and prefilter require the cab to be tipped to gain access, and so my first port of enquiry was the air intake which is much easier to access.

I took the air filter out of its housing and it was clear that it was filled with dust. I have a spare filter with me, but as a temporary measure I blew the dirty filter out with the Milwaukee shop vacuum that we use to clean the truck. After 10 minutes, everything within a 5 meter radius of the filter was covered in a thick blanket of dust; it was astonishing how much dust had been stored in the paper element of the filter cartridge. I have still not reconnected the air filter to the remote intake since the hose became disattached on the way to Prescott, AZ, and it is clear that the less than desirable intake location, and the many miles of dirt roads have not been a happy combination. Until I relocate the air intake, I will have to clean and replace the filter more frequently than normal.

Starting the truck again it seemed that most, if not all of the power was restored, saving me the hassle of having to tip the cab. We continued on our way, driving the 25 miles back to the park entrance without incident. Back on Highway 160, we headed east and drove to Durango. Durango is a nice town, with a decent array of pubs and shops; we spent the evening walking the town’s river walk, and pretending we had money to spend on the nice gear in the outdoor and camping shops. In the morning we started our journey north on the San Juan Mountain Skyway, and began to get our first taste of the rocky mountains in which we’ be spending the next few weeks.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Out of Utah and into Colorado - How to Waste Money Fast!

Back on tarmac after our jaunt into the mountains, we made swift progress though the undulating desert to Lake Powell. We stopped at an overlook to admire our first view of this huge body of water, created when the Colorado River was dammed in the 60s, flooding the Glen Canyon and numerous side canyons. At the easternmost corner, which we were driving past on highway 95, the water looks less like a lake, and more like a widening of the river; nonetheless it is an impressive site with the huge red rock canyon walls.

Lake Powell viewed from near Highway 95

The level of the lake is clearly considerably lower now than it has been in the past, and many of the roads that lead down to the water’s edge, now terminate half a mile from the water. The place that we chose to stop for lunch was the terminus of White Canyon, where the dry canyon that forms Natural Bridges National Monument (40 miles south east) meets Lake Powell. The spot turned out not to have the waterside view that we had intended, but was nonetheless a beautiful place, if stiflingly hot.

Jim the Mercedes 1823 overland motorhome parked on the edge of White Canyon near Lake Powell

Back on highway 95, we continued east to Natural Bridges, but arriving too late to make best use of the park, we headed up into the mountains of the Manti La Sal National Forest. A steep dirt road took us from the hot desert floor into a cool alpine oasis several thousand feet up. In less than 15 miles, the terrain changes from red rock and scrub, to tall Ponderosa pine forest and grassy meadows filled with wildflowers.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Desert, Canyons, Mountains and the Moon - All in South East Utah

On Leaving Bryce Canyon we continued east on Highway 12. There are many designated scenic drives in Utah, and I’m sure that all are deserving of the designation, but Highway 12 (A journey Through Time Byway) is in a class of its own. As the road descends from the high plateau on which Bryce Canyon National Park is sited, you get an awesome view of the red rock amphitheatre which defines the park. As you continue to descend, the road enters the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, and in an instant you are in a bizarre lunar landscape, surrounded by folded rocks, giant boulders and inexplicable rock formations. As if driving through such terrain wasn’t excitement enough, Jim had the fortune to celebrate his half million kilometre birthday right in the middle of it!

The odometer on our Mercedes Atego 1823 overland motorhome passes half a million kilometers

Past Escalante, the road starts to rise again, following a narrow ridge with steep drops and fantastic landscapes on either side. Beyond boulder, the ascent begins in earnest, and before long the road has risen to 10,000 feet and you get staggering views over the huge expanse of Grand Staircase.

A view over Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument from a rest area near Boulder, Utah

As with Bryce Canyon National Park, we noticed a road on our map, which connected Highway 12 to a remote corner of the Capitol Reef National Park, via a dirt road through the Dixie National Forest. We pulled off Highway 12 about 19 miles north of Boulder, and headed east into the forest, towards the Lower Bowns Reservoir. The road down to the reservoir was a wide, well graded gravel road, and we had no trouble finding a secluded spot near the lake to spend the night.

Jim the Mercedes 1823 overland motorhome parked in a clearing near to the lower Bowns Reservoir, Utah

Walking Boris around the lake we met a group of guys out trout fishing. Not wishing to repeat the mistake we had made at Bryce, I enquired about the dirt road up to Capitol Reef, and whether it had a gate on it. I was glad I asked, as I was told fairly unequivocally that there was no way we’d make it down the track in Jim. The section that you could see from the road to the reservoir looked narrow and rutted, and I was told that it only got worse. In the morning we drove back up to the highway and continued towards the conventional entrance to the National Park.