Since we have been in Estes Park, I have been obsessed with seeing a few sights/National Monuments in far eastern Utah, and far western Colorado. In the spring of last year, we spent two months exploring National Parks and Monuments (and other scenic stuff, of course) in Southern Utah and Colorado. But we did not make it north of I-70, so we missed a National Recreation Area and National Monument in Utah, and another National Monument in Grand Junction, Colorado. So, with three days off coming up, we planned a grand adventure motorcycle ride of 900 or so miles, in three days!
This is chapter one of that saga: it was a long day, and this will be a long post! 😉
We arose before the sun, which has become more and more of a habit during our stay in Colorado, and sipped coffee while packing the motorcycles for three days. With motorcycle travel, it doesn’t take long to pack, no matter how many days you will be gone. This, after all, is NOT a fashion show! It’s an adventure!
As camp hosts, we have a pretty sweet setup here at Estes Park Campground at Mary’s Lake, with plenty of room for KokoMoto, our coach, as well as, our Ironhorse motorcycle trailer (aka Garage), and our Honda Ridgeline truck. Here you can see all but the truck!
We had decided to ride over to Utah on US 40, rather than I-70, so we took off into Rocky Mountain National Park, to travel the iconic Trail Ridge Road early this morning on our way west. Trail Ridge dead ends into US 40 on the west side of the park, at the small town of Granby.
We arrived at the Rocky entrance gate just before 7 AM, and entry was a breeze with the automated park pass gate. We ascended Trail Ridge (US 34) and stopped at Rainbow Curve for a quick look east toward Horseshoe Park and Estes Park in the distance. And of course, a photo op!
We just enjoyed the views and ride over the highest part of Trail Ridge, and didn’t stop again until we reached the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, where we were greeted by a herd of Bull Elk grazing and head-butting in a meadow just above the road. Of course, this warranted a photo stop…I will restrain myself to a couple of photos and a video!
Please excuse the sound of my MC engine. Kicking myself for not turning it off! :-O
And not 25 minutes later, once we had descended into the Kawuneeche Valley on the west side of the park, we spotted THREE moose! 😀
All this before 8 AM! Woohoo! We were really hungry by now, so we made a quick stop at Grand Lake for a breakfast sandwich, then continued south to the intersection of US 34 and US 40. We stopped for gas here, and it was chilly, so we pulled on our rain gear over our summer mesh riding gear. Good thing, since 5 minutes later we hit rain that lasted almost 80 miles to Steamboat Springs! Rain is no problem if you have the right gear, so we pressed on.
We had to stop at Rabbit Ears Pass for a photo op. The skies were trying to clear!
Sadly, we passed the fire camp for the Silver Creek fire, which had already been burning since July off Hwy 131 south of Rabbit Ears Pass, on US 40. There were literally hundreds of firefighter tents, dozens of support vehicles, and multiple command center trailers, and we hoped that the rain we were experiencing helped in some little way. Even more sadly, we just got news that although the fire had been contained since we were there in mid-August, the continued hot and dry conditions have caused it to flare up again this week. Our prayers are with the brave people who come from all over the country to help fight the many wildfires plaguing the west.
By the time we reached Steamboat, the rain had stopped and it was getting warm, so we stopped to remove our rain suits, and…take yet another photo. This one in honor of friends Patty and Peggy from Dahlonega, who come to Steamboat every year, in front of their favorite motel!
Steamboat was super crowded since it was a Saturday morning, so we passed on stopping for lunch and pressed on. We saw the neatest little general store in Maybell, about 70 or so miles west of Steamboat, and stopped for gas and a snack. It proved to be a fortuitous stop!
Our destination for the afternoon was Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. I had noticed a back road that appeared to go directly there, whereas US 40 went to Vernal, UT, about 40 miles south of the Gorge. Although we planned to spend the night in Vernal, we didn’t need to go there before visiting Flaming Gorge. We got to chatting with the owner of the Maybell store, and she not only recommended Hwy 318 as a direct way to Flaming Gorge but also told us about a fundraising shindig in Browns Park, a tiny hamlet with a big history, where we could get homemade Navajo tacos for lunch on our way. We were IN!
Turns out Browns Park is the home of the Green River, downstream of the dam at Flaming Gorge, a National Wildlife Refuge, and former home of the Wild Bunch, of Butch and Sundance Fame! It is also the home of an old community K-8 school, which was threatened with destruction until a dedicated group of alumni began fundraising to protect and preserve the school. The festival we came upon that day in this remote valley was part of those efforts. We were happy to help by purchasing Navajo tacos prepared right in front of us, with ice-cold lemonade, while we enjoyed the music and sights of a small town festival.
This is an isolated and desolate valley, but it has its unique beauty as well. Interesting, chalky white buttes contrast with the desert flora.
Shortly after leaving Browns Park, we passed into Utah. We left the Green River in the valley below and started to ascend a bluff that we had seen to our north for many miles. It was a made of a deep red rock that we had not been able to see from a distance.
It turns out that Hwy 318, or Browns Park Road, continues up the bluff, over a gravel pass at 10,000 feet (no sign…), through a wildlife management area, and into Wyoming!
We ended up on WY 373, just a mile or so north of UT 191, the road going south right into Flaming Gorge Rec Area. Couldn’t be better! We stopped at an overlook with a great map of the reservoir area, but unfortunately, the smoke-filled skies made the view muted.
We next stopped at the Flaming Gorge Dam Visitors Center. This dam, completed in 1964, forms the Flaming Gorge Reservoir which extends for 91 miles and submerges four different gorges of the Green River. The area was reportedly named by John Wesley Powell in 1869 for the deep red colors visible along the canyon walls.
We stopped further along the reservoir for a nice view down to the bridge leading over one of the Green River canyons to the Visitors Center. Unfortunately, smoke from wildfires in California mutes this view as well.
Our main destination at Flaming Gorge was the Red Canyon Visitors Center and overlook. This structure stands almost 1400 feet above the reservoir, where the waters of the Green River are 275 feet deep. It is a sight to behold: deep green water, framed by flaming red walls! Unfortunately, the combination of overcast skies and smoke in the air definitely dulled the impact. It was still breathtaking in person!
A short video from the overlook…
I can’t imagine how gorgeous this place must be with clear skies and the right light…it was amazing even without the perfect conditions, and of course, the photos don’t do it justice.
It was getting late in the afternoon, and we still had 40 or so miles to ride to Vernal, our stop for the night. We rode down UT 191, through miles of evergreens, many mountain peaks, and so many signs detailing the geologic history of the Unita Mountains and the fossils, petrified forests, and ancient seabeds to be found here. Certainly worthy of a more extended visit one day!
At an overlook, as we passed out of the enormous Ashley National Forest, we got an incredible view of the valley below, bathed in the setting sun. Spectacular!
The town of Vernal, Utah is the gateway to Dinosaur National Monument and has a bit of the Bedrock theme going on…which we were able to enjoy when venturing out for dinner.
And the FLOWERS, oh my! They went on for miles along the main street. We couldn’t believe how lush and gorgeous they were in this desert-like environment…but that is a story for another day.
Thanks for sticking with me for such a long post…it was a day filled with (s)miles, fun, and sights to feed one’s imagination. And worth every mile!
If you’d like to go directly to Part 2 and read about our visit to Dinosaur National Monument, you can click here now.