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Oct 01, 2020
One Woman's Wanderings
EXPLORING COLORADO’S WESTERN SLOPE
A VERY HAPPY OCTOBER 1st, AND WELCOME TO FALL!!
This new series of posts is especially for all of you who have had to cancel summer travel plans, or felt stuck at home/work for one reason or another, including, but not necessarily limited to, the Coronavirus. You are invited to do a little armchair traveling with this new blog series exploring Colorado’s “Western Slope”. (And as always, if you don’t want the narrative, feel free to just enjoy the photos!)
One of western Colorado’s drier parts, but it has its own kind of beauty…
As some of you know, I live along Colorado’s “Front Range”, about an hour north of Denver. Contrary to popular belief, Denver is NOT in the mountains, but at the western edge of the high plains steppe country, near the foothills of the Rockies. The plan for this trip is to go to “the other side” of the Rockies (the area that lies near the Utah border). Since I have only ever just passed through this area on my way to somewhere else, this is a trip I have been looking forward to! Colorado has something for everyone - farming country, desert and semi-arid sagebrush country, deep canyons, and sub-alpine to 14,000+ ft. high alpine tundra mountains and streams. And rocks, LOTS of rocks! In this state, if you are not crazy about the area you are presently seeing? Just drive an hour or two down the road, and you will usually find yourself in a completely different habitat!
This first morning started out with the cloudy-looking smoke haze from the western fires (Colorado, California, Oregon, and Washington), and an early morning start to hopefully beat the Denver rush hour traffic. A dash around the north/west side of Denver, then finally under way across and down on Hwy. 285, to pick up Hwy. 50 at Salida! This first day will be a long run, with the destination for the next 4 nights being Crawford State Park near the town of Crawford, Colorado. Parts of the today’s drive are mountains, ranchland, and some desert.
One and a half hours out, and cutting down through South Park. Aspens here have patchy color. Some have not changed at all, some are in the middle of changing, some are already brown, but some have nice yellow fall color. I was interested in driving through Fairplay, recalling that British writer, Isabella Bird “(A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains”) wrote about traveling by horseback up through Fairplay and then back across toward Denver in the early 1870s. After seeing it firsthand, I’m not sure why she was so anxious to go that way. South of Fairplay, spotted first group of pronghorns, 20 in this herd. It’s almost time for the rut. The south fork of the South Platte River runs through here, and this wide valley floor just goes on and on and on. The rising of the Collegiate Peaks reminds me a lot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, where there are no foothills to block the view. They just rise straight up off the valley floor.
Traveling southward, I found the town of Salida’s old western architecture picturesque, though once into the newer sections of town, you could be in anyplace, U.S.A. Same old ugly sprawl. Sadly, no time to investigate. Gotta make the miles today. Now up and over Monarch Pass and the Continental Divide, and starting to see more fall colors. The smoke haze is starting to lift, and so far have seen Magpies, a few hawks and goldfinch, and a few pronghorns, but that has been the total wildlife, so far. Willows are changing color, and ranchers have put up LOTS of hay for the coming winter. Do they know something I don’t? I did make a fast stop to get out and move around a little at a pull-off above Blue Mesa Reservoir, photographing rabbitbrush and sagebrush for future paintings.
Rabbitbrush- The leaves, flowers, and seeds are a valuable food source for deer, pronghorns, elk, and smaller critters, such as jackrabbits and sage grouse, plus it is a good nectar source for butterflies and small bees, and other insects. Various sparrow species often use it for perches and hiding places. Some subspecies of rabbitbrush grow 4’-5’ tall!
Sagebrush is the West’s most important plant in the Chaparral ecosystem. Besides the shelter it provides in this harsh environment, it is a nurse-plant to other grasses and shrubs. It is eaten by pronghorns, desert bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and jackrabbits. Nearly 100 species of birds depend on sagebrush habitat for food and shelter, including highly dependent upland game birds (especially the Greater Sage-Grouse - 75% of their diet is leaves and flower clusters!), plus small non-game birds (such as the sagebrush sparrow and sage thrasher), pocket mice, and kangaroo rats, and its flowers attract many insects.
Sagebrush in fall, with only the stems from summer flowers remaining. Grouse hens, being ground nesting birds, nest under the arching sagebrush trunks, both for shade and for shelter. The chicks are precocial, meaning eyes are open, and they are ready to go. All chicks will hatch within 24 hours, and their mother will quickly lead them away from the nest and any predators that might be attracted to the scents of the nest.
Higher Chaparral country is full of Junipers loaded with berries, and Pinion Pines. The twisted snags of old trees takes on a sculptural quality.
Blue Mesa Reservoir
Here you can easily see by the shoreline bushes just how low the water level has gotten! Those dots on the boat launch cement are people and cars!
This area of Blue Mesa was an important crossroads for near and distant travelers.
(It is always hard to site-see when hauling a camper, so it’s usually best to choose a central location for a base camp, and run exploration day trips in different directions from there. That was the primary reason for selecting Crawford State Park. Its location is good for the planned day trips to Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Aspen & Marble (which I have never seen, despite living in Colorado 3 times, so need to see it at least once), the Dominguez-Escalante Canyon (with an afternoon run up to Grand Mesa to look over the campgrounds), then a day and night on Grand Mesa, with the next night at Trapper’s Lake in the Flat Tops Wilderness, and then an afternoon and night in the Steamboat Lake area, before heading once again for home. Hope you will check back in for more fun wildlife and habitat photos from each unique stop along the way!)
After the Blue Mesa Reservoir stop, veered off to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison north rim road. Being the lesser-visited side of the Canyon, the low traffic flow made a stop there possible, for the first really good fall colors in a beautiful cliff-ringed cove. A very nice ending to the afternoon. (Am definitely looking forward to seeing more of this Canyon tomorrow.)
Fall Colors across the road from the Canyon’s north rim.
I grew up in northern Indiana, where the White Oak turns brown in fall. So these beautiful oak leaves were really stunning. I am not sure what kind of oak it is. Gambel Oaks are supposed to grow in the area, but what I read said yellow to orange, but these were most definitely red!
How the Canyon was formed.
Morrow Point Reservoir, more color, and a beautiful view.
Our first gorge view into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. This place will definitely need more exploration!
Though quiet, Crawford State Park turned out to be less stunning than it could have been, as not many trees, and the reservoir has been drawn down to less than half its usual size. No waterfowl, just the occasional raptor and scrub jay, but a pleasant enough home base.
And it did have this great monolith to the east, across the highway from the campground. It was a beautiful sight to wake up to, and say good bye to the day at sunset! I guess the lack of rain, the prolonged summer heat, and the wildfires in the state are all contributing to such low water levels, and will probably be encountered all across the western part of the state on this trip.
Now a little time for some backroads driving around the Crawford area... Have seen so few bluebirds the last few years in my neck of the woods, but this area seems to be loaded with them! Unfortunately, they all seem so skittish (perhaps because they haven’t seen many people out and about this year?), and can’t seem to get close enough for any good photos.
Typical Western Bluebird shot from early in the trip! (Sigh...)
Nice old log barn, but like so many barns all across the country, being left to deteriorate. Heritage being lost.
“Wishful Thinking” under a a dynamic sky. (He will not be a contender this year, but one can always dream!)
A couple of beautiful views of “Needle Rock”, one of the Crawford area landmarks.
Another view of Needle Rock, closer up. I spotted an interesting rock formation between the lobes. I looks exactly like a Great Horned Owl!! And closer up, it even has a beak!
There are a lot of mule deer and wild turkeys out and about in the nice evening light.
These turkeys definitely seem to have their seasons mixed up! They were busy rough-housing and challenging each other, while the girls in the background look totally unimpressed!
Turkey hens out for an evening stroll…
Off to find a safe perch for the night.
Upon arriving back at the camper, the wildlife tally for the evening was 1 groundhog, 1 great horned owl, 1 Cooper’s hawk, a Swainson’s thrush, a few scrub jays and some magpies. A long, but good day, with no bad surprises!
Black-billed Magpies are what the crows are to the Midwest. Not having grown up with them, they are still always a treat for me!
A few more Mule Deer to round out the evening.
The bucks are starting to gather in preparation for the fall rut (breeding season). There were about 10 bucks in this groups, most having just shed their antler velvet, but a couple who still had not. Nobody was pushing each other around yet, but it won’t be long until they start jostling for position. Most had some nice antler racks, but none were really the heavy weight contenders for this fall. Still, they were beautiful to look at, all sleek after a summer of browsing, and quite unconcerned about the photography going on. There was also one innocent-looking young doe with this group of bachelors.
Isn’t she just the epitome of femininity??
And, last, but not least...
The owl sculpted by Nature seems to have been an omen for things to come! On the way back to the campsite, and just turning quite dark, when I spotted this lovely Great Horned Owl perched up on a wire, watching for dinner to appear. While the camera compensated somewhat for the very near darkness, the light did not allow for great photos. However, a couple of them were passable, and certainly documented the moment!
COMING UP NEXT: Exploration of Black Canyon of the Gunnison rim area, so stay tuned!
Have a great day!
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