Monday, January 26, 2015

Snowshoeing the Castle Creek Valley near Aspen, Colorado

           January in Aspen Colorado—the perfect venue for avid skiers, snowboarders and X-games fanatics.  But, what if going downhill—fast—is not your style?  What if you prefer winter recreation at a more relaxed pace?  What else is there to do?  Plenty, thanks to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, (ACES), which offers guided cross-country ski and snowshoe tours.

         After our husbands left for a day on the slopes, friend Terry and I went searching for some winter fun of our own.  We found it eleven miles from Aspen in the ghost town of Ashcroft.  

All that's left of the once-bustling mining town of Ashcroft.

          Had you arrived in Ashcroft in 1880 you would have discovered a thriving town full of men giddy with the prospect of striking it rich in the silver mines.  But, as mining towns are wont to do, the booming area went bust by 1885 and, by the early 1900s, only a handful of aging men still lived in Ashcroft.  Interest in the town was restored in the 1930s with plans for a ski resort, but those plans were derailed by World War II.  
         Today, thankfully, both the town of Ashcroft and the Castle Creek Valley surrounding it are managed by the US Forest Service and are protected from further development.  The ghost town now resides in a Spruce/Fir/Aspen forest rich with a diversity of plants and animals, surrounded by 13,000-14,000 foot peaks.  The region provides countless opportunities for quiet recreation, and ACES turns those opportunities into reality by partnering with the Ashcroft Ski Touring Company, the Pine Creek Cookhouse and the White River National Forest.

The King Cabin Nordic Center—home base for winter
adventure in the Castle Creek Valley.

          We meet our ACES guide at the King Cabin Nordic Center.  Tawny is a recent graduate of Colorado College with a degree in Environmental Studies; she’s full of enthusiasm and ready to share her knowledge.  On our hike we observe numerous animal tracks and learn how to identify them.  We also gather information about the Castle Valley’s geology and ecology.

Tawny describes the tracks and movement of a snowshoe hare.

The trail crosses Castle Creek which offers reportedly good trout
fishing.  Worth a return visit during summer?

A shining example of a healthy Blue Spruce in
this Spruce/Fir/Aspen forest.

         A special treat on this tour is our lunch stop at Pine Creek Cookhouse.  During winter this restaurant is accessible only via a horse-drawn sleigh or a pair of hiking boots, snowshoes or cross-country skis.  The food is gourmet—I enjoy a salad with cheese and nuts, topped with tender, flaky Red Trout.   
        After lunch we return to the Nordic Center, thrilled with today’s choice of a naturalist-led snowshoe tour.  Our outing included: 
Exercise—a four and a half mile hike. 
Education—new-found knowledge about winter in the sub-alpine zone. 
Eating—a cozy interior and great food at the Pine Creek Cookhouse.
Extraordinary scenery—the snow-filled Castle Creek Valley and the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
Yes, we experienced all of that, and all without going downhill—fast. 

A welcome rest stop on a winter day.
The Pine Creek Cookhouse.

Our hillside trail in the Ashcroft Ski Touring area.

ACES offers educational programs as well as outdoor adventures.  Find out more by visiting their website:

Plant your poles here, and relish the alpine ambience
of the Castle Creek Valley near Aspen.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Monument Valley Tribal Park—The Navajo Nation's Geologic Wonderland

         “Seventy-five years ago we camped here, drove right in and set up our tent.”
We look across the aisle of our touring jeep and have a question for the elderly couple speaking those words:  
         “Has this place changed?”
         “No”, is the answer, “but we sure have.”
Over the course of 75 years the changes here—blowing sand deposits; occasional rock falls—are barely perceptible, while those to human lives are profound.

Monument Valley Icons: Left Mitten, Right Mitten and Merrick Butte.

         We're in Monument Valley, first christened "Valley of the Rocks" by the Navajos who have inhabited this valley for centuries.  To protect this one-of-a-kind landscape, camping is now prohibited and vehicle travel is restricted.  
         The best way to experience Monument Valley is by taking a Navajo-led tour.  As he drives our group through the valley our guide, Gary, points to famous rock formations.  Several resemble animals and have been named, appropriately, Eagle Rock, Elephant Butte and The Setting Hen.  Other mesas and buttes are named for human activity which occurred there, such as Rain God Mesa—a platform where medicine men prayed for rain, and Cly Butte—named for the Navajo chieftan who’s buried there with all his worldly possessions including cattle, sheep, goats, and his horse with its saddle and bridle.

The Three Sisters formation, next to Mitchell Mesa.
Mitchell Mesa and Merrick Butte, (in the photo above), are
named for two of Kit Carson's soldiers who stayed in the area
in the 1860s to mine silver.  They were killed by the Utes and
Paiutes near the rocks which bear their names. 

Gary tosses a tumbleweed in front of Camel Butte
in Monument Valley's backcountry.

          My favorite part of the tour?  A drive into the backcountry to view “Ear of the Wind”—an arch carved by the scouring spring gales, and  “Sun’s Eye”—an opening in the dome of a rocky alcove.  

I'm walking the sand dune to listen for
sighing breezes through Ear of the Wind's portal.

Gary stands in the alcove below Sun's Eye (top photo)
and plays his drum while singing a song taught him
by his grandfather.  The haunting melody and soulful
Navajo lyrics echo off the walls while a raven squawks overhead.

          The two natural areas (above) are free of the commercialization which plagues other scenic vistas such as John Ford Point.  Vendors selling jewelry and trinkets line the point; you’re free to shop if you like, or to wander and gaze at the scenery made famous by the acclaimed Hollywood director.  

And… "It's a wrap!"  People and horses congregate on John Ford Point,
the perfect location for director Ford's famous long shots, which framed his
characters against the vast,harsh and rugged natural terrain of
Monument Valley.

          John Wayne’s first western, “Stagecoach” was filmed in Monument Valley in 1938, one year before our touring companions camped here.  An image forms in my mind of the couple then—vigorous, sun-tanned, supple and lithe.  Now they rise slowly from their seats, steady themselves as they walk down the aisle, need assistance descending the steps behind our vehicle.  Time accentuates our human frailties and steals our vitality, but some things actually do improve with age.   See for yourself by discovering the timeless beauty that is Monument Valley.

Our open-air touring vehicle.
Goulding's Lodge conducts a variety of daily tours of the valley.

Monument Valley straddles the Utah/Arizona border.
This view is the approach from the north on U.S. Rte. 163 in Utah.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Winter's Treasures

          In celebration of winter's arrival please enjoy the following photos—a treasury of five year's worth of winter fun.

This is Tim's favorite winter activity photo.
Lone Mountain Ranch, Montana.

Horseback riding at Home Ranch in Clark, Colorado.

View of Capitol Reef National Park from the
Boulder Mountains, Utah.

View from the roadside in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

A bison forages in the snow in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Tim enjoys downhill skiing at Solitude Mountain Resort, Utah.

Winter is the best time to visit Bryce Canyon National Park.

A Christmas Eve cross country ski outing (2010) at
Solitude Mountain Resort, Utah.

Rita, Tim and "Annie" wish you a Merry Christmas and
a Happy and Healthy New Year!
Photo taken near Lake City, Colorado.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Northern California's Coastal Wonders

           Mention the California Coast and images of surfer-dudes, beach volleyball players and Santa Monica Pier sightseers come to mind.
           Fill your mind instead with starfish, seabirds, seals and sea lions, with surf crashing upon rocks and untamed shorelines.  How?  By visiting the Northern California coastline during September.

          Replace those rusty SoCal images with these shiny NoCal scenes.  Enjoy the following snapshots from the uncrowded seascapes between Point Arena and Crescent City.

Point Arena Lighthouse.
For a fee you can access this remote area
and walk the 145 steps to the Lighthouse Tower.

Walking the beach as the tide rolls in.
Manchester State Park,  Point Arena, CA.

A Harbor Seal watches us as we watch it swim and dive in
MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg.

A stormy day near Ferndale,  CA.

Pelagic Cormorants congregate on this surf-scoured rock
near Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point in
the contiguous United States.

Giant Green Sea Anemones on the beach near Crescent City.

Starfish cling to the rocks on a beach near Crescent City.
Unfortunately west coast starfish are experiencing massive die-offs.
Scientists don't know the cause but human activities are
suspected to be a factor.

If you want your footprints to be the only ones
on the beach, head to the Northern California
Coast during autumn.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

In the Realm of the Superlative—Exploring Redwoods State and National Parks, California

The Stout Grove in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

            Our new world is mostly downward-facing, people continually checking their hand-held devices.  But here among the old-world giants everyone is looking up, their faces wearing expressions of wonder and awe. 
           Perhaps strolling among these titans causes visitors to speak in hushed, murmured tones.  Or maybe it’s the sheer mass of living plant material absorbing any noise.  Whatever it is, the human presence in an old-growth Redwood forest is not an intrusive one.

Tim snaps a photograph in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
(If you're having trouble spotting him, he's to the left of the
light-barked tree to the right.)

Waist-high Sword Ferns grow beneath the
Redwood canopy.

           In the 21st century we’re obsessed with bucket lists, with extreme sport, with triumphing over terrain when we set out for the wilds.  But there’s no speed-hiking here. People amble about these trails with the care and deliberation of meditating monks.
          Old-growth Redwood groves are places to slow down, to lose yourself in quiet contemplation and reflection.  Visit Redwoods State and National Parks in Northern California.  Look up.  Be amazed.

Red-tinted fallen needles carpet the
forest floor.

Walking alongside the trunk of a fallen Redwood.
Redwood trees always fall while they're still alive and
this tree, with it's furrowed red bark and several green
limbs still attached, looks as though it could
have fallen only yesterday.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Uncompaghre Peak in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado

          The hulking form of Uncompaghre leans into the sky like the prow of a ship at sea, and every time I gaze at this 14,309 foot peak I imagine it animating and sailing off into the clouds.
          But Uncompaghre isn't going anywhere just yet—a good thing for those who want to climb it and stand atop the San Juan Mountains.

Uncompaghre (the "tall ship" in the center of the photo) dominates
the skyline near Lake City Colorado.

          Uncompaghre is described as a "walk-up"—no technical climbing skills required—although a near-vertical section of loose scree near the top requires some hand-and-feet scrambling.
          Nerves of steel are required, however, to drive the rough and rutted four-wheel drive road to the trailhead.  After arriving safely at the trailhead it's another four miles and 3000 vertical feet to the top of Mighty Unc.  Braving the climb to the top of Uncompaghre's wide and level summit I feel like a pioneer arriving in a brand new world; layers of peaks and valleys stretch to the horizon with no roads, vehicles, buildings or towns in sight.

Less than a mile from the trailhead Uncompaghre bursts into view,
allowing unobstructed anticipation of the destination.

As we neared the summit we turned around to see the trail far below.
The yellow arrows point to two areas of the trail.

Tim navigates an area of loose rocks near the summit.

View from the top.  This is a great place to linger on a clear day.

          September is the perfect month to climb Uncompaghre.  The next time you're in Lake City, Colorado, grab a guidebook to Colorado's high peaks and discover new lands for yourself.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference in Corte Madera, California

“It’s not a story until something goes wrong.” 
                                                                 ---Tim Cahill 

          Acclaimed author Tim Cahill's quote is but one piece of advice I received at the Travel Writers and Photographers Conference in Corte Madera, California.
          Held at Book Passage—an independent bookstore—the conference boasts a faculty of noted travel writers, editors and photographers.  Don George, Editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler, chaired the 23rd annual conference.

         This year’s conference featured informal gatherings and lectures, as well as interviews with travel celebrities such as Tony Wheeler, author and founder of The Lonely Planet Guides, and Deanne Fitzmaurice, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer.
         I attended several sessions covering such topics as:  Finding Your Story on the Road, Creating a Website, Finding and Creating Freelance Opportunities, Twitter’s Hidden Treasure, and Food and Wine Photography.

         Fellow attendees and the faculty of this conference were overwhelmingly focused on foreign travel.  I discovered that many writers and editors consider travel within the United States safe, tame and familiar—and therefore not prime, publishable "story" material.  That sentiment is supported by the Tim Cahill quote above.  However, I believe a good writer can craft a compelling story about any locale, foreign or domestic.

        Whether you’re writing for pleasure or for profit, the four-day event dished out a healthy serving of information and learning opportunities.
        A short list of tidbits gleaned from the conference:

         For Photographers:

  • Find the perfect setting and then wait for something to happen to get the ideal shot,  e.g. an eagle flying across the sky, a shaft of sunlight illuminating a subject’s face.
  • Good photography is timing and “seeing”; know your subject thoroughly by returning to the same place every hour of the day.

         For writers:

  • Editors are looking for writers who have a presence on social media—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.  
  • If you’re pitching a story to a magazine or newspaper, many of them won’t consider something already published on a blog. 
  • Look for an angle to your story; if you’re going to a destination where tens of thousands of travelers have already gone, search for something unique and fresh to write about that particular place.
  • Know your audience:  Who is your audience; what message do you want the reader to walk away with?
  • If you're writing a personal essay, relate your travel tale to something that's happened in your life.
  • If you're writing an impersonal narrative, keep yourself in the background to give readers a sense of place.  Don't start your story with "I", and avoid the dreaded diary rehash.

          Additionally the conference offered advice on the craft and structure of writing—narrative arc, creating the perfect intros (ledes) and endings, using dialog, avoiding cliches and so on—all helpful pointers for anyone who writes, even if you’re not considering selling or publishing your work, even if your stories will only ever be read by you, your friends or your family.

         One final piece of advice, agreed upon by all faculty members at the Book Passage Writers and Photographers Conference:
  • Whether your passion is writing, photography, or both—love what you do and have fun with it!

The bookstore is located in a plaza in downtown Corte Madera.
We enjoyed dinner the first night, and breakfast and lunch every
day on this plaza.  Both the weather and the food were excellent.

         Read about the conference on the Book Passage website at this address: