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.