October Wanderings - Part 2
As I mentioned in my last post, we were able to take two trips in the last month. The second took us onto another leg of the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway in the vicinity of the Book Cliffs and Roan Cliffs north of Grand Junction. The Dinosaur Diamond byway is a nearly 500-mile circuit that covers the area from Dinosaur National Monument in far northwestern Colorado, into Utah near Vernal, down to Moab, then back up to Grand Junction and the Colorado National Monument, then over Douglas Pass and back to Dinosaur. The full trip has an incredible number of historic, prehistoric, paleontological, geologic, and scenic features to investigate, from dinosaur fossils, to the art and archaeological traces left by the Fremont people and later explorers and residents, to the history of the Wild Bunch who frequented the area, to the gorgeous scenery of the entire route. So far, we've touched parts of it, but haven't traveled the entire byway.
We were looking for autumn colors that aren't found in the "iconic" places of Colorado. This grove of willows, narrowleaf cottonwoods, and Gambel oak at Dry Gulch always catches our attention when we're heading west from Gunnison through the Curecanti Recreation Area. Our plan was to stay near Loma, just north of Grand Junction, and well north of the San Juan range that's the "iconic" fall colors location for most Colorado visitors. The San Juan area is extremely beautiful, but I hate the traffic, the thousands of 'leaf-peepers' who clog up every turnout and scenic vista, and the tourist-trap feel of most of the towns there.
However, after spending the night in Montrose and being able to see that there was snow on the San Juans, I talked my husband into a brief detour through Ridgway and south. Sadly, the light was pretty awful - I had to do quite a bit of editing to bring out the mountains and reduce the sun glare on the clouds on this photo. This image also gives a glimpse of the horrendous traffic to be found at this time of year - there were eight or 10 cars in the lane coming toward us, at least two in front of the camper, and several behind us (so the image was taken through the windshield at about 60 mph; thank you, fast shutter speed and high ISO!). After our detour, and the disappointment of difficult lighting, and too many people, we headed north for the desert.
The desert country of much of the Colorado Plateau is marked by arid, but sometimes very rich soil, steep canyons and gullies, mesas, and seasonal streams. Loma, like the Palisade area just to the east, has very fertile soil; the farmlands we observed grew potatoes, corn, cabbage, alfalfa, and various other crops that had been harvested already. Nearby, a large flock of sheep had just been returned to the Loma area from their summer in the mountain pastures.
We camped at Highline State Park, which features two small reservoirs called Highline Lake and Mack Mesa Lake. The reservoirs were built in the 1950's and early 1960's, and the park was built around them in 1967. It's a popular place for fishing, boating, swimming, and hunting, and there are about nine miles of trails as well. In addition, we enjoyed exploring many of the back roads in the desert around the park, driving miles up onto a nearby mesa just to see what might be there.
We did have one unexpected surprise. We were just in time to find enormous numbers of sulphurs - tiny yellow butterflies that were seen all around our camping area. They were especially thick at the park visitor center, where they were feeding on the rabbitbrush (chamisa) blossoms. Researching them was a bit frustrating. Many of them look like they might be pink-edged sulphur butterflies, but the range for those is typically farther east and north. Far more common in our area are the orange sulphur butterflies, which have a LOT of color range, but also often have the dark gray or black edging on the outsides of their wings; but with this species, I wasn't finding much information about migration patterns or hatching seasons. The third species is the cloudless sulphur, but these don't generally have the wing spots or the pink or sooty edges; they're also mostly found in the southern US and Mexico. However, they do apparently migrate over the course of multiple generations. The fourth possibility is the clouded sulphur, which is widespread in the US, Canada, and as far south as Guatamala. They do have the small wing spots and edge coloration, but I wasn't able to find any information about migration, only that they live just a few days and usually stay within an area of 40 to 100 acres. So, I've submitted photos for identification, and will hopefully hear back soon.
Another visitor was this gorgeous guy. It's a moth, and spent most of the day snoozing on a tree in the sun. He was nearly three inches long, and had beautiful dark wings like a cloak. Again, I haven't been able to find out for sure what species it is; my research wasn't able to match all the features, although I found three different species of moth that might be correct. Most moths seem to rest with their wings spread, which made it a little harder to find anything similar. So I submitted photos to the same organization as the butterfly pics, hoping for correct identification.
Our main objective for the trip was to cross Douglas Pass on State Highway 139 north from Loma. So we got up early one morning, and with our coffee, started our trek over the pass toward Rangely. I was a bit disappointed that the canyon walls are sometimes steep enough that the views were too dark except near noon. This view was taken after we were near the top of the pass and had gotten above much
of the canyon. The views from each side of the pass give an indication of the difference in vegetation; the northern side becomes more open and appeared much dryer very quickly.
This northern canyon is named Canon Pintado, or Painted Canyon, probably for the thousands of pictographs that have been found there. Some are next to the highway, including those shown here. They depict human-like figures; one appears to have a rainbow above its head, another, painted in white, has horns. Possibly painted by the Fremont people, who lived throughout this part of western Colorado from Mesa Verde to Dinosaur (actually their range extended further, but those locations are fairly well-known), these paintings are a mystery to archaeologists and scholars. Not enough is known about the artists to determine what the many pictographs and petroglyphs throughout this area might mean or why they were created.
While I love the variety of scenery and the history and geology of the area, I'd find it really hard to live here. We passed a pretty little ranch house along Highway 139 that is really appealing in the afternoon and early evening. This is because the side canyon where it's located opens out toward the west; however, during most of the morning the house was in the dark, and the shadows from the high slopes to its west came in much too early in the evening for my taste. I need a lot of light throughout the day.
By traveling this way, I certainly didn't get photos of the "iconic" aspens and steep mountain slopes that most people are looking for in Colorado, but did find autumn beauty of other kinds. I like the rough, rugged canyon and mesa country of far western Colorado; I like the feeling of serendipity (finding good things and making desirable discoveries by accident) that comes from getting photos showing this mix of stark wildness and softer elements. These views might not be what most people know or expect to see from Colorado, but they're part of what makes it such a great place to explore and keep exploring.
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