Sunday, July 31, 2016

Rabbit Ears - Wildflower Wonderland

Rabbit Ears
This morning we got on the road early to drive to Rabbit Ears Pass on US 40. The remnants of an old volcanic plug, the peak resembles less of its namesake than in the past due to gradual erosion. Several years ago portions of the east tower fell, causing the peak to look even less like rabbit ears. That said, the peak is still very recognizable and is a very popular destination in the area in Routt National Forest.
Somewhat unusual, the highway over Rabbit Ears Pass has a gently rolling character in the vicinity of the summit. After crossing the Divide westbound, the road dips briefly and then reaches its highest point (about 9520 ft) before descending gently to the west summit (9400 ft) and then dropping steeply (7%) toward Steamboat Springs.
Hiking sticks in hand, along with binocs, camera, and water bottles, we started up the trail. Other hikers included people with dogs, a few horseback riders or mountain bikers, and families with children of all ages. One family allowed their children to climb barefooted! The ascent was easy for the first few miles, but a hiker said that it got steep at the end, climbing to 10,400 feet more or less.
The farther we climbed, the more beautiful the views became...
Dead Pine Trees
...except for the areas with fallen pine trees, killed by the pine bark beetle. The Forest Service does a good job keeping the trail itself cleared from obstructions when the trees fall, but they will be doing this for some time to come. The good thing was seeing all the young spruce trees growing in the newly available sunshine.
But the best part was all the fantastic, gorgeous wildflowers growing in profusion everywhere we went. It's so hard to get the real feel for the large meadows full of color with just a camera, and believe me, I really tried hard, taking over 300 photos today alone! I bought a Colorado Wildflower guide (over 400 pages), and still can't find all the flowers we saw in the book. Here are some of my favorites.
Colorado Blue Columbine

Prickly Rose
Red Paintbrush and Lupine

North Side View from Rabbit Ears
Since I had to stop every few minutes for a photo, or to catch my breath in the high elevation, it took us almost 3 hours to climb about 3.75 miles to the top. Thank goodness we had those hiking sticks or I wouldn't have made much of it! The wind picked up as the day progressed, blowing dust devils across the rocks and into our faces.
Volcanic Rock
The rocks at the top are volcanic and full of little gas holes. The non-volcanic rocks that surrounded the "ears" for millennia have worn away, much like Devil's Tower in NE Wyoming. Several other places below the pass have volcanic outcroppings as well.
View from top of Rabbit Ears
The view from the top was incredible. (I seem to have trouble coming up with appropriate adjectives for this trip without repeating myself!) But dark clouds gathered in the west, and we knew we must start down to avoid getting caught in the rain.
Threatening Skies
There hasn't been any measurable rain in Steamboat Springs in July, but you never know when those purple clouds will let loose. You can watch the rain fall miles away, and not know if it will come to you or not. At one point on the downward trail, we were passed by a Jeep on the way up. What wimps! If you can't walk even part of the trail, you won't enjoy getting banged around inside a Jeep across the rocks and ruts any more! And even a Jeep won't be able to make it up the steepest part at the top! We made it back to our car in time, and ate lunch at nearby Dumont Lake in a very light rain. Now I know why hiking boots are usually tan - you should have seen all the dust I had to wash off in the shower when we got home!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Hot Air Ballooning!

Dawn Steam and Swallows on the Yampa River
We were up and out the door at 6:45 this morning to meet the crew for our hot air balloon ride! We have seen the balloon in the air almost every morning, and decided there was no reason not to go ahead and ride one!
The take off field was still in shadows as the ground crew started inflating the 75 foot tall balloon. They have to be careful not to rip it on sticks, fence posts or barb wire.
When it had enough hot air to rise up, they turned on the propane burners. We were toasty warm when we got in the gondola.
Ten people were signed up for the first trip, and they had two more trips to take this morning. The wicker gondola is divided into three sections - one for the pilot, one for passengers who climb over the side to enter, and one with a gate for the passengers to enter. Thank goodness I got that one!
There isn't much room to move around, and if anyone got unbalanced, they couldn't go far. The side of the gondola came up higher than my waist, and I felt no acrophobia at all.  In fact, when we lifted off the ground, you could hardly feel any motion. When we landed, the next group was ready, and as one of us left, one of them entered, to keep the weight balanced and so the balloon didn't take off right away.

It was great fun to watch our shadow on the ground. At first, it was sharp and crisp, but as we gained altitude it became more fuzzy along the edges.

You get such a different perspective from 1,700 feet in the air. They have to cancel a trip if the wind blows too hard, but today it didn't blow at all. We rose up, turned around a few times, then came down again no more than 1/4 mile from our starting point. I loved seeing the oxbows left by the river and it changed course over the years. The farmers are all cutting hay this week, and the fields reminded me of van Gough's paintings of hay fields in Provence, only green!

We heard about a Great Blue Heron rookery, and found it right by our take off field. As we rose in the air, we could see all the nests. Only one had herons still in it. I don't often get to take photos of the top of a heron flying across the marsh! Sometimes they get to see eagles in flight, but not this trip.  We did see one later when walking along the Core Trail.

For the landing we all had to hold onto straps, and bend our knees, just like they do for parachute jumping. And don't straighten up right away, the pilot warned, we may land several times before we stop moving! Well, our landing was cushioned by tall grasses, so we didn't bounce again, but we couldn't get out either. Ground crew to the rescue! The pilot gunned the burners a little so the guys could pull us to a spot where we could debark, while the next trip loaded on. The van took us back to base for champagne toasts and a short history of hot air ballooning. In  France, they always took a bottle of champagne along to thank the farmer whose field they had landed in, and the tradition remains! Of course, the pilot knows who will take kindly to a balloon landing in their field, and who will not! 

What a wonderful way to start the day. This is truly a Bucket List event!

Friday, July 29, 2016

Drifting Down the River

Tubing on the Yampa River here in Steamboat Springs is a popular activity. Kids, teens, even moms with toddlers can all be found floating down the river by the dozens in big inner tubes. But we decided to take a float trip down the Colorado River. The Bucking Rainbow Outfitters drove us to the Colorado (about an hour away), handled the big rafts, and did all the paddling. All we had to do was not fall out and enjoy our lunch! We told the young bearded river guides about our experiences on the Upper and Lower Gauley River in West Virginia, and they were impressed. But at this stage in our lives, we are allowed to relax a bit, we decided.
Although we didn't expect any big rapids, nothing bigger than class 2, the rule on the river is
"Never take anything you can't stand to lose." Well, I couldn't go on the Colorado River without my camera, could I? I got a big plastic bag to put around it when there was a chance of splashing, and off we went. The rock formations are fascinating, and I couldn't resist taking photos of the rocks as we passed.
The birding started well. Before we even got the rafts into the water, a juvenile Bald Eagle flew overhead. Through the rest of the trip, we saw a pair of adults in a tree, and one bird that must have been about four years old with a muddy white head. A nest appeared to be empty, with no adult eagles nearby.
Swallows have been the most common bird we've seen every day on this trip. Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows, Violet-green Swallows, and maybe some Tree or Rough-winged Swallows - it's hard to tell when they swerve away so fast. A huge colony of Cliff Swallows had built their jug shaped nests of mud under a bridge. Still no American Dippers, although I scanned each rock - they should have been there. :(
Two beavers swam across the river in front of us. The first slapped his tail and dove under when we got too close to suit him.
The water came out of the bottom of a reservoir upstream and was very cold. Only two brave people got fully immersed until we stopped for lunch at a sand bar. By then, everyone was pretty hot and the water felt pretty good. Tomorrow, we are getting up early to ride in a hot air balloon! Then in the evening we are going to the rodeo!

Colorado State Parks

Steamboat Lake State Park
Colorado's State Parks offer much to both residents and visitors to the state. They are often near Federal areas and link their trails. All the parks we've been to so far have large lakes created for recreation. Camping, boating and fishing are popular, but there isn't much shade around the campgrounds. Unlike Kentucky, there are no lodges, only camping facilities. Dick and I managed to find the only shady picnic table in the park for our lunch yesterday.
My favorite part of the parks, however, is the comparison of areas left in a natural state versus the surrounding ranching areas. The parks are full of wild flowers, every where you look! Pine bark beetles have decimated the lodge pole pines, but the park service leaves most of them standing to be taken care of naturally. The beetles invade the trees, but a fungus they carry actually kills the tree. Cattle grazing leave little plant life. All the ranchers are cutting and baling hay this week to prepare for the long winter's snow.
I keep trying to get a photo of a large meadow full of flowers, and can never do justice to the reality. It will take me weeks to identify all the flowers blooming in late July. Some of them are flowers I would expect to see at home during the spring.
Mule Tail Deer
Colorado Chipmunk
 The wildlife we've found so far aren't afraid of people at all. This mule deer walked up the path we were on, watching us intently, and when she got close enough bounded past and on her own business. The little chipmunks are fast and hard to catch in photos, running in and out of the shade.
Mountain Bluebird
The battery demon struck again, and when my camera battery started flashing red, my replacement didn't have a full charge, so it too started flashing red before long. This has happened before, and Dick always shakes his head and sighs when it happens. I will now start carrying two charged batteries in my fanny pack instead of just one!
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Despite turning the camera off each time I took a photo, I ended up with a nice collection of birds at the state park.
Belted Kingfisher
White Pelican
Red-shafted Flicker
We still haven't seen or heard any Western Meadowlarks or seen American Dippers, despite the perfect habitat. But we will keep looking.
Northern Harrier
At neighboring Pearl Lake State Park, we watched a group of children and adults learning how to paddle board, standing up on the board, or kayaking across the clear mountain lake. I glanced overhead and found a raptor kiting in the sky, that is, floating without moving as it was held up simply by the wind. This is something different, I said. A light gray body and black along the trailing edges of his wings. A Northern Harrier! We are doing well at finding many raptor species this trip.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Strawberry Hot Springs

Colorado is known for its mineral and hot springs. Steamboat Springs has several springs of both kinds which are enjoyed by tourists and residents alike. Today we drove 2 miles up a steep unpaved road to reach Strawberry Park Hot Springs, high in the mountains. Not really sure what I was expecting to see or smell, but it wasn't this pleasant natural swimming pool.
The hot hot spring pours out of the mountain side, steaming as it hits a basin leading down to the pools. The water percolates through porous rock, then along a fault which retains heat from ancient volcanoes.  The pools themselves are lined with local rock, and separate the hot-hot from the hot from the warm from the cool pools. There is a temperature for everyone, and we saw many families with young children and babies enjoying the water as they would in an urban swimming pool. You had to watch for little pipes releasing water into the pool - that was the hot stuff.

As I carefully walked down the stone steps for my first dip, it got hotter the more I descended, and I hesitated a bit, not knowing how bad it would get. A woman said to keep going, it was hotter by the steps than in the deeper water. When fully immersed, it felt like a nice warm bathtub, except for the floating clumps of algae that thrive there! Cool water from the mountain creek tempered the hot to make it bearable, and you could find your comfort zone just by moving around on the sandy bottom. They drain and clean the pools periodically, which is good or people would break their necks on the slippery stone steps. Eventually we entered a pool that seemed cold by comparison, which then flowed into the mountain creek.
Someone does a great job of landscaping, and the flowers were beautiful. There are also a variety of cabins for people who want to stay on the property. The springs are open all year round, and there are warnings to use chains and 4-wheel drive in the winter.
A cut little chipmunk hopped on the table to ask for a share of our lunch, but we told him no and he ran off. As we left, vans full of children arrived for an outing, and we thought it was a good time to go. We'll need to put sunburn lotion on tonight, I think.