Jeep Roads and the Million Dollar Highway

Ridgway, CO

One day during our visit here we drove south on US 550 through the little town of Ouray and up and over the San Juan Mountains for 23 miles to the town of Silverton.  One of the main objectives of this trip was to drive the Million Dollar Highway, which is what the section of US 550 from Ouray to Silverton is frequently called.

The road was originally built as a toll way in 1883 and operated as such until the 1920s, when it was rebuilt.  No one is certain of why this highway has its name.  One explanation is that an early traveler was so overcome by vertigo on the steep and winding stretch of road that he insisted he would never travel it again, even if he was paid a million dollars.

Another explanation is that the construction of the road in the 1930’s cost one million dollars per mile, or that the land cost a total of a million.  Also, some people think that the name has to do with the fact that builders used gravel from the nearby silver and gold mines and that the dirt was so rich in ore, it was worth a million.  Who knows what the reason, we just know that the views are worth a million of something!

A snow shed over the highway

This journey takes you winding and weaving through the mountains, clinging to tight curves with breath-taking views. It climbs up three very steep high mountain passes: Red Mountain Pass (at an elevation of over 11,000 feet), Molas Pass and Coal Bank Pass.

High mountain meadow

Looking south from a high pass

Another view to the south

After crossing over the mountains we arrived at the little town of Silverton (pop. 630).  Silverton was founded in 1874 to support the numerous mining operations active in the area.  Silverton no longer has active mining, but subsists by tourism, maintenance of US 550 , mine pollution remediation, and retirees.  Most or all of the town is now included in a federally designated National Historic Landmark District called the Silverton Historic District.

Silverton is the northern terminus of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a three foot narrow-gauge heritage railroad that operates 45.2 miles of track and offers tourists a tour through the mountains between Durango and Silverton.

The train pulling into the station

We by-passed the train ride and headed north out of town on County Road 2 (Greene Street) to explore a section of the Alpine Loop, a series of unpaved roads winding through the mountains between Ouray and Silverton past a number of abandoned mines and ghost towns.  While the meadows and tundra are accessible to ordinary passenger vehicles, a high-clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle is required to travel the entire route.

The initial section of the loop is on a well-maintained road

A herd of vicious Llamas guard the roadway

The loop is quite scenic

One of many abandoned mines in the area

As the road gained in elevation we passed a number of still unmelted banks of snow.

Soon we came to an area where a huge avalanche during the past winter had blocked the road.  Apparently this section of the road was only opened for travel in late June.

The road narrowed and became rougher as we drove north.  After about 12 miles we came to our destination, the ghost town of Animas Forks.  At over 11,000 feet, Animas Forks is one of the highest mining camps in the Western US.

Buildings of Animas Forks visible along the tree line

The town’s first log cabin was built in 1873 and by 1876 the community had become a bustling mining community.  At that time the town contained 30 cabins, a hotel, a general store, a saloon, and a post office.  By 1883 450 people lived in Animas Forks and in 1882 a newspaper, the Animas Forks Pioneer, began publication and lasted until October 1886. Every fall most of the residents of Animas Forks migrated to the warmer town of Silverton.  In 1884 a 23 day blizzard inundated the town with 25 feet of snow and the residents had to dig tunnels to get from building to building.

When mining profits began to decline, investment in Animas Forks was no longer justified.  The Gold Prince Mill closed in 1910 and in 1917 most of the mill’s major parts were removed for a new facility in another town.  The mill’s dismantling signaled the beginning of the end for Animas Forks.  The town was a ghost town by the 1920s.

The Gold Prince Mill

Below is a photo of the Gustavson House, built in 1906.  A couple from Scandinavia lived here year round with their four children for four years.

Residents had beautiful views all around them (we wonder how much time they had to enjoy them)

The rehabilitated 1879 William Duncan House (below) belonged to one of the first miners to live in Animas Forks year round.

Duncan House in 1905

Main living area inside the Duncan House

After exploring the ghost town buildings we headed back down the loop road, going back through the avalanche area.

Returning back over the Million Dollar Highway we had some great views during the descent back down into Ouray.

Next up for us is a hike on the Perimeter Trail, a loop trail going high around Ouray.  More on that later . . .

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A Visit to Telluride, CO

Ridgway, CO

After a three night visit to Cedar City, UT we headed north on I-15 then east on I-70.  Heading east the highway climbs up into the mountains, cresting at Clear Creek Summit with an elevation of 7,180 feet.  It then descends into the Sevier Valley and goes around the cities of Richfield and Salina.  After leaving exit 56 in Salina, I-70 continues for 104 miles  to the first Green River exit 160.  Though there are a number of exits in between the two cities, this is the longest distance in the Interstate Highway System with no motorist services directly along the highway.  About 30 miles west of Green River the highway descends through a series of beautiful canyons that are part of the San Rafael Swell.

Approaching the San Rafael Swell

Going through the Swell

Once down through the Swell the landscape flattens out all the way to Green River.  We stopped there for the night at Shady Acres RV Park, a decent park for an overnight stay, before continuing into Colorado.

Heading toward Green River, UT

After our overnight in Green River we continued on I-70 to Grand Junction, CO where we turned south on US 50.  Driving through Grand Junction, Delta, and Montrose we arrived at Ridgway State Park, where we had a reservation for five nights.

Site 221 in Ridgway State Park

Ridgway is a nice state park right along the Ridgway Reservoir and the Uncompahgre River.  The park is in three sections, with two located along the reservoir and one north of the dam along the river.

Fly Fishing along the Uncompahgre River near our site

The Ridgway Reservoir

Driving south between the separate units of the state park the Sneffels Range of the San Juan Mountains comes into view.   Many of those peaks are over 13,000 feet with the highest being Mt. Sneffels at 14,150 feet.

The Sneffels Range

Our first activity in this area was a visit to the ski resort town of Telluride, about 40 miles southeast of Ridgway.  The town is a former silver mining camp on the San Miguel River in the western San Juan Mountains. The first gold mining claim was made in the mountains above Telluride in 1875, and early settlement of what is now Telluride followed.   The town sits in a box canyon at an elevation of 8,750 feet.  A recommended way to visit Telluride is to park in the nearby small, upscale community of Mountain Village almost a thousand feet above Telluride and ride the free gondola system into the town.  We followed that advice and parked in the free parking garage in Mountain Village.  There we boarded a gondola for a 12 minute fairly level ride into the center of Mountain Village.

In the main section of Mountain Village we boarded another gondola that took us up over the San Sophia Mountain ( if hiking or biking the mountain you get off here), then steeply down into Telluride.

Looking back down into Mountain Village

Crossing over the peak and looking down into Telluride

Exiting the gondola in Telluride

Looking back at the gondola entrance

Telluride is a neat little upscale ski town with a population of 2,325.  The main street is filled with shops and restaurants.

No hot dog vendors in this town!

After exploring the main area of town we boarded the gondola and enjoyed the cool ride up and over the mountain, stopping in the center of Mountain Village to enjoy a few moments at one of those chain coffee shops out of Seattle.  Pam had read in Ingrid’s blog (Live Laugh RV) about a Jeep road called the Last Dollar Road that went 18 miles up and over the mountains between Telluride and Ridgway.  We asked about it at the visitor center and found that it was open to high clearance vehicles.  It sounded like a fun drive so off we went.  To get to the Last Dollar Road we had to head into Telluride, giving us a spectacular view of the box canyon where the town is located.

The view heading into Telluride

We turned north at the sign pointing at the Telluride airport and headed up the mountain.  Just beyond the airport the pavement ended and we continued on a well maintained dirt road that rose up into the mountains in a series of switchbacks.

Nearing the summit the road became rough and narrowed to one lane.  We didn’t need four-wheel drive but high clearance was necessary in some areas.

When the leaves change this “tunnel” should be quite stunning

At the high point we could see the the main road below

As we drove up the Last Dollar Road we could see Wilson Peak (14, 023) behind us.

The peak may look familiar to those who enjoy a Coors beer, as it is the peak featured on the beer’s label.

As we descended down the Last Dollar Road we were treated to a beautiful view of the mountains near a pass called the Dallas Divide.

Next up for us is a drive up and over the mountains on the Million Dollar Highway.  More on that later . . .

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Hiking Near Cedar City, UT

Cedar City, UT

Upon leaving Boulder City, we headed north on I-15 into Utah.  The winding, usually speedy, ride through the Virgin River Gorge in Arizona is very beautiful.  But construction in the gorge brought traffic to a crawl for a bit, allowing us more time to enjoy the views all around us.

Exiting the north end of the gorge

 

After a drive of 200 miles we arrived at Cedar Breaks RV Park on the north side of Cedar City for a three night stay.

The next morning we drove back south on I-15 for about 20 miles to the Kolob Canyon section of Zion National Park.  We haven’t done much hiking in a while so we decided to start off with the Taylor Creek Trail, a five mile out and back that we did during a visit here a few years ago.  That visit was in early March and the trail was covered with snow, so we were interested in experiencing it in warmer weather.

Taylor Creek Trailhead

The trail goes up a canyon along Taylor Creek, crossing the water 54 times one way.  In March it was covered with ice and deep in some spots making some crossings a bit interesting.  But this time the shallow water made all crossings very easy.

 

The trail passes two restored cabins constructed in the 1930s, one of which is pictured below.

The end point of the hike is the Double Arch Alcove.  It’s a large concave rock formation with white and black stripe patterns where water has found its way through the wall.

Lower Alcove

We don’t see these as “arches” but the alcove is a beautiful place to enjoy lunch before returning back down the creek.

Upper Alcove

It was a hot day when we did this hike so the over 100 steps out of the canyon to the parking area seemed extra strenuous.

Kolob Canyon consists of one six mile road that leads up to a viewpoint.  After completing the hike we drove up to the viewpoint to enjoy the spectacular vistas.

The next day we drove 20 miles east up into the mountains on UT-14 to repeat another hike we did a few years ago.  Cedar Breaks National Monument sits at a bit over 10,000 feet above a beautiful natural amphitheater of colorful rock.  The rock of the amphitheater is more eroded than, but similar to, formations at nearby Bryce Canyon National Park.  It has much of the same beautiful vistas but without the crowds.

We hiked the Ramparts Trail, which goes down along the edge of the canyon for two miles.

Numerous openings along the trail provide spectacular views of the colorful canyon below.

 

 

 

 

Vegetation along the rim is a bit sparse due to the harsh conditions at the high elevation.  But it is a perfect spot for one of the oldest living things on the planet, the Bristlecone Pine.

Bristlecone branch

One of the living things in this photo is very, very old

 

The trail ends at Ramparts Overlook.

 

We left Cedar City the next day and headed north on I-15, then east on I-70.  We’ll spend a night in Green River, UT before heading into Colorado to explore the mountains around Montrose and and Gunnison CO.

More on that later . . .

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Summer Summary – Back on the Road

Boulder City, NV

Since we last shared a blog (Fourth of July), we have been enjoying quiet days here in Boulder City.  With temperatures well over a hundred degrees every day, any outdoor activities needed to be done early in the morning, with afternoon spent in and around the swimming pool.

In mid-July we enjoyed a brief visit from our daughter, Jessica.  While the main activity during her visit was enjoying the water while floating in a pool chair . . .

. . . we did take one excursion to the Spring Mountains, on the north west side of Las Vegas.  We drove the 65 miles to enjoy cooler temperatures at the higher elevations while hiking the Bristlecone Trail in Lee Canyon.

Mother and daughter ready for a hike

We enjoyed great views as the trail rose through the pines

Lunch with a view

Heading back down the trail (find John in the blue shirt)

Our son, Kevin, has lived in Atlanta since graduating from Law School back in 2003.  Since leaving the law field he has worked his way up through the pilot ranks to flying airliners with Delta, where his base was still in Atlanta.  Recently he switched aircraft and moved his base to Los Angeles.  Apparently after visiting with us in Nevada the weather and lifestyle of the west strongly beckoned.  As luck would have it, his first trip on the Boeing 737 was from LAX to Las Vegas and back.  At first we intended to fly back with him on stand-by, but the flight was full.  But we did find a great viewing area for airport landings and take-offs and were able to watch his first take-off in the new airplane.

The dot in the cockpit is Kevin. His mother was disappointed he didn’t wave or toot the horn!

Kevin now rents a great little apartment just a short drive from the parking lot for LAX and a short walk from the beach.

Walk a quarter mile up a hill and this is the view

With the airport nearby, there are no residential areas for a long stretch of beach, limiting visitors in that area.

Walking along a paved trail and you can enjoy the beauty of the Pacific while watching airliners of all sizes head for locations far and near.  What a great location for someone who has followed the airlines since he was a small child.

Back home in Boulder City we fell into a low pressure daily regiment.  One of our frequent stops has been at nearby Hemenway Park to check out the herd of Big Horn’s who hang out there enjoying the only shade in the area while feasting on the well-maintained grass.

Below is the outdoor temperature for an afternoon in early August.  While that afternoon was one of the hottest of the summer, every day the thermometer went well over one hundred.  So what does one do when the temps hit triple digits?

Enjoy the comfortable 85 degree temperatures in the pool!

Who is that swimmer?

Now that vacation season is over and the kids are back in school (Why do they need a vacation anyway?) it is time for the retired people to hit the road.  We’re now  heading into Colorado to enjoy some hiking and exploring.

More on that later . . .

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Small Town, Big 4th of July

Boulder City, NV

As with most towns (large and small) in the U.S., the 4th of July is a big deal in Boulder City, with family friendly activities all day.  The main event, again as with most towns, is a parade through the main section of town.  Since afternoon temperatures have been over a hundred degrees, the parade began at 9:00 AM, before the high heat arrived.  We walked up to a spot along 5th Street and got there just as the first group arrived.

Waiting for the parade to begin

Once the first group passed us it was non-stop activity for almost two hours.

The Grand Marshall (we didn’t know who he/she was)

The Boulder City Democratic Club had a very large turnout.

They even had a top presidential candidate, Sen. Cory Booker, marching with them!

Sen. Booker turned and returned a wave at John.  When John gave him the “thumbs up” the senator responded right back at him.  Times sure have changed.  Who would have every believed a life-long Republican would be excited to get a response from a Democrat candidate!  Let’s hope many Republicans feel the same way next November!

Thumbs up from Sen. Booker

The crowd marching with Sen. Booker was large, happy, and loud.  Right after him came another pretty large group, backers of Sen. Kamala Harris.

Harris supporters

They were followed by a much smaller (and older) group supporting former VP Joe Biden.  Later in the parade a small group of Bernie Sanders supporters marched by.  We waited for a Republican group but didn’t see one.

Biden supporters

Little Miss Boulder and Little Mr. Boulder enjoyed a train ride

The town maintains a bicycle motocross track for this group

U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps

The Biker Babes (Pam didn’t participate)

Miss Nevada

We had read something about “water areas” and “no water areas” along the parade route but really didn’t think much about it.  But about half way through the parade the crowd around us began to get excited, coolers full of water appeared, and large water guns were brought out.  It turns out that the highlight of the parade each year is a huge water fight between people in the parade and spectators, and we were standing right in the area designated as a battle zone!

Fire when ready!

We didn’t mind getting a little wet, but these people meant business.  If you remained near the street you had to be ready to get drenched, so we moved back a bit down a side street and just watched the fun.

A city owned water truck had a large tank of water . . .

. . . and drenched anyone in their way!

Pick-up trucks with plastic bed liners filled with water passed by.  A tank truck had large hoses extending from its rear that were used on the crowd.  But the spectators valiantly fought back with a variety of water weapons.  Everyone had a blast (literally) and within minutes they were all soaked and exhausted, but they thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

As we walked home we observed a river of rushing water going down the street.  It seems a bit strange to see this in a desert town, but we know it will all make its way back to the Colorado River.

That night there was an impressive fireworks display at one of the nearby parks.  We enjoyed it from our back yard.

In July of 1776, founding father John Adams wrote about the Declaration of Independence to his wife, Abigail.

“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

We’re certain he would have loved the celebration in Boulder City!

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Hitting the Jackpot (Nevada) With Friends

Boulder City, NV

We left Ketchum and headed south through Twin Falls, ID to Jackpot, NV.  There is nothing in Jackpot but Cactus Jack’s Casino, so we probably would not normally stay here.  But we found that good friends Steve and Mona Liza (Lowes Travels) would be here for a couple nights on their way north.  We haven’t seen them in a long time so we altered our route to fix that.

The state line just north of the casino

As we pulled into the RV park located behind the casino we saw Steve waving from behind their motorhome.  Seems they had just arrived and had just finished setting up.  Steve had checked in the office and found we were assigned to the site next to them, so we were able to quickly get settled.

After a couple of hours catching up during a happy hour at their site, we headed over to the casino hotel to find a good restaurant.  We quickly settled on 36 Steak and Seafood, a small, upscale eatery.

A great meal with great friends

To top off a delicious meal Mona Liza twisted arms to get us to agree to share a Creme Brulee.   A surprise addition to that was when our server showed up with a complimentary serving of four huge strawberries dipped in chocolate!  Two of the strawberries disappeared so quickly they didn’t make the photo below.

The next morning we were up and about early, as we had a long drive ahead of us.  Steve and Mona Liza were staying one more night so we said our good-byes to them and headed out.  By the way, if you ever stay in this park be careful as it is only 30 amps (which is not a problem).   In the morning both motorhomes experienced dangerously low voltage (which is a problem).  Steve later informed us that the power was so bad the day we left that they unplugged and ran their generator.  He couldn’t even report that to the office as it was closed that day and the next!

See you in the Fall!

We had over 500 miles to drive to get home to Boulder City from Jackpot, so we decided to divide it into two days.  We made the first day a long drive (330 miles) to a park in the little town of Caliente, NV, which made the second day a drive of  only 170 miles.  The highway (U.S. 93) is a smooth, two lane road without much traffic and the snow covered mountain ranges along the way made for some great vistas.  Please pardon the bugs on the windshield in the photos below.  It seems that when you clean the bugs off, more magically appear!

Wildlife crossing

At Ely, NV our route (US 93) joins with US 50 heading east for a few miles.  As we crossed a high pass Wheeler Peak (13,065) came into view in front of us.

Wheeler Peak, the second highest peak in Nevada, is part of Great Basin National Park.  During a visit to the park a few years ago we hiked almost to the summit before being stopped by ice on the trail (and exhaustion).

The arrow points to where we think we were when we hiked Wheeler Peak

Wheeler Peak in the background

After a good night’s sleep in Caliente we continued our journey, passing through some scenic cliffs just south of the town.

Once through the cliffs and over a high pass we descended into a wide plain where the highway stretched straight in front of us for miles and miles.

After zipping around Las Vegas on the interstate we arrived back home safe and sound.  After some time unpacking we settled in to enjoy the backyard before heading down to nearby Hemenway Park to check out the Big Horn Sheep, who enjoy feasting on the grass there.

Big Horn buffet with Lake Meade in the background

We plan to stay put in Boulder City for most of the summer so blogs will be few and far between for a while.  But as the weather changes and the kids head back to school we plan to head into central Colorado in September.

More on that later . . .

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Hiking in Sun Valley, ID

Ketchum, ID

Our second day in the Sun Valley area had a pretty high probability of rain in the forecast so we didn’t want to get far from shelter.  With that in mind we walked a couple of miles on the Wood River Trail  to the Hemingway Memorial.

Earnest Hemingway visited the Ketchum area many times beginning in the late 1930s.  He purchased a home here in 1959 and lived in it until he committed suicide in 1961.  Five years after his death a memorial was built next to a stream in Sun Valley.

Hemingway Memorial entrance

The inscription at the base of the monument was written by Hemingway as a eulogy for a friend, Gene Van Guilder, who died in 1939 in a hunting accident.  Hemingway had only know the 35 year-old for a few weeks before his death, but agreed to write and read the eulogy at his funeral.  Both Van Guilder and Hemingway are buried near each other in Ketchum Cemetery.

The final day of our short stay here had decent temperatures (in the mid-60s) and mostly clear skies.  We took advantage of the good weather and took a hike combining a couple of trails on a hill between Ketchum and Sun Valley called the White Cloud area.  The four mile loop begins by going steeply uphill.

Waiting for someone to finish taking photos of flowers

Mountain biker on top of the hill (our target)

Once up the steep hill the trail levels out as it goes around a group of holes that are part of the Sun Valley Golf Course, with great views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

Sun Valley Ski Area on Bald Mountain

Part of Sun Valley Golf Course

Snow on the Sawtooth Mountains to the north

Wildflowers were in bloom all along the trail, adding their colors to the beautiful vistas.

John is surrounded by lupines

Lunch with a view

Can you spot the nimble hiker?

Well, that winds up our brief stay in the Ketchum/Sun Valley area.  It is a beautiful area filled with summer and winter outdoor activities.  There are so many hiking and biking trails that, who knows, we just may return for another visit some day.

Next up for us is a reunion with friends.  More on that later . . .

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A Taste of Winter – Ketchum, ID

Ketchum, ID

After our visit to Idaho Falls we headed west on US 20 for a 150 mile journey to Ketchum.  For long stretches the highway is straight and flat.    A strong cross wind made for a “hold on tight” drive.

US 20 west from Idaho Falls

After passing through the little town of Arco the road skirts the northern edge of Craters of the Moon National Monument.   The monument encompass three major lava fields and covers 53,571 acres.  We didn’t stop, as we have visited this monument in the past.

Lava fields

Hills west of Craters of the Moon

Once in Ketchum we set up the motorhome in The Meadows RV Park.  It’s not the nicest park we’ve been in but it will have to do, as it is the only full hook-up park in the area.  There are numerous forest service campgrounds around and we saw some nice boondocking spots outside of town if you don’t need hook-ups.

Once settled, we drove four miles north into Ketchum to look around.  Ketchum (pop. 2,680) is the main town in the area, but on Google maps the adjacent community of Sun Valley gets the designation.  Sun Valley (pop. 1,400) is a residential resort area built in the late 1930s as the first ski destination location in the U.S.  We arrived in Ketchum and set out to check out the visitor center and the local chain coffee shop headquartered in Seattle.  What do you know?  They both share the same facility.  And they are located on Ketchum Town Square, with outdoor seating with views of the ski area on nearby Bald Mountain.

Ketchum Town Square

Once we finished reading brochures of the area, we drove northeast a short distance (maybe a mile) to check out what we thought was the town of Sun Valley.  Turns out there is no “town,”  just a large lodge surrounded by expensive houses and condos.  We continued up the road as it entered a narrow valley and became a dirt forest service road.  Although a sign warned the road was not maintained, somebody is maintaining it as it is in great shape as it climbs steeply up out of the valley.

After a few miles of “up” the road flattened out as it entered an alpine forest.  We turned around at that point and enjoyed the views as we descended.

The weather the next day was sunny but chilly, with temperatures in the mid 50s.  We headed north on ID 75 out of Ketchum into the Sawtooth Mountains.  The road goes over the Galena Pass (8,700′) as it heads for the little town of Stanley.  We stopped in the Galena Lodge intending on taking a short hike.  But the temperature had dropped down to 44 degrees, the wind was blowing, and a light snow was in the air, so we decided to just stay in the warm Jeep and take the scenic ride all the way to Stanley.

Rte. 75 north into the Sawtooth Mountains

As we crossed the Galena Pass we had great views of the valley below, as well as a number of snow squalls in the distance.

Heading down out of Galena Pass

Sawtooth Mountains

After stopping in the tiny community of Stanley (pop. 600) for fuel, we began the return trip south.  Just south of Stanley we took a side road to check out Redfish Lake.  The road into the lake area had great views of the Sawtooth Mountains.

Sawtooth Mountains

Redfish Lake

While driving back out of the lake area to the highway we ran into a significant snow squall.  OK, it is the day before the first day of summer so you should expect a little snow, right?

On the trip north we passed through an area called Smiley Creek.  It has a grass airstrip and there was a line of small planes parked along side the strip.  So on the return trip we pulled in to take a look.

The group of planes turned out to be part of the Smiley Creek 12th Annual Fly-in.  It must have been pretty cold for those sleeping in the tents set up next to the planes!

We continued the return trip and began to go up and over the Galena Pass.  We stopped at an observation area where we had taken some nice photos on the trip north, but the views were not so good on the trip south.

Snow north of Galena Pass

The snow continued (although not sticking on the road) and the temperature dropped.

Snow south of Galena Pass

The forecast for tomorrow looks like a bit of rain, so we may not be going very far from town.  But who knows what lies ahead.

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Idaho Falls and Grand Tetons NP

Idaho Falls, ID

We continued our journey south from Butte, MT for 200 miles into Idaho.  We had reservations for a three day visit to Idaho Falls, Idaho’s second largest city (after Boise) located along the Snake River.

The “falls” in Idaho Falls is a series of small falls and a spillway where the river “falls”over a concrete barrier and a wall of rocks.

The city maintains an extensive river walk featuring running and biking trails along several miles of the Snake River as it flows through the center of town.

Japanese garden along the river walk

One day during our stay in Idaho Falls we took a day trip to the east to visit Grand Teton National Park.  The drive from Idaho Falls is very scenic, with the highlight the crossing of Teton Pass between Victor, ID and Jackson, WY at 8,431 feet.

View east from Teton Pass

At the bottom of the pass we turned north on WY 390 (Moose Wilson Rd) toward the entrance to Grand Teton National Park, driving along the beautiful Teton Range.

Once in the park, we drove up a rough, dirt road to the trailhead for the Death Canyon Trail.  We intended to hike a mile up the trail to an overlook for Phelps Lake.

Phelps Lake from the overlook

We didn’t intend to go any further, but another hiker said there were some nice views if you continued down to the lake from the overlook.  So we added another mile and went down the steep trail to a spot near the lake.

Heading down toward the lake

One of many waterfalls along the lake

What goes down must come up!

Once we returned to the Jeep we continued north through the park.  As we passed a swampy area we spotted this girl enjoying lunch.

A second moose sighting was a young buck

Once we exited the park we returned back down US 26 toward Jackson.  That route has a great view of the Tetons.

We had to drive through Jackson, a crowded tourist town, to get to the route back to Idaho Falls.  While going through town we passed a park with the famous arch
of shed elk antlers,

Many people brighten up the back of their RV with some sort of beautiful artwork.  We’ve not done that for many reasons, but while driving through the RV park in Idaho Falls, we spotted a picture that we are thinking of putting on the back of our motorhome.

 

 

Next up is a visit to the ski resort area of Sun Valley, ID.  More on that later . . .

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The Richest Hill on Earth – Butte, MT

Butte, MT

We left Helena and headed south on I-15 for a short drive of about 70 miles to the city of Butte.  There was nothing in particular that we wanted to see there, but since it was on our route, we thought it might merit a visit.  So we made a three night reservation at the Butte KOA and, once set up there, headed over to the visitor center next to the park to see what we might want to visit in the area.  It turns out Butte is a pretty interesting town, with plenty of history.

Downtown Butte, MT

Established in 1864 as a mining camp , Butte experienced rapid development in the late 1900’s, and was Montana’s first major industrial city.  In its heyday it was one of the largest copper boomtowns in the west.

Butte’s slogan is the “richest hill on earth.”  Over the course of its history, Butte’s mining operations generated an excess of $48 billion worth of gold, silver, and copper.  But the mining has also resulted in numerous environmental implications for the city and it is the site of the largest superfund effort in the U.S which include removing and cleaning the soil, as well as, adding many walking/biking trails throughout the town and hillsides.  Today the hill overlooking the city contains the remains (huge headframes or main above-ground structures) of numerous shafts mines with a three mile walking/biking loop that highlights each mine.

The Con – Mountain Con Mine

Butte’s elevation is over a mile high, the Con is a mile deep

As we drove around the mining hillside on the north side of the city we came upon a memorial to the 1917 Speculator Mine Disaster, the most deadly event in underground hard rock mining in U.S. history.  As part of a fire safety system, the mining company was installing an electric cable down into the Granite Mountain mine.  During installation the cable fell into an area approximately 2,500 feet below the surface and was damaged. When a foreman with a carbide lamp tried to inspect the damage, he accidentally ignited the oil-soaked cloth insulation on the cable. The fire quickly climbed the cable, and turned the shaft into a chimney, igniting the timbers in the shaft and consuming oxygen in the mines.

A total of 168 miners died in the ensuing blaze, most from asphyxia. Some of the miners did not die immediately, they survived for a day or two in the tunnels underground.  Some left notes written while they waited in hopes of rescue.  A few managed to barricade themselves behind bulkheads in the mine and were rescued after as long as 55 hours.

The Butte Chamber of Commerce offers a trolley car tour of the city leaving periodically each day from the visitor center next door to the RV park.  We purchased tickets in the morning and boarded the trolley for the noon tour.

The tour meandered through the city while the driver, a life long resident of Butte, gave an interesting running narration of the sights.  The trolley only makes one stop, a visit to the Berkeley Pit, a former open pit copper mine opened in 1955 and closed in 1982.

A young, energetic couple block the mine entrance

A tunnel leads through the surrounding wall of the pit to an observation deck.

Once everyone on the tour was on the observation deck our guide, Mark, gave a short talk explaining some interesting information about the mine and efforts to clean contaminated water seeping into it.

Our tour guide, Mark

When the pit was closed, the water pumps in an old nearby shaft mine, 3,800 feet below the surface, were turned off and groundwater from the surrounding aquifers began to slowly fill the pit, rising at about the rate of one foot a month.  Since its closure in 1982 the water level in the pit has risen to within 150 feet of the natural water table.

To prevent the mine water from entering the water table a new filter system pumps water out of the pit, removes impurities, and sends the water into a nearby creek.  The amount pumped out each day equals the amount seeping into the pit.  Since there is no way to prevent the water from entering the pit, this process will proceed far into the future.

After viewing the Berkeley Pit the group re-boarded the trolley and we headed into the city.  As with most mining towns, Butte had a very diverse population, and an equal number of vices.

Mai Wah Museum highlights Asian culture in Butte

The Dumas Brothel – in operation until 1982

As the trolley made its way through town our guide, Mark, pointed out an auto repair shop that he said at one time was owned by the father of a high school classmate of his named Bobby Knievel.  While Mark called him Bobby, the world knew him as Evel Knievel, the famous motorcycle daredevil.  We wrote of Evel Knievel in a 2017 post about a visit to Twin Falls, ID where he attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket propelled vehicle.  We didn’t realize that Knievel was born, raised, and is buried in Butte.

Mark said he didn’t hang around with Knievel in high school as he was just too wild.  As an example, he said Knievel tried to ride a motorcycle up the stairs inside the county courthouse.  Later he worked for one of the mines where he drove a large earth mover. Knievel was fired when he made the earth mover do a motorcycle-type wheelie and drove it into Butte’s main power line, leaving the city without electricity for several hours.

About nine miles south of Butte is Thompson Park, a municipal recreation area with 25 miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding or mountain biking.  A rail trail on the old path of the historic Milwaukee Railroad (Milwaukee Road) provides a gently sloped (trains don’t like steep grades and neither do we) path that goes through two tunnels and over a 600 foot trestle.  After a couple of days exploring Butte we needed to stretch our legs, so we drove down to hike that trail.

Sagebrush Flats – our access to the rail trail

The Milwaukee Road began operations in Montana by running the steam engines common at the time.  However, they soon began to believe that electric powered trains would be a better option.  With the low cost electricity from the Columbia River hydro power plants, company owners believed that electricity would be much cheaper than steam.   In 1915 the first section of the line switched to electricity and soon the entire line was electrified. The electric trains proved to be efficient and effective. They were dependable and operated well in the cold harsh conditions.

Reading the display panel in the photo above, John became more interested when he noticed the banner on the engine pictured in the insert.  It clearly noted that the electric engine had been constructed in his home town of Erie, PA, where they are still producing electrical railroad engines today.

As advertised, the trail is a well-maintained, level track through a pine forest with occasional views of the surrounding hills and mountains.

The trail goes through two tunnels.  The first is 550 feet long, an easy one to go through without a flashlight.

The other one, at 1,110 feet, is a bit more of a challenge, especially with the obstacle we encountered at its entrance.  As we approached the tunnel it appeared to have a layer of concrete at the entrance, standing about a foot above the trail surface.

As we approached the tunnel we discovered it was a thick layer of ice!

Unsure of how far into the tunnel the ice extended we took headlamps out of our pack and got out a set of hiking poles before heading in.  The ice was very smooth and firm but wet so we proceeded very slowly.

As we carefully proceeded into the dark tunnel we found the ice flow ended about a quarter of the way through and the surface turned to dry, firm dirt.

About a half mile from the second tunnel we approached a curve in the tracks.  In the distance we could see the long trestle, our turn around point.

The trestle is impressive at 600 feet in length, rising 130 feet above the valley floor. The trail ends just 100 yards from the 2,300 foot long Pipestone Pass tunnel, which is closed to the public.

Historic photo of construction of the bridge

Looking down at the road below the trestle

Can you spot Pam at the other end of the trestle?

After returning to the Jeep we drove the road that goes under the trestle to get a view of it from below.

Butte is home to Montana Tech, a small college formally known as the Montana School of Mines that is now part of the University of Montana system.  Years ago students at the school constructed a large “M” on the small butte above the campus.

A dirt road leads up to a spot just below the “M” where there is a great view of the city below.

View of the city from just below the “M”

Many towns and cities in the west (including our adopted home town of Boulder City) have a similar letter (or letters) above town.  But one of the things that make the “M” above Butte unique is that it is lit up a night.  Even more unique is that they can light up just the center portion of the “M” when the college has a significant athletic win, creating a “V” for victory.

We arrived in Butte with no expectation as to what we would find, but were pleasantly surprised at the interesting things we found.  The town has an unique story to tell, making a stop here worth the time.

We’ll now continue south for a three day visit to Idaho Falls, ID.  Again, we have no expectations for our visit, but it is a city of significant size and is on our route, so we’re curious as to what’s there.  We’ll let you know what we find . . .

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