I’m a driver. Always have been, and as long as I have a running car and gas in the tank, always will be. While some may squirm at the idea of pulling long hours behind the wheel, for me it’s definitely my happy place. Last fall I was fortunate enough to get away for 2 trips; both requiring a good bit of time behind the wheel. One at the beginning of September over Labor Day to Dinosaur National Monument, the second later in the month to the Flattops Wilderness and Trappers Lake. This story is about the trip to Dinosaur.
After waking up the first morning out and realizing I’d forgotten my coffee kit – the original loosely held plans of simply wandering Colorado’s Moffat County dirt roads changed. Having coffee is, of course, a requirement; the morning equivalent of throwing stove fuel on a camp fire just to get it going. This meant backtracking – which I hate doing – but Craig wasn’t far and the pay off was worth it.
Several years ago over 4th of July weekend we as a family finally made our first trip to Dinosaur National Monument, stopping at this same campground along the way. Feeling a bit nostalgic and missing my family I decided to relive that trip, making the decision to head back to Dinosaur after coffee’ing up in Craig.
Dinosaur is split, straddling the Utah-Colorado State Line. You can see a map below. Initially I’d envisioned the National Monument being more on the Utah side but you can see it actually occupies more of Colorado (the thin, vertical white line left of center is the Utah/Colo state boundary), following the Yampa River from Deerlodge Park along I-40, west to the border. Much of the eastern portion located in Colorado is accessible primarily via river travel. The western portion is where a lot of hiking – and the actual Dinosaur bones – are found, seeming to draw the larger crowds – of which there simply typically are not. At least compared to a Yellowstone or Rocky Mountain, making Dinosaur a wonderful destination to visit much of the year. Still – the entrance fee for this National Monument is the same as many National Parks, which I’m sure reflects upkeep and visitor mitigation. [Enter a plug here for purchasing an annual parks pass for $80US. It more than pays for itself if you visit several national parks during the rolling 12 month period, and it helps the National Park Service keep things going].
There’s not much going on between Craig and Dinosaur, allowing the contemplative driver plenty of windshield time to think. Small towns like Lay, Hayden, Maybell, Elk Springs, Blue Mountain and Massadona dot the road but barely provide a place to stop. The town of Dinosaur just this side of the Utah-Colorado border provides gas and groceries before heading deeper into what looks like pretty desolate land. But that feeling of desolation is an important part of the adventure, and as you scan the horizon you really begin to imagine what this area was like a long time ago – as in Precambrian or Mesozoic.
This trip, however – before heading into the Utah portion of Dinosaur, I’m heading to a portion on the Colorado side called Harper’s Corner. Harper’s Corner is a long, one-way paved road heading north off I-40 just east of the town of Dinosaur. At the junction, however – it’s not readily apparent why you’d do this. I’d previously considered the detour but wasn’t sure it was worth the time. A trip into the lonely, small visitor’s center tucked beneath the only shade around gives way to a talk with the ranger who tells me the views from Harper’s Corner “are by far the best in the park.”
As you climb Harper’s Corner Road it’s obvious you’re in hot, dry country. Sweeping views to the south open up behind as you proceed up the relatively steep, winding grade. Once the top of the plateau is reached vast expanses of the surrounding country open up. At the end of the road is a parking lot loop that’s well developed and mostly empty. The hiking trail out to Harper’s Corner is easy; mostly level through scrub and stunted Utah Juniper forests. The easy grade allows a heavier pack than I’d otherwise bring in hot temperatures and a nice breeze keeps me company beneath blue bird skies.
The Ranger was of course, right. Bright, unobstructed, high-altitude sunlight didn’t matter. The view below to the twisted land and Green River was spectacular and the resulting images are full of rich, fine detail. An orange filter helped balance sky with foreground vegetation and deepen overall tones. I can’t wait to print them in the dark room. This is one of those times squishing a photograph into a web-presentable computer display is a travesty – but for now, the best I can do.
I of course carried more in the pack than needed – but once at the overlook, with ample room to spread out and 270° views of the dramatic land below, I had the place to myself and enjoyed relaxing for what felt like the first time in a long while. That’s a bit of a theme with me – wanting to find destinations where I have the place to myself.
After a few days wandering and camping in Dinosaur it was time to pack up and head back East. Another stop when passing ‘through the neighborhood’ is Great Divide. North out of Lay, on Moffatt County dirt road heads the traveler with a full tank of gas into some rather, uh… untraveled… territory. Miles and miles of nothing but high, rolling grassy hills and unobstructed sunshine as far as the eye can see – which is pretty far up there, into Wyoming… accompanied by plenty of pronghorn.
This old Mercantile sits at a junction with not much else around. I’ve written more about here. There’s just something enchanting about this old place. But it’s hot and dry, and I’m beginning to get a little road weary after so much driving. So my time at Great Divide is short lived and I bounce along the county, dirt washboard roads for miles back towards state highway.
The final leg brought me through Northern Colorado’s Park Range. The Park Range sits between myself and home and it’s one of my favorite places to simply wander around. But I’m tired and the car is running hot, so I’m not at my best.
Atop a hill on the bumpy, dusty county dirt road I pull over, allowing the car’s engine to cool – right in front of a sign. A photograph of a mighty, white dog with lengthy instructions of what to do should you encounter such a dog. “Do not attempt to pet these dogs,” the sign said, “they are not lost pets. They’re working sheep dogs trained to defend sheep. If encountered, back away slowly and retreat to your car. They are dangerous animals defending the sheep they’re trained to protect.”
I’ve always been a dog guy so wasn’t too worried, and set about making photographs. After finishing up I returned to the car only to find sitting in front of it, that very dog. Remembering the sign, I froze. Not wanting to interfere with this animal’s training, nor put myself in danger, I paused a moment while deciding what to do. There was no way to avoid him.
Our eyes met, both waiting for the other. About then I saw his tail move ever so slightly, and I asked him what the heck he was doing out here and if he wanted a drink? His ears perked up as he walked forward, leaning into my leg to say hello, then followed me back to the car. I prepared a bowl of water and found him something to eat, then sat down on the ground in the shade of the open tailgate. I stroked his thick, white hair – matted with twigs and tree sap. When finished drinking the large, white dog crawled into my lap and quickly fell asleep.
I couldn’t help wondering when the last time was he had any type of human contact – much less affection. I suppose I shouldn’t have encouraged such behavior, but I’m built to love these furry, four-legged friends. When he awoke I gave him one more nibble of protein and said goodbye, telling my new friend to please – stay off the road.
Walden and North Park are the final stop before heading the 100 miles over Cameron Pass, down the Poudre and home to Fort Collins. A storm has just passed through leaving the air fresh and clear. Classic Colorado sunshine bathes everything with a backdrop of dramatic thunderheads and I spend a few hours shooting the North Platte, Walden Reservoir and the Never Summer Range before the light leaves and it’s time to fold up for the day.
I’d written most of this story early in the month of April, enjoying reliving the trip as my films dried and emerging images triggered memories. Here now at the end of April, things being what they are in the world – I’m sorely missing these drives. May and June are some of the most beautiful times to be out wandering.
I struggle with the thought of so many people suffering during this Covid 19 Pandemic. What has happened in cities and countries around the world is… what…? Indescribable. A catastrophe of proportions unknown to us in our lifetime. For my thoughts to be of simply missing the ability to drive some place – for fun – to make photographs… I’m not sure how to square that. But they’re not my only thoughts about the subject, and I still miss it, and won’t take it for granted in the future.
My heart goes out to those suffering with Covid 19. Whether directly impacted by threats on your health, or suffering by association with others who are, hang in there. If you’ve been impacted economically and are living with uncertainty about your economic future, that’s almost as bad. Maybe worse.
I have no answers, only encouragement to offer the reader in the form of a solid faith in our great God, who loves us and has this whole thing under control. But one thing I can’t stand is people lobbing platitudes when someone’s suffering. It’s just not helpful. So I won’t do that. Instead I invite you to, in the extra time you may have on hand, open a bible and see what happens.
Until next month, thanks for reading Blue Hour Journal, and may God richly bless you and yours in this time of uncertainty.