A Scenic Loop

It’s three o’clock in the morning and the dog is shaking.  He’s sleeping on a blanket near my side of the air mattress.  I grab my hoody and cover him.  He falls back asleep.  I’m sure glad one of us can fall asleep so quickly.  Hmmm, nature calls.  I reluctantly throw off the two layers of sleeping bags and scurry to the foot of the air mattress to put on my tennies.  No need to throw on clothes, since I’ve been sleeping fully clothed, i.e. sweatpants and sweatshirt.  It’s cold at three in the morning camped at 10,000 feet.

I quietly unzip the tent and crawl out.  I’m awestruck with the most incredible vision.  The stars and crescent moon are so vivid and bright.  I have no trouble seeing around the campsite.  I stand there and just take in the beauty before I’m reminded as to why I’m standing outside the tent at three in the morning shivering.  This is serious Bear and Mountain Lion country.  I take care of “business” just three feet from the tent.  I have no intention of being someone’s midnight snack, and I’m sorry, but that trumps someone seeing my crescent moon!  I once again stand there admiring the sky before crawling back into a nice warm bed.

It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’ve renamed Bear…..”damn dog”.  (ya know I love him and wouldn’t trade him for the world, but he wants a walk at 5:30 in the morning in the frickn cold)  Damn dog and I go for a stroll, not venturing too far from our campsite.  I’m the only two-legged creature out and about.  Did I already mention we’re in serious Bear, as in Black, Brown country?  The garbage containers are heavily locked and Bear proofed.  It reminds me of the safety lids on medications.  In other words, it’s a royal pain in the a*s to get open just to throw your garbage away.  I’m on alert.  “Hurry up, damn dog”.  Finally “business” complete, we return to the warmth of sleeping bags.

It’s seven o’clock and the sun is rising.  We hear other campers in the distance.  Al awakes and informs me how great he slept (damn husband).  Sleep deprived wife informs damn husband and damn dog, “We’re going into town for breakfast.  I need a cup of  strong, black coffee”.

I drive around Crested Butte looking for a place for breakfast.  Finally Al has me stop, he jumps out of the truck and walks over to a pretty blond lady watering flowers.  He and the blond chuckle (do I really care?).  He proceeds to tell me to drive up Elk Street three blocks.  Blond says McGills serves a good breakfast.  Good breakfast yes, but amazingly good coffee.

Two cups of coffee later, we’re back to “dear husband” and “cute, adorable dog”.  Al and I discuss exploration options, but first it’s time for a little retail therapy.  It’s still a little early and shops aren’t open yet.  That’s ok, I’m on the hunt and need to survey my prey.

We enter a T-shirt shop.  I’m on a mission.  Al and Bear head over to the counter, yes this is dog friendly country and dogs are welcome everywhere except inside restaurants.  Al strikes up a conversation with the young man behind the counter.  We’re the only ones in the store and when the young man realizes I drive a Toyota Tacoma and we’re there to explore the back country, he excitedly shares his knowledge and passion of the area.  He drives a Toyota 4-Runner (sister to the Tacoma…lol) and recommends a scenic loop drive.  He gives us a couple of heads up warnings and what we might encounter.  He gives us a complimentary map and points out everything on the map for us.  Two T-shirts later, that’s enough retail therapy for me.  I’m ready to explore.

We head up Slate River Road, just north of the town of Crested Butte.  As usual, the pavement ends quickly.  We pass some beautiful homes early in the journey.  As we start to climb in elevation and the road starts to narrow, we encounter campers and ATVer’s.


BUT most importantly, I finally start seeing some wildflowers.  Up to this point I begin to wonder, “Wildflower capital of Colorado”?  Say what?  Still not impressed, but I have an open mind.  The scenery is spectacular.  I drive so I don’t drive Al crazy with my many photo-op stops.  “Stop here, no I meant there.  Why don’t you listen to me?”  I think you get the picture.  Besides Al says, “I like being chauffeured around by a pretty lady”.  Ah, ain’t that sweet!

Slate River Road, two way traffic allowed

We continue up Slate River Road.  It’s narrow but in pretty good condition.  Geez, I hope no one comes down this road.  Yes, it’s a two-way road.  This, my friends, is why we drove the Tacoma in lieu of the F-250.  As a former flatlander, this kind of road would’ve scared the sh*t out of me years ago.  Now it just scares the p*ss out of me.

Mt. Baldy on right

We pass the turn for Washington Gulch Road and continue toward Schofield Pass.  “Boy, could this road get even narrower?” I comment to Al.  We come around a blind switch back and encounter a truck loaded with people.  Kind of like an open air safari get up.  Hmmmm, I back up and get us as close to the side of the mountain as possible (haha, I got the inside).  The driver comments, “thanks, we got’er”, and passes by me.  He’s the one on the outer edge.  One slip, and down they go.  Tourists all clap once we’ve successfully passed, and we’re all on our way again.  This is the Wildflower Festival after all and there’s all kinds of tours and activities planned throughout the week.

We’re on the other side of Mt. Baldy now and we stop for a much-needed break.  The scenery is breathtaking.  Al checks his phone and is shocked.  “It works!”  No cell reception at the campground, but up here it works.  He snaps a couple of quick pictures and sends to his sisters.

11,250 feet

I decide I’ve had enough thrill for the day and have concern about venturing any further.  After all, the guy at the T-shirt shop said it’ll get rougher from this point.  “But your truck can handle it”.  It’s not the truck I’m worried about.  Al’s having such a good time, he leaves the decision up to me.

This stretch of road is tame and a piece of cake. Wish it had all been like this.

We head back to the Washington Gulch turn, all the while I pray I won’t have to pass anyone.  That would put me on the outside edge…yikes!  Fortunately my prayers are answered, we don’t meet another vehicle for quite some time.  Washington Gulch Road does present its own challenges………….

Where to Camp?

We’re on Gothic Road north of Mt. Crested Butte in the back country.  It’s absolutely gorgeous.  Al and I are in our element. The road continues to narrow and get rougher.  We notice the occasional tent or small trailer here and there but no campground just yet.  We continue our trek and share the road with ATV’s.  Hmmm, do they know something we don’t?

Finally we come across a sign, “Gothic Campground”.  We turn in and the sign says FULL.  All four sites are occupied.  Sur-prise, sur-prise, sur-prise!  (note the Gomer Pyle accent, that is if you’re old enough to know who I’m talking about)  We continue up the road and the road gets rougher and we see more ATV’s than vehicles.  Perhaps it’s time to turn around….Plan B……Lake Irwin.  Lake Irwin was our plan for night two.  New plan calls for two nights at the campground at Lake Irwin, providing it isn’t full.  Back to the town of Crested Butte we go.  Once in Crested Butte, we head west on Road 12 (Whiterock Ave) and continue out-of-town on paved road which quickly turns into gravel.  After 7 miles, we head north on Forest road 826 and arrive at Lake Irwin 2 miles later.

Al and I are getting tired.  It’s 4:00 in the afternoon and the sky is darkening with storm clouds.  Thank goodness, there are about half a dozen sites open.  We drive around the campground a couple of times and choose site #15.  We quickly set up camp and fix sandwiches for dinner.  We set up our chairs and admire our surroundings.  I don’t think it took but five minutes and Al and I look at each other and say, “I’m cold”.  Time to get our sweatshirts on!

Lake Irwin sits at an elevation of 10,200 feet at Keebler Pass.  It offers 32 sites and a publication says it can accommodate RV lengths up to 35′.  Al and I are super glad we didn’t bring the 5th wheel.  We’re still a little new with our 31′ rig and Al likes to have lots of room to maneuver and this place, well let’s just say things are on the tight side.  Perhaps down the road we would reconsider bringing the rig.

Once camp is set up, we take Bear for a stroll down to the water’s edge.  This is one of the most beautiful campgrounds Al and I have ever stayed at.  Facilities include picnic tables, fire grates, hand pump for water, and vault toilets.  This campground is usually open from late June to mid-August.  However, this year with the extremely dry winter and unusually warm temperatures, Lake Irwin opened Memorial Weekend and should stay open until mid-September, weather permitting.  Al and I are already considering a return visit mid-August.  This pristine campground quite often fills on weekends.

As the sun sets, the temperature drops.  With the ridiculously hot summer we’re experiencing at lower elevations, the crisp, cool, clean air is a welcome pleasure.  The three of us head off to bed and dream about wildflowers.  Don’t tell Al I said that 😉  Tomorrow we continue our explorations.

Seeking Cooler Temps…

After a quick stop at Monarch Pass, we approach the town of Gunnison.  Gunnison, Colorado, is located 200 miles southwest from Denver and sits at an elevation of 7703 feet.  Gunnison is home to Western State College.  The economic base in the area is primarily tourism, education, and ranching.

A Gunnison valley ranch

As we drive through this western town, it’s obvious ranching is big business around here.  Cowboy hats, jeans, large belt buckles, and boots are in abundance, but the surrounding area says it best.  Ranches and cattle in the Gunnison valley can be seen in all directions.  Some are absolutely gorgeous and my photography does not do it justice.

I fell in love with this barn. I would live in this barn!!!
same barn, different angle….how cool!

Hwy 50 travels through the center of Gunnison and this is where we pick up Highway 135 and head north to Crested Butte.  First we stop for lunch where Al indulges in a tasty Buffalo burger at the Palisades Restaurant. Al and his hunting buddies would frequent this place when they used to hunt the Almont triangle.

After lunch, it’s back on the road for another 28 miles before arriving at our destination.  Al and I take our time and admire the countryside and buildings.  The valley is a combination of ranches and small subdivisions.

I’m pretty sure this is what a successful Ranch operation looks like 🙂

We haven’t decided where we’ll spend the night and, since it’s the week of the “Wildflower Festival“, we aren’t sure if we’ll find an open campsite.  Prior to lunch in the town of Gunnison, we stop in at the U.S. Forest Service for some free maps and information.  The young gal is polite and friendly.  She gives us a map of the area and notes on the map potential boondock spots (i.e. dry camping, on your own, middle of no where, no facilities, you get the picture).  Al and I look around and pick up additional free maps and brochures to aid in our adventure.

Could we have made a reservation at a campground?  Of course, but then where’s the sense of adventure or freedom?  The reservation would lock us in and what if we didn’t like the spot?  No, traveling on a whim is how we like to fly these days.  Or as Al likes to say, “flying by the seat of our pants”.  😉

Al and Bear in Crested Butte

“Are we there yet?”

Crested Butte, Colorado……this is probably my favorite mountain town.  Unfortunately it’s been about ten years since we last visited Crested Butte and even then, we never had enough time to explore and do everything we wanted.  We reacquaint ourselves with the town before continuing north toward Mt. Crested Butte.

Mt. Crested Butte

Mt. Crested Butte is the name of the mountain most associated with this area, as well as the name of the community at the base of the ski slopes.  This is the area with ski-in ski-out condos and hotel lodging.  During this particular trip, we drive past the village and continue north on Gothic Road ready to explore the back country and find a campsite.  Pavement quickly turns into gravel.  Two lanes turns into a lane and a half.  We are definitely venturing into the hinter land and it’s absolutely gorgeous.

back country off Gothic Road

More on this to come….stay tuned!