It’s been a bad fire season for Colorado. 2020 did not see much summer rain (typically monsoonal thunderstorms.) In the last few years we’ve come to dread them because they have brought some damaging hail. But this year there was barely any rain, let alone hail.
As a result, it was tinder dry here in Colorado. Our forests are heavily pine, which tend to be dryer than forests with fir trees (less dense, less shade, dry brush underneath). Making matters worse in some areas are the dead trees known as Beetle kill (bark beetle infections.)
There were several large fires in August on the Western Slope that caused poor air quality here in the Denver area. In addition, a fire up north called the Cameron Peak Fire pumped in smoke as well. It started August 13 and was about 50% contained earlier this past week. But then the winds hit us and the fire flared up. It is now the largest fire Colorado every has had (over a quarter million acres.) The smoke blew down toward us and once again our clear skies were smoky and gray. And then another fire erupted on October 14 called the East Troublesome Fire (who names these fires?) The skies turned an eerie orange-gray yesterday afternoon.
But wait . . . it’s not over. This afternoon I went out to get the mail around 3 pm and saw another huge plume. This one looked to be close to Boulder, just northwest of me. Sure enough, I found out a fire was burning near Jamestown in the Boulder foothills. Jamestown has been evacuated. This fire is called the Cal-Wood Fire. Immediately a wave of sadness fell over me. Cal-Wood is the facility where my youngest son went to science camp in 5th grade. Most kids from around here have gone to science camp their if they attended BVSD schools. I haven’t heard yet about the fate of the camp, but it can’t be good if the fire was named after it. Here are some pictures from today’s smoke plume from the Cal-Wood fire. You can see air tankers in a couple of the pictures. We don’t live far from the airport they refuel/refill at. They’ve been working nonstop it seems for the last two months.
On our first day in the Smokies we took the scenic, but very busy drive up the Newfound Gap Road. That left us a little exhausted, so we thought we’d start the next day by taking a hike around the neighborhood by our cabin. We spotted a few wild turkeys (there are lots in Tennessee!) Fortunately, we did not have a run-in with the neighborhood bear which we spotted from our car later in the day.
Day 2 also included driving, this time on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It’s a lot shorter than the Newfound Gap Road, only 5.5 miles, but it does take time, as it’s one way and narrow. I have to admit I wasn’t sure what the heck a “motor nature trail” would be, but after a few minutes I really did feel like I was on a trail rather than a road. It was absolutely gorgeous!
Two popular trailheads along this road include Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. Rainbow Falls is 5.4 miles round trip and has about 1500 feet elevation gain. By this time it was late morning and was starting to feel warm (it did get up to 80 that day). I normally would not have any issue with that length hike but I hadn’t brought shorts on this trip and from what I read this trail is now a bit more exposed since it does go through some of the burn scar from the 2016 fire. So we opted for the much easier Grotto Falls. It’s only 3 miles roundtrip. With both of these trailheads the parking lots are quite small so roadside parking is the norm. So expect another .25 mile to half a mile walk to get back to the trailhead, especially at Grotto Falls.
The Grotto Falls trail was quite easy for us (we’ve got high elevation Colorado lungs). It was fairly busy, too. But we did find a quiet rock and ate our lunch there, before proceeding back.
Before we exited off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, we made a quick stop at Ely’s Mill. The site of a former mill, it now has a few cabins and a wedding venue, as well as a gift shop. Since restrooms there are supposed to be for customers only, we gladly did a little shopping. Lots of cute hand-made items. We picked up a few wonderful smelling locally made soaps.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in Gatlinburg, primarily shopping and then enjoying a beer at Gatlinburg Brewing Company. There are no shortage of shops to pick up souvenirs, as well as places to nosh on yummy smelling food. It took a lot of will power to walk past them but my husband did succumb to some whisky sampling at Ole Smoky Whisky. His favorite was a Mint Chocolate Chip Whisky! Who knew? I enjoyed Byrd’s Cookie Company and came away with more cookies than I needed.
Gatlinburg has a ton of activities – two aerial trams, Ripley’s Museum and aquarium, arcades, mountain coaster ride, a Space Needle – the list goes on. None of these really appeal to us and in this time of COVID, we wanted to be cautious and stay away from crowds. But from what we saw, there were lots of families there, even midweek during the fall.
Despite the busyness, we did enjoy the nice warm fall weather and walking around town. For the most part, people were good about wearing masks indoors and maintaining some degree of social distancing. Now it was time to retreat back to our peaceful cabin and get ready for our final day at the park.
Yes, we did a number of road trips this year, but nothing on a plane. We had cancelled our trip to Spain (we were going in October) and our trip to Arizona back in March also had to be axed. However, with some United credits to burn, we decided to go to Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) last in early October.
Our flight from Denver to Knoxville was nearly full. I think a few seats in First Class were open. We were on an Embraer 175 – a smaller jet that seats 96 people and has 2-2 seating. Instead of boarding groups, they boarded back to front and deplaned front to back. More efficient if you ask me. Masks were required, of course, but we were packed in. The return flight home was the same. I’ve been home 5 days and so far I appear to be healthy. I actually double masked – 2 surgical masks. On the way there no one talked, but on the return I was a little bit worried. I had one chatty Cathy behind me, but fortunately she quieted down after takeoff. (People, in closed spaces like this, even with a mask, keep idle conversation to a minimum!!)
After picking up our rental car we took a scenic route to get to our wonderful AirBNB cabin in the woods between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. We were surprised how hilly it was! And green! I was in heaven. I grew up in the very green Pacific Northwest and have lived in rather treeless cities for the last 28 years. So I felt totally in my realm. The weather was also perfect. It was in the mid 70s, cool at night (mid 40s), no rain, and no bugs! Hurricane Delta did bring rain to the area after we left but fortunately did not affect us.
Know before you go . . . TRAFFIC!!
All national parks have traffic. I’ve been to pretty much all the national parks except one (Glacier) in the western US. But I would have to give the award for the worst traffic to the Smokies. It starts before you get there, in Pigeon Forge and even worse in Gatlinburg. Both these towns are tourist attractions in themselves, which only adds to the problem. In addition, GSMNP has the most tourists of any national park in the US (12.5 million in 2019). One good thing about the park is that it doesn’t have an entrance fee (thank goodness! The line to get in would horrible). But I also wonder if the Pandemic coupled with the beautiful weather we had made it even worse.
So be prepared. It took us an hour the first day just to get Subway in Gatlinburg (traffic on the main drag, finding parking, and waiting in line). So that night we stopped off at the grocery store in Pigeon Forge and stocked up on lunch stuff. There are bypasses through downtown, so utilize Google maps and it will shave off some time.
Out plan today was pretty simple: travel up US 441 (Newfound Gap Road) to Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap, and continue down into Cherokee, North Carolina so I could get a geocache in that state. The total mileage through the park is only about 35 miles, but this is a super scenic highway so take your time. There are several trailheads, but unless you get there early, expect to park alongside the road a quarter to half a mile back.
In our case, we drove through the Newfound Gap parking lot where everyone wants to get a picture by the North Carolina/Tennessee state line and found it to be packed. So we proceeded up to Clingmans Dome. The last mile traffic slowed to a crawl. We finally saw a roadside spot on the opposite side of the road and with some quick maneuvers grabbed it. It was only about half a mile up to the main parking lot and then a short hike up to the Dome. We then hopped onto the far less crowded Appalachian Trail which follows the ridgeline here, and took a leisurely quiet detour. We found a quiet spot with magnificent views and ate our lunch before making our way back to the car.
We continued on to North Carolina. Cherokee is a small town and far different from the craziness of Gatlinburg. Its biggest attraction is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. We didn’t spend any time there as it was getting late in the day (and I heard a bottle of wine calling my name back at the cabin). When we passed the Newfound Gap on the return around 4 pm, the parking lot had tons of space and we were able to get our picture of the stateline and see the Rockefeller Memorial where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940.
I’ll continue my story about the rest of our stay in my next post. Stay tuned! I’ll tell you about wild turkeys and black bears!
If you had asked me ten years ago if I wanted to go to Iceland I probably would have said no. But it started to pop up on my travel radar about five years ago after I saw an Icelandair jet at a nearby gate at DIA. It was at the same time that I starting seeing a lot of blog posts about it and knew I had to go. Fortunately, the stars aligned in 2017 and we were able to spend five days there on our way back from England, taking advantage of Icelandair’s “stopover fare” program that they were promoting at the time.
Our five days there were spent on the southern coast of Iceland, as well as doing the Golden Circle just east of Reykjavik. Now, it is possible to drive around the entire country/island. The total mileage is 828 miles on the main road. My friend and her husband did it during the summer, but we were there in late September and the weather was already starting to turn cold. Would I ever consider doing the whole loop? Possibly, but probably not. That said, we do want to come again. Next visit we would come in the mid-summer and visit Snaefellsnes Peninsula north of Reykjavik. And we’d also take a boat tour to go see puffins. They were gone by the time we got there. But the good thing about coming in fall is it is possible to see the Northern Lights (we did! But more on that in a later post).
Night 1 – Blue Lagoon
Our big splurge in Iceland was our one-night stay at the Silica Hotel by the Blue Lagoon. Its starting rate is $399 a night. That does include a premium admission to the Blue Lagoon, as well as use of the hotel’s private lagoon, and breakfast. If you’re on a budget consider the Northern Lights Inn. Or if you’ve got money to burn, go for the Retreat Hotel. It’s over a $1000 a night. Yikes. We actually ate dinner at Max’s Restaurant at the Northern Lights Inn. While we were glad we stayed at the Silica, its restaurant seemed a bit too fancy (and expensive) for our tastes.
First of all, what is the Blue Lagoon? The lagoon is man-made with the water coming the nearby geothermal plant where superheated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines that generate electricity. The beautiful milky blue color comes from the high silica content.
The landscape around the resort and surrounding peninsula is breathtaking with its moss-covered lava field. It’s easy to see why the land is this way. After we had checked into our room, we went for a walk and got soaked. The fine rain was coming down sideways aided by the wind. Fortunately, we had a heated towel rack and quick drying clothes.
After dinner, we went and relaxed in their private lagoon. Honestly, this was as nice as the Blue Lagoon. Smaller, yes, but more peaceful, especially at nighttime. Sure you don’t get the mud mask and drinks like you do in the Blue Lagoon, but that pool is quite busy. With the hotel’s private one, we almost had the entire place to ourselves. We did visit the Blue Lagoon the following morning after we checked out, but just getting in can be a bit stressful. Bus loads of tourists come from Reykjavik and some people will even come over during a layover between flights. Even though we did it in the morning, the women’s changing room was quite crazy. You’re expected to shower before going in and for some reason the women take a lot longer than men. Plus I had trouble with my locker. So it took me nearly half an hour to get ready and my husband was ready in 10 minutes. . In total we were probably in the lagoon for 45 minutes. Sure the waters are mesmerizing, but I preferred the private lagoon at the hotel.
After having lunch in the café at the Silica Hotel (fast food is a rarity outside Reykjavik) we got in our car and headed up the Reykjanes peninsula, with my plan being to head toward Selfoss. It’s one of dozens of waterfalls in Iceland (foss is waterfall in Icelandic) and not too far from our next hotel in Hella. However, as often happens when my husband is behind the wheel, we changed plans and decided to go check out Kleifarvatn Lake, a little over half an hour away. Its rugged beauty was breathtaking and I’m glad we made the short detour to see it. We also managed to find a geocache here, so that made it worthwhile.
I had hoped we would continue on to Selfoss at this point, but once again my husband wanted to make a detour and check out the ruins of Selatangar. It is recommended that you have a car with high clearance (4WD) which we did, but upon getting there, I sort of found it disappointing. My advice is to skip it. By now it was getting late in the afternoon, so we decided to head to Hella. Although we did not get to Selfoss, I did get to see many other waterfalls. So fortunately I couldn’t be too upset with my husband.
Our hotel for our second night in Iceland was Stracta Hotel. Like the other hotels we stayed in outside Reykjavik, it had the simplistic Scandinavian style (think Ikea!). It was comfortable and clean, but the town of Hella is not too exciting. We went out looking for dining, and found most of the restaurants were closed on Sunday. We came across one diner-style restaurant, but opted out after we saw that all they served was horse-meat burgers (by the way, horse-meat is very common in Iceland but I just can’t eat it). We ended up eating at the hotel. You’ll probably do this at most locations outside Reykjavik. We did manage to find one bar with fantastic pizza, but I’ll save that for a future post.
Back in late September of 2017 we took a 3 week trip to Europe. The first week or so was spent primarily out in the English countryside. We then hopped on a train in Cambridge that took us to King’s Cross in London, then walked over to the International train station, St. Pancras, and boarded the Eurostar to Paris. Taking trains in Europe is definitely easy and economical. While you do have passport control and security, it is much quicker than the airport (you only need to arrive about 45 minutes before departure) and you can bring on liquids (yes, even a bottle of bubbly).
Transportation in the city
We took a taxi from the train station to our hotel in the 1st arrondissement of Paris (near the Louvre and across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower. We paid about $50 for that taxi ride and he didn’t even take us all the way to the hotel. An outdoor concert was taking place nearby and he said the streets were closed off. We didn’t see evidence of street closures as we trudged our way through the rain to our hotel. So on the way back we used Uber. Much better. I think we paid about $30. We were just becoming comfortable with Uber. Do check before you travel to see if Uber operates in the country you’re going to. Uber has had some issues in London but last I heard they were once again cleared to operate. Hopefully, they are still operating in Paris.
Other than that we walked everywhere. We did not go to the Palace of Versailles. The easiest way to get there is the Metro. Next time!
I wanted to stay closer to the Eiffel Tower in the 7th arrondissement. But my husband wanted to be closer to the river. Overall, I think either is a good choice. I think perhaps over near the Eiffel Tower there might be more dining options. But I cannot complain about our accommodations and staff at the Hotel Brighton. Even though it overlooks the busy Rue de Rivoli, it was quiet with large rooms. The location is very close to the Louvre and right across the street from the Tuileries Garden.
One thing we discovered is over on this side of town you should definitely ask the front desk to make dinner reservations for you. It is very hard to get a seat at good restaurants unless you do so. We did this the first two nights, but on our third night we did not do so and that was a big mistake. We ended up eating bad Chinese as no place had a seat.
With 2 1/2 days planned for Paris, we had a relatively short list of places we wanted to see: The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, the Arc de Triomphe, and Notre-Dame. Why we did not include Palace of Versailles I’m not sure. Perhaps because we were just looking for walkable destinations. Looking back that was a mistake. I think I would have rather stayed an extra day in Paris and one less day in London.
Here’s a short recap of our visit:
Day 1: The Louvre
My dad lived in Paris in the early 1950s and had such great stories about it, including how you really needed a pair of roller skates to see the massive Louvre. He wasn’t kidding. Of course, you can’t but it sure would help. After all, it’s over 650,000 square feet, making it the world’s largest museum. Its most famous work by far is the Mona Lisa.
Right now of course Americans can’t travel to Europe so it’s pointless for me to talk about the entrance procedures. Those will most likely be more stringent than ever. But I will say do utilize advance ticket options and self-guided audio tours. We wandered haphazardly around the museum and spent way too much time there, retracing our steps and trying to figure out where to go next. My husband loves museums and even he admitted that we perhaps didn’t tackle the Louvre very well. We didn’t have any problem finding the Mona Lisa (lots of signs) but after that we really didn’t have a plan. We ended up spending most of our day there, as well eating our lunch in a cafe within the museum. Certainly our lack of planning was evident. In retrospect, we could have spent only an hour or two there and seen something else in the afternoon. However, we did get rain that afternoon so perhaps that’s the way it was meant to be!
Day 2: Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe
It bears repeating. Paris is a very walkable city but it can be very hot during the summer, so try to go in fall or spring. We were there early fall and although we did get rain on the first day, the second day was magnificent. The walk to the Eiffel Tower along the Seine River was so scenic. They do have river boat tours but we did not do one. Perhaps in the hot summer, but on this beautiful day it was very enjoyable just to walk. Like any big city there’s lots of traffic, but it’s not as crazy as Rome or New York City, and directionally challenged North Americans don’t have to worry about cars coming from the wrong direction like in England.
We did not need to make a reservation to go up the Eiffel Tower (I’ve heard that others have had to but perhaps we just got lucky. Here again, post pandemic entrance procedures are bound to change). By the time we arrived the clouds had moved on and we were treated to a spectacular view. I had never quite understood the fascination with the Eiffel Tower until I was there. It is truly worth while seeing in person.
After a leisurely al fresco lunch we headed back across the river to the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a little over a half hour walk, about 1.5 miles away from the Eiffel Tower. The weather was lovely so we hit the jackpot. Then, of course, you’ll want to walk the stairs to the top – a mere 284 steps. Or you can cheat and take an elevator to the mid level and it’s only 64 steps. Like the Eiffel Tower, seeing this monument, commissioned by Napoleon, is even more impressive in person. We then walked down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Sure, we popped in a few stores, but we mostly just enjoyed the uniquely French atmosphere.
Day 3 Notre-Dame
Our plan to see Notre-Dame was to walk there, take pictures, and then head back to the hotel before heading to the train station for our early afternoon train back to London. It was a pleasant half hour walk from our hotel. As expected, there were already long lines to go in. Having seen so many churches in England we didn’t really feel like we were missing out. Of course, had we known that a terrible fire would cause extensive damage to the structure a little over 18 months later, I think we have made the effort to go inside. But alas, who knew? Who expects this to happen to these magnificent structures? However, I count myself lucky that I was able to see it from the outside. Such a beautiful church. I hope they’re able to restore it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my trip down memory lane. Some day we’ll all be able to travel again, as long as we continue to follow recommendations and take proper precautions.
September has been pretty crazy for me. The temperatures were way too hot a week ago – upper 90s. And then one of our forest fires got worse and the smoke rolled in. This smoke was dropping ash, too. So it was too hot to run plus the air quality was poor. As a result, I was feeling a little lethargic and not motivated to write.
But weather is ever changing in Colorado. On Monday night the temps dropped and by Tuesday we were over 60 degrees cooler with a dusting of snow on the ground. It picked up again in the late afternoon and we probably got no more than an inch. In the mountains it was a different story. Some areas had close to 2 feet. I follow a Facebook page of people who are hiking the Colorado Trail (I didn’t but my brother did). I was very concerned about folks on the trail. It sounds like most had been tracking the storm and took a few days off in mountain towns. A couple tapped out. Clearly some were not prepared for the quick change of weather.
As for me, I went running yesterday. I enjoy running in cool weather. It was 36 degrees and I loved it. The weather is gradually warming again but hopefully no more 90 degree days.
I have found that I have been more productive, too. I got some returns taken care of at Lowes, new wiper blades for my car, and today I’m going to look into new tires. I also got my flu shot taken care of.
It’s important for me to stay busy. We had had a trip planned for Spain in late September. That’s not happening, of course, so it’s a little depressing. I also keep seeing old travel pics in my memory feed on Facebook. However, we do have a trip planned to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in October. It’s not Spain, but it is a vacation, so I am looking forward to it.
I just have to keep busy! One day I look forward to going to Europe again. One day . . .
Even though this summer has definitely been a strange one and far from normal, I’ve managed to keep busy in large part due to my brother hiking the Colorado Trail. We took him to the trailhead (45 minutes from our house), and then did three road trips to see him as he progressed on his hike and to pick him up when he finished. All together we put more than 1500 miles on my car. But no complaints. I got to see many cool towns in Colorado that I’d either just passed through or never got to see before. I thought I’d share some of the highlights of my summer. I’m lucky to live in such a scenic state.
Top row: Pagosa Springs, Creede, Colorado Trail (Durango), Silverton
Second row: Silverton, San Juan Skyway, Chimney Rocks
Third row: Independence Pass, San Juan Mountain Range
I’ve lived in Colorado for 13 years and know all about bears and how to be bear safe. In nearby Boulder many of the people have locking garbage cans and when I camp I’m careful to lock up food (surprisingly there are few bear boxes in campgrounds.) I’ve seen plenty of stories on TV of bears trashing cars with food in them (their favorite cars are Subaru’s) and inviting themselves into people’s houses in the mountains
However, I never thought I’d be a victim. So imagine my surprise the other week when I open the blinds on my rented Lake City cabin and saw two of my car doors open. I dashed out in my pajamas expecting the worst. Fortunately, no damage. Just a lot of dusty footprints. They were small bear footprints to be exact. And some drool on the dash.
A few days later I saw a video from a Colorado Trail hiker who had a midnight visitor by his cabin in the same town: Mama Bear and two cubs. I have to believe they were the same perps who broke into my car.
I was lucky. I actually left my car unlocked (accidentally) after we picked up pizza at Packers Saloon in town. It was delicious pizza. Obviously the beers thought so, too. Too bad they didn’t get any!
While we may not be traveling overseas, my husband and I have been busy visiting some scenic spots around Colorado. This last weekend we were down in the San Juan Mountains. It was a very last minute trip, but we really enjoyed it.
My brother messaged me through his GPS. He was about 2/3 of the way through his Colorado Trail hike and wanted to see if I could get a room for him in Lake City (thru hikers plan “zero” days to get resupplied and do laundry). Since he had no cell signal, he hoped I would be able to find a room. Lake City is really a very small town with few places to stay – mostly cabins. I managed to find a 2 bedroom cabin. So my husband and I thought, what the heck, let’s go down and see him. My husband quickly planned a hike up two of the nearby 14,000 foot peaks, Redcloud and Sunshine.
The area is very scenic but a long way from Denver. About five hours. Traffic was super heavy as they are detouring traffic off I-70 due to one of the four fires raging in our state. But it was worth the drive. I drove my husband to the trailhead on a narrow mountain road the next day. Only 18 miles, but the last three miles were rough and part was right on the edge of a mountain!! It took 50 minutes one way. But I made it.
The trip back to Denver on Sunday took even longer. We decided to go a different route because Google maps told us it was quicker. Well, bad choice. They had to close down the road and we had to do a one-hour detour. We found out the next day that a motorcycle hit a pickup, flipped over, hit another car, which in turn hit another car. The two on the motorcycle were killed. So sad.
Oh, and my car got broken into by a hear! Not kidding. But I’ll save that story for tomorrow. My car is fine, but I do want to share the story in its entirety.
Colorado has two forest fires burning in western Colorado right now, the Pine Gulch fire near Grand Junction and the Grizzly Creek fire near Glenwood Springs. Neither are close to me but you wouldn’t know it by the air quality. I usually sleep with my window open, but my room smelled like a campground this morning. It was so bad that I didn’t even go outside like I usually do to drink my morning coffee.
In addition, the Grizzly Creek fire has closed I-70, the major east-west interstate through Colorado, at Glenwood Springs. Yes, you can still get to the major mountain resorts if traveling through Denver, but if you’re going further west to Utah, you will be affected. In addition, the scenic Independence Pass road is closed (CO-82). A lot of people were taking this as a bypass, but this road is not designed for heavy traffic. I was just there 2 weeks ago and can attest to that. In fact, I saw a pop-up trailer that went over the side of the road at one point (but no car!)
The only good in these fires is that they do make for interesting sunsets.