Ok then, where did we leave off? Ah, yes, we were in Fruita, Colorado enjoying some beer at three breweries. We started off at Monumental Beer Works in Grand Junction and had some very good brews in a flight or so. I really enjoyed one they brewed with some Pinot Noir that had a very distinctive flavor. Next stop was back in Fruita at Suds Brothers Brewery where we had two pizzas to share (yay it was pizza special night) and some honey wheat beer. Third stop was at Copper Canyon for a flight of beer and then back the 2 miles or so to camp. Campground here is excellent – paved sites that are clean and level, with the Colorado River just a short walk away. Kodi loved the lush green grass, a nice change from the rocks and sand of the desert landscapes we just left. He probably didn’t get as excited about the afternoon grooming and nail clipping that he got.
I have to share something from the day before. Driving through a stretch of Utah we had another road sign warning “Eagles on Roadway.” Really. Not the shoulders, not in the sky, but on the roadway? “Next 5 miles” Of course we didn’t see the eagles, just tire retreads.
Overnight was rain once again, but clear by morning and cold. Some of the dust grime got washed off the jeep and motorhome, but that will probably soon change. We didn’t have an especially long drive today, so breakfast was pancakes and we savored two cups of coffee. Grand Junction had fairly reasonable gas prices ($3.50 instead of $3.99) so we filled up and drove south to Delta, where we took Hwy 92 southeast toward Crawford instead of Hwy 50 toward Montrose. Ok, that probably makes no sense to you, but months ago we read about the construction on 50 south of Montrose that shut down the road for hours at a time, sometimes half a day. We routed ourselves on 92 to avoid that delay and thus would be on the north rim of Black Canyon instead of the more popular south rim. And frankly, the road and drive has been easy so far.
Oops, spoke too soon. There was a warning about an accident ahead and rather soon flashing lights and police cars had the road blocked and we were sent across the railroad tracks on a detour around this accident. Smaller 2-lane farm road then, the kind that goes in rectangular directions around the farms, with sharp right angle turns and non-existent shoulders. That was tolerable, but the first mile or so was an elevation change of 1,000 ft up on switchbacks that were not fun. I was doing my best at 10 – 15 mph, but we made it up and across and around and down, making it back to the original highway with no idea of this accident. Exactly the kind of thing we were trying to avoid, however.
The towns of Hotchkiss and Crawford were cute and soon we saw these huge looming mountains – I think Saddleback Mountain, that were draped in snow and clouds, part of the southern Rockies. The contrast of the golden yellow cottonwoods against the grey blue of the mountains was spectacular. Ok, well we were soon in Crawford State Park with a campsite lakeside, but no water in the reservoir. No matter, it is a level site that has a shelter and gravel and nice view of the mountains. Unhitched, jump started the Jeep and had lunch. We figured we ought to go straight to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison that was almost across the street (10 miles) so we grabbed coats and such and hopped in the Jeep.
Oh my, it was suddenly a sleet storm that was blowing a ton of sleet around. Visibility was bad and the icy bits were sticking to everything but the road. Well, wouldn’t see much in that storm, so we changed plans and rode it out for a bit in the motorhome.
It cleared up finally and since it was only 2:00 our change in plans meant we would drive to Hotchkiss, hang a right and head toward Paonia. There were a couple of things on my checklist I wanted to see. Big B’s Orchard and Hard Cider was one stop. Crazy place of U-Pick orchards and cider house. We had a bourbon barrel aged hard cider and a cherry apple hard cider that were pretty darn good. Not as refined as Etta Place, but perfect for the weather. Not done yet, though. Just a couple miles ahead in Paonia we were looking for the Paonia Bread Works and Paonia United Brewing. Well, bread shop closed early, but brewery was just opening, so guess where we went? Cute little place in a converted church of all things. Jackie had some samplings and I had their Belgian Tripel, which was awesome. We checked in on wifi and chatted with some of the locals, who were clearly regulars. Talked about the weather just as another snow shower came through and the locals all shrugged it off.
And back to camp we drove, through another snow shower and some gorgeous scenery. Stunning mountains. We might try this drive in two days as a connection up to Crested Butte, but the road through the mountains is dirt, so it depends on weather. It is cold, expected to get into the 20’s overnight with some more precipitation, but tomorrow is expected to be sunny. Who knows? The forecast is only good for a couple of hours it seems. But the plan is for Black Canyon tomorrow and drive (98 miles) to Crested Butte the next day. Check out a bit of video of this unexpected weather: Snow Day in Colorado.
Well the weather prediction was right. It got down to 19 degrees and once again we had an overnight snowstorm that left us with 2 plus inches of snow. Everything was coated with snow, but the sky was clear and we started out for Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Yep, the roads got a bit slippery and the final 6 miles were dirt covered with packed powder, so we popped it into 4WD. Did manage to see several mule deer in the snow, no bucks though. We drove along the north rim, stopping at overlooks and short walks to the canyon rim. 2,700 feet down sheer black walls was the Gunnison River. It was a bit dizzying and breathtaking at the rim – this is one of the narrowest and deepest sheer canyons in the US and it does not disappoint. Hard to capture the depth on camera, since the black rock is also mostly in shadow. How this river has carved down through this rock is simply unbelievable.
When we turned back towards camp the mountains ahead were brilliant in the sunlight, covered in fresh snow. The Jeep however was covered in fresh mud. As temperatures rose the snow turned to mud ruts and … well, it is a Jeep and should be used to this. I did give it a quick blast of water when in camp to get the worst of the mud off. Got gas nearby, walked the one block of Crawford, then spent the afternoon relaxing at camp as temps rose into the 40’s. Grilling steak and roasting brussel sprouts for dinner, then tucking in for another cold night.
We got a nice surprise just as I started grilling: flocks of sandhill cranes flew overhead and soon dropped down into the dry areas of the reservoir. I turned down the grill, grabbed my camera and drove closer down the road. Caught some pictures as they cranes all gathered along the shore. Not as clear pics as I like, but as it happens we got up early enough next day to catch them before they flew off. Very cool.
And that was a cold morning again, 21 degrees. Big drive today around the West Elk Loop – basically driving south to Gunnison, then north to Crested Butte. About 100 miles one way. It was a good thing to drive this, as we both decided this was NOT the road to take to Gunnison. Too much of a mountain road for the motorhome. So we will instead drive around the Black Canyon by way of Delta, Montrose and down into Gunnison. That construction we spoke of does not happen on weekends, and our day to drive is Sunday. Ok, matter settled, change of plans for tomorrow.
Back to Gunnison and Crested Butte. Gunnison seems like more of a working town, CB is more touristy, kind of a Bohemian outpost. It was a great day, temps heading into 60’s as we walked about. Stopped in to have a beer and lunch at the Eldo Brewery. Sat upstairs and warmed up as Jackie had a scotch ale and I had a strawberry lime sour. Soup, dumplings and orange chicken to eat.
We wanted to try a “shortcut” of 30 miles back to Paonia and Crawford called the Kebler Pass. This goes from the 8,900 ft elevation of CB to about 10,000 ft through mountain passes filled with the largest stand of aspen in the US. Partially paved but mostly dirt/gravel road. Why not? And the trip was spectacular. Awesome drive through aspen and spruce, even though the aspen had already dropped their golden leaves. Yes, mud, dirt, packed snow, slush and winding turns, but much better than 100 miles around the other way. Oh, and no sign to warn us of “sheep in the road” this time … guess they don’t rate their own sign.
When we reached Paonia we checked on the bread works, still closed, but found Chrysalis Barrel Aged Beer was open, so we just HAD to try some. Aged apricot sour for me and Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout for Jackie. Definitely delicious and a great way to relax from the drive.
Down (we hope) to Gunnison and on to Great Sand Dunes NP tomorrow, another long drive. Should be nice sunny weather for the drive. Will try to post this sometime soon – you know, the whole wifi connection thing. Thanks for joining us. See you soon.
You are such a great writer, Doug (and probably some is Jackie?); so fun to read your blog. Loved the ‘only retreads’; I can just picture you both craning your necks looking down the road hoping it’s an eagle..wait, wait, NO: another retread! Photos of clouds fringing the mountains, the cranes, the towns of the West…so cool.