After camping in Chama, New Mexico, we followed Route 17 along the Colorado/New Mexico border to access the Carson NF for our trip south. Unfortunately, the heavy snow in the Colorado mountains had reached into northern New Mexico. After testing the road we decided that prudent risk taking required that we delay our start. As a result we traveled to Taos and spent several days exploring there (see posts Taos, The High Road to Taos and Taos is Art) while waiting for the roads to dry out and harden.
The above photo is from the KML file we overlaid on Google Earth to assist with navigation as we traveled through the forest and mountainous terrain.
Overlanding is currently defined as “self-reliant overland travel by vehicle where the journey is more important than the destination.” Overlanding has gained popularity in the United States over the last several years and particularly since the pandemic interrupted standard modes of travel.
Our trips over the last three plus years have been a mix of overland adventures and standard touring. Overlanding is not for everyone due to the risks and the need for specialized gear (high clearance, 4wd, skid plates, winch, extended range, etc.) Overlanding also requires patience – it is often very slow going on rough, narrow, rutted roads and trails.
Case in point – the photo above is Forest Road 45B – after driving a number of miles down this rough and narrow route the trail became impassable. We we forced to back up the hill until we could turn the vehicle while causing the least damage possible.
EL RITO (pop. 808)
After two days on the trail we came out of the forest at El Rito on a crisp Sunday morning. We were hoping to have breakfast burritos at El Farito Restaurant but alas the restaurant was closed. We cannot vouch for the reported census – we met one person and one dog during our brief stop. We were surprised to learn that the Mars Polar Lander was designed and built here in town by a local scientist/artist!!!
Abiqui and south
We stopped in the town of Abiqui for diesel fuel and refreshments. Abiqui is the town where Georgia O’Keefe lived for many years on her ranch north of town. Many of her paintings include the surrounding mountains.
After refueling we headed back up into the forest to continue our overlanding trip south for another day – leaving the route near Los Alamos and then traveling to Santa Fe for much needed high quality coffee and tea.
The snow of the prior week caused us to shorten our time overlanding through the Carson National Forest, but it was a good trade off as the weather and conditions were much improved by the time we started on our overlanding adventure.
After a brief but exhilarating visit to Moab (see post Moab = Fun and Adventure) we set out for Durango across Utah 46 which becomes Colorado 90 at the border. Colorado 90 is a gem – a beautiful ride up into the Southern Rocky Mountains within the Manti-La Sal National Forest. The pass at the top of route opens up to the panorama of the Paradox Valley. The majority of this route is very remote and we would not advise traveling this road in winter weather.
The Paradox Valley is a remote, thinly settled and beautiful place. The valley is approxiamtely 25 miles long running in a north – south direction. The width of the valley is between three and five miles. The paradox that led to the naming of the valley is the unusual east to west flow of the Dolores River which cuts across the valley, as opposed to running the length of the valley.
A Canadian company proposed building a uranium mill in the valley in 2009. Fortunately, the project was abandoned in 2020. As much as we recognize the need for extractive industries it would have been a shame to alter the beauty and character of this place with a uranium mill and everything that comes with the extraction of radioactive materials.
We were looking forward to taking a break at the Bedrock Store (serving outlaws since 1881). The Bedrock Store was used in the filming of the movie Thelma & Louise. Unfortunately, the store was not open.
We made a brief stop in Durango, CO enroute to New Mexico. Durango is a mountain town which sits just below 8000 feet above sea level and is a base for the alpine ski mountains in the areas. The town sits along the Rio de las Animas Perdidas which provides wonderful scenery for the bike path nestled on the bank of the river.
As you might surmise from the photos we were quite taken with Taste Coffee as well as barista and co-owner Mike Clarke. P.S. There is a narrow gauge railroad that runs from Durango to Silverton – which we did not ride because we left town to avoid a predicted snowstorm – but it looks like a lot of fun.
With heavy snow predicted in the Western Rockies we re-routed due south into New Mexico – stopping to visit the puebloan ruins located in the town of Aztec, Colorado.
The Aztec Ruins National Monument is located in the town of Aztec, New Mexico. The ruins are 900 years old. We utilized the excellent self-guided audio tour to explore the ruins. This is an impressive site with over 400 rooms and an a restored Pueblo Great House. It is well worth the visit if your travels will be taking you to northern New Mexico. ( https://www.nps.gov/azru/index.htm )
Change of plans
After our overnight in Chama we traveled north and east across Colorado Route 17 to access the Carson National Forest for our planned overland trip from the border to Jemez Springs, NM. When we arrived we found the forest roads still covered in snow with mud underneath. This is a bad recipe for safe travel on narrow mountain roads so we decided to hold off on overlanding (no paved roads) until conditions improved.
We decided to visit Taos while waiting for better conditions on our overland routes. We will report on our stay in Taos in our next post.
Moab was a sleepy trading post and farming community for most of its history. Its settlement dates back to about 1829 when people traveling north on what is now known as the Old Spanish Trail would attempt to cross the Colorado River in Moab and the local inhabitants would sell their goods to the travelers.
A little over 100 years later uranium was discovered in Moab. Uranium was in great demand for use in nuclear weapons post World War 2, so the federal government stepped in and passed laws mandating that all uranium mined in the United States could only be sold to the federal government. The economy of Moab shifted to mining overnight and Moab became known as the uranium capital of the world.
Unfortunately, as must, all booms result in some sort of bust. By 1960 the federal government declared it had all the uranium it needed. Since no one else could purchase uranium the mines in Moab began to close; the last of the mines closed in 1980. The population which had reached 6,000 declined to 1,000.
Today, the Moab area draws tourists who come to mountain bike, hike, rock climb, drive off road trails and boat on the Colorado. Additionally, Moab hosts two unique national parks – Arches and Canyonlands
While the town is prospering, there still remains the issue of remediating the uranium sites. When a visitor enters town for the first time driving south on route 191, it is hard to miss the large mound of contaminated pilings near the road.This pile consists of the remaining contaminated tailings. Over 16 million tons of tailings were produced from the uranium mills in Utah. The tailings are being removed and taken by train to a permanent disposal location in Colorado. More than 10 million tons have been removed so far under the auspices of the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) program paid for by the citizens of the United States.
Final note: many of the miners that worked in the Uranium mills were Navajo. There was little regard for their safety. The Navajo workers suffered significantly from lung cancer and other diseases. While the U.S. Public Health Service was aware of the effects as early as 1951, it was not until 1990 that the health impact was acknowledged. To make matters worse, the Navajo were not eligible for financial compensation until 2017.
Moab is certainly a mountain biking mecca – the good news is that for those of us in need of less demanding terrain, the town has developed a number of bike paths and bike lanes. One of the bike paths runs east along the Colorado River providing magnificent views of the river and red rock cliffs.
Camping with a view…
Moab and the surrounding area offers scores of camping choices. Everything from in town RV resorts to remote primitive camping. We look forward to “boondocking” in Moab. We generally camp in a different location each night to enjoy different settings as well as the fantastic night sky and solitude.
One of the reasons we chose a high clearance 4wd equipped Sprinter was our desire to go places that we would never be able to see and experience without that capability. The Moab area provides a plethora of opportunities to put the Beast to the test. Above and below we have included a sample of several of our 4wd adventures.
Our favorite new Moab mural.
Our trip from Salt Lake City to Moab usually involves a lunch and coffee stop in Helper, Utah. Helper has been undergoing a revitalization over the last several years and has become home to a number of artists. On this stop we discovered some wonderful paintings by Thomas Elmo Williams. Williams was a coal miner for 14 years before a mining accident put an end to that line of work for him. Williams started his new career sketching fellow miners and still focuses much of his art on the labor of working folks. He has a gallery in Helper.
We love Utah and recommend that if you love outdoor recreational activities then a visit to Utah should be on your travel list, with a definite stop in Moab.
The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway is a spectacular drive. The route follows a paved road from Wise, Montana to its end near Dillon, Montana. The Pioneer Mountains have an eastern and western range. The drive winds through the meadows between the ranges providing incredible views all around. Interestingly, the two ranges are very different in appearance. The eastern range has tall, jagged peaks (think Grand Tetons) while the western range is more rounded. These are big mountains with several peaks above 11,000 feet.
We were not familiar with this range before a gentlemen in Shelby told us about this drive – thank you! This is one of the biggest ranges we had never heard of before. The range is within national forest – largely unspoiled – just mountains, forests, meadows and the the byway bisecting the range.
About 25 miles along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway we came to a five mile dirt road that climbs up to the site of the ghost town of Coolidge and the defunct Elkhorn Mine and Mills. The road is fine for 2wd vehicles if it is dry.
The former mine and town sit at an elevation of 6601 feet. The mine produced zinc, lead and silver from 1875 until it was decommissioned in 1899 when the ore load was considered to be played out. The Elkhorn was the last mine in Montana to produce silver.
Work to reopen the mine under new ownership began in 1918. The tunneling work brought people back to Coolidge and a school and post office were established. The town even had electricity – no small feat at that time in such a remote location. Unforunately, by the time the tunneling was completed and the mine was actually ready to begin producing in 1923, silver prices plummeted and the mine went bust.
Subsequently, a dam collapse wiped out several sections of rail line and the town lost rail service marking the beginning of the end. The school and post office closed soon after.
The remains of the town are mostly collapsed at this point – not much to explore in that regard, but we think it is worth the visit – the scenery from the mine site is gorgeous and you walk away with a real sense of the what conditions must have been like when the mine and town were operating.
After completing our drive on the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Highway we continued south through the Grasshopper Valley to visit the ghost town of Bannack. The town sits on the bank of Grasshopper Creek and was founded in 1862 after gold was found in the creek. The town is named after the Bannock Indians that inhabited this area at that time – the spelling with an a instead of an o was the result of a clerical error in Washington.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition first documented the creek in 1805 and named it Willard Creek. When the population swelled in 1862 after the discovery of gold, the miners renamed it Grasshopper Creek due to the abundance of grasshoppers in the area.
In addition to the influx of miners (many from Colorado) prospecting for gold, the town became a haven for Civil War deserters and outlaws (in part due to its remote location). Within a year there were approximately 3000 people inhabiting Bannack. Almost all of the inhabitants were men. The handfull of women in town were mostly “saloon girls” who worked in one of the four saloons.
As the population continued to swell (10,000 people at its height), the outlaws took full advantage of the opportunity to relieve miners of their gold. Miners frequently went back and forth between Bannack and the mining camp at Virginia City. By this point the outlaws had organized into several large gangs and routinely robbed and in some cases murdered the miners.
The town hired a sheriff (Henry Plummer) to stop the violence but he turned out to be the leader of the largest and most violent of the gangs. Dang!
As this fact became well known, folks of Bannack and Montana decided to take matters into their own hands, forming the Montana Vigilence Committee. Between December 1863 and February 1864, 24 men suspected of crimes were lynched by the Vigilantes. There were no trials! One of the most notable of the men hanged was Sheriff Henry Plummer, who was suspected of being a gang leader. Montana State Police still wear a shoulder patch with the numbers 3-7-77. The numbers supposedly represent the dimensions of the graves of ths suspected outlaws killed by the vigilantes. Three feet wide, seven feet long and 77 inches deep…and now you know.
As with many gold rush towns, the bust comes just as quickly as the boom. By 1870, the easy gold was dredged out of the creek and the population began to quickly decline. Bannack’s population dropped from almost 10,000 to just a few hundred by 1870, only eight years after its founding.
The town carried on until the 1940s due to several small gold booms, but they were not enough to sustain the town. The majority of the remaining population moved on during the 1930s and by the 1940s the one room schoolhouse and the post office closed. The town was effectively non-existent, although a small number of residents hung on into the 1970s.
Today Bannack is managed by the state of Monatana as part of Bannack State Park. The state has done an excellent job preserving the remaining structures as they were but is not restoring the buildings
The history of this short lived town is deep and fascinating. The town physically has over 60 structures remaining – the majority are open for exploration.
If you enjoy western history, Bannack is a fun and interesting place to visit. The Grasshopper Valley is beautiful but remote, so give thought with combining a visit to Bannack with other destinations in southwestern Montana and perhaps Idaho.
Friday night rodeo is a weekly event during the summer in many ranching towns in the west. Kids begin competing at age six. Most high schools have rodeo teams and there is a collegiate circuit as well. Towns take great pride in their rodeo stadium.
The video below is of Cole Trexler, age 18, Montana high school all-around rodeo state champion. Cole will be riding at the collegiate level this fall. His brother Cash, 14, is also a budding rodeo star. He is the high school state champion bull rider. We met Cash and his mom. She told us that Cash “sat” his first horse at age three!
The Senior Professional Rodeo Association was in Darby for the weekend while were camping up the road a piece in Victor. On a gorgeous Friday evening we enjoyed watching the cowboys and cowgirls compete in bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, calf roping and barrel racing (cowgirls only). The senior circuit is for cowboys and cowgirls forty and over.
The local rodeo is a big deal. The whole town turns out to support the riders. It is also deeply imbued with patriotic and christian themes. The opening ceremony includes prayers for the safety of the riders as well as the servicemen and servicewomen who protect our freedom. The prayers are also for our political leadership – that they make the hard decisions necessary to protect our way of life.
The photos below were taken at the Little Smith Creek Ranch where we camped for several nights. We were the only campers at the ranch during our stay. To say that the setting was idylic is an understatement. The ranch is located at the base of the Bitteroot Mountains on the western edge of the valley and our view to the east extended across the valley to the Sapphire Mountains. Plenty of deer wandering by as well. Wow!
Biking and hiking Bitteroot
The Little Smith Creek Ranch, while remote with spectacular scenery, is only minutes from a good number of spectacular hikes into the Bitteroot.
The photos above and below are from our favorite hike. The Kootenai Creek Trail follows a fast flowing creek with waterfalls and pools up to the North Kootenai Lake – a distance of about ten miles to reach the lake, and no – we did not make it all the way to the lake!
Clark fork of the columbia river
The Clark Fork of the Columbia River is a 310 mile long river originating as the Silver Bow Creek in Butte. It carries water from a substantial portion of the Rocky Mountains into the Columbia River Basin, which makes the river an excellent choice for white water rafting.
We ran a number of rapids which were mostly class 3. Early spring produces the biggest rapids -class 5- due to snow melt while by August most of the rapids are class 1 or 2 due to the reduced flow of water.
I am not sure if it was due to our senior citizen status or not but we had three guides on our raft! Regardless, were glad to have the two additional paddlers when we went into the bigger rapids.
Fika and art: Missoula style
After our stay in the beautiful Bitteroot Valley we drove north to Missoula. We had hoped to do some more bicycling in addition to river rafting but the heat was too much for us to manage the cycling side of the equation.
We did stay for a couple of days and spent some time at two local coffee shops and visited the interesting (but small) Missoula Art Museum (MAM).
Southwestern montana…hidden gem
Southwestern Montana did not originally factor into our initial planning but after conversations with several Montanans we decided to vector to the region and we are pleased that we did. The southwest corner of Montana is well known to fishing and hunting aficionados, but it’s not found on the standard tourist itinerary.
We had a piece of the planet to ourselves (well, at least regarding other humans) for stretches of time as we drove through the Pioneer Mountains and the pristine Grasshopper Valley. We will definitely return to the area for a more extended stay in the future – lots of hiking, ghost towns and backroads to be explored and dispersed camping under the dark sky.
After a brief visit to Billings (see previous post) we set out due north to traverse the Great Plains of central Montana before turning west in the Northland parallel to the Canadian border.
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR)
Our first stop on the journey north was the CMR. Once again we found ourselves crossing the mighty Missouri River which so dominates the history of this part of the country with its integral connection to the Lewis & Clark expedition.
We crossed the river within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge consists of 1.1 million acres which border the river from the Fort Peck Dam on the east to the Missouri River Breaks National Monument on the west – a distance along the river of about 125 miles.
This protected area is primitive and essentially looks as it did when Lewis and Clark journeyed up the river. There is a rough auto road that drops down to the river level and follows the river before looping back to the highway.
We drove the road and were able to see some of the Missouri Breaks (rock formations) as well as a number of the remnants of abandoned praire homesteads. It is hard to fathom how hardy people must have been to homestead in this rugged terrain – most failed.
The refuge is named after Charles M. Russell – an artist known for his western landscape paintings, many of which depict the refuge, and as an early conservationist.
american prairie reserve (APR)
The APR is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and expanding the prairie land of central Montana. It is estimated by the APR that a land area of three million acres (5000 square miles) is necessary to preserve the Great Plains in perpetuity. The APR is buying prairie land from private owners and leasing land from the federal and state government which is contiguous to existing public lands (including CMR) to create the reserve.
The APR has also established a sizeable bison herd which freely roams within the reserve. When we were completing our research on Montana we learned that we could camp within the reserve among the bison (at our own risk obviously).
We were definitely up for the camping on the prairie. Adding to the adventure was the need to navigate across 60 miles of prairie devoid of signage and without the aid of satnav. Since we are writing this post you are correct in concluding that our navigator was more than up to the task.
We enjoyed our journey through the prairie and our overnight camping with the bison despite the triple digit temperatures, 30 mile per hour winds and accompanying dust. The opportunity to see these magnificent animals roaming the prairie freely, as they did until the late 1800s, felt as if we had the privilege of traveling back in time.
Of course, we probably all have read about the near extinction of the bison at the hands of Euro-Americans to supply the east with fur and hides. The slaughter of the bison also served to deprive the Native Americans of their way of life.
The Native Americans of the plains not only killed bison for the meat – they used every bit of the bison to make shelters, clothing, weapons and tools. The Native Americans worshipped the bison as it provided so much of what they needed to live.
“When the buffalo went away, we became a changed people… The buffalo was everything to us. When it went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. —Plenty-Coups (Crow) 1880
When we decided to visit the APR we did not know that the Montana ranching community is adamantly opposed to it. We had the opportunity to speak with a rancher when we stopped for fuel and provisions on the trip to the APR.
The cattle ranchers are concerned they will not be allowed to continue to use the land that the APR buys and leases from the government for grazing. They are also concerned that the APR wants to let the bison roam freely throughout the reserve and not be managed as stock; which could lead to transmission of Brucellosis to cattle, causing spontaneous abortion in pregnant cattle. Bison in Yellowstone National Park have been infected with Brucellosis in the past. How real the concern is we do not know.
In the end though, much of the opposition is to what the ranchers view as a land grab by the federal government. Ranchers have a deep animosity towards the federal government and as you may recall, this has manifested itself in violence on a number of occasions.
The Montana economy is primarily agricultural and extractive – cattle, sheep, barley, wheat, copper mining and fossil fuel. Theerefore, any partnership by the government (in this case with the APR) to de facto acquire more land (which ends up off-limits for agricultural or extractive purposes) is going to be controversial.
Hopefully, the ranchers and APR can work things out, although presently there are several lawsuits in progress.
The montana hi-Line and Sweet grass hills
We departed the APR traveling north through another 50 miles of dusty prairie until we reached the town of Malta and our first paved road in several days. At Malta we turned west to travel on Route 2 to reach Chester and then head north into the Sweet Grass Hills. The area from Route 2 north to Canada and from the North Dakota border on the east to the Idaho border on the west is known as the Montana Hi-Line.
The Hi-Line is emblamatic of Montana – rolling grasslands, cattle ranches and mile after mile of wheat, barley and cannola fields under seemingly un-ending blue sky. This area known as the Hi-Line was sparsely populated until the late 1800s.
Around this time James Hill, a railroad executive, began the construction of the Great Northern Railroad (GNR), envisioning a railroad extending from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean. He envisioned this railroad as a trade route ultimately extending to Asia. The construction of the railroad through northern Montana brought multitudes of ranchers and farmers into the area. The railroad brought supplies to the towns that popped up along the railway and moved their crops and stock to market. Today the railroad and Route 2 run side by side through most of this area.
The photos above are from our stop in Chester – our departure point from Route 2. We had fika at Well in Chester and met several local farmers and ranchers. The coffee shop owner is also the local pastor, a firearms dealers and a substitue teacher – apparently not unusual in this part of the world based on our conversations. The town is tiny at 311 acres and a population of 1099 and it was obvious that there is a real sense of community here.
After our stop in Chester we were on our way north. We were surprised when we turned onto Route 409 North that is was paved but as so often happens here, the pavement ended abruptly in just a couple of miles and we were back to traveling on dirt roads once again.
The Sweet Grass Hills are dominated by three buttes – West, Gold and East. The buttes stand at about 7000 feet and they can be seen from a significant distance because of the gently rolling grasslands around them.
We spent the remainder of the day touring the Sweet Grass Hills following Route 409 and Route 552. While that sounds straightforward – we assure you it is not – the 409 and 552 are meandering and unmarked routes crossing other dirt roads and forking off in multiple directions (with many of the trails not shown on our maps).
Nonetheless, this backcountry tour was amazing. This is remote country inhabited by cattle and a handful of ranchers. The wind apparently never stops on the prairie adding to the sense of isolation and remoteness – we felt it in just the day traveling through the area.
Whitlash, population 15, was the only named place on our tour of the hills. We did not see anyone at this bend in the road called Whitlash. We stopped for a “pop” at what we thought was a store based on a sign for cold pop. Upon entering we found a coin operated washer and dryer and a soda machine but no people. When was the last time you purchased a 12 ounce cans of pop for 50 cents?
About three miles east of the terminus of Route 552, the road became paved once again and we cruised into Sunburst in search of a well deserved chocolate milkshake.
We had the opportunity to chat with several life long residents of the area while enjoying our shake. We learned that this tiny town which is just eight miles from the Canadian border was once home to the largest refinery in Montana and one of the largest in the states when it was in operation.
Sunburst sits in the aptly named Kevin – Sunburst Dome, a significant deposit of oil and gas. The refinery was purchased by the Texas Company (Texaco) in 1929. During World War II the refinery was a major supplier of aviation fuel for the U.S. military.
Texaco closed the refinery in 1962, concluding a 30-year run of prosperity for the town. Subsequently, the refinery was leveled, the site remediated and the town returned to its agricultural roots. The only vestige of the refinery today is the road sign declaring that Sunburst is home to the Sunburst High School Refiners athletic teams.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump
We wrote above about the literally life sustaining importance of the bison to the Native Americans of the plains. Traveling south from Sunburst we visited a buffalo jump used by Native Americans to to kill the bison that so sustained their way of life.
A “buffalo runner” disguised in bison hide would lead the short-sighted herd towards a precipice, sometimes running for days to bring the herd to the jump. Other members of the tribe would follow behind, agitating the herd. The agitators would usually be disguised as wolves.
Once the bison went over the edge the rest of the tribe went to work. Any bison not killed by the plunge were quickly dispatched. The entire bison was disassembled – blood and meat for immediate consumption. The remainder of the bison was set aside for making tools, clothing, teepees and weapons. Meat not eaten during the ensuing feast would be dried for consumption after the last of the fresh meat was eaten.
The photos above show the cliff at First Peoples Buffalo Jump – thought to be the largest of the 6000 known buffalo jump sites in North America.
Thoughts on the Prairie
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip through the prairie and grasslands of central and northern Montana. It is unquestionably beautiful country, but it is also without a doubt a harsh environment. We experienced many days of temperatures well over 100F. There is little to no shade, the wind never stops blowing and it is dusty, dusty, dusty.
Visit, but go prepared for extremes in weather, keep your fuel tank full and carry as much water as you can if you are going to venture deep into the backcountry.
Fika at Velodrome Coffee in Marquette was our first destination as we returned to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for the first time in over two years.
Pictured Rock National lakeshore
The Pictured Rock National Lakeshore (PRNL) was created in 1966 to protect a 42 mile section of coastline along Lake Superior. The 15 mile stretch of sandstone cliffs rising as high as 200 feet above the water is the real attraction here. The total protected area is around 71,000 acres which provides a buffer zone between the lakeshore and commercial logging.
We toured the lakeshore by boat. While there are a substantial amount of hiking trails throughout the park which lead to the cliffs the best views of the various formations are from the water. We would recommend a boat tour if you are going to be in the area but would not recommend PRNL as a multi-day destination unless you are going to camp in the park and kayak from the beach through the formations.
While iron ore mining and production is very often portrayed as nonexistent today in the United States, it is still quite active in parts of the Upper Peninsula and Minnesota. In fact iron ore mining has been ongoing here in the Marquette Iron Range since 1847.
The completion of the various shipping canals and locks throughout the Great Lakes facilitated the efficient movement of iron ore by lake freighters to ports further south-close to major manufacturing operations for steel and auto-making.
More to come on iron mining when we post from Minnesota where we will be traveling through the Iron Range.
Iron ore heritage trail
The Iron Ore Heritage Trail (IOHT) is a winding and hilly 47 mile trail that utilizes the former rail lines that were used to bring timber and iron ore to Lake Superior. The trail runs through many wetlands and wooded areas as well as a number of closed and abandoned mines.
We rode the trail from the west to east (from Ispheming towards Marquette) which means a long uphill climb as you return from Marquette to your starting point. One of our favorite trails to date because of the fast downhills and corners.
Keweenaw Peninsula (KP)
The Portage Lake Lift Bridge pictured above connects Houghton and Hancock, Michigan. The bridge is the widest and heaviest double deck lift bridge in the world. When the bridge is in position for automobile traffic it sits a mere four feet above the water. The bridge fully raised provides 100 feet of clearance allowing large lake freighters (lakers) to use the canal.
The canal itself came about as mining companies sought to decrease the time it took to haul copper from the copper-rich Keweenaw Peninsula to markets. Work on the canal began in the 1860’s with dredging and widening of several narrow riverways to Portage Lake thereby creating a east/west canal and shaving 100 miles off the trip.
When the canal was completed, the northern half of Keneewaw Peninsula technically became Copper Island. For a number of years all traffic had to go across the canal via ferry boats while winter allowed for crossing on ice roads. As the demand to cross the canal increased, a series of bridges were constructed to allow people, vehicles and trains to cross the canal. The current bridge is the fourth bridge to connect the southern and northern halves of the peninsula. The first three were swing bridges which were slow and unreliable. The second bridge was destroyed when a freighter collided with the bridge. The current bridge came into use in 1959.
Copper was first utilized on the peninsula by Native Americans long before the arrival of Euro-Americans. The Native Americans utilized copper for tools and jewelry. Copper had been separated from rock by retreating glaciers and was scattered around the surface in abundant quantities requiring no mining or excavating.
While the first copper mine in the Upper Peninsula began operation around 1771 it was not until around 1840 that large scale commercial extraction of copper (as well as iron and silver) commenced. The rush began in earnest when the the state’s first geologist, Douglass Houghton, released his report affirming the abundance of high grade copper on the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Copper was mined for the next 150 years on the Keweenaw Peninsula where a narrow seam of copper runs from the Wisconsin border to the tip of Keweenaw Peninsula (Copper Harbor). The mines in Michigan produced more than 14 billion pounds of copper during that period of time and during the late 1800s was the largest copper producer in the world.
The mines began to mature around 1900 as the depth of the shafts made the cost of extraction unviable. A number of mining operations closed down and the population of Keweenaw Penninsula declined for a number years.
War is good for business and the increased demand for copper during World War II brought prices to a level which made copper mining in the penisula viable again. Several mines continued operation until 1969 when a labor dispute triggered the closure of those mines. Today most of the copper production in the United States takes place in Arizona.
The legacy of the cooper mining industry is still highly visible on the Keweenaw Peninsula today. There are numerous mine-shaft rockhouses scattered along what is now Highway 41. The rockhouse stood over the mine shaft. The rock was brought up the shaft in train cars (skips) and dumped into rock crushers below, which then fed uniform sized pieces of rocks into rail cars below the crushing machines.
Another lasting legacy of the copper mining on the Keneewaw Peninsula is pollution. The good news in that regard is that because the copper here was native copper is it 99.99% pure and as such the slag, rock waste and tailings are much less toxic. Having said that, there was enough concern that an EPA Superfund Site was created to deal with the waste. The site has been removed from the Superfund list as a result of the remediation effort.
The Keweenaw Peninsula economy has transitioned to focus on tourism and timber as the main sources of employment. This area is a haven for boating, fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking and OHV riding.
Copper Harbor via the m26…but first, breakfast
WIth a day of exploration in front of us we have learned that is is essential to be well fortified. So we stopped at Slim’s Cafe in Mohawk. Slim’s Cafe has been serving breakfast to Yoopers and visitors for over 40 years. In addition to the massive and tasty breakfast it is mandatory to have their absolutely delicious cinnamon rolls. Do not leave without purchasing cinnamon rolls!
After fortification at Slim’s, we spent the day touring the KP from Houghton to land’s end at Copper Harbor. The M26 winds along the western coast of the peninsula providing wonderful views of Lake Superior and the coastline. Beautifully preserved lighthouses dot the coastline and provide excellent opportunities to learn about the history of the area.
We veered off the M26 a few miles south of Copper Harbor to take in the views from Brockway Mountain. The “mountain”is 720 feet above Lake Superior and on a clear day provides a panoramic view of the lake as well as Copper Harbor and several other lakes.
After descending Brockway Mountain we continued to Copper Harbor and followed US Highway 41 through the village where the highway terminates. This is one of those places where you feel as if you are at the top of the world.
On the day we visited the village, the sun was shining and the sky and lake were deep blue. We had a picnic lunch sitting at the waters edge. We could not, however, keep ourselves from envisioning being here in the dead of winter with the 85 brave souls that call this village home. The cold, the wind and prolonged darkness that occur at this parallel is requires a level of self-sufficiency we do not possess.
We decided to return to Houghton by a more rustic route. While Highway 41 ends in Copper Harbor you can continue on via the dirt roads used by loggers and eventually loop southward down the peninsula.
We had the opportunity to meet with many residents of the Upper Peninsula – known as Yoopers. Yoopers do not consider themselves as Michiganders. In fact, there have been numerous attempts in the past by Yoopers to form their own state – unsuccessfully, obviously.
Yoopers clearly see themselves as separate and distinct from the city folk downstate. This is outdoor country where sled racing, skating, ice fishing, snowshoeing are part of everyday life. Of course the most Yooper outdoor winter sport of all is probably outhouse racing (paint your own mental picture!)
Many of the Yoopers we met made it very clear that to be able to live here year round a person must be extremely self-reliant and self-sufficient and you better know how to drive in the snow! Yep!
After completing the Virginia Capital Bike Trail and with a week of excellent weather ahead we decided to head south to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to enjoy some time at the shore. CHNS has almost 70 miles of pristine beach open for many recreational opportunities. We were able to camp south of Nags Head at Oregon Inlet Campground which was just a five minute walk through the dunes to the beach.
One of the many fun things do to at CHNS is driving on the beach. You do, of course, need a 4WD vehicle and you must also purchase an Off Road Vehicle (ORV) Permit. Once you air down your tires you are good to go. At certain times of the year some portions of the beach may be closed to vehicles due to turtle and water fowl migration.
In addition to driving on the beach we were able to bike on the beach when the tide was out far enough to ride on the wet packed sand. When the tide is out you can bike from Corolla all the way to the Virginia border! We did not have the tide timing in our favor but we were able to ride several miles before the beach became impassable on our bikes.
Biking on Roanoke Island
We really enjoyed our four days at CHNS. In addition to the beautiful beach, starry night sky and recreational activities there is also a significant amount of early American history here to be explored if you are so inclined (Roanoke Island was the first English settlement in North America -1585).
From here we are heading to Virginia (again) to bicycle the Washington & Old Dominion Trail.
We spent four days camping and hiking in the interior of Big Bend Ranch State Park. This park encompasses 300,000 acres of rugged and beautiful mountains, canyons and high desert. The park land was formerly a cattle ranching operation but when repeated droughts brought about the demise of the ranching operation the state of Texas acquired the land for recreational purposes and created BBRSP.
This park is very primitive. There are no paved roads – many of the roads are single track roads that require 4WD and high clearance. There are no water, elctricity or toilet facilities within the park except at the Sauceda Ranger Station.
We were able to camp on a vista at an elevation of 3600 feet above sea level with a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains including Mexico to the southeast. The night sky is a Class 1 Dark Sky – the darkest rating – spectacular.
The hiking opportunities are numerous with a range of hikes from desert floor hikes to canyon rim views. We had complete solitude on most of our hikes as the many of the trail heads require a 4WD vehicle for access.
This park is probably not for everyone because of the primnitive and rugged conditions. Having said that this park is a treasure – a place where you can get off the grid and enjoy beauty, silence, incredible sunrises, sunsets and night sky.
Big Bend National Park is our next stop.
Be seeing you!
P.S. We have included two photos of the Green Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus. This a variety of cactus that we had never seen before. The flowering leaves are edible and are supposed to taste like strawberries. This cactus is found predominately in this part of Texas and a small area of southern New Mexico. We think it will be a beautiful specimen when it fully blooms.
During our time at Big Bend NP we used the town of Terlingua (pop. 58) as our home base. Terlingua is only about twelve miles north of the Study Butte (stew-dee) entrance into the park and has a well stocked general store (Cottonwood GS) for provisions and a half dozen restaurants and shops in addition to motel, camping and RV accommodations. Terlingua has two paved roads – FM 170 which runs east to west terminating at Route 118 which runs north to south from Alpine to the park entrance.
Terlingua came into existence around 1900 after the discovery of cinnabar. The commercial value of cinnabar derives from the extraction of quicksilver, aka mercury. Shortly thereafter about a half dozen mining companies staked claims and set up operations. Over time the companies were consolidated as the Chisos Mining Company but still became bankrupt in 1937 due to falling market prices. During WW2 several mines were re-opened as heightened demand caused prices to rise but by 1947 the mines were again closed.
Many of the miners that worked these mines were Mexicans who came north for the work. Many of the descendants of the Mexican miners still live in Terlingua and the surrounding area. We visited the Terlingua cemetery where a number of the miners who died working the mines are buried and which also is the final resting place for many victims of the 1918 flu epidemic. The cemetery is still in use today.
The town itself is pretty ramshackle which frankly is part of the charm. The local residents are very laid back and friendly. The Terlingua Ghost Town is where most of the restaurants and shops are located – scattered amongst the ruins of the mining company buildings and housing. Many of the current businesses occupy the abandoned mining company structures.
We found Terlingua to be an excellent spot for visiting BBNP if you decide to stay outside the park and had a lot of fun after our hikes unwinding and meeting people in the restaurants and bars in the ghost town area.
Be seeing you!
P.S. Terlingua has the most stunning sunrises which you can watch from most anywhere in town as the sun rises over the Chisos Mountains, Class 1 dark skies for awe inspiring star gazing and the loudest packs of coyotes we have ever heard.
After our terrific stay in BBRSP we journeyed east on FM 170 (farm to market) alternatively known as Farm Road 170. The local folks just call it the River Road. It is also a segment of the Texas Mountain Trail. Regardless of what name you reference it by it is an absolutely stunning drive. The road is an undulating strip of asphalt winding its way between the mountains of BBRSP on one side and the Rio Grande and Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains on the other.
Big Bend National Park is an expansive park with remarkable diversity in regard to the terrain and species of wildlife and flora. While it is wild and rugged it is far more accessible than Big Bend Ranch State Park. There are visitor centers, a gas station, drinking water, paved scenic drives and more people. The one thing that both parks have in common is the spectacular scenery.
We would rate this park as a “must visit” national park. A couple things to keep in mind – this is not a summer park due to the South Texas location and it is a spring break destination for many Texas families (making mid-March the busiest time).
Re-assessing our itinerary based on developments with Covid-19.