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Tuesday, July 26, 2011 - 4:00pm by Lolo
142 miles and 3 hours from our last stop - 1 night stay
We awoke to cloudy skies. Fortunately, we had had such glorious days for our hikes. Today was pretty much just a driving day anyway, but, unfortunately, we still had not decided just where we were driving to or what we wanted to do.
Herb came up with the idea of renting a jeep to go off-roading. This was not exactly a moment of playful spontaneity, but something he had been plotting over the long cold, wet winter and spring in New Jersey, when there is often nothing better to do than dream of better times. I would frequently catch him ogling Jeep Wranglers on his computer—as if we needed another toy in the driveway. He even purchased a Guide to Colorado Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails. Well, this would be something new, so I was in.
We stopped to inquire about jeep rentals at both the National Park visitor center and the one in Grand Lake. Neither had much information to offer about jeeping opportunities in the nearby vicinity, so as soon as we got cell phone coverage, Herb used his droid phone to Google “Colorado jeep rentals”. One of the first entries that came up was Mountain High Jeep Rentals in Breckenridge. hmm...Breckenridge. I could deal with that.
While Herb called the jeep rental place, I called Tiger Run RV Resort and booked a spot for the night. Tiger Run, which we had been to twice in the past, is not your typical campground, but more of an RV land for the rich and famous, with million dollar RVs on sites with manicured lawns, a 12,000 square foot clubhouse, complete with indoor swimming pool, two hot tubs, game room, and TV lounge, and magnificent view of snow-capped mountains from every site. If the weather didn’t improve, at least I knew we could plop our butts in the hot tub for the afternoon.
Herb had a little less luck with Mountain High Rentals. There were no Jeep Wranglers available for tomorrow, but they did have a Jeep Liberty we could rent. Herb was a little disappointed because he really wanted to try out a Wrangler to see if it was something he would consider purchasing in the future, but figured the Liberty would at least get us out there to see if we even liked four-wheeling. So we reserved the Liberty and arranged to pick it up 8:30 the next morning.
Now that we had our plan in place for tomorrow, we felt better about just meandering our way down to Breckenridge. We stopped in the town of Grand Lake just to see what it was like, because someone we met back in Boulder told us how much they preferred it to the overcrowded and over-touristy Estes Park. It definitely was a lot quieter and quainter, but I have to say that I really kind of liked the liveliness and vibrancy of Estes Park
We continued on Route 34 south to the town of Granby and then on 40 south to Winter Park. We considered mountain biking on one of the many trails in Winter Park, but the weather was pretty gloomy and it was starting to drizzle. So, we continued on through Berthoud Pass down to I70 west. It was while driving on I70 that are two GPSs started to argue—that’s right two GPSs. Herb likes to use the navigation tool on his droid phone in addition to the GPS we have on the dash. I refer to them as his two girlfriends (actually I have a worse word for them). Both of them started spouting different directions: one said to continue on I70 until Route 9 while the other one insisted that we get off earlier on Route 6. In confusion, Herb pulled onto the median by the exit ramp for Route 6. It wasn’t long before a state trooper pulled over as well. When we explained to him about the disagreeing GPSs, he sort of rolled his eyes, told us an anecdote about his elderly father and a GPS, and strongly suggested that we turn both of them off and just continue along until Route 9. We thanked him and continued on our way, but rather than turn the GPSs off as suggested, Herb just gave the erring one a good scolding. We arrived at Tiger Run without any further disagreements between the girls.
By now the weather was really lousy—cold and damp—so any thoughts about biking the trail into the village were forgotten. If this had been our first time to Breckenridge, we would have felt compelled to do so, but fortunately, we were seasoned visitors to the area and felt no need to force the situation. Instead we sat in the hot tub while doing three loads of laundry. The weather in Colorado is so changeable--not just between places, but even time of day. Herb loves hot weather, which we fortunately had for the past week, but now, here we were bundled up in jeans and jackets barbequing our salmon in the rain. Hopefully, tomorrow would be better for our big jeep adventure.
We spent the evening poring over the Guide to Colorado Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails book to figure out where to go tomorrow. The trails in the book were rated similarly to the way ski trails are rated: green circles for easy, blue squares for intermediate, and red (rather than black) for suicidal. We kind of got our hearts set on doing the Deer Creek, Saint Johns loop up near the town of Montezuma. It was rated blue and described as having it all: stunning scenery, historic buildings, and real adventure. We tried to ignore the sentence about not recommended for novice drivers.
The next morning, we got up bright and early, all excited about our big adventure. Our first task was finding the rental place, whose address was 620 Village Road. We expected to find a shack with a parking lot full of jeeps; instead we kept circling the very developed, multi-storied buildings of the Beaver Run Resort. There were no jeeps in sight. This was not the quaint little Breckenridge that I had come to love. This was commercialism and tourism at its peak. We called our rental guy, who gave us a paragraph long set of directions for navigating our way through the complex. By the time we finally found him we were exhausted and somewhat embarrassed. If we couldn’t find the rental office, how were we supposed to survive in the wilderness.
We spent the next half hour reading and signing forms and going over the rules of the road. The gentleman strongly suggested we stay on the green trails, so we kept quiet about our real plans for the “not recommended for novice drivers” blue one. We were then passed over to another guy, whose job it was to lead us through the maze to the garage where our Jeep Liberty was parked and to explain the workings of the vehicle. He was much nicer, so we approached him with our plan for the day, and he said we should be just fine on that trail. He had just been on it the day before.
As we drove on regular roads to get to the trailhead in the town of Montezuma, I flipped the book open to the section on how trail ratings are defined. Under the Blue Trail description, I found such phrases as: “careful tire placement may be necessary,” “sideways tilt will require caution,” “undercarriage may scrape occasionally,” “rock stacking may be necessary,” etc. Rock stacking? This was going to be some day.
Our rental agreement gave us 100 free miles, 42 of which were spent getting back and forth to the trailhead. That was okay, because the entire Deer Creek / Saint Johns loop was only 12.2 miles. Well, that would keep us busy for about an hour or so, we thought, counting stops for pictures, but the guide book estimated a trip duration of 4 to 5 hours, which if you do the math is less than 3 mph. I found this hard to believe. I could walk faster than that. Boy, were we naïve.
Near the Keystone Ski Area, we followed the signs for Montezuma Road, which turned into a dirt road even before we got to the town of Montezuma, population 42. The dirt road eventually led to a junction with Deer Creek to the left and Saint Johns to the right. We decided to go Deer Creek, because that was the way the guide book was oriented. Also, the beginning of the Deer Creek trail was rated green, which would give us a few miles of getting used to off-roading.
The guide book was extremely thorough in its instructions. The mileage log was given in tenths of miles traveled since the trailhead, complete with GPS coordinates, and gave a description of every turn or change in terrain. It was impossible to get lost.
After about 3 miles (and 1 hour) of bumping and bouncing over the “easy” section of trail, we came to a sharp hairpin turn where we pulled over for a fabulous view. Unfortunately, the ATVs that had sped past us earlier must have frightened away the mountain goats usually seen here, but the view was spectacular anyway. The trail got increasingly difficult, but Herb was doing great maneuvering through and over the rocks of various sizes that covered the road. I understand now why Jeeps have such high clearance and metal skid plates protecting the undercarriage, because without that we would be leaving a trail of major engine parts along the way.
As we approached the turnoff for Radical Hill (a Red Extreme trail), we encountered a Land Rover coming at us. Fortunately, we were in a spot where we could pull over a bit to the side to let it pass, because in many sections meeting up with another vehicle would require backing up for quite a distance to a spot that would allow for the width of two vehicles. The Land Rover stopped alongside us to chat. They gave us one piece of information we definitely did not want to hear, that the Saint Johns portion of the loop was impassable about a mile from its end back in Montezuma, because heavy rains had washed even more boulders into the stream that crossed the trail, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to cross. They said that they would have considered it, but they had forgotten to bring their “boulder bar.” Boulder bar?? The only Boulder bar I knew was Mountain Sun Brewery. I was going to have to learn an entire new set of lingo if we were going to get into this jeeping thing.
We were very thankful that they told us about this because if we had gotten all the way to the stream and had to turn back, we would have to cover 22 miles of this rather than 12.2, and we would have had to do much of it in the dark.
One piece of good news they did give us, however, was that the first section of Radical Hill was actually rated easy and brought you far enough for the incredible views before turning into a death-defying difficult trail. We decided that we would drive on a bit further to the halfway point and another good mountain goat viewing spot before turning around and retracing our steps with a side trip up Radical Hill.
We continued on in 1st gear low, which we had been in for practically the entire trip. At the trail junction for the North Fork of the Swan River, we stopped again to enjoy the view. Also Herb knew that there was a geocache hidden nearby (for an explanation, see ?) and for once there were no muggles (other normal human beings that don’t geocache) around that we had to fear embarrassing ourselves in front of while hunting for the hidden cache. We found it. Probably our highest altitude geocache to date.
Our original intention was to turn around at this point and retrace our steps. However, the road ahead looked pretty cool and a photo stop called Sheep Hill was just a mere .4 miles ahead, so we decided to continue on a little further. At this point we were at about 12,000 feet and still climbing.
While we were out of the car taking pictures, another Jeep came barreling towards us from the Saint Johns direction at the impressive speed of about 8 mph. Seriously, that is quite fast for these roads. In the Jeep, which like ours was a rental, was a mother and father and two small children. We asked them if they had come from Montezuma via the Saint Johns road and they said yes. When we asked them about the impassable stream, they said, it wasn’t too bad. Now we had a dilemma. Who to believe? The experienced Brits in the Land Rover or this young family of hot shots in a rental jeep. Since actions do speak louder than words, and these people actually did come the Saint Johns route in their rental, we figured we could do it too. Besides, we hated the idea of repeating the same route back rather than completing the loop. I must say though that I was a bit apprehensive about the idea.
We then approached a section marked in the guide book as “Steep climb. Toughest spot of trail.” They weren’t kidding. The road ahead looked so steep that I feared we would flip over. Also, it was heavily strewn with rocks of many sizes which would make it difficult for us to pick up any speed—and I use the term speed loosely. Before starting up the climb, we took the opportunity to find another geocache that someone had hidden before the steep part began.
As we started up the ridiculously steep incline, Herb asked me to videotape our ascent from the passenger seat. Before writing this, I watched the video to help me remember what it was like, and I actually laughed out loud. The rocking of the dashboard and the groans and heavy breathing coming from the two of us made it seem more like a porn movie than an off-roading adventure.
Finally, we came to a point that was so bad that Herb asked me to become a human “boulder bar,” running ahead of the Jeep moving big, inappropriately placed rocks out of its path. I was so thankful to get out of the Jeep that I didn’t even mind picking up and rolling large rocks. It seemed much safer. Herb did an amazing job keeping the Jeep upright and undamaged over this very rough, steep terrain. He looked liked he’d been through the wringer, and said that for him the experience was probably comparable to the way I felt traversing the snow on the hike to Chasm Lake—terrified. I can be a nudge sometimes and I also like to debate, so I tried to analyze the two experiences and concluded that they were not comparable, because I actually feared for my life, while Herb merely feared for the insurance claim when we damaged the Jeep. He felt that I was making a bit light of the actual physical harm that could have occurred to him if the jeep had lost traction and started sliding backwards, possibly sideways, and flipped over. Okay, point taken.
Although the guide book said the worst was behind us, there still were some pretty hairy hills to conquer, and we hadn’t even gotten to the possible impassable stream yet. Finally things calmed down a bit and we resumed our more controlled bouncing and swaying. We passed two deserted mines (one with a geocache) on our descent.
Finally, at exactly 11 miles from our start we saw a private cabin and what was likely its owner, barreling across a stream in a pickup truck before parking in the driveway. Okay, that was two people that had successfully crossed it, but both from the other direction, which was a downhill and then across rather than an across with enough momentum to get up the hill on the other side. One look at the stream kind of freaked us out. There were plenty of one to two-feet boulders in the stream, some pointing up ready to rip off the bottom of the jeep, or worse yet, get us hung up so we couldn’t continue. We spent a good half hour gathering rocks from other places to put in the stream to even it out.
After we had done all that we could, I got on the far side of the river to help yell and encourage him. I wanted to film it – if only for insurance purposes – but Herb refused and told me to just direct him across the river, because he couldn’t always see where the rocks were. I bet he regrets not having the footage now, because he was a pro.
We had done it, but I think the jury was still out as to whether this was an activity we wanted to direct our energy and finances towards. We had so many things we loved doing that we weren’t looking to add something new just for the sake of having something to do. We would have to let some time pass and digest this a bit.
In the meantime, we had time and mileage left on our rental, so we foolishly felt compelled to use it. We figured trying a green trail might be a good learning experience, so I looked through the guide and selected the nearby Keystone Gulch trail, a 7.6 one-way that was estimated to take 1 hour – wow! a highway compared to the last one.
The road was definitely much less challenging, but still bumpy enough to be unpleasant. I started questioning why we were doing this. After passing some lovely beaver ponds and crossing the ski slopes of Keystone, Herb and I both were getting antsy. I think we got the point of this 4-wheeling thing and didn’t think we wanted to spend the last few hours of our vacation together doing more of it. So, we aborted the mission after 6 miles and headed back to Breckenridge.
I think I figured out my position on jeeping. If an off-road vehicle is the only way to get to a place worth getting to, then the discomfort of bouncing around was worth it, but I didn’t want to be bounced around just for the sake of being bounced around. Herb, I think, enjoyed the “journey” a bit more, because he liked the challenge of maneuvering the jeep over difficult terrain. Maybe I should try driving it next time and see if my feelings change.
Back in Breckenridge, we brought the jeep to the fanciest fully automatic car wash I have ever experienced (car washing was required by the rental contract) and returned it to what was hopefully the correct parking spot in the Beaver Run Resort parking garage. It was already close to 6:00 and our destination that night was 2 hours away at a Flying J near the Denver airport.
We didn’t want to get to the Flying J too early, as there is not much to entertain oneself with in a parking lot, so we strolled the streets of Breckenridge looking for a place to have dinner. We selected the outdoor patio of the Whale’s Tail, which was fine, but our moods were quite glum. Neither of us was very happy with the thought of me leaving tomorrow morning. It just wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. I belonged by Herb’s side, even on the long-driving days through the plains. I felt a bit guilty about having shared the good parts of the trip and leaving the crappy parts on either end for Herb. It was just the only way I could do it this summer because of my elderly mom. I suggested we be thankful for the wonderful parts we did have together.
Breckenridge is located approximately 75 miles west of Denver in one of the premier skiing areas in the country. Most of the surrounding area is part of the Arapaho National Forest. The town itself is located in the beautiful Blue River Valley at the base of the Ten Mile Range of the Rockies.
Before it became a premier ski resort, Breckenridge was a thriving mining camp. In 1859, when word got out that gold was discovered in the Blue River near current day Breckenridge, hundreds of miners flocked here from Denver and set up a mining camp. In an attempt to get their own post office, the miners named their camp after the current Vice President, John C. Breckinridge (note the difference in spelling). Flattery worked and soon they had their own mail service. When the Civil War began, the town of Breckinridge sided with the South. No longer feeling loyalty to the Federal Government, they changed the spelling of the town to Breckenridge.
In many ways, the village, with its crowded bars and restaurants along its funky main street has maintained that frontier feeling. It was also one of the first ski areas in Colorado to allow snowboarding.
Besides the spectacular skiing, Breckenridge is an outdoor lover's paradise in all four seasons with such adventure highlights as:
- Hiking the many trails in the Arapaho National Forest
- Bicycling the paved Blue River Bikeway along the river between Frisco and Breckenridge
- Biking the 20-mile Vail Pass Bikeway over the 10,600 foot pass into Vail
- Sailing and windsurfing in the Dillon Reservoir just north of Breckenridge
- Fishing for trout and salmon in the Dillon Reservoir
- Fishing for trout in the world-class trout waters of the Blue River
- Rafting the Blue River
- Skateboarding in the outdoor, free skateboard park at the recreation center
- Testing your kayak skills in the man-made rapids section of the Blue River near the recreation center
A few miles north of the town of Breckenridge is the Tiger Run RV Resort, one of the premier RV campgrounds in the country. Most of the sites are owned, but there are some sites available for transients. Some of the many amenities include: landscaped sites with patios, a beautiful clubhouse with fireplace, an indoor pool and hot tub, and lake and stream fishing.
Breckenridge location map in "high definition"