Zenobia UtopiaI love the mountains. I love the desert. These two dynamic landscapes constantly compete with each other for my attentions. Living in Boston with only a few weeks allotted out West each year, they compete for my time as well. Lately I’ve been trying to accommodate for both on my trips.
March saw a raucous bachelor party in Vegas bookended by a hike up Humphreys and a week in and between Utah’s parklands. My summer sojourn west remained in flux though. Since I had used already two weeks’ vacation time in March I only had a week left to fly in somewhere, hit up a few peaks, and fly out. Originally I planned on flying into Albuquerque, hitting up some NM and AZ peaks before fulfilling my 14ers quota on Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre in the San Juans. August approached, and yet no plane tickets had been booked. Constant uncertainty regarding an apartment move out/move in led me to consider September as an alternative. It was not until late July when I finally decided on the original time frame. The destination, however, was limited. Tickets to Albuquerque and another Salt Lake City, another destination I was bandying around, were in short supply by then, so I jumped on some tickets to Denver; the plan was to hit up Grays and Torreys via Kelso Ridge and hang around northern Colorado and Southern Wyoming. Pictures of the Great Divide Basin intrigued me in particular, thanks to Bob Sihler’s excellent pages on this site, and I made a note to stop by there if time allowed.
With sleep in short supply from the previous week I flew into Denver on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I wanted to finish Kelso Ridge Sunday and, with a couple 14ers behind me, to meander my way through America’s other high desert, the unknown cul-de-sac that actually separates the Northern Rockies from their Southern counterparts. A forecast of Sunday T-Storms in the Georgetown area made me change my plans last minute. As I tried to figure out the channels on the satellite radio while getting acquainted in general to my rental, a silver little Kia Sportage, I shuffled the possibilities in my mind, trying to figure how to make the most efficient combination of peaks, destinations, time, distances, and weather. Four hours later I was setting up shop in the small hamlet of Craig, in the northwestern corner of the state.
The unambitious plan on Sunday called for a stroll up Zenobia Peak, a nondescript summit that bears the distinction of being a 2,000 ft prominence peak as well as the highest point of Dinosaur National Park. A dirt road led all the way to the top, but I planned on parking a little below the summit to get at a minimal workout out of the whole thing.
The morning was crisp, cold, and clear. After a good night’s sleep my head was clear, and I felt alive to my surroundings now, having been sleep walking (driving) the day before. It was refreshing to be at altitude again, to breathe the fresh, aromatic air of the West. As tedious as the annual drive out west can be it allows me to clear my head and get into the right mindset. A half day’s flight provided less of a transition than I was used to, but as I drove the little dirt road through the first glimpses of the morning light, glancing at the elk grazing alongside perfectly crystal blue creeks, I knew I had arrived mentally.
The long drive towards Zenobia took me above the golden bare slopes this little corner of Colorado and into a more alpine evergreen forest. This was my first time driving 4WD, and as the road got rougher I tried to get my bearings with the machine and its path. I got a little sidetracked down some dirt roads near the border of the National Monument; surprisingly there were a few ranches and houses this far down the gravel path. Supposedly the road to Zenobia traverses some private property, but based on some online research the road itself is supposed to be accessible by the public.
I parked a few miles from the summit at a locked gate and started walking uphill. The 4WD road leads all the way to the top of Zenobia Peak. It would take a complete idiot to get lost on a dirt road; I am that idiot. Some faint tracks led me astray towards the left. I ended up following a faint road that ended up leading in opposite direction, downhill and southwest into a drainage in Dinosaur NM. I left the trail and bushwacked back towards the ridge, trying to contour my way back to the saddle east of Zenobia. Eventually I made it onto the east slopes of the peak and rejoined the road right below the summit.
The views to the west, previously hidden from me, took my breath away. I gazed at the beginnings of the great Uinta Range, oblong, knobby slopes rising higher and higher along the east-west divide. Despite the presence of a fire tower (apparently unoccupied) and ranches the way I came I felt like I was alone in the world.
Ode to AdobeIt was still early. Rawlins was my destination for the night, and I figured up I could hit up the Adobe Town badlands near the CO-WY border on my way there. The atlases I brought with me allowed me to follow some more rarely tracked dirt roads to the mining camp of Powder Wash. CO-62 is supposed to take you straight to the badlands from here, but I had trouble finding it through all the gas/oil wells, circling about for half an hour or some before getting back on track. CO-62 crossed into Wyoming after a few miles and up onto a high, gray sagebrush plateau, from which the Adobe Town badlands are cut. I spent most my time at the Skull Creek Rim. The rim itself is steep, but I managed to find a nice little gap where I could scamper into the badlands below. From here I rambled about aimlessly like a kid in a playground (albeit a hot, arid one), exploring the neat little in and outs of the badlands.
A Round of WhiskeyThe weather report called for thunderstorms in the Rawlins area. It was cloudy when I left my hotel in the morning, later than I intended. My main objective here was Ferris Mountain, a long and committing climb made longer when I stopped by the BLM office, where a lady warned me that the sand dunes guarding the southern face of the mountain, my planned route, were too wet to be traversed by vehicles. I decided to hit up Whiskey Peak, a 2000 foot prominence peak about 40 min north of Rawlins, instead, while contemplating Ferris possibly for the next day.
As is the way of the high desert storms, it can be sunny in one area while a storm rages only miles away. I had a window of sun all the way to the town of Bairoil and beyond, all the while observing lightning crashing on the eastern horizon. A road leads to the top of Whiskey Peak, where there are some radio towers. I drove an increasingly rough road into a high basin below the peak and walked up the impossibly steep road (for cars, anyhow) leading up to the ridge. It was an easy go from there on out as I picked my way down some informal trails following the southern ridges of the mountains, and its accompanying views, all the way to the various summits of Whiskey’s large summit plateau. Along the way I encountered packs of wild mustangs, watching me warily in the woods nearby.
The panoramic views were spectacular, especially east towards the Ferris Mountains, jagged looking peaks from this angle (and getting socked by the storm), and west down the rim of the Whiskey Ridge escarpment and Stratton Rim.
So caught up was I in these views that I barely noticed the darkening skies. I heard thunder, not so distant, when I reached the radio towers. Not a safe place to be, and while I scampered down the road back into the trees I prayed that the open basin lying between me and my car would not result in my downfall. Apparently my prayers were answered. The lightning appeared to sound right above me when I was still in the trees, but when I came out into the basin it was sunny overhead and getting sunnier. I drove back into Rawlins incredibly thankful for both the views from the mountain and the safe passage below.