Oregon Trail 2017 Part 1: Grand Lake, CO

Welcome to Part 1 of 7 (maybe 6, maybe 8) of our Oregon Trail 2017 series. Check back every Friday for the latest installment

I really do believe that everyone is capable of whatever adventure they want. The only limiting factors being the desire to actually get out and pursue it.

Case in point: This story.

The beginning of this last summer was somewhat of an odd time, I had just finished my senior year of high school and the uncertainty of college loomed a couple of months away. Most of my friends were just getting back from their first years of college, and everyone was getting settled into their summer jobs and plans.

I had talked to Noah and Bri about doing a week long camping trip, maybe in Arkansas, but no one was really too crazy about being gone for that long. We decided that a couple of nights somewhere would be fine for our summer trip together.

At some point in late June, I got a text from Noah one night saying he had some exciting news for me, and he wanted me to call him. When I got home from work that night and talked to him on the phone he explained that he had been telling his parents about my new car and obsession with this overlanding thing. His dad had recently taken a temporary job in Bend, Oregon, and they floated the idea of us driving out to stay with him for a couple of nights before heading back. The kind of trip I dreamed of doing.

I remember that by the time I went to bed that night, I already had most of the trip planned out. On the 4th of July we would talk about some of the things we wanted to see and who we wanted to take with us. We decided we would have two of our close friends, Payton and Kael join us.

The four of us became friends when we ran cross country and track together for years in high school. Kael is, put simply, an interesting dude. Probably too smart for his own good, but also some sort of viking warlord who was just dropped into our world and refuses to understand basic things like social media, but is really good with a sword. Kael could protect us from bears on this trip. That was good.

If Kael is a viking warlord, Payton is maybe whatever the opposite of that is. An engineering major and vegetarian, Payton is also incredibly smart, but more importantly has plenty of common sense and good decision making. Having another voice of reason when dealing with Noah and Kael can be helpful.

Noah, since you haven’t completely met him other than an article last week, is a “real friend” as we recently decided. Noah’s only aspiration in life is to be famous, and it doesn’t matter how he becomes famous. To his credit, he is one of the most genuinely funny people I know and wicked good with a camera. His questionable ideas turn everything into an adventure, and I wouldn’t rather do trips like this with anyone else.  

It was decided that our trip would take place in mid August, over seven days. Missouri to Oregon is a roughly 4,000 mile trip if you take a straight line, but we would be adding another 1,000 miles on top of that. We’d make it to Bend in four days seeing Rocky Mountain National Park and Yellowstone/Grand Teton National Park, camping the whole way there. We’d take a day to reset in Bend before taking another to drive the coast down to California and see the redwoods, before racing back across the country home.  

 Our "out" trip. 

Our "out" trip. 

Our plan was to leave Thursday night in order to make it to our campground in the Rocky Mountains by afternoon the next day. We did grocery shopping that morning before meeting up at Noah’s house that night. His mom made us some wonderful breakfast sandwiches, and we loaded down Dudley.

Everyone of course packed way more than I had told them they could. Kael in particular brought not only an entire backpacking backpack (Which would take up the entire middle seat in the second row. We even would buckle it in, meaning Kael basically brought a whole extra person with him on the trip) but also a SABER.

We rolled out of Noah’s driveway into the night at 10:45 P.M. Google maps says that Denver is 11 hours and 32 minutes from there. The goal was to make the KC area by midnight and arrive in Colby, Kansas by 6:00 A.M. for our first real stop and breakfast.

The drive was, completely uneventful, as drives through Kansas on I-70 tend to be. Dudley ate away at the miles effortlessly as we marched towards the Rockies.

The sun rising in the rear view mirrors was a welcome but strange sight. We had done it. We made it through night. What we figured to be some of the worst driving of the trip was over. There was also a sort of, “What the hell just happened” feeling at the same time. We were pretty exhausted, and we were still in frickin’ Kansas after all.

sunrise.JPG

Colby is actually a decent little town by Kansas standards. It doesn’t smell bad and there’s some nice, green grass. We picked a Village Inn off the interstate for breakfast, and joined the gray haired crowd inside. After we ate we took the dirty looks at our sarcastic remarks on Trump from the other patrons as a cue to leave.

We bid Colby farewell after topping off our tank and getting Noah a coffee. We would be back on the interstate for less than ten minutes before he would spill half of it on himself while driving and trying to change the song on his phone.

We took another quick break at the Colorado state line to celebrate making it through Kansas. However we were still four and a half hours away from our campsite for the night in Grand Lake, and close to three hours away from Denver.

 On the Colorado state line. 

On the Colorado state line. 

We hit the outskirts (and traffic) of Denver around noon, and while we had planned to have lunch here, we didn’t know where. We had plenty of time to kill for the day still, so decided to head downtown to see what we could find. Driving through heavy Denver traffic was lots of fun as we tried to navigate to the 16th Street retail area.

After parking we enjoyed some time stretching our legs out while we looked around downtown. Denver is a pretty cool city, it’s not the most amazing place in the world, but I see the appeal that it has on a lot of people. We ate at a place called “Protein Bar” which I thought was overpriced and kinda nasty. I got this thing, I don’t really remember what it was. Protein!

 1/10 can't not recommend enough. 

1/10 can't not recommend enough. 

The truth was, at this point we were exhausted, and being in the city wasn’t really what any of us wanted to be doing. We got out of the city and back onto I-70 west, heading into the mountains. Unfortunately, so was everyone else in Denver for some reason. The traffic was straight out of a nightmare, with Google saying to expect delays up to 45 minutes and trying to find us alternate routes.

The bypass it eventually decided on took us off onto a side road that ran directly next to I-70, but about 200 feet below it. Heading down it was steep and fast, and Dudley’s brakes were getting pretty smelly and rough, so we pulled over at the bottom on what was now Colorado State Highway 6.

At first, the spot we pulled off at seemed great! It overlooked a beautiful stream that they were running white water rafts down. Then we got out of the car. It was loud. The pull off was directly next to a scale operated by a quarry located across the highway. A long line of dump trucks and semis were waiting not only for the scale, but also a taco truck that had set up shop. The traffic from up above on I-70 was loud, and so was the traffic on the highway we had pulled off of. The air was filled with dust from the quarry and trucks dumping out parts of their load to make weight.

Worried about my brakes, tired, and not appreciating the spot we had stopped at, I was pissy. The other guys were loving it though, and crawled around on some precarious looking rocks on the edge of the creek, trying to get the best picture.

 No one who saw him taking this picture asked for his autograph.

No one who saw him taking this picture asked for his autograph.

It wasn’t long before I was ready to leave, and this route actually did help us bypass some of the traffic on I-70. At the Berthoud Falls/State Highway 40 exit we started to really climb up into the mountains for the first time on this trip. Being in the mountains finally was awesome, and the views along this part of the Rockies were acceptable.

We crossed the continental divide on Berthoud Pass, stopping at the summit to take some more pictures and enjoy the views. We were also able to break out some jackets for the first time.

 This picture is very good. That's because Noah took it. 

This picture is very good. That's because Noah took it. 

We were only an hour away from our campsite for the night, the only campground we could find with any possible walk up availability near Rocky Mountain National Park. Green Ridge Campground was located right on the edge of Grand Lake, and looked to be a beautiful spot. The rest of the day really has left an impression on me about the Rockies that I wish I didn’t have.

Obviously being so close to Denver and RMNP itself, this is an extremely touristy area. Probably the most so in Colorado. It was the first week of August, and everywhere was just full of people. Heavy traffic on the roads and any town we would pass through made the hour from the pass to the campground feel like the entire afternoon.

We rolled into the campground a little worried, it didn’t look like there was much availability left. The caretakers at the time were a young Australian couple who were decently nice. Turns out there was one walk up site left, but without a tent pad. This meant that we’d have to set our tent up next to the road and where we parked, away from our table and fire ring. I offered up our payment for the site, but they wanted us to see the site and set up before paying.

We put up our tent and bought a couple of bundles of firewood. It was about four at this point, and we weren’t starving just yet, so decided to head into Rocky Mountain National Park and see what we could find. It felt wrong to just leave our tent and other gear at our site without having actually paid yet, and we didn’t want the hosts to think we had just ran off on them. On our way out of the campground we stopped by their trailer to pay our fee, but no one was there. In hindsight, our decision to fold up our cash in a piece of paper and stick it in the door to their trailer was maybe a bit short sighted.

Maybe the most redeeming quality of staying on Grand Lake is the fact that we were only ten minutes from the Kawuneeche Visitor center on the south side of the park. As we pulled through the gates of the park we were able to see some moose grazing in a field near the welcome sign, which in my opinion was probably the coolest thing we saw in all of Colorado on this trip.

After a quick stop at the visitor center so I could get a cancellation for my National Parks Passport and a sticker for Dudley, we pulled off at the first trailhead we saw, the Green Mountain trailhead. We set off east on the Green Mountain trail, taking in new types of terrain and wildlife that none of us had ever hiked through.

After a quick mile or two on the trail, we got back on the main road heading deeper into the park. Trail Ridge Road runs along the Colorado River valley with great views of the surrounding mountains and valley. There were countless cool looking hiking trails here that I’d love to check out on a future trip to RMNP.

Eventually the road begins to climb, and switchbacks take you up a mountainside. When we reached the summit we stopped at the Fairview Curve Viewpoint for what turned out to be some of the most incredible views of the entire trip. Evening storms were rolling towards the mountains, and the scenery was simply breathtaking.

 This picture is bad. That's because I took it. 

This picture is bad. That's because I took it. 

With the storms approaching, and appearing to head south towards the lake, we raced back down the mountain and out of the park, but it was too late. The rain hit us hard. Normally this wouldn’t have been a big deal, afternoon rains are a daily thing in most parts of the Rockies, but we had left all of our firewood back at camp uncovered.

When we arrived back at camp, the rain continued. Luckily our firewood had stayed mostly dry under some trees. We were thankful that our tent was already set up, and we were able to get out of the car while we waited for the rain to stop.

It was approaching six or seven and we were all agreeably hungry and exhausted. We had been pushing hard with maybe a few hours of sleep for 20 hours. Payton fell asleep while the rain continued, and apart from when he would wake up to get some dinner maybe an hour later, he slept until the next morning.

Kael, Noah, and I were having trouble containing our hunger, and as the rain slowed down we opened up Dudley and dug in. Dinner for the night was corn on the cob and sausage. Kael got to work wrapping our corn in foil, while Noah and I did some organizing with the rest of our food. It was still raining decently hard off and on, and we set up our makeshift kitchen under the hatch to keep dry. This is one of the best pictures from the entire trip.

 Welcome to our Rocky Mountain gypsy camp! 

Welcome to our Rocky Mountain gypsy camp! 

At some point the caretaker came over to ask us for our payment. Of course she hadn’t seen it anywhere at her trailer. Honesty was good here, although it did kind of make us look like idiots for just leaving cash out. She graciously declined our offer to pay again.

Finally, just eating food and sitting around the fire felt amazing. Camping, when you really break it down, maybe isn’t so much about escaping to the outdoors as it is just going cool places to eat good food with friends. I know that’s what I enjoy most about this whole idea of overlanding and adventure travel.  

Just getting here was a relief and reassurance that we had this under control. The next day held 500 miles of driving to Cottonwood Lake, Wyoming, but we were in the west now, the adventure was officially underway.

The cool mountain air was some much needed relief from the August humidity in the Midwest. By the time we were heading to bed there was a chill in the air that we weren’t as prepared for as we should have been.

We put out the fire early and got some much needed sleep in.