An Eerie Feeling on Guanella Pass

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Those that love to travel, whether they be the rare few, the people who get to travel for a living, or those who find a way to travel as much as possible, understand that Planet Earth is full of amazing places!  One of the things that makes traveling interesting is the wide variety of types of places to visit, all of which will produce different scenery, and different experiences.  It is nearly impossible to describe or capture the true range of experiences one could theoretically attain through travel, but the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth Series does a pretty good job.

When people come to visit me here in Denver, I typically take them, in some capacity, into the mountains.  I will particularly ensure that a trip to the mountains gets on the agenda if I get visitors from places like Chicago, which couldn’t be further from any kind of mountain range.  After all, one of the reasons we travel is to see things we do not typically see.  From Denver, it doesn’t typically take too long to get somewhere spectacular.  About half an hour west of downtown, there is a segment of I-70 where the full prominence of the Central Rocky Mountains suddenly appears in quite spectacular fashion.  I remember being amazed by the view that pops out in front of me the first time I traveled up I-70.  Many photographs have been taken from this location, and it was even noted as a point of interest at the History Colorado Center.

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Now that I have lived in Denver for over three years, a short excursion into the mountains typically takes me to a place I have already been, sometimes even a place I have been numerous times.  However, as is noted by the Planet Earth video series, these places often look quite different during different seasons.  Those that visit Colorado in the winter or spring will see mountains covered with snow.  This view, from I-70 near Genesee, will look significantly different, likely in just a few weeks.

October is sometimes a tricky time of year to determine activities in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.  It is that transition season where often times conditions are no longer favorable for summer activities (and many of the seasonal roads have already closed for the season), but a significant snowpack has yet to develop.  This fall has been anomalously warm here in Colorado, and the extent of the snowpack that has developed in the mountains appears in this picture below.

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However, according to the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center (NOHRSC), by mid-late October, the typical snowpack over the high terrain of the Central Rocky Mountains is still less than a foot (and not consistent year to year).

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This map displays snow depth anomalies for Sunday, October 18th according to the NOHRSC.  The actual snow depth, across the entire region, was zero.  The anomalies show just how far below normal this is, which, in the highest terrain on this map, falls into the 4 to 8 inch range, indicating that even at locations above 14,000 feet, there is typically not too much snowpack by mid-October.

Knowing that most seasonal roads would still be open due to the lack of snow, but with somewhat limited time for an excursion into the mountains, we opted to take a trip over Guanella Pass, which is still less than an hour’s drive from Denver.  Despite having been there several times, the experience for me was already new, as a new paved road had just been built, connecting the town of Grant, along highway 285, with Georgetown, along I-70.  This new road is likely to get mixed reactions, as traveling along it is now much easier (and now possible without AWD).  However, there are sections of this pass that are popular among campers, particularly people looking for a quiet camping experience.  On Sunday’s excursion, I encountered several groups of motorcycles.  The prevalence of motorcycles, and the noise they make, could possibly make some of the Guanella Pass campers seek a more remote experience elsewhere.

Without having to focus on driving over rocks and bumps, I noticed places I simply did not notice on previous drives up Guanella Pass, like this waterfall.

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However, that was not the full extent of the new experience I had on Sunday.  The final approach to the summit took me above the tree line, where I suddenly got an eerie feeling from what was around me.

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It’s hard to describe.  It felt almost like I was on another planet.  It was isolated.  Most of the time that we stopped at the summit, we were the only ones there, and my car was the only one on the road.  The sagebrush of the alpine tundra had taken on brown color that I am not accustomed to seeing.  Some combination of the sun angle, unusual ground color, and isolation definitely gave me a really strange feeling.  It was eerie, creepy, out of this world, I really did not know what to make of it.  It was just, well, strange.

However, I came back feeling glad that different seasons can create different experiences out of the same places.  Typically, when I make the trek up to elevations just above the tree line, there is one of two experiences.

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The alpine tundra is white in winter (and often still white well into the springtime), and green and lush in the summer.  In October, though, it took on a whole new color, one I had not seen before.

This planet has plenty of places that are unique, unlike any other place on earth.  Some of them even feel out of this world.  Sunday’s experience at Guanella Pass reminded me of two things.  A lot of these unique experiences that we plan trips to get to are seasonally dependent.  And, sometimes these experiences can happen unexpectedly.

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