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A Tour to see the Solar Eclipse in August 2017

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Lane, Heather & the "Apollo" busIn August I travelled to the United States to watch the total solar eclipse crossing the U.S.  The staff of Sky and Telescope magazine had arranged to add two days for the eclipse to Collette Travel’s “The Colorado Rockies” tour, and that was the tour I elected to join.  It started in Denver on Friday, Aug. 18th.  About 200 people (assigned to one of five buses) had chosen this expedition, but only one busload would be making the full tour, on the “Apollo” bus with expert bus wrangler, Lane, and tireless, capable Collette Tour Manager, Heather (See Figure 1).

On Saturday we went to Rocky Mountain National Park northwest of Denver.  Inside the park, US-34 is also “Trail Ridge Road,” the highest national highway in the continental U.S. (peak elevation: 12,183 feet).  Stops at scenic outlooks gave us panoramic views of these mountaintops in summer (See Figure 2).

On Sunday we drove north to Cheyenne, Wyoming, our home for the next two nights.  Monday, Aug. 21st, was Eclipse Day, and we had perfect conditions in Glendo, WY, for observing it (a topic for another article).  On Tuesday, four of the buses took their passengers back to Denver airport, while “Apollo” bus travelled to Grand Junction in west central Colorado, our home for three nights.

On Wednesday, we toured the Colorado National Monument, where the Colorado River, moving southwest from its origin in Rocky Mountain National Park, has been carving its first canyons.  For dinner, we visited a winery near Grand Junction.

Canyonlands National ParkOn Thursday, we travelled into eastern Utah to visit two National Parks. Our first stop was in Canyonlands National Park.  Here the lookouts were some 1500 feet above the valley floors below (See Figure 3).

After a picnic lunch, we entered Arches National Park, where the Colorado River is not responsible to these landforms (See Figures 4 and 5).   Then it was back to Grand Junction, Colorado.

On Friday we left Grand Junction to head into the southwest mountains, passing some well-known winter ski resorts.  We crossed over Red Mountain Pass to reach Silverton, a mountain mining town.  As its name suggests, Silverton had a mine that was a major producer of silver, but there were also copper, lead and zinc mines nearby.  To get ore down to the smelters and railroads of Durango took a minimum of three days by oxcart.  In the late 1880s, General W.J. Palmer, founder of Colorado Springs and owner of the "Delicate Arch", Arches National ParkDenver & Rio Grande Narrow Gauge Railroad, built the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which cut the travel time to three hours.  After lunching in Silverton, we took the D & S train to Durango, while Lane drove our bus (and our luggage) down the highway. The restored period cars on the D&S are pulled by coal-burning steam locomotives (See Figure 6) built in the mid-1920s.

The railroad follows the valley of the Animas River down to Durango.  For one section, the valley was so narrow the tracks had to be laid on a narrow shelf about 400 feet above the river, blasted out of the granite mountainside.  That section is known as the “High Line” (See Figure 7).  We had a car reserved for us, with a local guide dressed as the wife of a Durango banker from the late 19th century.

All aboard the train to DurangoThe end of our train (top left) on the High Line above the Animas RiverOn Saturday, it was a relatively short drive from Durango to Mesa Verde National Park near Colorado’s border with New Mexico.  A group as large as ours cannot enter any of the cliff-dwelling ruins, so we observed them from across ravines (See Figures 8 and 9.  The people who lived here built their homes under rock overhangs, grew crops and grazed livestock on the plateau above them, and drew water from the streams in the ravine floors.  Why they abandoned their settlements remains a mystery.

 

 

Square Tower House, Mesa Verde N.P.From Durango, on Sunday we headed northeast, crossing the Continental Divide in Wolf Creek Pass and reaching Colorado Springs at about 5 pm. On Monday we drove to Manitou Springs (now a suburb of Colorado Springs) to take the cog railway to the desolate summit of Pike’s Peak (el. 14,115 feet; see Figure 10). Pike’s Peak is the 20th-highest mountain in Colorado, but it was often the first mountain wagon trains heading west would see, and in the (brief) Colorado Gold Rush the cry was, “Pike’s Peak or bust!”

That afternoon, our final sightseeing stop was in “Garden of the Gods,” a municipal park in Colorado Springs.  Here, the mountain-building process of the Front Range tilted once-horizontal sandstone layers to a vertical orientation (See Figure 11).  We had seen unlikely-appearing balanced rocks in Arches National Park, and Garden of the Gods had one too (See Figure 12).  That evening we had our farewell dinner in a Colorado Springs chop house, and the next morning it was back to Denver airport for our journeys home.

The summit of Pike's PeakGardon of the Gods ParkBalanced rock in Garden of the Gods Park

My impressions of Collette Travel

This was my first Collette trip, and I was favourably impressed throughout. On the very first day, the plane for my flight from Toronto to Denver was over an hour late in arriving at Pearson. When that was announced, I called Collette’s toll-free Emergency Center to inform them of my delay. The agent said she would inform the people in Denver.  When I did arrive in Denver, I couldn’t find anyone waiting for me, so I called again. This time the agent gave me the phone number of the limo company in Denver hired by Collette for this purpose, and 15 minutes later I was in my own limousine being driven to our hotel in central Denver.

Throughout the trip, our Tour Manager, Heather Larsen, was well informed, cheerful, and always ready to help. In the National Parks, the local guides were people who had worked for or with the National Park Service for decades, so their local knowledge was impressive. Heather had booked our special car on the Durango – Silverton train with our special local historian in the car. She had run this tour many times before, and so knew staff in the hotels, parks and other locations.  At the last minute, she postponed a scheduled “Chuck Wagon Dinner” at the Bar D ranch near Durango for a day, so that we’d be less tired for it (we agreed it was a wise choice). Our hotels were all excellent.  It was a happy bus, and got more so as we stopped being complete strangers.  I was both pleased and impressed by the service we received.

Text and pictures by George Brandie

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