Riding the Rails Through the Rockies

I visited Colorado for the first time this summer in 2019. Although my wife has made numerous trips to Colorado, the state has been on my wish list for many years. I particularly wanted to see the Colorado Rocky Mountains, so we flew into Denver, rented a car, and drove southwest to the ski resort town of Breckenridge where we enjoyed several days of relaxing, shopping, eating great food, and taking a few sight-seeing side trips. Fortunately, my wife planned for us to take an out-and-back train excursion that runs from Leadville, Colorado, up the side of the nearby ridge.

Train station at Leadville, Colorado
Train station at Leadville, Colorado

The Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad climbs roughly 700 feet as it winds its way through the trees of the San Isabel National Forest and over steep ravines pointing toward Freemont Pass until it reaches an old water tank that was used by the historic mining trains many years ago. Then the train heads back down the track and ends up back where it started at the depot 2.5 hours later. The views of the Arkansas River are incredible from the train’s vantage point 1,000 feet above the valley floor. The conductor on our trip was fantastic, providing us with entertaining stories, facts, and figures on the way up the ridge, then letting us enjoy the ride back without commentary – only the magnificent vistas.

French Gulch Water Tank – end of the line at elevation of 10,840 feet
French Gulch Water Tank – end of the line at elevation of 10,840 feet

At an elevation of 10,152 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the United States. It still has the feel of a frontier mining town, with saloons that attracted legendary wild west characters like Doc Holliday and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Several of the highest peaks in Colorado, exceeding 14,000 feet, are visible from the small town and during the course of the train ride. There are many ways to experience the beauty of the Rockies: driving, biking, hiking, climbing, and more. I highly recommend the novel approach afforded by the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad.

Amazing views from the Leadville train excursion
Amazing views from the Leadville train excursion

Our Final Destination

One of the most magnificent places I have ever seen is Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming. My wife, younger son, and I combined a visit to this park with our exploration of Yellowstone during the summer of 2015. Formed by a series of earthquakes dating back about 10 million years, the Teton Range rises an impressive 7,000 feet above the valley floor. The jagged, rocky peaks are quite a spectacle and can be seen for miles across the expansive meadows, forests, and flood plains that make up so much of the park’s terrain.

Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge
Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge

There are numerous options for staying overnight in the park, including campgrounds, cabins, and lodges. Jackson Lake Lodge is a full-service resort hotel that features a spacious lobby with two-story windows looking out on Jackson Lake and the 40-mile-long mountain range beyond. We didn’t actually stay at this lodge, but we spent some time in the lobby, out on the deck, and on the nearby trails where we could gaze at the ascending peaks still dressed in patches of snow even in July. As I wrote in a previous blog about this view, “Grand” doesn’t do it justice.

Grand Tetons near Jenny Lake
Grand Tetons near Jenny Lake

Human occupation of this region of the state began approximately 11,000 years ago when Nomadic paleo-Indians first entered the valley shortly after Pleistocene Ice Age glaciers retreated. The first euro-American explorer who may have entered the area was John Colter. He served as a member of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition, but he left the expedition in the fall of 1806 and traveled through this region in the winter of 1807-1808. As America expanded westward, survey expeditions mapped the landscape, documented natural resources, and scouted for future railroad access. Congress created the original park in 1929 to protect the Teton Range and several lakes at the foot of the mountains. More land from the federal government and from private donors was added over the next few decades, and by 1950 the park was the size that it is today: 310,000 acres.

Just inside the southern entrance to the park is a place that holds special meaning for my wife and me. The tiny Chapel of the Transfiguration was built in 1925 on land donated by Maud Noble. It was constructed so that the early settlers would not have to make the long buckboard ride into the nearby town of Jackson for Sunday services. The structure also served guests and employees of the dude ranches that stretched north of Jackson along the base of the Teton Range. It is still a functioning Episcopal church and is operated by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jackson. Services are held at the Chapel from late May to early September each year. A large window behind its altar frames the magnificent beauty of the Teton Range. A good friend of mine and a former Baptist minister of music once said, “It wouldn’t matter what the topic of your sermon was in that chapel. You’d always get an ‘amen’ at the end.”

Grand Tetons - Chapel of the Transfiguration
Grand Tetons – Chapel of the Transfiguration

My wife is a cradle Episcopalian, and I joined the denomination after we were married in 2008. We sometimes visit Episcopal churches when we are traveling, especially in historic locations. Although we did not attend a service at this little chapel, we were quite taken by its simple construction and its beautiful surroundings. In the summer of 2012, St. John’s created a Garden of Memories at the Chapel of Transfiguration for those who would like to repose their cremains on the grounds of this unique sacred place. Instead of being spread, ashes are poured into the ground and covered with soil. The names and dates of the deceased are inscribed on a plaque mounted on a large stone in the garden. We both decided a long time ago that we wanted to be cremated when we die, and after visiting this lovely place of worship in the valley below the Grand Tetons, we have chosen to make this garden our final travel destination.

Our Mountain Getaway

In the early 1970s, my parents purchased a small, three-bedroom house a few blocks from the downtown section of a sleepy little hamlet in the north Georgia mountains.  They intended to use the house as a vacation spot for their family, relatives, and close friends.  The house was about seventy years old and had been abandoned and neglected for quite a long time. As a skilled electrician and carpenter, my father was able to take what was an almost uninhabitable shack and, with the help of family and friends, turn it into a comfortable summer cabin. With all her characteristic love and gentle kindness, my mother turned the cabin into a second home.  When my parents first bought the house, there were two large oak trees growing in the front yard, so they decided to call the place “Twin Oaks.”  Even though one of the trees had to come down several years later, the name had already become so associated with the house that they decided to keep using it. 

Over the years, Twin Oaks provided four generations with a great place to escape and relax, to enjoy the beauty of the Georgia mountains, and to have SO much fun.  My sister and I continued to maintain the house and property as best we could after our parents could no longer make the trips to the mountain getaway.  Unfortunately, a house like this one was never intended to last for a very long time, and as a new century approached, Twin Oaks began to suffer from wear and tear and too many cold winters. In the fall of 2015 my wife and I, as the current owners, decided to demolish our little mountain vacation house and build something new in its place. I wrote a post in December of that year about our decision titled Letting It Go. We had some apprehension at the time, and it was not an easy decision to make. But, there was no doubt that we loved the location and wanted to continue having a place of our own for family and friends.

We contracted with a builder who is also a family member to construct a three-bedroom, two bath house, which was completed in December, 2016.  The wood frame house with a rock foundation is built basically on the same footprint as the original house.  It is still conveniently located within walking distance of the ever-expanding and vibrant downtown area.  However, this house came with a few significant upgrades: central heat and air, modern kitchen appliances, wireless Internet, and DISH TV.  It can be enjoyed year-round and doesn’t have to be “put to bed” for the winter. For over four decades, Twin Oaks was a place to create wonderful memories.  That tradition continues with a new house — Twin Oaks 2! 

Twin Oaks 2
Twin Oaks 2

Grand Doesn’t Touch It

They call the range of mountain peaks at Jackson Hole the Grand Tetons, although there is actually one peak in the range that is identified as “Grand Teton.”  Whether you choose to believe the name is derived from the French term for large breasts or the Native-American Teton Sioux tribe, the adjective is about the best we can come up with to describe this majestic geological feature — GRAND.  But when you are standing on the deck of Jackson Lake Lodge, or sitting inside the lobby with its 60-foot tall windows, peering across the great expanse of land and water at those rocky crags rising thousands of feet into the sky, you soon realize that a word like “grand” doesn’t touch it.  Somehow, this is one of those sights, for me at least, that language fails to describe, that photographs cannot completely reproduce, that videos do not totally capture.  Of course, recognizing all of this did not stop me from making video clips and taking photographs, like the one here.  Grand Teton National Park is another one of those places I have had the joy of visiting where I am reminded how small I am and just how magnificent the natural world is.  Put it on your bucket list.

Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge
Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge

Little Rock Creek Falls

My wife loves adventures, and she has had quite a few.  My life is all the more richer because of the adventures we have shared in the eight years we have been married.  There have been times when I have “caused” adventures for which we didn’t necessarily make plans, but she has usually faced the challenges with enthusiasm and determination.  She is a gracious soul.  One such occasion happened about five years ago when I decided to search for a hiking trail that terminated at a waterfall — one of my favorite outdoor experiences.  I searched through a trail guide and selected one in north central Georgia in the Chattahoochee National Forest.  Little Rock Creek Falls looked beautiful in all the photographs I saw, which perhaps encouraged me to be a bit too dismissive about the descriptions of the trail leading to the falls that described it as being difficult and dangerous with thick underbrush.

Little Rock Creek
Little Rock Creek

For young folks or very athletic, experienced hikers, this trail would not be a problem.  My wife and I are casual hikers.  We are occasional hikers.  We are quite often paved-trail hikers.  Little Rock Creek trail has no pavement.  The length of the trail from the road to the falls is a little less than a mile, and the elevation is consistent; however, the terrain is quite steep and rocky as the trail makes its way along a sharp embankment following the creek.  The understory is beautiful and thick with mountain laurel and rhododendron.  At this stage of our hiking careers, we were not yet using sticks of any kind (we each have two now).  Under normal conditions, we would have considered this to be a moderately difficult hike, but alas, I had the audacity to take my dear wife on this excursion not too long after she had broken her shoulder, which she guarded carefully along the way.  I was nervous the whole time, fearing that she would slip and reinjure her shoulder or break something else trying to protect it as she fell.

Although we should have waited until she was in better shape to make this hike, I can state with certainty that neither of us was disappointed with the terminus of this trail.  It was one of the most secluded and enchanting waterfalls I have ever seen in Georgia.  We did the obligatory selfie shot with the falls behind us, which became profile pictures for both of us on social media for several months.  I apologized to her profusely for selecting such a treacherous trail, especially considering that she was still recovering from an injury.  As usual, she simply said, “I’m fine.”  She is indeed.

Little Rock Creek big falls
Little Rock Creek big falls

Mountain Hiking

My wife and I really love to hike, and we have had the opportunity to hike in some beautiful spots: along the Pacific coast, in the desert, at Yosemite, and many other lesser known spots.  Some of the greatest rewards of hiking are the vistas that some trails include, and some of the best I have ever seen are on mountain trails.  Today, we hiked along the ridge that goes to the summit of  Whiteside Mountain just outside Highlands, NC.  The view from 4,800 feet was breathtaking.  We have certainly been at higher elevations in other places, but the view today was spectacular, probably because of the mix of sun and clouds and the multiple shades of green introduced by the onset of spring.

 

I cannot understand people who have no appreciation for the outdoors — for the majestic presence of mountains and seashores, the mighty rumbles of thunder, the magnificent beauty of an ancient tree, a field in bloom, or a rushing river.  I look forward to more excursions to follow trails like the one on this mountain, to see open sky and miles and miles of the earth below.