2017 Sept USA road trip: hiking central Colorado, St Louis, South Dakota, Wyoming

Driving from the Northwest to Midwest USA round trip in fall 2017, Carol and I enjoyed 11 days of hiking and photographing the Rockies of central Colorado. St. Louis impressed us with glorious Gateway Arch, the tallest monument in the Western Hemisphere. I took a break from photography while visiting Carol’s family in Indiana. South Dakota surprised us with starkly beautiful Badlands National Park, magnificent Mt. Rushmore, poignant Crazy Horse Memorial, and exceptional Custer State Park. Plentiful wildlife cooperated with our cameras: bison (aka buffalo), bighorn sheep, a mountain goat, a bluebird, a black-billed magpie, and prairie dogs. Capping off a wonderful month, we revisited Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks in Wyoming.

See this trip’s sequential images in my Portfolio: 2017 Sep 21-Oct 17: CO, MO, SD, WY USA. We drove for 27 days across the USA from Seattle to Indianapolis round trip from Sept 21 – Oct 17, 2017.

New galleries from this trip are as follows:

The Rockies of Central Colorado

In galleries below, click “i” to display informative captions.

Colorado: Hanging Lake, Glenwood Canyon

In scenic Glenwood Canyon along I-70, one of America’s most scenic Interstate highways, beguiling Hanging Lake deserves its popularity for hikers (4 miles round trip with 1200 feet gain).


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Colorado: Rifle Falls State Park

28 miles west of Glenwood Springs, Rifle Falls State Park offers a distinctive triple waterfall.


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Colorado: Aspen: Maroon Lake, Ashcroft, Independence

Yellow fall colors brightened the resort of Aspen, where nearby 1880s Ashcroft and Independence ghost towns evoked the state’s mining history. Because no campground options were available around 8000-foot Aspen in late September, I booked at AirBNB.com a good-value condo with kitchen for 4 nights of necessary acclimatization, to prepare for hiking to high altitude. Snagging a parking spot midweek before sunrise at crowded Maroon Lake allowed us to capture the iconic Maroon Bells lit by magical morning light. From there, we grunted breathlessly upwards through fall colors via Crater Lake to desolate alpine Buckskin Pass (11 miles round trip with 3000 feet gain to 12,462 feet elevation) in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of White River National Forest. 


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Colorado: Leadville

We enjoyed strolling in historic Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the United States (elevation of 10,152 feet).


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Colorado: Vail

A relaxing condo stay near Vail allowed a pleasant walk through aspen fall colors to Booth Creek Falls (4.3 miles / 1400 ft gain) on Booth Lake Trail #1885.


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Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park

At Kawuneeche Visitor Center near Grand Lake, we learned that Trail Ridge Road was sadly closed ahead due to ice, which would have required driving around several extra hours to reach Estes Park. Luckily, driving upwards anyway allowed time for the problem to melt along the 12,183-foot-high crossing of Rocky Mountain National Park eastwards to our base at Estes Park KOA. We enjoyed hiking a wonderful loop from Bear Lake Trailhead with spur trails to an impressive series of lakes, waterfalls and peaks (13 miles gaining 2600 feet via Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, Lake Haiyaha, The Loch, Lake of Glass, Sky Pond, Alberta Falls then back; arrive early for parking or take the shuttle).


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Colorado: Roxborough State Park

Roxborough State Park features strikingly tilted red sandstone formations, appreciated via hiking up the pleasant Carpenter Peak Trail and back via Elk Valley loop and Fountain Overlook, 8.5 miles with 1600 feet gain. A shorter walk is to the Peak then directly back (6.2 miles and 1400 ft).


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Colorado: Garden of the Gods

Driving and strolling is a joy in Garden of the Gods National Natural Landmark, run by the City of Colorado Springs.


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Colorado: Paint Mines Interpretive Park

Little-known Paint Mines Interpretive Park will delight any admirer of rock hoodoos and colorful abstract patterns.


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St. Louis, Missouri

Clad in stainless steel and built in the form of a weighted catenary arch, Gateway Arch is the world’s tallest arch (630 feet high), the tallest man-made monument in the Western Hemisphere and Missouri’s tallest accessible building. Built as a monument to the westward expansion of the United States, and officially dedicated to the American people, it is the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The Arch was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen in 1947. It was built 1963-1965 at the site of St. Louis’ founding on the west bank of the Mississippi River and opened to the public in 1967. (Although built to last for ages, it is eventually susceptible to a tornado impact which could rip off the upper two-thirds.)


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South Dakota

SD: Badlands National Park

In this peacefully remote park, bighorn sheep grazed fearlessly along the roadside and dramatic sunset/sunrise colors lit the colorful cliffs sculpted from ancient sediments.


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SD: Black Hills: Custer State Park and wildlife reserve

South Dakota’s largest and first state park was named after Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Completed in 1922, the Needles Highway includes sharp turns, low tunnels and impressive granite spires along the northern 14 miles of South Dakota Highway 87 (SD 87). The road lies within Custer State Park, 30 miles south of Rapid City, in South Dakota. Needles Highway is part of the figure-eight route of Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway. A magical sunrise warmed the freezing air over idyllic Sylvan Lake. Cathedral Spires Area is most impressive. A famous herd of 1500 bison freely roam Custer State Park, as seen along Wildlife Loop Road.


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SD: Black Hills: Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum designed and oversaw the Mount Rushmore project 1927–1941, with help from his son, Lincoln Borglum. Mount Rushmore features 60-foot sculptures of the heads of four United States presidents: George Washington (1732–1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), and Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865).


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South Dakota historian Doane Robinson conceived the idea of carving the likenesses of famous people into the Black Hills in order to promote tourism. Robinson’s initial idea of sculpting the Needles was rejected by Gutzon Borglum due to poor granite quality and strong opposition from Native American groups. They settled on Mount Rushmore, and Borglum decided on the four presidents. Each president was originally to be depicted from head to waist, but lack of funding ended construction in late October 1941. Mount Rushmore is a batholith (massive intrusive igneous rock) rising to 5725 feet elevation in the Black Hills.

SD: Black Hills: Crazy Horse Memorial

The Crazy Horse Memorial is being carved into Thunderhead Mountain on private land in the Black Hills, between Custer and Hill City, 17 miles from Mount Rushmore, in Custer County, South Dakota. In progress since 1948, the sculpture is far from completion. It depicts the Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. The memorial was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, to be sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski. It is operated by the nonprofit Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. The sculpture is planned to be of record-setting size: 641 feet wide and 563 feet high. The head of Crazy Horse will be 87 feet high (whereas the heads of the four U.S. Presidents at Mount Rushmore are each 60 feet high).


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Crazy Horse (1840–1877) was a Native American war leader of the Oglala Lakota. He took up arms against the United States federal government to fight against encroachment by white American settlers on Indian territory. He earned great respect from both his enemies and his own people in several battles of the American Indian Wars on the northern Great Plains, including: the Fetterman massacre in 1866, in which he acted as a decoy, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, in which he led a war party to victory. Four months after surrendering in 1877, Crazy Horse was fatally wounded by a bayonet-wielding military guard, while allegedly resisting imprisonment at Camp Robinson in present-day Nebraska. In 1982 he was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a 13¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.

Wyoming

Wyoming: Black Hills: Devils Tower National Monument

Devils Tower (aka Bear Lodge Butte) rises dramatically 1267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, standing 867 feet from base to summit, at 5112 feet above sea level. Devils Tower was the first United States National Monument, established on September 24, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. This charismatic butte is comprised of intrusive igneous rock exposed by erosion in the Bear Lodge Mountains, part of the Black Hills, near Hulett and Sundance in Crook County, Wyoming. The 1893 wood stake ladder for the first ascent of Devils Tower (by Willard Ripley) was restored 1972. The last known use of the ladder was in 1927 by daredevil Babe “The Fly” White. In 1972, the Park Service removed what was left of the bottom section, and restored the top 140 feet of the ladder (see photo). In mid October, bright yellow cottonwood tree leaves framed Devils Tower in quiet Belle Fourche River Campground.


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Grand Teton NP images are now split off from Yellowstone into their own gallery; and new 2017 photos are added to both parks:

Wyoming: Yellowstone National Park


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Wyoming: Grand Teton National Park


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See the following master articles which consolidate galleries geographically for multiple trips:

USA: Colorado

Colorado favorite images


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The Rockies of Central Colorado

In galleries below, click “i” to display informative captions.

Colorado: Hanging Lake, Glenwood Canyon


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In scenic Glenwood Canyon along I-70, one of America’s most scenic Interstate highways, beautiful Hanging Lake deserves its popularity for hikers (4 miles round trip with 1200 feet gain). 

Colorado: Rifle Falls State Park


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28 miles west of Glenwood Springs, Rifle Falls State Park offers a distinctive triple waterfall.

Colorado: Aspen: Maroon Lake, Ashcroft, Independence


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Yellow fall colors brightened the resort of Aspen, where nearby 1880s Ashcroft and Independence ghost towns evoked the state’s mining history. Because no campground options were available around 8000-foot Aspen in late September, I booked at AirBNB.com a good-value condo with kitchen for 4 nights of necessary acclimatization, to prepare for hiking to high altitude. Snagging a parking spot midweek before sunrise at crowded Maroon Lake allowed us to capture the iconic Maroon Bells lit by magical morning light. From there, we grunted breathlessly upwards through fall colors via Crater Lake to desolate alpine Buckskin Pass (11 miles round trip with 3000 feet gain to 12,462 feet elevation) in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of White River National Forest. 

Colorado: Leadville


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We enjoyed strolling in historic Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the United States (elevation of 10,152 feet).

Colorado: Vail


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A relaxing condo stay near Vail allowed a pleasant walk through aspen fall colors to Booth Creek Falls (4.3 miles / 1400 ft gain) on Booth Lake Trail #1885.

Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park


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At Kawuneeche Visitor Center near Grand Lake, we learned that Trail Ridge Road was sadly closed ahead due to ice, which would have required driving around several extra hours to reach Estes Park. Luckily, driving upwards anyway allowed time for the problem to melt along the 12,183-foot-high crossing of Rocky Mountain National Park eastwards to our base at Estes Park KOA. We enjoyed hiking a wonderful loop from Bear Lake Trailhead with spur trails to an impressive series of lakes, waterfalls and peaks (13 miles gaining 2600 feet via Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, Lake Haiyaha, The Loch, Lake of Glass, Sky Pond, Alberta Falls then back). Arrive early for parking or take the shuttle.

Colorado: Roxborough State Park


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Roxborough State Park features strikingly tilted red sandstone formations, appreciated via hiking up the pleasant Carpenter Peak Trail and back via Elk Valley loop and Fountain Overlook, 8.5 miles with 1600 feet gain. A shorter walk is to the Peak then directly back (6.2 miles and 1400 ft).

Colorado: Garden of the Gods


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Driving and strolling is a joy in Garden of the Gods National Natural Landmark, run by the City of Colorado Springs.

Colorado: Paint Mines Interpretive Park


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Little-known Paint Mines Interpretive Park will delight any admirer of rock hoodoos and colorful abstract patterns.

Canyon Country of the Colorado Plateau:

The Colorado Plateau (centered upon the Four Corners region of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado) has the highest concentration of parklands in North America. You could spend a lifetime exploring the astounding natural wonders of this remarkable desert region. On April 5-7, 2015, we extended our southwest USA spring trip to Colorado National Monument and Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park shown below:

Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park

Gunnison River has cut a gorge 2300 feet deep at Painted Wall View, in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, near Montrose, Colorado, USA. Pressurized molten rock was forced into the 1.7 billion year old metamorphic rock of The Painted Wall, forming pink pegmatite stripes on Colorado’s highest cliff. The canyon exposes you to some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock, and craggiest spires in North America. With two million years to work, the Gunnison River, along with the forces of weathering, has sculpted this vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky.


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On the way from Monticello in Utah to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, check out the pretty pass of Dallas Divide in the San Juan Mountains (which will look fantastic with fall foliage colors on a future trip).

Colorado National Monument


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Recommended activities:

  • Monument Canyon Trail to Independence Monument: start from Rim Drive and walk 6 miles round trip with 1650-foot gain.
  • Devils Kitchen Trail: 1.5 miles round trip with 200-foot gain to an intimate cluster of pinnacles.
  • Rim Drive offers great canyon vistas using car or bicycle in a loop via Fruita, Colorado.
  • The park is most enjoyable mid week; but weekends can be crowded with visitors from nearby Grand Junction. An advantage of the nearby city is a pilgrimage to REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated, 644 North Ave, Grand Junction, CO 81501) if you need any outdoor clothing, shoes, or gear.

Related articles for Southwest USA (Arizona, ColoradoNew MexicoNevada, Utah) and Texas.

Recommended Colorado guidebooks

Search for latest “Colorado travel books” at Amazon.com.

2015 spring hikes in Utah & Colorado

In Spring 2015, we returned to southwest USA to experience lesser-known, yet remarkable hikes and sights shown in the following day-by-day gallery:


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The Colorado Plateau (centered upon the Four Corners region of Utah, ColoradoArizona, and New Mexico) has the highest concentration of parklands in North America. You could spend a lifetime exploring the astounding natural wonders of this remarkable desert region.

Spring/fall desert canyon hiking itinerary, round trip from Salt Lake City

The above photos are from the following itinerary, which makes a good round trip in 2 weeks from Salt Lake City:

Key to ratings: *** Must do. ** Do. * Maybe if time allows.

  1. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
    • * Capitol Gorge (Golden Throne Trail, The Tanks, Pioneer Register)
    • ** Hickman Natural Bridge and ** Rim Overlook Trail
    • * Grand Wash
  2. Goblin Valley State Park
  3. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
    • ** Leprechaun Canyon (on BLM land 8 miles north of GCNRA on Highway 95)
  4. ** Natural Bridges National Monument
  5. Needles District of Canyonlands  NP
    • ** Lost Canyon and Peekaboo Arch
    • * Slickrock Trail
    • * Cave Spring & Historic Cowboy Camp
    • * Needles Outpost Campground has nice *** hot showers to wash off the desert dust. (The scenic ** Canyonlands National Park’s Squaw Flat Campground was full on Thursday and Friday during Easter week 2015.)
    • ** Shay Canyon’s petroglyph gallery (on BLM land outside of Canyonlands National Park, a few miles up the highway from Newspaper Rock)
  6. We skipped ** Moab this year because its campgrounds were overbooked due to the crowded Easter Jeep Safari (Saturday, March 28 – Sunday, April 5, 2015), and instead headed into less-crowded spring destinations in Colorado:
  7. * Dallas Divide, Colorado (a pretty pass in the San Juan Mountains which will look fantastic with *** fall foliage colors on some future trip)
  8. *** Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park, Colorado
    • *** The Painted Wall viewpoints around sunrise and sunset
    • * Campground
  9. ** Colorado National Monument, Colorado
    • ** Monument Canyon Trail to Independence Monument
    • ** Devils Kitchen
    • ** Rim Drive views
  10. ** Dinosaur National Monument, near Jensen, Utah

See related articles: 

– Tom and Carol Dempsey
Seattle, Washington
March 25-April 10, 2015