Endless summer: Solitude and warmth on the Colorado Plateau
It’s fall in the high country and, while the days are warm now, they won’t be for much longer.
That’s when the waiting time starts. It’s the ugly season of cold, dark days with snow spitting from a leaden sky. The lifts won’t open for another couple of weeks and you’re stuck in Vail, waiting for the bullwheels to start turning and freezing your butt off.
That’s when it’s time to head south and experience Colorado’s endless summer. Winter in this state is a function of altitude. When it’s snowing in Vail, it can be a balmy 75 degrees in the southern, lower, part of the state.
And there’s nowhere better to experience warmth in the winter than the Colorado Plateau area, a red rock country littered with petroglyphs, home to indigenous people and full of hiking and camping opportunities.
It’s warm down in Cortez, when we pull into town off of Highway 145.
We’ve come here to escape an early-season storm which is puking snow in the High Country.
Trucks are blocking Vail Pass and the mayhem extends to Denver as people huddle in stalled cars and face the reality that it can snow at almost any time of the year in the Centennial State, even October.
Especially in October.
The snow won’t bother us. Cortez sits is in the low country. The air has the cool taste of fall in it, but even that will soon be gone. It rained here last night, the same storm that is socked up against the Divide and is pounding the Rockies.
It’s the only bad weather we’ll see our entire week.
The Four Corners area of Colorado is part of a geological area known as the Colorado Plateau. While called a “plateau,” the area is a huge basin ringed by highlands and filled with plateaus. It sprawls across southeastern Utah, northern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and western Colorado.
Featuring red rock spires, hidden canyons and remote peaks, the area is home to elk, mountain lions, bobcats and antelope. The wildlife is complemented by a lack of people.
It’s easy to find empty space here and the temperate climate – highs in the winter regularly reach into the 70s – lends itself to backpacking and hiking expeditions deep into the remote wilderness surrounding Cortez.
We head out into the desert to the west of the town, up McElmo Canyon on the G Road.
Primarily Bureau of Land Management administered federal lands, this area is abutted by Ute tribal lands. The spirit of America’s native people is strong here. Anazazi ruins dot the canyons and petroglyphs are common. The camping on BLM land is free and jeep trails plunge deep into Hovenweep and Negro Canyons, providing excellent 4-wheel access to hidden campsites
We find a fine one in Negro Canyon, just south of Hovenweep National Monument, a red rock wonderland of adobe ruins and Anazazi petroglyphs. Day hikes take us deep into the canyons and we spend hours exploring the surrounding desert, our faces growing darker under the unrelenting sun.
All to soon, though, it’s time to head back to the High Country. The lifts will be open soon, and the snow is already on the ground.
But we’ve enjoyed another week of summer and we’ll come back again when the snow gets too deep for comfort and we long to shed down jackets for shorts and our ski boots for sandals.