Colorado’s Crested Butte Struts Its Fall Foliage

No wonder Colorado's state colors are blue and gold. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Last weekend (September 23–25), Ken and I headed up to our favorite mountain area: Crested Butte, Colorado. We’ve been there for powder days in winter and wildflower fireworks in summer, but autumn had some sizzle in store for us.

I’m usually verbose on these posts, but this time I thought I’d let the photos do the talking. All I can say is that it’s worth the five-and-a-half-hour drive from Boulder to get to this Shangri-la of the Rockies.

Kebler Pass, just above Crested Butte, boasts the largest aspen grove in the state, but in most spots the aspen hadn’t yet started to change colors. There were a few breathtaking vistas on Kebler Pass,  but I think the first week of October should be insanely gorgeous there.

The Castle spires as seen from Ohio Creek Road. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

You can take Ohio Creek Road from Gunnison to Crested Butte. (You can also get to Ohio Creek Road from Kebler Pass.) One great reward is seeing the Castle Mountains from that  road.

Ken cycled along the road to Gothic, a mountain town above Crested Butte. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

View from Gothic Road. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

The road up to Gothic displayed some pretty impressive foliage. We were among the many cars that kept pulling over to the edge to snap photos.

Aspen flanking Gothic Road near Crested Butte. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

For tips on scenic mountain drives around Crested Butte, visit the Gunnison–Crested Butte Tourism Association.

Laurel Kallenbach, leaf-peeper

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P.S. Leave a comment below reporting on your favorite fall scenery.

Say Goodbye to the Grump during Crested Butte’s Vinotok Festival

The Green Man at the Crested Butte Vinotok festival. Photo courtesy GCBTA.

For years I’ve been hearing about a cool fall festival called Vinotok, held in Crested Butte, Colorado, a quaint and hip mountain town. This year was my chance to enjoy the golden aspen leaves and this annual celebration of the summer harvest and autumn equinox. (Vinotok is a Slovenian word for “fall wine festival.”)

In Europe as well as in America’s Rocky Mountains, Vinotok is a time of village feasting, of forgetting the woes of yesterday, and honoring traditional Eastern European roots.

In the Crested Butte community, Vinotok is a big deal! Ken and I were there for the last two days, but the revelry had been going all week: wreath-making at the farmer’s market; entertainment by local musicians and poets; storytelling events; Liar’s Night, a time for tall tales, whoppers and adventure stories; the crowning of the Green Man, a symbol of virility and the promise of returning spring; and a Community Feast featuring regionally harvested dishes.

 

The Big Night

On Saturday night, the last evening of Vinotok, things really got exciting. All that day, I saw people cutting aspen boughs and riding back to town with them on their bikes. At 5:30 I found out why. Locals dressed as medieval characters paraded down the streets, their heads ringed with fresh flower or leaf wreaths. They carried banners, flags and torches; the shirtless Green Man was decorated in body paint. As they danced down the streets, groups of these characters stopped into restaurants, sang harvest songs, and invited everyone to attend the evening’s festivities.

Revelers parade through Crested Butte's streets. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Even people who weren’t with the official parade wore costumes or wreaths in their hair. The evening was starting to feel like a Renaissance Faire.

At 7:30, as darkness fell, a crowd formed around a stage in front of The Eldo saloon on Crested Butte’s main street. At 8:00, a drama honoring the cycles of nature was enacted on the stage. I couldn’t see much because there were thousands of people gathered, but apparently there were characters such as the Harvest Mother (a very pregnant woman from town); and the Earth Dragon, representing nature, who battled with Sir Hapless, the symbol of technology. There was much talk about restoring balance—an appropriate theme for equinox, a time for planetary equilibrium.

In addition, the Red Lady appeared—a human personification of Mt. Emmons (better known as the Red Lady), the red-rock peak that shelters the town of Crested Butte. The drama’s narrator made an impassioned plea for protecting the Red Lady from a proposed molybdenum mine opposed by many in the community.

Vinotok participants serenade diners at the Ginger Café. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Burn The Grump

Finally, there was a trial for The Grump, a 20-foot-tall effigy and sacrificial scapegoat for the discordance between nature and technology. All of us in the crowd delighted in finding The Grump guilty, and we screamed “Burn The Grump!”

Then thousands of people poured down Elk Avenue to the town crossroads where a huge bonfire was erected. Into the flames went The Grump; he exploded with a few fireworks.

Now here’s the best part: Weeks before this celebration, local kids made “Grump boxes,” which were set around town. Townspeople write down their “grumps,” grievances they want to forget so they can move into the new season with a clean slate. These thoughts are then stuffed inside The Grump. As The Grump goes up in flames, so does everybody’s complaints.

The bonfire that engulfs The Grump. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

We newcomers had a chance to participate too. Ken and I each wrote down our grievances on little pieces of paper. Then Ken handed them to a Fire Maiden who danced close enough to enormous bonfire to throw them in.

I was impressed to see earnest boys jotting down their grumps. One teenage girl asked to borrow a pen so she could write hers. It was great to see all generations participating wholeheartedly in Vinotok. On the other hand, the event attracted a huge number of college-age revelers more interested in heavy drinking than Eastern European heritage. Well, I suppose over-imbibing is a centuries-old tradition as well.

As I felt the heat from the bonfire flames on my cheeks, I watched the sparks spewing from the fire and floating into the sky.

Farewell grumpy thoughts. Hello autumn!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more info on future Vinotok festivals, check the Gunnison–Crested Butte Tourism Association.

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5 Prehistoric Monsters You Can’t Miss at Dinosaur Journey


Explore the dinosaurs of the western United States at Dinosaur Journey museum. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In Fruita, Colorado, dinosaurs rule. Traveling through this western Colorado town—only half an hour from the Utah border—you’ll see plenty of dino sculptures and signs, because this landscape is a paleontologist’s dream come true.

For more than a hundred years, scientists have flocked to this part of the country to search for dinosaurs—and they’re still making new discoveries. Thousands of fossilized dinosaur remains have been unearthed in the region.

Fruita is located along the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Highway, a 512-mile loop through Colorado and Utah with designated stops at sites famous for dinosaur finds. If you’re a dino lover, you must stop at Fruita’s Dinosaur Journey, a family-oriented museum filled with fossilized skeletons—including toothsome, 27-foot Allosaurus—and robotic recreations of a number of impressive dinosaurs.

In addition to seeing the paleontology lab, where you can learn about how scientists study the fossils they’ve dug up, you get an up-close look at the creatures, including these five:

Fossilized Allosaurus skeleton ©Laurel Kallenbach

1. Voracious Allosaurus: A seriously carnivorous dinosaur of the Jurassic, this behemoth used its sharp teeth and hand claws to tear into herbivorous dinosaurs, including Brontosaurus. Numbers of Allosaurus skeletons have been found in Rabbit Valley where I participated in the museum’s Dino Dig; in fact, the girl and her grandfather digging next to me unearthed the fossilized tooth of a juvenile Allosaurus. Gazing at the Allosaurus skeleton at Dinosaur Journey museum is terrifying enough, but imagine the horror of seeing a fully muscled and fleshed animal—who weighed between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds—coming at you!

Dilophosaurus ©Laurel Kallenbach

2. Poison-Spitting Dilophosaurus: A dinosaur that will hunt you down and spit poison at you? Yikes! Dinosaur Journey’s animated model of Dilophosaurus rears up and drenches museum-going humanoids with poison—OK, it’s just water.

Scientists aren’t positive that this 20-foot monster with twin crests on its head was actually poisonous; it’s a theory. Either way…yuck!

Velociraptor, Dinosaur Journey ©Laurel Kallenbach

3. Swift Velociraptor: If you’ve seen the movie Jurassic Park, you know that the small, lithe Velociraptor was formidable because of its speed. There’s just no running away from these track-and-field stars when they’re hungry.

The skeleton on display at Dinosaur Journey looks petite, but you can see rows of razorlike teeth and those creepy, birdlike claws. (Size isn’t everything!) Even the empty eye socket looks terrifying. Imagine this flesh-eater covered in feathers—horror!

Mymoorapelta Maysi ©Laurel Kallenbach

4. Armored Mymoorapelta: Covered in bony armor, Mymoorapelta was named after Mygatt-Moore quarry in western Colorado where it was found. (The same quarry where I dug for fossils!)

Like an armadillo, this dinosaur was biologically furnished with bony, spiky plates that would have made it tough for predators to kill this slow-moving beastie. The sign at Dinosaur Journey calls this guy “Knight of the Jurassic.”

Utahraptor ©Laurel Kallenbach

5. Utahraptor, the Slasher: This hunter was even larger than Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex— and just as fierce. Can you guess the state where Utahraptor was discovered?

With nine-inch-long claws, this predator was the Freddy Krueger of Cretaceous carnivores. This depiction of Utahraptor is truly a bloody nightmare. I’m pretty sure he’s chewing on a vegetarian.

Sarcosuchus is about to eat my brother! ©Laurel Kallenbach

Bonus: Sarcosuchus: A distant, but giant, relative of the crocodile, Sarcosuchus lived 112 million years ago.

This one was visiting during the traveling “Supercrocs” exhibition, so it’s not permanently at Dinosaur Journey. Good thing, or my brother would never have made it out alive!

 

Fun Facts You’ll Learn at Dinosaur Journey:

  • Stegosaurus is the official state fossil of Colorado.
  • The giant sauropod dinosaur Supersaurus—who probably weighed about 92,400 pounds—was collected near Delta, in western Colorado.
  • During the Early Jurassic, most of western Colorado was covered in sand dunes, and we find dinosaur footprints in these rocks.
  • A young duck-billed dinosaur was found in marine rocks in western Colorado. The animal had been washed out to sea (from what is now Utah) and sank to the bottom.
  • Super-sized Apatosaurus (also known as Brontosaurus) was found near Fruita and probably weighed about as much as 150,069 Big Macs.
  • A tiny Jurassic dinosaur, Fruitadens —who lived at the same time as Apatosaurus—was smaller than a chicken. Apatosaurus was a million times heavier than Fruitadens. Both were found in western Colorado.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read about my experience digging for dinosaurs: “Be a Paleontologist for a Day” 

Dino Dig in Colorado: Be a Paleontologist for a Day

Digging for dinosaurs at Mygatt-Moore quarry in western Colorado. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The green-and-purple tail of Triceratops disappears over the crest of the mesa, headed west through the desert toward Utah on I-70 with our van driver in hot pursuit. I sit shotgun, and behind me a seat full of kids shouts, “Catch up, catch up!” Bouncing around in a back seat is my brother, David.

Heavily loaded with children and parents, the van chugs up the mesa and we again spot the Triceratops—a.k.a., the Dino Mobile, piloted by ace paleontologist John Foster, who leads our caravan to the Mygatt-Moore Quarry for a day-long Dino Dig. The Dino Mobile, decked out with three horns and trademark bony head-frill, emits occasional bursts of fossil fuel from its tailpipe.

The excavation, sponsored by the Museum of Western Colorado, is wish fulfillment for the prehistoric-reptile obsessed kids in the van—including David and me. Once upon a time, we were fossil-collecting eight-year-olds who used to bicker during road trips about who was tougher: Tyrannosaurus rex or Dimetrodon.

Like these hunters, we two spent our childhood locked in titanic struggle for no reason other than preadolescent rage about family pecking order. I fantasized about being an only child with nearly as much passion as becoming a paleontologist. He wanted to take his know-it-all sister down a peg. There was hair-pulling, arm-twisting, and, yes, even biting at which my brother was the clear champion.

The Dino Mobile, decked out like a Triceratops ©Laurel Kallenbach

But that was ancient history—almost as long ago as the 150 million years we’re traveling back in time today. David and I are going back to the Jurassic. We’ve partnered up for a brother-sister road trip with a prehistoric theme. No longer adversaries, we both agree we have more in common than not—including our love for the outdoors and for dinosaurs. So, we’ve met in Grand Junction, Colorado—he lives in Montana; I’m from Boulder—to commemorate the car-camping treks of our childhood. Luckily for us, nearby western Colorado and eastern Utah comprise some of the world’s best dinosaur country, much of which we can access via the scenic, 512-mile Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Byway.

Quest for dinosaurs

Paleontologist John Foster demonstrates how to brush away dirt at the dig. ©Laurel Kallenbach

As the Dino Mobile and our van pull into Mygatt-Moore Quarry, Dexter—who has just graduated from kindergarten summa cum laude—announces he’s going to unearth a dinosaur skull today. The eight-year-old inside me thinks, “No way! I’m going to find it!” After all, I’ve got more than four decades on the kid.

First, though, we paleontologists-in-training learn the ropes. Dr. Foster demonstrates how to use our tools and tells us how to spot dinosaur fossils; they’re darker than the surrounding clay. “Never remove a fossil from the ground until a paleontologist has documented where it’s located,” he says.

David and I pick a spot under the shade awning, strap on knee-pads, arrange old carpet squares to kneel on, and start digging with screwdrivers, using them to delicately lift horizontal layers of the bleached-out clay, which was once mud along an ancient river. We scrutinize every earthen clump, sweep non-interesting pieces into a dustpan with a small paintbrush, and eventually pour the waste into a bucket. We’re hyper-vigilant for anything dark. A piece of bone will have a spongy texture; teeth are shiny black.

Fifteen minutes after we start, young Dexter calls out: “I found something!” Our heads pop up like prairie dogs on alert. Paleontology assistant Tom Temme checks, and then confirms, that Dexter has indeed unearthed a dinosaur bone fragment. David and I exchange determined looks, as if to say, We’ve been upstaged by that pipsqueak? We apply our screwdrivers to the clay with renewed fervor.

When I encounter a blackish vein about a third-inch wide, I slow down and carefully trace its edge. Soon the vein forks to the right. My pulse pounds in my ears at the prospect of digging up the bone of an animal never before seen by humans. I call to Kelsie Abrams, a paleontology grad student who’s in Colorado for a summer of digging. She bends over my find. “Yep, that’s a stem of Equisetum—horsetail.” She touches the dark line. “You can tell because plant matter rubs off on your finger like black charcoal.” My adrenaline rush crashes.

David uses the tools of the trade: screwdriver, brush, dustpan, and a bucket for hauling away empty rock. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Equisetum grows everywhere—even today,” David says. “Pretty common.”

I want to strangle my biology-major brother. “Still, it’s a 150-million-year piece of Equisetum,” I retort, but we both know that horsetail is not paleontology’s holy grail.

We continue digging as the sun grows hotter and our legs cramp. Beside us, Frank and his ten-year-old granddaughter, Ashley, hold out a chunk of rock to Tom; there’s something dark in it. Tom carefully breaks off bits of the rock, revealing the tooth of a juvenile Allosaurus, a ferocious meat-eater. Had the tooth been from an adult, it would have been three inches long.

Ashley’s find—just two feet to our right—ignites in us a frenzy of breaking chunks of hardened clay, but the result is only sore fingers.

At noon, Stephen Senior and his ten-year-old namesake unearth another piece of bone. After Tom has flagged its position in the ground, he removes it and passes it to me for a look. I have a hard time distinguishing “spongy” bone from clay. It takes a practiced eye, this digging for dinosaurs.

Sweaty and deflated, David and I quit for lunch and watch Tom drizzle a mixture of acetone and dissolved plastic on Dexter’s bone fragment to keep it from crumbling. Any doubts I have that this Dino Dig is a tourist gimmick evaporate. We amateurs are helping out with real science—hot, back-straining, exhilarating science.

At the picnic table, we ask Kelsie, who has a Diplodocus skull tattooed on her left forearm, why the kids are making all the good finds. “It’s total luck,” she said, sipping Gatorade from a plastic Dinosaur Journey souvenir cup that reads I’d rather be in the Mesozoic. Then she adds that kids tend to “dig in,” whereas adults can be overly thorough. My brother and I look sheepish. Being meticulous is a family trait.

After lunch, we double our speed, yet each time I empty my dustpan I worry I’m discarding a valuable piece of prehistory. We never hit “pay dirt,” but it’s here at Mygatt-Moore Quarry. Fifty yards from where we’re digging, seasoned volunteers are unearthing the five-foot-long femur of an Apatosaurus.

Now that’s the holy grail.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

After the dig, Dr. John Foster gave our group a behind-the-scenes tour of the paleontology lab to see large fossils and some of the tools scientists use to analyze them. Then my brother and I strolled through Dinosaur Journey, a family-oriented museum filled with reassembled skeletons—including our toothsome, 27-foot Allosaurus friend—and robotic recreations of dinosaurs such as the carnivorous Utahraptor and a venom-spitting Dilophosaurus. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Dino Digs is an educational/vacation program by the Museum of Western Colorado, in Grand Junction, Colo., that offers paleontology adventures (half-day up to five-day expeditions) in various quarries in western Colorado and eastern Utah, including Moab.

Laurel: living the paleontology dream! ©David Kallenbach

The digs let you work with real scientists in quarries and learn skills such as spotting fossils and digging them out of the rock or dirt. Participants also get a behind-the-scenes view of how paleontologists clean and study their finds at Dinosaur Journey museum.

Dino Digs are available from mid-May through mid-September. Transportation to the quarry, lunch, water/Gatorade, and tools are provided. The minimum age varies from five to eight, depending on the dig you choose.

 

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