Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Another Trip to Denver

The impending Labor Day weekend gave us a good excuse to drive to Denver again. Our son and daughter-in-law would have 3 days off and we could help out with some more house projects. We mapped out a different route this time to check out some new camping spots and sights to see along the way.

We left on Tuesday afternoon. The drive to Denver is possible in 2 long days but we prefer to break it up into 3 shorter days. Our first target was Lake Shetek State Park in southwestern Minnesota. We enjoy taking the back roads rather than the freeways. The drive through southwestern Minnesota takes us through a rolling landscape of healthy farms and small towns. We arrived at the park in early evening.

From the park website:
The word "Shetek" is Ojibwe for "pelican," a bird which visits Lake Shetek during the summer and fall. The park contains the largest lake in southwestern Minnesota, which forms the headwaters of the Des Moines River.
Lake Shetek lies in the Coteau des Prairie ("highlands of the prairie") region of Minnesota, a geological area which separates the Minnesota River from the Missouri River watershed. 

Before modern agriculture was introduced, most of the Lake Shetek area was a treeless prairie with hundreds of species of wildflowers and grasses. Today, a large portion of the 1,108-acre park consists of old fields and forests of oak, hackberry, basswood, elm, and ash. Efforts to restore the prairie are underway.
We checked in at the park office, selected a campsite and settled in for the evening. There were a few other campers but the campground was quiet. A nice breeze kept the bugs at bay. After dinner we took a walk around the campground and enjoyed the sunset over the lake.

Note: please click on the photos to see a larger version.

Campsite at Lake Shetek.

Sunset over the lake.

The next day took us through South Dakota, across the Missouri River and into into Nebraska. At the town of Garretson, South Dakota, we stopped briefly to visit Devils Gulch at Palisades State Park.

View of Devil's Gulch near the parking area.
Another view of Devil's Gulch.

Split Rock Creek cuts through the Sioux quartzite at Palisades State Park to make a spectacular gorge. We did not take time to hike around but based on photos on the internet, Palisades State Park looks like a place we will return to in the future.

Image of Palisades State Park from the Argus Leader by Ray Reiffenberger


The Missouri River valley.

Crossing the Missouri River.

We passed through vast fields of sunflowers and endured several long road construction delays. We have usually camped in the Sandhills of the Nebraska National Forest. This trip we decided to check out other potential camping sites. We thought we might find a good spot in the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest or along the Niobrara National Scenic River. There was a nice rustic campground in the National Forest but we passed it by in the heat and humidity. Stifling heat and bugs chased us from several other sites. We eventually ended up at Merritt Reservoir near the town of Valentine.

The reservoir was created by an earthen dam on the Snake River. A well-developed recreation area with several campgrounds surrounds the reservoir and provided us with a very pleasant campsite right next to the lake.

We set up camp, made dinner and enjoyed the sunset.

Sunset in camp at Merritt Reservoir.

Morning in camp- ready to hit the road.

We arrived in Denver on Thursday afternoon, having survived a few more construction delays and detours. We also had an unanticipated water crossing, where 8 inches of floodwaters had covered the highway south of Valentine. Cars and trucks were allowed through one at a time in alternating directions and we eventually took our turn without incident.

We enjoyed three good days of projects and hanging out with our son and daughter-in-law. A highlight for me was delivering an old Craftsman reel lawn mower that had been bought new by my father in the 1950s and well used by me and my brothers mowing our lawns growing up. Although the mower had been recently sharpened, childhood memories flooded back as my son and I struggled to push the mower through the thick grass which hadn't been mowed for a month. Once the grass was chopped to a civilized length, the mower worked well. It will be perfect for the small Denver lawn. Of course I forgot to take a picture but found a match on the internet.

Craftsman mower (photo from eBay)

On Tuesday, the kids had to return to work. We packed up and hit the road again for home. We encountered heavy traffic in Boulder where we stopped at Costco to get a lost screw for my glasses replaced. We also stopped at REI to pick up a butane canister for a Jetboil stove that my son had given me for making morning coffee.

With those errands accomplished, we headed to Rocky Mountain National Park. Last time we had gone straight to the west side of the park for camping. This time we had decided to try our luck with getting a campsite on the more popular east side of the park. We knew chances were slim based on checking the campsite reservation system before we left Denver. Sure enough, all the campgrounds were full with cars waiting in line at each one. So we headed over the Trail Ridge Road to the west side where reservations are not allowed at the Timber Creek campground. We arrived around  5 PM and found plentiful camping available. We picked a site with room for our truck and trailer and set up camp.

Campsite at Timber Creek campground.

In the morning we woke to a herd of elk wandering through camp, grazing on the grass and poking their noses into tents. We enjoyed watching them. Eventually they meandered off on their way to the nearby meadow.

Elk checking out a tent.

We decided on a hike over to the Holzwarth Historic Site about a mile from camp. Rain was forecast for the afternoon and we thought we could do the hike and return to camp before the storm hit. The hike took us through a beautiful mountain meadow and eventually across the Colorado River to the site. Seeing the mighty Colorado as a small stream recalled a similar place at the source of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. On our way back, a cow moose wandered through the meadow ahead of us.

Beautiful mountain meadow.

The meadow is closed in the evenings during the rutting season.

Signpost at the Colorado River.

Detail from the signpost.

The Colorado River.

Old horse corral and scenic meadow.

The Holzwarth Ranch was originally homesteaded in 1917 and over time became a tourist destination for people wanting to spend time in the scenic area. We imagined people driving their Model T cars up the rough road in the 1920s to spend some time at the ranch. The property was acquired by the Nature Conservancy in 1974 and eventually transferred to the park. We enjoyed the hike and visit quite a lot. More information on the history can be found here:

Sign post at the Holzwarth site- lots of buildings.

The "Mama Cabin" where meals were prepared and served.

Door to the taxidermy shop.

Scene back at camp.
We returned to camp just before the storm hit. Lightning and thunder with lots of rain made us thankful for our camper. We stayed inside and read our books until the storm passed. The weather cleared up in time for dinner and a show by another herd of elk that descended from the hills into camp after dinner. We heard the bull bugling before we saw him- a distinctive, wild sound. Cows, calves, and young males grazed their way through the campground while people watched. Finally the large bull elk emerged from the trees. He stayed on the hill overseeing the action while the rest of the herd came into camp. We watched the big bull chase off a young male who expressed too much interest in one of the cows hanging out near the big bull. We watched the cows still nursing calves and bulls too young to have antlers but still exhibiting rutting behaviors. The herd wandered on and the bull took a route around the campground. All in all, a great show.

Elk in camp in the evening.

The big bull is visible on the hill, just right of center in the photo.

Elk cow wandering through camp.

Rocky mountain sunset.
The next morning we departed early on the next leg of our trip home. Our intended target was the Black Hills area of South Dakota. We drove the Trail Ridge Road again, in early morning this time, with nice views of the valleys below.

View of the valley from Trail Ridge Road.

Our route took us through Estes Park and along the Big Thompson River. We stopped for lunch at a nice county park along the river before leaving the mountain scenery behind. As we passed through the flat prairie and sand hills of Eastern Wyoming we saw antelope mingling with the cows. We eventually made it to Wind Cave National Park. We camped in a nondescript campsite in the national park campground alongside lots of RV-style campers. The campers were quiet though and we had a good night's sleep.

Big Thompson River.

We woke to cloudy skies and distant thunder. We packed up and were on the road just as the rain hit. It rained off and on the rest of the day. Our drive took us through the Black Hills and Custer State Park in South Dakota. Bison were seemingly everywhere and often on the road. We stopped several times and had to negotiate with some big bull bison to give us a share of the road. The road was very scenic with deep pine woods and occasional high overlooks. We enjoyed that portion of the drive a lot.

Solitary bison in the rain.

More grazing bison.

View of the Black Hills.

After leaving the Black Hills, the road stretched straight and flat ahead of us as we crossed South Dakota. We finally made camp at Camden State Park in Minnesota in a nice site on the edge of the prairie. Our campsite was close to the shower building and we took advantage of nice hot showers.

The next day broke rainy again. We completed our drive home, stopping along the way for a good breakfast at Mike's Cafe in Marshall, Minnesota.

Camp at Camden State Park.

Prairie view next to our camp.


  1. A fine trip! We loved the scenic views and the history. The Colorado River as a small mountain stream was a delight. You made us yearn to return to the Black Hills and Wind Cave, Thanks for sharing your adventure!

    1. We had the same response to the Colorado River. We hope to return to the Black Hills too.

  2. Thanks Al for sharing your trip.
    Your Elk picture of them in camp reminds me of the time at Madison camp in Yellowstone when a huge heard of female/calf
    Bison invaded the campsite.

  3. Frank, I would rather be invaded by elk than bison! Thanks for your comment.

  4. Awesome trip. The campground on the west side of RMNP looks interesting. Thanks for sharing. jd