Day 3 - Lake City, CO to Monticello, UT

Note: Today's post will be light on photos due to slow internet and writer's exhaustion. I'll update with more information and photos later on in the journey.

 Top of Cinnamon Pass - 12,600'

Top of Cinnamon Pass - 12,600'

Today's segments took us from Lake City Colorado (8,700') through three mountain passes. The first two, Cinnamon Pass (12,600') and Ophir Pass (11,789'), require steep, switchbacked ascents up rocky trails, often with oncoming vehicles on the one-lane trail. The trails wind their way alongside sheer rock faces and stomach-churning drops, all while surrounding you with constant, overwhelming natural beauty. These passes connect old abandoned mines and the remnants of mining towns sprinkled throughout central Colorado, and were easily the highlight of the trip so far.

The morning started with breakfast sandwiches from Lake City Bakery, a 50-foot walk from the North Face Inn. The motorcycle group staying next door had left early, likely to get a head start on the challenging climb at Engineer Pass (12,800'). After breakfast, we struck out for the Cinnamon trailhead a few miles South.

Cinnamon Pass

This trail was our first opportunity to really test the Forester's off-road performance. The ascent was relatively smooth for the first 2,000 feet, and consisted of mostly gravel and light rock trails. The OHV traffic was markedly heavy here, and often meant traffic jams of rented jeep groups, 4x4 riders, side by side tour groups, and individual drivers in jeeps. We were the only Subaru on the trail, which made running alongside the Jeep groups especially fun. 

 On the trail to Cinnamon Pass, approximately 11,300'

On the trail to Cinnamon Pass, approximately 11,300'

At around 11,000' the trail turned to large loose rock and required more careful wheel placement, though we were still able to maintain double-digit speed. The limiting factor here was the notably diminished torque delivered by the 2.5i Forester engine, which would have benefitted greatly from a turbo. This was most apparent when we hit 12,000', and at maximum power on a particularly steep section barely eked out a 6 MPH climb.

We finally crested the top of the pass and joined a cluster of Jeep drivers to take in the view. The descent ahead looked fun - and steep - and like a good opportunity to test out the Forester’s X-Mode. We had to press on for time - Ophir Pass awaited after the town of Silverton, and then an approximately 80-mile sojourn through San Juan National Forest to the Colorado-Utah border.

Ophir Pass

After a break in Silverton (9,318’) that afforded us some choice stickers and a fantastic pulled chicken sandwich from The Brown Bag, we pulled onto the trailhead for Ophir Pass, which connected the old trade center of Silverton with the mining town of Ophir. Almost immediately, it was clear that Ophir Pass would be a far more exciting challenge than Cinnamon. The sun broke through the clouds just as we began to climb between two towering 13,000+ foot peaks, affording us an unbroken view of the verdant valley and meadows below. The trail itself was far rockier than the Cinnamon ascent, but we had no issues keeping a quick pace, and our clearance (10”) was more than sufficient for the stray rocks in the way.

Partway up the ascent, we were flagged down by a deeply-tanned older man driving an aged Land Cruiser and warned against continuing, noting that he’d had trouble on the other side and we were liable to be unable to finish the pass. We pressed on anyways. Just above 10,500’, we ran across the only other Subaru we’d seen attempting the trails - a red early-2000s Forester. The driver was walking back from the upcoming switchback, crestfallen. As we stopped to chat, he remarked that an old man in a red truck had warned him against continuing, and he was turning around. We concurred - he had all-season passenger tires and limited ground clearance - but we let him know to keep an eye out for any news of Foresters ending up at the bottom of Ophir Pass.

We finally reached the summit and were greeted by stunning views across the mountaintops on either side of the pass. I sent the drone out for video, and noticed that our upcoming journey looked considerably rockier. 

Once we began the descent, the route became far more technical. 60% of the descent consisted of large jumbled rock piles, with narrow spaces between large, tire-popping rocks on either side. The route meandered down steep ravines dug by the same rockfalls that had littered the trail, and meant a small margin for error between body damage on one side and a far worse fate on the other.

We took the descent slow - not in the least because we were filming most of it by close-follow drone (video to come), but were graced with spectacular vistas across the multicolored rock faces that lined the valley. Near the bottom, we inadvertently joined up with a Jeep group until we reached a collection of abandoned mineshafts near the small town of Ophir.

Ophir was our favorite pass - though slightly lower in elevation than Cinnamon Pass, it was a far more technically challenging route and boasted the most varied of vistas. The Forester handled admirably, with X-Mode and Hill Descent proving invaluable on some of the more intense downhill rock scrambles.

Out of the mountains, we joined the trail again after Lizard’s Head Pass to traverse the forest roads of San Juan National Forest.

San Juan National Forest

After five hours of challenging rock crawling, climbing, and descending between 8,700’ and 12,600’, we were thrilled to join the trails through San Juan National Forest. These forest roads were fast gravel routes with minimal obstacles, and we raced through densely wooded birch and pine forests, stopping for the occasional free-grazing cow standing in the roadway. Though far less technical, this two-hour journey was one of the highlights of the day, as we watched the mountains turn to hills and the mighty ridgelines of central Colorado start to fade into our rearview.

We pulled into the town of Monticello, Utah, late, around 8pm, and caught a bite to eat at the Gristmill Inn. Turning in now to prepare for tomorrow’s trip to Arches National Park, Canyonlands, and eventually overloading to Hite, UT for Day 4.

Day 2 - Cotopaxti to Lake City, CO

 Not all who wander are lost. Some are, though.

Not all who wander are lost. Some are, though.

Our first day on the TAT was everything we'd come to Colorado for - mountains, alpine lakes, canyons, and miles of dusty trail through winding mountain roads. We got a late start, owing in part to still recovering from my stomach bug and our 14000 foot trek the day before. We reached Cotopaxti and joined the TAT around 1pm, which meant we were going to be hard-pressed to make our entire 8-hour drive by nightfall.

The Dusty Trails to Salida

The first segment, Cotopaxti to Salida, was a great introduction to the type of dirt/gravel country road/forest road combination that makes up a good bit of the Eastern TAT. A constant but gradual climb took us from the 7000 foot elevation of Cotopaxti to around 9000, where we spent the remainder of the trip to Salida. 

 Starting the journey to Salida

Starting the journey to Salida

As soon as we crested the first ridge, we were overtaken by a rainstorm, which turned parts of the road into a fine mud. The trail itself was easily navigable - the rare rock could be detoured around on the wide trailway, which could fit two vehicles abreast easily. The landscape was a delightful collage of textures and colors - one minute sparse scrubland, the next dense pine forest, then just as suddenly bleached bone birch trunks lining the path. Once the rains cleared, the view was breathtaking (literally, at 10,000 feet). 

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The descent was equally enjoyable - and far sunnier. At this point the car was encased in a fine layer of dust, but mechanically everything was working great.

 Rocky Road

Rocky Road

Mitchell Pass and the Continental Divide

After a brief drive through Salida, we turned off the highway into San Isabel National Forest in search of Marshall Pass and the Continental Divide. The ascent was quick - starting around 8300 and pausing around 9500 where we encountered a gorgeous campsite alongside O'Haver Lake.

 O'Haver Lake Campground

O'Haver Lake Campground

After a quick stop (and a promise to come back and camp there) we continued climbing, reaching 10000 relatively quickly. The views, especially of Mount Ouray (13,960'), were spectacular, and the trail was heavily wooded with pine forests on all sides. The road conditions worsened considerably - there were more small rock gardens and the occasional obstacle, which made it seem like the road was in need of grading. Turns out the US Forest Service felt similarly.

 When is ADF making a lift kit big enough for these tires?

When is ADF making a lift kit big enough for these tires?

As we climbed higher, we eventually reached a plateau with dense low-lying vegetation and small ponds. Kosta, the trip's resident wildlife expert, noted that this would be an ideal moose habitat. Two minutes later, three bull moose poked their heads out of the foliage approximately 200 yards away. With the video of a moose charging through shoulder-height snow on the mind, we quietly parked and got out the binoculars. The moose didn't seem to care.

 Moosespotting

Moosespotting

At long last, we made it to the top of Marshall Pass and crossed the Continental Divide - officially beginning the Western portion of the TAT!

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As we prepared to head down, we had only a few more hours of daylight, and needed to reach Lake City, CO, to stay on schedule. There was just one more moment to snap a shot of the Western side of Colorado before we explored the more rally-focused side of the Subaru pedigree.

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Night note: Made it to Lake City late at night and got the last room at the North Face Inn, a charming roadside hotel/motel with themed rooms and a sizeable cadre of fellow TAT riders. Tomorrow will bring Ophir Pass, Cinnamon Pass, Lizard Head Pass, 13,000 foot elevations for hours, and our final descent into Utah.

Day 1 - Delays and Detours

Day 1 was supposed to be a challenging set of ascents into the Colorado Rockies, but DC was determined to have one last laugh. We spent the weekend holed up in a hotel in Denver, fighting to kill a nasty stomach bug before our planned departure.

Thankfully, Monday morning brought a reprise from sickness, but we felt it prudent to take it slow, and made it our goal to move down to Colorado Springs and prepare to embark for Lake City on Tuesday.

We arrived early, and it decided that we couldn't waste another day indoors. 

Garden of the Gods

A quick stop at Garden of the Gods, just outside of Colorado Springs, was a fitting appetizer to the geological splendor that awaits us further West - all walking here, and no aerial photography allowed. The landscapes blew us away - and we're thankful we took the time to stop. We managed to snag a few normal shots like this one:

GOTG has free (permitted) climbing, but we'd left all of our gear at home/sent it all to SF with the movers. We got to live vicariously though these folks though:

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We had one other destination in mind, which meant we had to hurry away from GOTG to beat the sunset...

Pike's Peak

Pike's Peak towers 14,114 feet above sea level and is one of Colorado's 53 "14ers" (mountains over 14,000 feet). It's one of two 14ers accessible by car, which for two people in varying states of altitude acclimatization, sounded fantastic. The summit closed at 7pm, so we had to hurry. Ideally, you should summit 10k+ mountains slowly, pausing every 1-2 thousand feet to allow your body to acclimate to the changing pressure and oxygenation. We had an hour, so we cut some corners.

 This was taken at about 11,000 feet, at which point the air was noticeably thinner and walking too far from the car felt like jogging laps. We stopped for a bit to cool the engine, since the climb was taxing on our non-turbo.

This was taken at about 11,000 feet, at which point the air was noticeably thinner and walking too far from the car felt like jogging laps. We stopped for a bit to cool the engine, since the climb was taxing on our non-turbo.

As we ascended the switchbacked roadway, there were a few white-knuckle moments. The occasional SUV was parked on turnouts, engine overheated or drivers too afraid to continue up the road. I had some flashbacks to driving one of the F roads in Iceland, which switchbacked up a rough gravel trail with hundred-foot sheer drops feet away. At least this road was paved - and had the occasional guardrail.

 There were a few spots to flex, and we managed to get a wheel off the ground too.

There were a few spots to flex, and we managed to get a wheel off the ground too.

There were a few turnoffs that led to unpaved dirt and rock areas. We were ascending quickly - our inline-4 occasionally complaining as the air got thinner and the road got steeper. It was starting to get hard to tell whether we were suffering from the thin air or the sheer drops just to the side of the road. After an hour-long climb, we finally arrived to the dusty, barren summit at 14,114 feet.

 And took a mandatory summit photo

And took a mandatory summit photo

 And a kitschy tourist photo too

And a kitschy tourist photo too

After about 30 minutes, we were starting to feel the lack of oxygen, and started back down. The descent was far easier - the farther we went, the more we could breathe, and we spotted vistas we'd entirely missed on our far more stressful climb to the top. I officially got the best gas mileage ever achieved in the Foz...

 Not bad! It's almost like I own a Tesla...

Not bad! It's almost like I own a Tesla...

Upon nearing the bottom, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset behind the mountain - a fitting payoff for gambling on our need for oxygen.

 Crystal Lake at approximately 9,230 feet

Crystal Lake at approximately 9,230 feet

Looking Ahead to Day 2: Colorado Springs to Lake City, CO

Tomorrow we leave early for the TAT trailhead West of Cañon City, CO. The trail will take us through the mountains to Lake City, CO, where we'll plan to spend the night. This is the "easy" introduction to Day 3, which will feature two 13,000 foot mountain passes before we finally descend into Monticello, Utah. Stay tuned for more tomorrow!

Trans America Trail Announcement

As of Friday, August 3rd, I am no longer Director for Intelligence at the National Security Council, and have left federal service. I'll be heading to San Francisco, where I'll be joining Facebook to contribute to their efforts to disrupt information operations (misinformation, disinformation, propaganda) and malicious actors on their platforms. While leaving government is bittersweet, the opportunity to join an energetic, intelligence, and driven team at Facebook is the chance of a lifetime.

However, I have three weeks to play with, and to make the most of it, I'll be driving from Colorado to Las Vegas entirely offroad! If you've followed my instagram feed, you've seen a lot of my heavily-modified Subaru Forester. This will finally be a chance to really put it to the test.

I'll be blogging the entire route here, as well as regularly updating my instagram whenever we can catch a moment of wifi along the route. Expect an exciting compilation of drone videos on my vimeo page as well, as I'll be filming and photographing the entire journey.

The Route

We will be following the southern route from Colorado to Las Vegas via Utah and Arizona

The Trans-America Trail (TAT) is an offroad overland route originally trailblazed by Sam Correro and intended for dual-speed motorcycles. However, a team from Land Cruiser set out to complete the entire TAT in a convoy of 4x4 vehicles in 2013, and since then the occasional four-wheeled vehicle has attempted the crossing. As far as we can tell, we're one of the first Subarus to make the traverse, though the Subaru forums are rife with folks seeking advice on the feasibility of getting a Subaru AWD car through narrow slot canyons and towering mountain passes.

The southern route we're following, which breaks from the "traditional" TAT near Arches National Park, was mapped by GPSKevin. While we originally wanted to head all the way to Oregon, the call of the desert (and the need to meet up in Las Vegas) forced us south. Once we hit LV, we'll leave the trail and drive north for seven more days through Death Valley and up California Route 395, which winds through the eastern border of the state and traverses much of California's storied national forestland.

The route is expected to take seven days offroad, and seven more days on-road, assuming we make good time, and we'll be mainly planning to sleep wherever we finish the day's driving - likely in tents in national forestland or parkland. 

The Car

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The modifications to our Forester (suspension lift, body lift, undercarriage protection via steel skid plates and transmission plates, brush bar/aux lighting) plus the carry capacity and increased aux fuel should make this voyage doable - but we're certain to encounter challenges along the way. Our ground clearance right now sits at a comfortable 10 inches (2 over stock), though most stock jeeps are running at 12 inches. I'll post a more detailed breakdown of our planning and packing, both for the vehicle and our preparedness equipment.

Stay tuned for more updates - we begin the drive on August 13th!

Off-roading in Iceland

The most exciting part of visiting Iceland is taking advantage of the amazing freedom afforded by the country's vast F road network. Iceland's F roads run the gamut of quality from groomed dirt roads to wild rock surfaces marked with the occasional cairn. Exploring the F roads will take you through crystal-clear rivers, across vast expanses of black ash, and along narrow ledges over yawning chasms. They're the only way to get close to some of Iceland's most beautiful hidden waterfalls, expansive glaciers, and into the wild, untamed heartland of the country.

Check out the video above for a view of some of our favorite shots as we explored Iceland's F225 (the road to Landmannalaugar) and F56 (the road to Snaefellsjokull).

The Road Less Travelled - Iceland Part 2

  F26 meets F225

F26 meets F225

The road to Landmannalaugar, in the Icelandic highlands, is 50 kilometers of rough rock, dirt, and gravel. There are no bridges on the road, and any rivers must be forded by car. This was our second run at F225, and this time we were prepared. We were driving in convoy with our intrepid (and talented) wedding photographers, Genevieve and James Nisly (check them out here: http://www.genevievenisly.com/), who had flown all the way from Cleveland, Ohio with us to take some fantastic and adventurous wedding photos. This was going to be our second day together, after an exciting time hiking through sulfurous volcanic vents the day before. The drive posed new and exciting challenges for flying the Phantom - we wanted to do some car follow video, and showcase our Suziki Grand Vitara conquering the Icelandic countryside. However, to do so one of us would have to fly from the passenger seat as the SUV bumped and rolled over rocks and through rivers while the driver focused on following the barely-visible road markers and keeping the car from spinning off the road. 

  James aims a camera at the flying camera

James aims a camera at the flying camera

Once we'd planned the route, turned on the radios, and done a comms check, we were off. Our first trip to Landmannalaugar was in driving rain, gusts of wind sending clouds of ash across the vastness, turning the road into rivulets of black mud. This time, however, gleaming ice caps shone from distant peaks and the sky, streaked with clouds, made us feel tiny among the hills. As we drove, the Phantom chased us along, until finally, we arrived at the first river crossing.

  The first river crossing

The first river crossing

The previous week's rains had swollen the river past its banks, and we disembarked to try and ascertain the correct path. The drone suddenly became more than just an addition to the trip - it became a scouting tool. We flew ahead a few hundred feet, following the tracks in the ash, until another vehicle appeared. From 400 feet, we watched as it sped towards the river, and without slowing down, crashed through the water. Suitably reassured of our next steps, we hopped back in the jeeps, sped up, and made our way through the rushing water. 

Another hour of crunching rock and gravel later, we pulled over at the intersection of F225 and F208, the final few kilometers to Landmannalaugar. Before climbing the final hill, however, we veered off to explore a wide, perfectly still lake nestled among the rocky spires. The placid water shone, mirroring the sky above and creating a beautiful juxtaposition of dark ash and shimmering clouds. Our photographers immediately set to work photographing us both in a variety of poses, capturing some truly incredible photos. Before we left, though, we had to see what the lake reflections looked like from the air.

  Reflections of the clouds on the lake with swans in the distance

Reflections of the clouds on the lake with swans in the distance

Of course, we had to take one of ourselves with our incredible wedding photographers!

  Dronie!

Dronie!

At long last, we arrived in Landmannalaugar, the land of painted mountains. Its reputation came from the variety of oxidation on the faces of the mountains ringing the vast meadows in Landmannalaugar, which gives each mountain a unique hue from green to bright red. The campsite was expansive - tents and 4x4s stretched into the distance, and nearly a kilometer away, crowds of half-clothed adventurers waited for a dip in the naturally occurring hot springs.

 The campsite at Landmannalaugar

The campsite at Landmannalaugar

We traversed the boiling rivers and stood among tufted cottony plants, watching the sheep climb higher on the mountain faces, and reveled in a successful journey.

 A boiling river bisects the fields

A boiling river bisects the fields

We'd been lucky all day to have outrun the clouds and rain, but as we packed up and prepared for the long, bumpy ride out of the mountains, the first drops began to fall. We trundled up the rocks, nervously checking our watches as we watched the sun begin to dip behind the cliffs. Iceland's F roads often traverse deep chasms, sheer cliffs, and raging rivers - all far more hazardous in the dark.

 At the confluence of two rivers, near the end of F208

At the confluence of two rivers, near the end of F208

We elected to take the northward F208, a far less challenging road that would more quickly exit the highlands, though we'd been excited to backtrack across the wild landscape we'd just left. Eventually, the rain slowed and the clouds parted, and we tried to capture the beginning of another long, beautiful Icelandic sunset.

 Our first stab at the sunset

Our first stab at the sunset

Little did we know that the best was still yet to come. After a short break and a quick check of our car tires, we were off again. The clouds, wispy and grey, rushed across the sky, accentuated by the soft orange glow of the sunset. Suddenly, we rounded a turn to emerge on top of an expansive summit crowned with a towering rock cairn. Off in the distance, we could see the glacial cap of Myrdalsjokull gleaming in the setting sun. Without warning, the sky suddenly was engulfed in red flame, and the placid lake at the foot of the mountain lit up in response, mirroring the deep red hues above. We couldn't help but stop, even though every minute of sunset drew us closer to a harrowing drive in the dark. Awestruck, we could only hold our breath and take in the beauty as the Phantom IMU warmed up. Finally, we were airborne. 

 The best Icelandic sunset we've ever seen

The best Icelandic sunset we've ever seen

The rest of the drive passed in silence. Darkness had fallen, but a full moon now shone brightly in the sky, casting a pale, ghostly glow across the dark ash. Hours later, we'd left the rocky highlands behind, a memory of Iceland's untamed wild and the sensation of freedom and adventure.

The Whole World a Canvas - Iceland Part 1

Borgarnes_Sea

It was our second time in Iceland, but the first time we could explore this amazing country from the air. Unlike the Washington, DC, area, Iceland has mercifully relaxed drone regulations, which makes photographing the stunning scenery all the more exciting.

The biggest challenge shooting in Iceland was choosing how best to use our three batteries' worth of flight time when nearly everything around us begged to be photographed. The photo above was a perfect example of Iceland's hidden beauty. Having just finished a multi-day drive across the Snaefellsnes peninsula, where we'd flown over glaciers, down waterfalls, and chased our jeep down a mountain, we'd stopped in at an N1 station on the road back to Reykjavik. As we waited for our tasty Icelandic lamb hot dogs, I walked behind the station and was greeted with an absolutely breathtaking view - the sun shining through the broken clouds over the mountains in the distance. We never imagined, however, the view that awaited us as our Phantom buzzed across the water. Suddenly, the reflection of the clouds appeared on the mirror-like surface of the water.

Borgarnes_reflection2

The irony was immediately apparent - in a country full of thundering waterfalls, towering glaciers, and restive volcanoes, we had found ourselves gaping in awe at the image on our iPhone screen while standing in the back parking lot of a gas station. 

At the same time, it drove home the amazing ability of drone photography to discover completely new angles and perspectives. Our trip would feature more moments of wonder - threading the needle between two icebergs, a flaming sunset in the highlands, a few car chases, and plummeting down a thousand-foot waterfall (which I'll talk about in later blog posts), but this moment, so early in our trip, made a lasting impression on us, and was a reminder of how beauty sometimes can only be found from above.