Posts Tagged With: Colorado

“Totally Unique and Unexpected!” Great Sand Dunes National Park

“Totally Unique and Unexpected!” proclaims the sign at Great Sand Dunes National Park  quoting an unnamed visitor. Indeed. That says it all, accurately and succinctly. The 30 square mile dunefield at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is unlike anything I’ve seen before.

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Approaching Great Sand Dunes NP

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Entrance to Great Sand Dunes NP

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View of the visitor center, dunes to the left, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind

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Mule deer along the road in the park

When I saw the dunes, two questions immediately came to mind: Where did all that sand come from? What keeps it there? The simple explanation is the sand originated in the San Juan Mountains to the west and around 440,000 years ago prevailing winds blew the sand from the San Luis Valley to the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The sand was trapped there forming the largest dunes in North America. Countervailing winds occasionally push back keeping the dunes in essentially the same position. In fact, a display in the visitor center of photos taken 138 years apart shows hardly any overall movement of the dunes. It’s actually more complicated and new research continues to change and refine our understanding. You can read a more in-depth explanation here.

You, like me, may have visited beaches where signs admonish the visitor to stay off the sand dunes. The delicate ecosystem is easily disrupted and the sand dunes erode more quickly when disturbed.  Due to this prior experience, I was surprised to have full access to hike and explore these dunes. What an amazing experience that was!

To access the dunes, we first had to cross Medano Creek, which was virtually dry in September.

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Nearly dry Medano Creek bed

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Jim crossing the dry Medano Creek bed

Compare my photos to the ones with water in the park brochure here.  In springtime, when the water is flowing, the creek is another favorite feature of the park.

Walking across the flat creek bed was easy with the sand packed down, but the hike became more difficult as the sand got looser and the incline steeper. The highest dune is over 750 feet tall (228 meters) and the elevation at the visitor center is 8170 feet (2490 meters) so the air is thinner here, too.

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Great Sand Dunes

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Great Sand Dunes

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The Sangre de Cristo Mountains

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We’re going to climb THAT?

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Jim hiking the ridge

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Onward!

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Are we there yet?

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Jim’s enthusiasm is still evident

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I’m ready for a rest

On the photo above, note the kids on the ridge behind me. They’re sand boarding down the slope. Rentals are available nearby for sandboards and sand sleds.  The surface of the sand in summer can reach 150 degrees so this is better attempted  early or late in the day or in spring or fall. Watch my short video of these kids sandboarding here.

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View of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Great Sand Dunes National Park was the last stop on the Epic Road Trip of 2015. After two weeks on the road traveling 4300 miles (6900 km) visiting 12 national parks and monuments as well as 2 UNESCO World Heritage sites, various state parks and other points of interest, it was time to head home. Until the next time.

Based on events of September 2015.

Categories: National Parks, natural history, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Hiking to History at Mesa Verde

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon was the farthest point from home on our epic western road trip of September 2015. As we turned back toward home, Colorado offered us a couple additional sites we hadn’t visited before. We thought we’d check out the “four corners” where Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado meet. At the risk of sounding super cheap,  when we heard the entrance fee was $5 per person, we decided to pass. It just had the feel of a tourist trap.

On the other hand, Mesa Verde National Park, established in 1906, and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978, is no tourist trap. This amazing park contains nearly 5,000 archeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings that were home to the Ancestral Pueblo people (Anasazi) from 550 AD until the late 1200s.

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Entrance to Mesa Verde National Park

The visitor center is located in a valley at the foot of a winding road up to the mesa. Stop here first to plan your visit and purchase tour tickets.

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Visitor Center at Mesa Verde NP

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Visitor Center at Mesa Verde NP

The approximately 21-mile drive up to Chapin Mesa delighted us with breathtaking views.

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View from the park road into Mesa Verde NP

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View from park road into Mesa Verde NP

Five dwellings were open to the public in 2015; Spruce Tree House and Far View allowed self-guided tours but Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House required tickets for ranger-led guided tours. In September, Cliff Palace and Long House were already closed for the season but fortunately for us, Balcony House, the “most adventurous cliff dwelling tour” (Mesa Verde National Park Visitor Guide) was still open. We paid the $4 per person ticket price and scheduled our tour for the following morning. In 2016, only four dwellings remain open to the public. Spruce Tree House closed because of safety issues related to falling rock and will remain closed for the foreseeable future. How lucky for us to see this cliff dwelling before it closed.

Spruce Tree House is the third largest and best-preserved of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. The trail is short but steep, changing elevation by 100 feet in a quarter mile.

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Trail to Spruce Tree House

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View of Spruce Tree House

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Spruce Tree House

We saw only a fraction of the 120 rooms and 8 kivas at Spruce Tree House. A kiva is a chamber below ground that in modern day pueblos was used for religious, social, or ceremonial purposes. Because the Ancestral Pueblo people had no writing system, we can’t know for certain but archeologists believe the purpose was the same in prehistoric times.

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Kiva in Spruce Tree House

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Jim climbing down the ladder to a kiva in Spruce Tree House

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Inside a kiva at Spruce Tree House

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Spruce Tree House

As I said, Cliff Palace was closed for the season when we arrived. The largest and most well-known cliff dwelling in North America, Cliff Palace contains 150 rooms and 21 kivas and was inhabited by around 120 people. Fortunately for us, we could view it from a distance and photograph it even though we couldn’t tour it.

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Cliff Palace

Our ranger-guided tour of Balcony House the next morning was as much about the journey as the destination. The strenuous hike included steep stairs, three ladders, and a tunnel.

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Getting ready for the hike to Balcony House

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Our park ranger briefs us

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Trail to Balcony House

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One of the ladders on the trail to Balcony House

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My hips aren’t as wide as Jim’s shoulders and it was a snug fit for me going through the tunnel.

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We both made it without getting stuck!

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Bringing up the rear, quite literally.

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Catching my breath and taking a photo

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Jim nears the top

The destination was well-worth the effort, however. This cliff dwelling consists of 38 rooms and 2 kivas. Our ranger knowledgeably shared information about the site and the Ancestral Pueblo inhabitants.

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Balcony House

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Balcony House

 

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Kiva at Balcony House

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A room with a view at Balcony House

Because Long House was closed for the season, we decided not to drive the 12 miles over to Wetherill Mesa where it’s located. We did, however, hike the Far View area. The Far View sites are farming communities on top of the mesa rather than cliff dwellings.

National parks in the United States preserve and protect historical and cultural sites like Mesa Verde as well as our amazing and abundant natural resources. For a couple history nerds like us, Mesa Verde was a place to immerse ourselves in the history and culture of the Ancestral Pueblo people. As a result, we are better educated about and appreciative of the time and place of these early people.

Based on events of September 2015.

 

Categories: History, National Parks, natural history, Travel, Uncategorized, UNESCO, USA | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Colorado National Monument and More

Although the distance through Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park to Grand Lake is just 48 miles, it took us the better part of the day. When we exited the park at Grand Lake we continued on two-lane roads until we returned to Interstate 70 at Silverthorne, then drove 263 miles further to Grand Junction, Colorado for the night. The total miles logged for the day was just over 300 but we saw plenty of scenic beauty at a fairly leisurely pace.

Dinner at the Ale House was a real treat for Jim featuring elk and a treat for me featuring outdoor seating plus fish tacos and sweet potato fries. The place was busy– a good sign– and the food was well-presented and tasty.

We were up and out of our hotel early the following morning and made straight for the east entrance to Colorado National Monument. Rim Rock Drive is a 23-mile paved road through the park from Grand Junction in the east to Fruita at the west entrance with many stops along the way to enjoy majestic awe-inspiring canyon views.

Immediately inside the east entrance, we stopped to hike a portion of historic Serpent’s Trail, dubbed the crookedest road in the world when it was completed in 1921. With 16 switchbacks, it was part of the main road until it was replaced in 1950 by Rim Rock Drive. Today it’s strictly a hiking trail, but I bet in its day the drive struck fear in many a heart.

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Hiking Serpent’s Trail, Colorado National Monument

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View from Serpent’s Trail

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View from Serpent’s Trail

We encountered few vehicles on Rim Rock Drive and even fewer people on the trails. If you seek a spiritual experience without human interruption or just want to get “far from the madding crowd,” this place is for you. Each scenic overlook and trail offered inspiring views of red rock canyons, towering rock formations, and contrasting colorful vegetation that soothed and fed the soul.

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Parking at Red Canyon Overlook

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View from Red Canyon Overlook

 

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Panorama View of Ute Canyon

 

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View from Artist’s Point

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Independence Monument

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Window Rock

A herd of about 40 desert bighorn sheep live within the confines of Colorado National Monument. Seeing them is a rare experience because they avoid human contact. We were surprised and gratified to spot this group on the side of the road. Jim believes they didn’t hear the Prius because the electric engine was engaged so the vehicle was silent.

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Desert bighorn sheep on Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument

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Desert Bighorn sheep

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Autumn Aster wildflowers in Colorado National Monument

As we left Colorado National Monument, we had a conversation with a ranger that changed our entire trip through Utah. The result was a sublime experience. She suggested we get off I-70 and take Utah State Route 128 on the east side of Arches National Park rather than SR 191 on the west side of the park. That began our adventure along the back roads of Utah that were far more scenic and interesting than the interstate highways. We didn’t take another freeway until we reached Kansas on our way back to Iowa.

Jim was doubtful when we first exited I70 and saw this. He feared I’d misguided him but we were indeed on the right road.

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I assured him we had taken the correct road and we soon saw the Colorado River.

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The Colorado River along Utah SR 128

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Utah SR 128

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Driving SR 128 in Utah

Many of the old western movies from the 40’s and 50’s used these canyonlands as a film location. SR 128’s designation as the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway is definitely deserved.

Based on events of September 2015.

 

Categories: natural history, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Rocky Mountain High

Our 10th national park in the United States was created on January 26, 1915, when President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Rocky Mountain National Park Act. While the Utah national parks were our planned destination, how could we possibly miss Rocky Mountain National Park when it was on the way and it was their 100th anniversary? Well, we couldn’t.

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Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park

One of the world’s longest ranges, the Rocky Mountains extend more than 3000 miles from Alaska to New Mexico and some of the highest peaks in the United States are found in this range.  Rocky Mountain National Park comprises just 415 square miles of this remarkable range but it is one of the most visited national parks in the country and contains some of the most spectacular scenery. RMNP is the highest national park in the U.S. with elevations from 7860 to 14,259 feet and 77 peaks above 12,000 feet. Thus, the popular slogan “Rocky Mountain high” refers to the elevation, not the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado.

Entering the park from Estes Park, we followed Trail Ridge Road, the “highway to the sky.” I was immediately entranced by the fall color.  I especially love autumn and the aspens expressed it beautifully with a nimiety of yellow. Seeing them, we understood how Aspenglen Campground got its name. I took way too many photos but here’s just one. You get the idea.

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Aspens in full fall color

And here’s one looking back at Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved road in the U.S.

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Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park

We decided not to hike any of the 350 miles of trails in the park but we stopped often to take photos of the breathtaking views.

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Rocky Mountain National Park

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Rocky Mountain National Park

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Rocky Mountain National Park

When we reached the tundra, we were above 11,000 feet in elevation and the temperature dipped to 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Our car, like our bodies, had to work harder at the higher elevation with less oxygen. Thankfully, the electric motor on the Prius came to the rescue as we climbed and we were surprised that our gas mileage didn’t suffer.

One-third of RMNP is alpine tundra, a harsh, windy biome where only the hardiest plants and wildlife survive. It’s a fragile environment that is easily damaged and requires care and management to ensure its survival.

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Rocky Mountain National Park

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Donning the jackets for windy cool temps in the tundra

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Tundra is a delicate and vulnerable biome

Then we headed to a lower elevation at 10,759 feet and stopped at Milner Pass where the Continental Divide passes through.

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The Continental Divide at Milner Pass

We stopped for a throw together picnic lunch on the west side of the park at one of the many picnic areas. What better way to enjoy our surroundings than to spend some time feeding our bodies and souls simultaneously?

 

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Picnic lunch featuring baby carrots, cherry tomatoes from our garden, grapes, and bananas

 

As we neared the end of our drive through Rocky Mountain National Park, we were treated to yet one more delight, Shadow Mountain Lake, in the southwest corner of the park. This man-made reservoir is a major recreation area, allowing boating, fishing, jetskiing, camping, hiking, and other activities with a backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.

 

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Shadow Mountain Lake

 

If you have a day, a week, or more, a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park is worth your time. Check it out.

 

Based on events of September 2015.

Categories: History, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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