Southwest Colorado Adventures, Days 5-7: Great Sand Dunes and Florissant Fossil Beds

This is the final entry in this series about our southwestern Colorado trip. To read the rest, look here, here, and here

Thursday morning, we checked out of the hotel, stopped in Mancos for breakfast (Fahrenheit Coffee Roasters is a great little local place — way cheaper and probably tastier than the National Park restaurant), and headed east again. The Lightner Fire had just started near Durango, so the drive was smoky and the views were pretty nonexistent most of the way. We stopped for leg-stretches in Alamosa and Pagosa, and I couldn’t resist dipping my toes in the river in Pagosa one last time.

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Then, it was back to driving. We arrived at Great Sand Dunes National Park a little after two. We’d planned to hike to Zapata Falls, a short hike outside the park that everyone raves about, but when we saw the rocky, rutted road, we thought better of driving it, planning instead to come back the next day and just hike the road, too.

We headed on into the park and explored the Visitor Center. I went for a two-mile run (still all I was allowed to do, per my physical therapist) along a delightful sandy trail while Jordan talked to a volunteer about our plans for the next day (more on that in a minute). Then, together, we went over to the Montville Nature Trail.

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The NPS website describes the trail like this: “In summer, keep this hike as an option for afternoon as an escape from the heat of the dunes. Walk along a shady forested trail named for a late 1800s settlement, comprising 20 houses in its heydey. Rest near the trail’s highpoint, where you’ll find outstanding views of Mt. Herard, the dunes and the valley.” We, however, got about 10 feet from the car and were swarmed by mosquitos, and since we didn’t want to fight the little buggers for the whole hike, we bailed.

Instead, we went down to Medano Creek, which was still running a bit. Its peak had passed, but there was enough water for wandering and splashing and playing. It was quiet, fun, and once we were mid-creek, mosquito-free. We played for a couple of hours, then headed out to make camp. Half the campsites at the Dunes campground are reservable, and the other half are first-come, first-served. When we booked this trip, the reservable ones were taken, and we were nervous about risking the first-come sites, so we’d booked the next-closest campground available — about 45 minutes away. Since we knew we’d need an early start the next morning, we hit the hay early.

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That early night didn’t turn out too well — some strange noise kept us awake most of the night — but we were still up bright and early. We had to pack up camp, even though we planned to stay another night, because Friday is watering day at that campground and they water the tent sites. So we packed up, drove back into the park, filled our waters, and were hiking by 7:15. Our plan was to climb Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America. While I ran the day before, Jordan had asked a volunteer for directions. She told him to cross the creek and turn left, walk two miles, and then “you’ll see it.”

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Hi, I’m a nerd.

That volunteer was confused; she should have told us to go the other way. We climbed around (PSA: dunes hiking is hard. Because sand.) until we realized that a dune near us was High Dune — not as tall as Star, but the tallest you can see from the parking lot. We hiked over and stood atop High Dune, hoping to see Star Dune and reassess. Star Dune was still WAY out there, and my still-recovering hamstring was starting to complain a little, so we decided to be content with High Dune.

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High Dune Selfie

Settling for High Dune was easy: the view from the summit is stunning, with miles of rolling dunes butted up against the majestic Sangre de Cristos. We soaked in the view for a while, and then other people started arriving at the summit, and we had to share.  But that’s okay, because while hiking up dunes is fun, going down them is a blast. I’d gone to the Dunes as a kid, and running and jumping down the Dunes is just as fun as a 31-year-old as it was when I was 10. We ran, bounded, leapt, and slid, looking completely ridiculous but not caring one whit.

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Once down, we kicked off our shoes and walked in the creek a bit, then hiked out to the Sand Pit Picnic Area, where we ate a snack and admired the dunes some more. We hiked back via the Medano Primitive Road, which I would not recommend because it’s full of 4-wheel-drive vehicles out having some redneck fun. After that second little hike, we drove back to the Visitor Center, where we at our PBJs while admiring High Dune and thinking about how cool we are. Unfortunately, we also watched storm clouds rolling in.

We debated what to do. Our original plan was to return to Zapata Falls, but starting a 7-mile hike at 1 p.m. with approaching storm clouds would have just been foolhardy. We’d already hiked dunes, and the wind that came with those clouds was too cold to make more creek-playing fun. Since all our stuff was already packed, we decided to cancel our campground reservation, drive toward Buena Vista, and see if we could find a pretty place to camp. Of course, neither of us considered that it was Fourth of July weekend and campsites would be busy. We did find two gorgeous (but full) places to come back to someday, but we ended up at the Buena Vista KOA. Oh well — it was quiet, we could have a campfire, and no mysterious noise kept us awake until all hours.

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The nice part about staying in Buena Vista was that it made the trip to our final adventure spot, Florissant Fossil Beds, that much closer. We took our sweet time about having breakfast and packing up camp, and we still got to Florissant around 10:00 — just in time for a ranger talk about the history and geologic wonders of the area. Then, after watching the movie at the Visitor Center to learn the basic background of the National Monument, we were ready to explore.

We started with the Sawmill Trail, a 2ish-mile loop. It was an easy trail, broad and smooth with just a few ups and downs, and the quakies (that’s what we native Coloradoans call aspens), firs, and wildflowers made for a beautiful walk.

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Sawmill Trail

The loop ended back at the Visitor Center, so we hit the bathroom and water fountain before heading on to the one-mile Petrified Forest loop, where we saw enormous petrified stumps and read about the area — from millions of years ago when the trees were alive, to 100 years ago when tourists plundered the area, to 40 years ago when the government protected the land. Fascinating stuff, and a little sad — just think how much we could know if people hadn’t carried away little bits of history as souvenirs.

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Jordan and The Big Stump

Florissant Fossil Beds was a great stop; I highly recommend visiting if you’re in the Colorado Springs area. It has 15 miles of trails, so we definitely need to go back and explore more!

After leaving Florissant, we drove to Old Colorado City (the quieter partner of Manitou Springs), where we grabbed a snack and wandered into some little shops. We planned to spend that night with Jordan’s aunt and uncle in Colorado Springs. His uncle wasn’t feeling well, though, so we met his aunt for dinner, then drove back home and back to reality.

Staying in Colorado for our vacation this year was a wonderful choice. Whether you’re a local or from out of state, visiting the southwestern corner of this great state is  well worth your time.

What’s your favorite place in Colorado? If you haven’t been here, what’s your favorite place in your state? 

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Southwest Colorado Adventures, Day 4: Wetherhill Mesa

This is the continuation of the story that started here and continued here

A few days before we left for our trip, I was clicking around the Mesa Verde website, looking for interesting things to do. I read about Wetherhill Mesa, the remote part of the park that is visited by something like 10 percent of all Mesa Verde visitors. I knew we’d want to go there. Then, I came across a 4.5-hour bike-and-hike tour of Wetherhill Mesa. Although we were a little nervous about the bike part (neither of us is in great uphill-pedalling shape), I went ahead and booked the tour. It ended up being fairly easy and was both of our favorite part of the trip.

We started at the information kiosk on Wetherhill Mesa, where we met our ranger, Ranger John, and another couple — the only other people on our tour. We chatted a bit while we waited to make sure that no one else was coming, and we learned that our ranger had worked at Mesa Verde off and on since the 1970s. He obviously knew his stuff, and with only four of us, we knew we’d get to ask all the questions we wanted.

We first biked down to the Kodak House Overlook, where we parked our bikes and walked a few yards down the road. Ranger John turned down a lightly-marked trail — I’d have missed it on my own — and led us along the mesa. Along the way, as he told us about the Ancestral Puebloans who had once walked where we were walking, we kept a close eye out for pottery shards, evidence that an unexcavated site was nearby. The other couple on the tour were Mesa Verde buffs — they go every year — so Jordan and I mostly listened and learned from their discussion with the ranger.

The coolest part about this tour was that we got to see two sites that you can’t see unless you’re on the bike-and-hike. The first was Double House. We couldn’t get near it, but we could see it clearly from the ridge, and even clearer with binoculars. The ranger explained that even archeologists go in only about once every 20 years. We stayed probably 20 minutes while he gave us the known information about Double House and pointed out some other, smaller dwellings in the canyon.

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Jordan overlooking Double House

Our next stop was a lookout over Nordenskold 12, an unexcavated dwelling that included some petroglyphs that we could see through our binoculars. Again, we stayed quite a while as the ranger explained what was known about the dwelling and about Nordenskold’s team of excavators back in the 1890s. We felt extremely lucky to see these two sites, especially with such a small group and such a knowledgeable ranger.

We next walked back to the Kodak House overlook, leaving our bikes a few more minutes while we walked out to the overlook and learned about the dwelling. Returning to our bikes, we pedalled  to the Long House trailhead, where we stopped to eat a snack and wait for the prior (much larger) Long House tour group to finish. After our break, we headed down the trail to what, in my opinion, was the most incredible of the dwellings we saw in the park.

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Our very small group (minus Jordan, who’s taking the picture) approaching Long House

As we arrived in the cool shade of the alcove, Ranger John asked us to sit silently, looking down the canyon, just watching and listening. We sat like that for just a few minutes, and I swear, in those few minutes, I felt connected to the place and the people who had lived there so long ago.

We couldn’t sit silently forever, and our tour continued. Since there were only four of us, we were allowed to explore more, linger longer, and ask more questions than the normal tour groups. Still careful not to touch anything, we peeked in windows, peered into kivas, and climbed a ladder to see loom loops in one of the rooms.

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Jordan exploring Long House

We ended our tour of Long House in the dance plaza, and it was there that I finally was able to picture, as I’d been trying to do all week, how the place and the people may have looked over a thousand years ago. The ranger pointed to the remnants of balconies and the natural ledges of rock, explaining that during a big dance or ceremony, people would have sat all along those ledges — hundreds of people, maybe even lining the mesa tops, watching, listening, participating. I could almost — almost — see it happening.

We stood again, mostly silent, occasionally asking questions, all obviously reluctant to leave. The ranger told us that he wanted to leave us with a message that every descendant of the Ancestral Puebloans that he’d ever talked to had given him: They’re still here.

Finally, we had to leave. We hiked out slowly, reluctantly, and sat again in the shade at the trailhead, chatting for another 30 minutes though our tour was long over. Eventually, John had to report back to the kiosk, so we all followed.

Jordan and I said goodbye to our new friends, then locked up our bikes and went down the self-guided loop to Step House. It was similar to the other dwellings, though unique because it contained dwellings from two time periods. After our tour that morning, though, I felt like I saw and understood more than I would have otherwise.

We left Wetherhill Mesa after Step House, and we drove slowly back, stopping at each overlook, admiring the long, clear views of Ship Rock in New Mexico one direction and Utah in another.

Wednesday was our ninth anniversary, so instead of camping, we checked in to the Far View Lodge, took real showers, and ate an expensive but delicious dinner before sleeping in a real bed, which felt nice after three days of camping.

That day was wonderful all around; if you visit Mesa Verde, bring or rent a bike and do the bike and hike tour. It’s the best $15 you’ll ever spend.

Best tour you’ve ever taken?

How do you celebrate your anniversary?

Southwest Colorado Adventures, Days 2-3: Mesa Verde

For the first part of this story, read this post

After lunch with my cousin and her boys in Bayfield and a quick stop for ice in Durango, we headed toward Mesa Verde. As we drove, green hillsides and winding roads greeted us, and then we saw the Mesa projecting above us, and we knew we’d arrived.

We started at the Visitor Center, where we bought our tour tickets for the next day and lingered a while, enjoying yet another stunning vista. Then, we drove up another winding road to Morefield Campground, the only campground in Mesa Verde National Park, where we checked in, then slowly circled, searching for an available spot with a decent bit of shade.

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Once we found a shady campsite, we set up camp, built a fire, and made dinner (this recipe — so good!). After we ate, did dishes, and drowned our fire, we headed over to the two-mile (round trip) Knife Edge trail, which the ranger at the VC had told us we had to hike at sunset. He was not wrong. All along the trail, the entire southwestern corner of Colorado — and beyond — is visible. Distant mountain ranges mark the horizon, smaller hills and mesas dot the landscape below, and unique geology lines the trail and the hills beyond. As the sun sank, its brilliant, then softening, light cast a glow over the entire valley, turning the rocks yellow, then orange, then pink.

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Knife Edge was a short and easy hike, but that view made it one of our favorites of all time. Neither my words nor my iPhone pictures can really do it justice.

We could have stayed at Knife Edge until the sun disappeared entirely, but we also wanted to catch a ranger program at the campground’s amphitheater, so we headed back down the trail as the light faded. The program was focussed on storytelling. It was just okay — the ranger was new and had some kinks to work out in her presentation — but it was fun, and stargazing as we headed back to our campsite and to bed was a perfect way to end a wonderful day.

The next morning, I was woken early by birdsong outside our tent. (Okay, I was woken by a full bladder, but then I heard the birds). When I got back from the bathroom, Jordan and I lay in bed –er, sleeping bags –and chatted until about 6:00, when I rolled out of bed and went for a 20-minute walk-run around the campground. Just down the hill from our campsite, I came upon five deer — four bucks and a doe — nonchalantly munching their breakfast beside the road. They were pretty tame, as National Park deer tend to be, and this one posed nicely for a picture before I headed on my way:

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He posed nicely, but apparently I can’t hold a camera still, so he’s all blurry.

When I returned from my little jog, we ate a quick breakfast, then headed out for another day of adventure, starting with a tour of Cliff Palace, the enormous dwelling that you probably picture when you think “Mesa Verde.” The ranger leading our tour was excellent, teaching us facts and theories about the history of Cliff Palace and its inhabitants.

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Jordan doing the Cliff Palace thing

After Cliff Palace, we drove over to Balcony House, billed as the “adventurous tour.” Of course, I can’t resist anything that claims to be adventurous, so I was really excited for this tour. We again had a delightful ranger leading the tour — he was knowledgeable, interesting, and funny. Even if he hadn’t been leading the tour, Balcony House would’ve been fascinating, sparking my imagination as I tried to picture how people had worked and lived there one thousand years ago. And the “adventurous” parts — the 32-foot ladder and narrow tunnel — were pretty fun, too.

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The remnants of what gives Balcony House its name (and a bunch of other tourists)

After Balcony House, we headed over to the Chapin Museum, where we refilled our waters and ate our usual vacation lunch of PBJs, sitting in the shade overlooking Spruce Tree House. This  was as close as we’d get to Spruce Tree this trip, since it was closed due to a rockslide. Darn.

After lunch, we headed out on the Pictograph Trail (which we learned is misnamed, because it leads to petroglyphs, not pictographs). We were quite hot, since we started the 2.4-mile hike at 1:40 p.m., but we had plenty of water, and the scenery on the hike was well worth a little sweat. The trail is steep in some places, with narrow sandstone steps, which made the crowd thin out after half a mile or so, leaving the trail mostly to us.

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Squeezing through a narrow part of Pictograph Trail

The petroglyphs were interesting, and we were glad we’d picked up a trail guide at the trailhead, as it explained some interpretations of the etchings. The ‘glyphs weren’t the only interesting part of the trail, either: remnants of walls, interesting geology, and unique plants dot the trail, too.

After the hike, we took respite in the air-conditioned museum for a bit, watching the movie and reading all the displays because learning is fun. The only thing left to do on Chapin Mesa then was to drive the Mesa Loop and look at the ruins along it. We did, of course, and while the stops were interesting, they didn’t make for very interesting pictures. Use your imagination.

We returned to the campground sweaty, dirty, and tired — the best way to end a day of vacation. Although it may not really seem “camping-ish” to have showers at a campground, we were pretty grateful for them that day. We ate dinner, showered, and collapsed into our sleeping bags, ready to get a good night’s sleep and do it all again tomorrow.

Have you been to Mesa Verde? 

What’s your favorite National Park?

 

Southwest Colorado Adventures, Days 1-2: Pagosa Springs and Chimney Rock

If you’ve followed my blog for a few years (or if you know us in real life), you know that Jordan and I try to take a vacation every year. We usually try to go for about a week, someplace that we’ve never been before, and our favorite destinations are national parks. We didn’t take a trip in 2016 because we were starting new jobs and buying a house and moving. We’d talked about not taking one this year, either, since buying the house and a car and new windows for the house left us feeling less than flush. But our trips are important, so we decided on a budget-friendly, mostly camping Colorado-cation this year.

Our adventure started bright and early on a Sunday morning. We’d packed all we could the night before, so I went for a quick 2-mile walk-run (I’m still pretty restricted, thanks to this injury), and we packed the cooler, loaded up our bikes, and were on the road around 7 a.m.

Our ultimate destination was Mesa Verde, but since I’m not a good road-tripper, we’d decided to break the drive into two days, spending Sunday night in Pagosa Springs. The drive was beautiful, and we arrived in Pagosa around 12:30 p.m. We parked at the Visitor Center and ate our PBJs by the river, watching children splash and rafters and kayakers paddle past. After lunch, we  explored the town. Turns out, there’s not much to the town of Pagosa, and most of what’s there is closed on Sundays. We popped into the few shops that were open, then decided  to try out the hot springs.

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This coffee shop in Pagosa Springs gets me. 

Pagosa boasts three options for hot springs dippin’, all for different prices. We chose Overlook Hot Springs, the mid-priced choice. Overlook has three levels of pools: indoor, courtyard, and rooftop. The rooftop pools offer a view of downtown Pagosa, the riverwalk, and the mountains. The courtyard pools are one-person tubs — we joked that we felt like that weird commercial with the people in separate bathtubs — and the indoor pools are nice, but nothing spectacular. Overlook was surprisingly quiet: we shared the rooftop pools with another couple for a few minutes, but otherwise had the place to ourselves. The soak was a nice way to loosen up after a long morning of driving, and we appreciated that they had showers to (try to) wash the sulfur smell out of our bodies when we were done.

We rounded out the afternoon with beers and a snack at local brewery Riff Raff Brewing. The beer was good and the chips and salsa even better; definitely stop at Riff Raff if you’re ever in Pagosa.

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We relaxed on the patio for a bit, then headed out to our campground. Our campsite was lovely, right on the river, but a little crowded. Kids were noisily playing ball, riding bikes, and splashing in the river near us, but we didn’t mind; we were glad that they were outside and enjoying nature instead of glued to whatever screen was handy. Plus, they cleared out and quieted down early, so we had a glorious night of sleep listening to the river flowing behind our tent.

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Monday morning, we ate some riverside oatmeal, packed up camp, and headed to Chimney Rock National Monument, between Pagosa Springs and the little town of Bayfield. Chimney Rock offers two-hour guided tours, the first starting at 9:30 a.m. We were glad we’d chosen that first tour, as even at 9:30, the sun was pretty warm on those exposed trails.

Although Chimney Rock is a National Monument, it’s run by the Forest Service, not the National Park Service, which means its tours are run by volunteers, not rangers. The volunteers bussed us up from the parking area to the ruins, and our tour started with the lower loop, The Great Kiva Trail, where we saw the remains of pit houses and, of course, a Great Kiva. The view was beautiful — mesas, hills, valleys, and mountains as far as we could see.

Once we finished the lower loop, we headed up The Pueblo Trail — the part of Chimney Rock that visitors can see only on a guided tour — to a Great House atop a hill and aligned with Chimney and Companion Rocks (that alignment is important: it’s how the Ancestral Puebloans kept track of the summer and winter solstices and therefore knew when to plant).

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Chimney and Companion Rocks (and the very edge of the trail)

The climb was short but steep, narrow, and rocky in places, and some in our group had to quit halfway up and head back down. The view from the top was well worth the climb, with views of the entire valley below. At the top, we explored the enormous Great House, learning from our guide and trying to eavesdrop on the three archeologists who had passed us on the way up.

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After our tour concluded and we headed back down, we wanted to visit the little cabin/museum at the base, but since we were meeting my cousin in Bayfield for lunch, we didn’t have time. I guess that means we’ll just have to go back!

After lunch and a quick stop for ice in Durango, we headed toward Mesa Verde. Since this post is getting long, I’ll save our Mesa Verde adventures for next time. Stay tuned!

Have you been to Pagosa Springs and/or Chimney Rock? 

Your favorite vacation type: camping or hotelling?