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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?