Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 12: Colorado to Utah

This morning we drove from Glenwood Springs to Dinosaur National Monument (which straddles the Colorado-Utah border, but we were heading for the Utah side). We opted for a scenic drive rather than a mostly-interstate drive. It was a good choice.

We did take I-70 to a town called Rifle, and headed north on CO-17 for a little while, and then west on CO-64 for about an hour and a half. The drive was just lovely. For the most part, Highway 64 follows the White River, which is flanked by grazing lands and farms. Mountains rise up on both sides; nothing striking like the fourteen-thousand-footers we saw a couple of days before, but very colorful and beautiful.

For a good half hour I was the only car going west, so I could comfortably go at my own speed without worrying about getting stuck behind a slow vehicle, or having someone behind me wanting to pass. That all changed when I got stuck behind a HOUSE – seriously, it was a pre-fab house on a flatbed, with the “WIDE LOAD” cars behind and in front of it. I was stuck behind the house for over 20 minutes before I finally got an opportunity to pass – but not before I’d slowed down to 25 mph on a short but steep hill.

The rest of the drive was uneventful. We crossed over into Utah, crossed the Green River, and turned off shortly thereafter in the direction of Dinosaur National Monument.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 11: Colorado ~ Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company

Train station in Glenwood SpringsGlenwood Springs is a cute town. When we drove through on Tuesday evening, coming in from Aspen, the streets were blocked off for a farmers market. (If we hadn’t been so wiped out and focused on getting to the campground, we probably would have stopped to check it out.) The small downtown area is very charming. On Wednesday, after our all-day river excursion (and a nice hot shower), we took a little bit of time to walk around downtown Glenwood Springs. It was hot and sunny, though, so we weren’t motivated to do a lot of poking around.

Glenwood Canyon BrewpubWe were aiming for the Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company. After a couple of nights of campsite cooking, it was nice to have a leisurely dining experience at a decent restaurant. When we were seated, we found that they also had the Yankees game on one of the TVs, so that was a bonus.

Dave had a few of their in-house beers, and I enjoyed a couple of their funky cocktails (including one made with their in-house root beer). We had some soft pretzels as an appetizer, and took our time ordering entrees. We decided to keep it low key – Dave got a burger and I got a salad – but we did splurge and get dessert. It was all quite yummy. The service was good (even when things got busy) and the ambiance was cheerful. It wasn’t too loud, even when the dining room got full.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 10: Colorado ~ Glenwood Canyon Resort & Campground

We camped for two nights at Glenwood Canyon Resort. We arrived on Tuesday evening just after 6 pm to learn that the riverside camp sites (i.e., the individual camp sites) had just filled. There were group sites available, however, and the woman informed us that some of the individual sites would become available the next day if we wanted to move.

We scoped out the place a bit before making our choice. The “group” sites are a little cheaper ($28 instead of $34). The group sites themselves are actually designed for individual tents, but the grills and firepits are shared (if you wish to use them). They’re not very private, as they’re all lined up next to each other along a fence, but we managed to find one that had foliage on two sides, so we had a little extra privacy.

We drove down to the riverside camp sites to check them out, and found that these had basically no privacy whatsoever. The sites’ “back yard” is beautiful – the Colorado River rushing by with the mountain on the other side – but it really didn’t seem worth the hassle of moving. Plus, when we tried to turn around at the end of the line of campsites, we got stuck in the sand in the boat ramp. It was a scary moment, trying to figure out how to back up without either ending up in the river or gunning it into the rocks on the side of the ramp. Fortunately we figured it out, and returned to the group camp site to pitch our tent and have an early dinner.

When we checked in, we were given coupons to the new “No Name Bar & Grill” there at the resort. As this is the main Wi-Fi hot spot, it seemed like a good idea to get our “buy 2 get 1 free” drinks while accessing the internet. Unfortunately there were no power outlets, so Dave – with his old MacBook’s limited battery life – had to endure “America’s Got Talent” on the bar’s TV while I posted some blog posts and researched some upcoming travel options. At least he got a chance to see UMd’s Gymkana perform.

This is not a particularly peaceful campground. We were quite close to the bathhouse (featuring showers, flushing toilets, and sinks, in addition to a laundry facility) – which was really convenient, but also the site of some hubbub.

When we were getting ready for bed the first night, there was a minor drama involving a boy named Keenan. His mom, her friend, and Keenan’s younger brother were all calling his name and looking for him. He hadn’t been missing for long (actually, Dave and I had seen him about 10-15 minutes before as we fed our laptops some electricity in the laundry room), but his mom was very concerned that he wasn’t responding to their calls. Fortunately it wasn’t long before she figured out that he was hiding in the ladies’ room, for reasons that were unclear. We tried to avert our ears as she gave him a lengthy talking-to about how it’s important to come out from hiding when your mother is frantically calling you.

The second night was even more pathetic. As we were getting ready for bed, there were three people with wine glasses standing at the corner of the bathhouse building (not 40 feet from our tent), loudly discussing whatever topics came to their heads. A bit later, one of the men from that group returned to his campsite, which happened to be the site just on the other side of the trees from our site. He drunk-dialed a friend in Hawaii, and then called another friend in Grand Junction to ask if he could crash at his place for the weekend, “because I’m coming to see my son for the first time in a year”. In the morning, he was on the phone again, calling a guy who was putting him to work building a patio or some such thing. He seemed like a guy really down on his luck… it was pretty depressing to listen to.

Thank goodness Dave brought several sets of earplugs.

Other than the human drama, the campground is decent. The ground was less uncomfortable to sleep on than expected, and it never got as cold as I thought it would be.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 10: Colorado ~ Aspen

I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to visit Aspen, but since it was on our way, we decided to stop there and walk around for about an hour.

It is exactly what I expected: numerous upscale shops interspersed with mountain gear stores such as Marmot and North Face. There is also a variety of eateries, from McDonalds, to snack shops (chocolate, coffee, ice cream), bars, and restaurants. It is a little too chichi for my comfort, but it was a fun place to walk around for a little bit. And I have to admit that they do make an effort to make it accessible to everyone – the buses are free, there’s a nice park in the middle of the downtown area, and the public bathrooms are among the nicest I’ve ever seen. There was also a nice string quartet playing classical and pops selections not far from the McDonald’s.

Ski mountain at Aspen in summertimeWe walked to the base of the mountain to get a sense of it. I can appreciate how convenient it is to ski right off the mountain and be one block away from all the restaurants and shops. A Starbucks is opportunistically located less than 100 feet from the bottom of the lift.

During the summer, they do offer gondola rides for $25 a pop, which was a little more than we were interested in paying (not to mention that we had only paid for an hour of parking).

We stopped in to the Paradise Bakery for gelato-style ice cream. This made Dave extremely happy, especially since I had made him eat peanut butter & jelly for lunch.

Unfortunately we headed out of Aspen just after 5 pm, giving us the opportunity to experience rush hour traffic from Aspen to I-70. Who puts HOV lanes on the right side of the highway??

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 10: Colorado ~ Scenic drives

We eschewed the interstates today in favor of scenic state route and U.S. highway driving.

Our route took us up CO-17 up to US-285, following the Sangre de Cristo mountains and San Luis Creek. We drove across relatively flat grasslands but were flanked by mountains to the east and west.

Kayaker in SalidaWe took a detour into Salida, which is a mecca for kayakers who want to enjoy the Arkansas River. It is the heart of Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, which is a long, thin state recreation area that follows the river. It’s also a really cute community. If I ever learn to really kayak, I’ll have to come back here.

From there, we followed the Arkansas River north to Leadville. On the way, we passed several fourteen-thousand-foot peaks, including the Collegiate Peaks (so named because they include such peaks as Mt. Harvard, Mt. Yale, and Mt. Princeton).

We didn’t really have any purpose for being in Leadville, so we ultimately headed east of town for a picnic lunch at Turquoise Lake.

Dave and Jenn at Independence PassThen came the exciting part of the drive. We headed west on CO-82, passing the highest peak in Colorado, Mt. Elbert. Standing at 14,440, Elbert is the second-highest point in the lower 48 states. (The highest is Mt. Whitney in the Sierras in California, standing at 14,505.) The drive up was just beautiful – following a river valley and winding up the mountains. After a steep climb, we arrived at Independence Pass, at an elevation of 12,093 feet. We stopped and took some photos, admired the view (there was still a bit of snow up there), and breathed in the chilly, thin air.

The way down was a little more harrowing. The road was incredibly narrow at points, and was very winding. It was pretty – following the Roaring Fork River, but the driver doesn’t have much opportunity to admire the view because all focus must be on avoiding collisions with other cars or with the side of the mountain.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 9: Colorado ~ Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National ParkIt was already starting to get warm as we ate our breakfast, admired the hawks circling the lake, and broke camp.

We drove northwest to I-24 and then north, crossing the border from New Mexico into Colorado. We made a couple of stops – first, at a KMart in Raton, NM to buy me some sweatpants (after I realized the next couple of nights would be cold camping), and then in Trinidad, CO to get ice and a few other things at Safeway.

From there it was just a couple more hours to Great Sand Dunes National Park. On our way, we drove past Mt. Blanca, the first “fourteener” we passed, standing at 14,345 feet. (It’s surprising how that doesn’t seem that tall when you’re driving on a road that is already higher than 8,000 feet.)

Great Sand Dunes National Park entranceThe Great Sand Dunes are a unique feature, and the tallest sand dunes in North America. The natural forces that created the sand dunes are well explained elsewhere. What I will add is that it’s impressive how large they are, and how much real estate they occupy at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. What is also impressive is how many different types of ecosystem there are to enjoy in this park – from alpine peaks and lakes to desert and grassland, and everything in between.

We got a nice spot in the busy campground, pitched our tent, and had lunch as we decided what activities to do in our half day in the park.

Our first stop was the visitor center. It had a 20-minute video that emphasized how the different systems interact with, and interdepend on, each other. It included some beautiful footage of the park in different seasons (noting that few visit the park in the winter), which made us wish that we were there during a wetter time of year. It seems Medano Creek is a pretty fun place to play when there’s water, but it was bone dry when we were there.

Zapata CreekNext we decided to hike to Zapata Falls. Ten miles south of the entrance to the national park is a 3-mile gravel road up the mountain, where there is an overlook (great view of the dunes), restroom, parking area, and trailhead. The trail, while steep, is fairly moderate and short (about 1/2 mile). It was busy but not crowded.

At the top of the trail is a creek. We then had to wade up the VERY cold water, perhaps 150 feet around a couple of bends, until the falls came into view. While not the most impressive or beautiful falls we’ve ever seen, they were pretty cool, especially the way they’ve been carving out the rock for untold numbers of years.

Having acclimated slightly to the freezing cold water, we waded down the creek just a bit. It was really too cold to get completely wet (a shame, since we had purposely changed into our bathing suits, hoping to use the water to cool down from the heat in the desert below), but I did soak my shirt and put it on before we hiked back down to our car. It was completely dry by the time we got to the bottom.

When we got back to our camp site, we had an early dinner, and then headed out to the dunes right around sunset.

Great Sand DunesThe temperature of the sand gets up to about 140 degrees, so it’s not really pleasant to hike them during the day. Once the sun starts to go behind the mountains, though, the surface starts to cool down.

As soon as we began walking on the sand, we realized it would be easier to walk barefoot. We followed the example of others and ditched our shoes at the trailhead, and set across the sand.

Hiking on the Dunes at DuskIf you’ve ever walked on a wide, sandy beach, you can get a sense of what the initial part of our hike was like. For several hundred yards, the ground is flat. The sand is not very fine, and has quite a few pebbles and rocks in it. The part that is *not* like walking on the beach is that there is no water to firm it up, so every step entails another step-and-a-half to continue moving on.

After that, we finally got to the dunes. Just like any set of hills, the near dunes are shorter, and they continue to get taller and taller. According to the Park Service, it takes about 75 minutes to get to the tallest peak. We didn’t feel like we had the energy for that, so we made it to the top of the third dune in, and sat there for a while.

Sand dunes under the starsDave took a bunch of cool night photos of the dunes while I made a sand angel. We enjoyed the stars, the incredibly bright moon, and the surreal landscape. We even saw a couple of shooting stars. (This time of year is the Perseid meteor shower, which wasn’t as spectacular this year because of the bright moon, but it was still possible to see a few.) It became extremely windy, and we realized that it wasn’t really pleasant to sit on top of a sand dune in the wind, so we headed back down.

This place is so cool. It’s really out of the way, but it was totally worth the trip.