Sunday, July 10, 2011

Around Colorado in 4 days - Sand Dunes to the Rockies

We drove along the circumference of the Colorado state in 4 days; a journey of 1200 miles. The state has some spectacular landscapes of rugged red canyons jutting down deep to where the rivers had cut through the mountains; vast stretches of sand dunes formed over the ages by the sand and debris deposited by winds which could not blow higher to cross the high mountains; and the ancient mountain dwellings excavated only a 100 years ago. The map below shows the route we had taken. In 4 days, we had hit 4 distinguished national parks and monuments.

 We flew into Denver from Seattle on a Thursday night. We had 2 friends flying in from Minnesota. We drove 2 hours ahead to Colorado Springs from there, so that we can start bright and early the next day. Our first stop was the Garden of Gods; it’s a garden built by man to preserve the queer and ancient sedimentary rock formations which includes the precariously looking Steamboat Rock and Balanced Rock formations. There are many opportunities of hiking and mountain climbing in this free public park. However, we just lazed about around the park for we had lots to catch up with our friends. 

So, if you are not hiking the trails, from the Garden of God’s park entrance (where one can see the hogback-rock formations),  you need to drive another 3 miles further into the park to reach the Balanced Rock formations site.
Another 3 hours drive from the garden, we reached the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Of course we had to stop on the way for food and stuff, so we reached the dunes at 2pm; and that was not at all good timing, because the sun was high in the sky scorching everything under it, and the sand covered stretches made the heat even more unbearable. But, we were not to be deterred. First we tried to reach the Upper Sand Creek Lake by driving through the Music Pass Trail. The trail is unpaved and is one-car-lane narrow. 
 There was a SUV coming back, and the man had informed us that we would not make it to the lake as we did not have a 4 wheeled drive. We didn’t know the “exact” definition of a 4WD then, and all of us felt that the man had a hint of derision in his tone, so we decided to ignore him. But, after driving for another 5 minutes, the wheels were caught in the sand! So we had to turn back which was equally tough for the rented Sonata. But spotting a wild deer in the bushes made some of ours day. Anyways, we had about 3 hours to kill till sunset because I had to climb and watch the sunset over the dunes before leaving the park. 
When there’s a will, there’s a way, and thus we discovered the wonderfully cool Zapata falls about 3 miles outside the Great Sand Dunes NP. It’s an easy 1 mile trail upwards, and we went till we reached under the falls; it was scary and dark, but it is totally worth the adventure.

About 30 minutes to sunset, we started climbing the dunes. It was perfect, with the cool breeze blowing the sand around our feet and the setting sun in the horizon. Coming down the dunes was actually more fun, and as we drove out if the park in the backdrop of the twilight sky set ablaze by the sun, I wished we had more time to spend there.
The road from the Mosca to Durango was very tiresome. We started on the US160 which is a wild 100 miles stretch of nothing before hitting the Rio Grande National Forest. We had to settle for fast food again during dinner. We had booked a lodge-room in the Pagosa Springs which meant we had to cross the Rio Grande forest in the night. So after hours of cruising through the turns and slopes we reached our hotel, in the San Juan forest area. We discovered the splendor of the location only next morning. We had a log cabin right in the middle of the forest with bear warnings at the door! 
A small hike along a nameless waterfall ending in a river, after breakfast, we left the San Juan forest area towards the Mesa Verde National Park. The drive through the small farming villages in July is quite scenic, with majestic horses and numerous grass eating animals strolling on the yellow farms with quaint white farm houses. In Mesa Verde, we were going to see historic cliff dwellings made by the now better known Pueblo tribes. The route into the park is a steep, narrow, winding mountain road. Depending on weather, traffic, and road construction, one should plan at least two hours just to drive into and out of the park.

We went on the Spruce Tree house trail, explored ancient houses carved in the mountains, climbed down a Quiva, and a good one hour workout going back up the trail. It totally proved to be worth our time.

This was a free trail which did not require ranger's assistance, but they were there anyways to answer any questions anybody had. If time and spirit permitted, I also wanted to go on the Balcony house trail. Instead, we went on a 30 min drive of 6mile Mesa top loop road which had pullovers for views of the other dwellings
The next part of our journey was kept open to accommodate any unforeseen backlogs. We decided to skip Aspen and Maroon Bells, and instead drive through the Colorado National Monument towards the Rocky Mountain National Park the next day. Our GPS routed us through Utah to Grand Junction from Cortez, via Moab; instead of the route chalked out in the map above. Hence there was the missed opportunity of hitting the Arches NP due to lack of a well defined plan, for when we were crossing the Arches, there was still light, but I was a little apprehensive from the previous night's strenuous night-driving experience and we decided not to stop. 

The entrance to the Colorado Monument was only 10 minutes from our hotel in Grand Junction. We entered the monument when the ranger office had not opened yet for the day. We just drove through the Rim Rock drive, stopped for occasional photos and breathtaking canyon views and when we left the monument from the other end of the road, the offices had not opened still. When there is nobody at the entrances to the CO National Monument then everyone is expected to pay at the self-service pay station.
 It took us about 3 hours to drive through, without any hiking stops. So, there was no one to collect the entry fee for our car, since we left the area before 10am. But, if time permits, the Coke Ovens and Devil’s kitchen trails merit extra explorations.We just lazily viewed the rock structures from pullover view points on the drive. 

By 10:30am, we were on our way to the Rocky Mountains. It is a 5 hours drive, and adding the two stops we made for lunch and rest, we reached Estes Park at around 1pm. I felt, the experience of the Rocky Mountains will be an everlasting one, irrespective of the time spent inside. On our first entry, we parked the car at Moraine Lake visitor center and took the park shuttle to Bear Lake, Sprague Lake and Moraine Lakes. From the Bear lake trailhead, we had gone further to the Alberta Falls where we saw double rainbows! 

 There are wild lives galore throughout the park, especially moose and marmots. The next morning, we did the trail ridge drive through the highest point (17000ft) on the route, the Alpine visitor center, the Continental divide to the Great Lakes on the other side. The drive is definitely very scenic, but often with sharp turns with moments when I felt I am just flying into the sky in the car. Nonetheless, we were amazed at how well the road had been made and maintained at such a great height! It also portrayed well the gradual phasing from the dense forest growth, then less dense fir forestation, then subalpine meadows to the alpine terrains with part snow and few yellow flowers at the top of the mountains. 
Down the Rocky Mountains, in the small town of Estes Park, there are many Nepali/Indian restaurants serving OK-Indian food, and I also noted that the “I made it to the TOP” badge I had purchased from the Alpine Visitor center store in the Rim Ridge drive for $10 was sold for half the price in the stores there.
It was then about 3pm on Sunday, and we had to leave for Denver airport to catch our flight back home.