We made it to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve just a little after 1pm, a warm box from Pizza Hut resting on the bfs lap and my eyes fixed on the horizon. It was that kind of overcast afternoon where you can’t help wondering when those distant rain clouds are gonna overtake the sky and ruin your plans. It was a mildly chilly day, the sun dipping in and out of sight and we were shivering a little as we sat ourselves in the picnic area near the dunes to eat our lunch and plan out our afternoon.
Just driving up into the park had been an experience in and of itself, the whole area it’s own corner of nowhere in Colorado. It’s the kind of place you have to really aim to go to, you can’t just find yourself there accidentally, and I think thats part of the charm. The crowds were minimal and they completely disappeared once we headed out on the unpaved road towards the Point of No Return (seriously, what have I said about national parks and their inclination towards dramatic names).
We had a good few hours to kill before the sun set and we wanted to wait a little before tackling the dunes themselves, so after eating lunch and getting caffeinated again, we decided to take the small hike up to the Dunes Overlook. It’s a fairly easy hike, just 2.3 miles (3.7 km) roundtrip and i’d definetly recommend it not only for the excellent view from up above the dunes but also for the beautiful views and scenery on the way up. Once you make it up to the overlook, you can either sit on one of the many convenient benches like the bf did to catch your breath, or you can be like me and run around all over exploring the many view points. We somehow lucked out and managed to get the overlook all to ourselves and I can honestly say it was with great reluctance that I eventually let myself be led back down.
Once we made it back to the car, I crossed the road to go check out the area just on the other side, where the Sand Pit is. The bf stayed in the car to clean his shoes out (lots o’ sand, obviously) while I trudged my way slowly over the small ridge, my camera slung heavy over my shoulder. The thing I most vividly remember, apart from the incredible view of the mountains with the sand dunes just off to the left, was the calm quiet. The wind whipped around me constantly, but never harshly, and the coolness of it was welcome on my warm face. I could feel the gritty sand in my boots as I stood there looking out at the landscape while surrounded by beautiful and unexpected vegetation and it felt more like a gift than anything else, a vivid constant reminder of where I was.
Eventually I replaced the lens cover on my camera and walked back to car, intent on making it out onto the dunes themselves.
The plans were, as always, loose and easily changeable. We woke up decently early to head from South Fork towards Creede and take the Bachelors Loop Tour before heading on over to Lake City. By the way, the only reason we planned to go to Lake City is because the bf had mentioned this as a place I should visit more than a dozen times since our last visit and it was my goal to once and for all just make it out there, damn any and all impediments…of course that steely eyed determination and my own hubris would end up being my downfall but, more on that later.
I had actually previously visited Creede and the beginnings of the Bachelor loop but last time we had been driving a sedan and hadn’t been able to make it more than partially up the loop. This time, we were better prepared BUT unfortunately we didn’t take the weather into consideration and ended up having to stop even before we started, as the part of the loop that starts right past the mining museum was closed off with cinder blocks. And so that was disappointing but, I still got a chance to see the familiar structures from before and had fun driving through the sleepy town of Creede (it would be the first of many times we passed through it) before we headed back to our cabin to regroup for the day.
We had counted on using the next day to drive out to the Great Sand Dunes NP but after the bf looked up the weather forecast and saw a projected thunderstorm heading into that area, we headed back to South Fork to chill for a couple of hours before making the decision to finish out the day there. That part of the day at least, turned out to be perfectly planned.
I first heard of this park from the bf about 4 years ago, during our my first ever roadtrip. We were driving up from Santa Fe to Loveland, CO where his parents lived and on the way up we passed Colorado Springs and I remember his wistful expression as we passed by, the night well and truly upon us and no chance to stop by. We made our way back to Colorado the next year, for a long weekend spent in the San Juan Mountains and again we couldn’t make time to visit. This time though, once and for all, we got our chance to stop on by.
It wasn’t the best timing, since we squeezed it in the drive from Denver to South Fork and we didn’t arrive until almost noon (never go anywhere semi-popular at noon, even if it’s a weekday) but we made the most of it. I’ve been to some beautiful parks and seen more than my fair share of wonderful rock formations but Garden of the Gods was definetly worth a visit and I actually really regretted not arriving earlier to get a chance to explore the park more. There’s plenty of trails to choose from, and I think pretty much all of them link or loop into each other, so I would say it’s a park I would allot a couple of hours to if you have them to spare. We didn’t though, and after a short hike through one or two of the trails (don’t laugh but I honestly couldn’t tell you which one we started at and where we ended up going after it branched off twice) we made it back to the parking lot to find it overflowing with cars and pink faced adults applying sunscreen. The bf had his own pink cheeks to contend with and so we headed out, stopping by the trading post to buy some fudge and souvenirs (of course), ending our time in Colorado Springs with some tacos from Qdoba before heading back onto the road towards the San Juan Mountains.
The goal was a nice morning, a good start to the day ahead of us before we headed down to the Garden of the Gods and ended the day in the San Juan Mountains. To that end, we didn’t push ourselves to wake up before the sun, knowing the lake would probably be filled with many a photographer hoping to catch that beautiful early morning light. We packed up the car just a little after 630am, checked out of the hotel we were staying at in Estes Park (which I highly recommend as your home base if your going to be spending time in Rocky Mountain NP) and headed on up into the park at a leisurely pace.
A couple of wild animal crossings later, we made it to the parking lot of Bear Lake, which just two days prior we had driven to just a little before midday and found absolutely packed. That morning however, only a few cars remained. We slipped (and I do very much mean slipped, neither one of us had the forethought to pack yak trax and the short trail was covered with snow that had iced over) our way out to the lake and found it completely frozen over and beautifully quiet. It was cold, the sun still making it’s way up and our hands stupidly bare and freezing, but it was so incredibly beautiful to the point that it made us forget the discomfort.
Only two people remained, both slipping their way back towards the parking lot by the time we started to make out way around the lake, leaving us with the place all to ourselves. Neither the bf or I had ever seen a completely frozen over lake before, never mind actually walk out on the surface of one, so the whole experience was full of adventure and discovery. Somehow neither one of us actually fell, though we came close a couple of times, and we ended up sitting on some rocks jutting out near the edges of the lake, watching the light come up.
It was very cold, very quiet and above all, incredibly breathtaking.
After leaving the gems and minerals behind us for the day, we headed deeper into the museum, to find the North American Indian Cultures exhibit area. We had to leave before really getting a chance to explore everything to catch a show at the planetarium (Cosmic Journey: A Solar System adventure….and yes it was as fantastically nerdy as it sounds) but we came right back afterwards. I have a bit of a ….tempestuous, relationship with museums and their exhibits of Native American artifacts and the way they recount their history, but the Denver museum was- at least in my very humble and not overly scholarly opinion- really well researched, honest and above all, respectful. I would definetly recommend visiting for a chance to learn more about the cultures that span North America and getting a chance to see beautiful works of art (both ancient and modern).
Something of particular fascination to me were the signs you would see every so often behind the glass cases, just under a blank spot where an artifact use to sit. A small sign saying the object that used to be displayed there had been returned to their respective tribe or historical owner. I know the subject is something of intensely furious debate among certain groups, so I won’t go into it too much here, both because I don’t really come from a culture that has had it’s history taken to be displayed in museums without proper permission and also because I don’t have a Ph.D in…well anything really, but I will say it was something I though was interesting in many ways to see documented within the displays themselves. I ended up buying a really fascinating book on the subject in the gift shop (because of course I did) called Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture which was actually written by the senior curator of anthropology at the museum and I recommend as an interesting read on the subject.
We finished off at the small but super informative and fun Egyptian Mummies exhibit and then meandered our way down to the gift shop where as you can probably tell by now, I spent a stupid amount of money at. Books, postcards, souvenirs and even a new notebook, I would say don’t exit through the gift shop but… that would be so very hypocritical of me, no?