Monday, July 22, 2024

Road Trip: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Dark and ominous skies loomed above us as we drove into Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We were there late in the day and just barely made it to the Visitor Center to get our park passport stamped and to get a few souvenirs before it closed. Then we walked to an overlook, which provided our first view into the canyon.

The view was incredible. The overlook sits on the edge of the narrow and deep canyon, high above the Gunnison River.

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The ominous clouds began to drop a few lightning bolts, and the winds began to pick up.

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We started driving to another overlook when it started pouring rain. We waited in the safety of the car for a bit as the worst of the storm passed overhead. Luckily the lightning had stopped, so we felt safe enough to venture out. But heavy rain was still falling, which put the weatherproofing on the new camera to the test as we went to take a few pictures of the canyon filled with mist and fog.

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The main road in the park visits several overlooks on the canyon rim. Eric and I tried to see all of them, while trying to not get too drenched by the rain.

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The Black Canyon gets its name because the canyon walls are so narrow and steep, that they are often hidden in shadow.

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The canyon here is one of the steepest, deepest and narrowest canyons in the Rockies. At one point (which is aptly named "The Narrows"), the canyon is only 40 feet wide.

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The canyon was created a few million years ago when the Gunnison River began carving its way through the volcanic and metamorphic rock here. One of the most prominent parts of the canyon is the Painted Wall, which is 2,250 feet tall and the tallest cliff in Colorado.

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For a comparison, the Painted Wall is taller than the Eiffel Tower (1,063 feet), the Empire State Building (1,250 feet), and the One World Trade Center (1,776 feet). If the tallest building in the world (the Burj Khalifa - 2,717 feet) was built along the Gunnison River, only about 500 feet of its spire would stretch past the top of the Painted Wall.

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The rain finally stopped right at sunset, when just a little bit of light hit the clouds above the Painted Wall.

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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Road Trip: Keblar Pass

We headed out, driving towards another National Park. We went through the flat lands of the San Luis Valley, passing by random tourist things like an alligator farm and what was called a "UFO Watchtower" (I was tempted to stop, but we were in a hurry).

But I couldn't help myself and pulled over at this old abandoned house along the side of the road.

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We had been driving for awhile, and you could still see the Great Sand Dunes off in the distance across the flat valley.

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When we made our itinerary for this trip months ago, we planned a relatively short day of driving from the Sand Dunes over to the town of Montrose. But the Colorado Highway Department had other ideas. Our original route was closed due to construction on a bridge. So we had to detour around the mountains, which nearly doubled our driving time for the day.

Our detour took us over Keblar Pass, which was an incredibly scenic drive through the Gunnison National Forest. The road passed through massive groves of aspens and by towering mountains.

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The pass sits at an elevation of 10,007 feet. We did not see any Keebler Elves along the road at Keblar Pass.

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Finally we made it through the pass and started towards Montrose. We were staying at the Minecart Motor Lodge, a Route-66 style motel that had been recently rennovated. We laughed every time Siri gave us directions to it, since she would pronounce "Minecart" as "Minnie-curt." We eventually made it and checked in. But we didn't spend too much time there. We set down the bags and then drove right towards the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Some photos of our stormy visit there on the next post....

Friday, July 19, 2024

Road Trip: Great Sand Dunes National Park - Part 2

We headed back to our camper after our visit to Zapata Falls. We would be leaving the next day, and I would miss having this view.

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My cousin Eric is staying in Colorado, and he was kind enough to drive over and join us for our trip. And after dinner that night, Eric and I decided to head back out to the park so we could try hiking to the tallest dune before sunset. It was an optimistic plan, and we only made it about half-way there. Hiking on the dunes is a lot harder than you'd think.

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Walking on sand dunes is a lot like walking on snow. Sometimes you can walk atop the sand just fine, others your foot will sink several inches and nearly disappear into the sand. If trying to go uphill, you will oftentimes start to slide right back down as soon as you plant your foot. It was exhausting, especially because the dunes are at an elevation of about 7,600 feet. For a comparison, the elevation in Little Rock where I am writing this right now is a measly 470 feet.

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We hiked up as golden light hit the mountains above the dunes (which rise to an elevation of about 13,000 feet).

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The dunes here began forming about 400,000 years ago.

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Water from receding glaciers flooded the valley, creating streams and lakes. The water also brought down a lot of sand and sediment from the mountains, which was then blown by the predominant winds towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

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The dunes are huge, the largest in all of North America. For a sense of scale, you can see how small the people in the pictures are.

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Before starting the hike, we drenched ourselves with bug spray in a feeble attempt to keep the mosquitoes at bay (which worked a little bit). Another hiker walked past us, who clearly didn't have any bug spray. He was surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes, and he looked miserable. We tried to kindly offer him some of our spray, but he nervously declined (he may not have been an English speaker so he may have thought we were trying to spray him with some mystery chemical, who knows). I felt bad for him, but he did distract some of the mosquitoes that had been pestering us all evening.

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At sunset we stopped hiking and sat down to enjoy the view. It was a great experience, even if we had to share it with a few mosquitoes.

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We started the hike back to the parking lot, and luckily it is much easier to hike on sand going downhill. It was almost dark by the time we made it back to the car. I took off my hiking shoes and they were completely filled with sand. I turned them upside down and a comical amount of sand dumped out. And luckily we saw the other hiker who had refused our offer of bug spray, so thankfully he survived the hike and wasn't carried away by the mosquitoes.

The next morning we woke up and started packing up our stuff in the camper. Our time at the dunes was ending, and it was time to check out. It seemed like it was about to rain, and the clouds hung low over the mountains. I ran over to get a few more pictures of the dunes under that dramatic sky before we headed out.

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I'm sorry there are so many sand dune pictures here. It's such a neat park that it was hard to stop taking pictures.

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OK, one last picture. This was a panoramic shot of the dunes as they stretched out across the valley.

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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Road Trip: Zapata Falls

Zapata Falls is located just a few miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park, and it is the perfect place to go to cool off in the summer. Mostly because the water is ice cold.

The hike to the falls is short, only about a half-mile. But to get to the falls, you do have to wade the creek. We guessed the water temperature was about 40 degrees, since most of it was probably snowmelt. But it is definitely worth getting your feet wet. The falls are about 30 feet tall, and they sit in the back of a cave/crevasse. The falls were created long ago from meltwater from a receding glacier, which carved out the narrow notch where the creek powers through.

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There was a lot of mist and spray blowing out from the falls, so it was hard to get a close-up picture without the camera getting drenched. But here is a view of the bottom of the falls, as it flowed out of the cave.

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The trailhead to the falls also provides a great view of the Sand Dunes and of the San Luis Valley. They valley is massive, and is about the same size as the state of Connecticut.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Road Trip: Great Sand Dunes National Park - Part 1

We stayed at the Great Sand Dunes Lodge, which sits just outside of the park boundary. The lodge offers a few old campers, which have been fixed up and are available for rental. We stayed in one, which was cute (if a little pricey). But you couldn't beat the view. From the window of our camper we had an outstanding view of the dunes.

So after checking in and unloading the car, we had enough time to make a quick visit to the park. We hurried in, as the mountains around us were bathed in evening light.

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The Sand Dunes really are Great. The park contains the tallest and widest sand dunes in North America, with the largest reaching a height of about 750 feet. It is a really neat and scenic park, with the dunes sitting right at the base of the majestic mountains of the Sangre de Cristo Range. A shallow creek that is fed by snowmelt runs beside the dunes. We parked and crossed the creek (which was just an inch or two deep). But we weren't the only ones there. Apparently for a brief period every summer, the creek gets low enough to form stagnant pools. Which, of course, brings swarms of mosquitoes. As luck would have it, we were there right in the middle of mosquito season.

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We strolled out to the dunes as the sky lit up for sunset. Jonah ran around trying to decide which of the dunes he wanted to sled down the next day. All of us, including our new mosquito friends, watched as the sun sank behind the dunes for the day.

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Before sunrise the next day, I woke up and headed out to the park. I wanted to get a picture of the morning light hitting the dunes with the mountains in the background. I managed to leave the camper without waking anyone else up, and remembered to bring the camera and tripod. But I forgot to bring something vitally important - the bug spray. I parked at a small overlook and opened the door and was immediately attacked by a cloud of mosquitoes. My arms, legs and face were an easy breakfast as I tried to set up the camera. The only thing that would keep them at bay was to be in constant motion. So while I waited for the light to change on the dunes, I walked in circles around the camera, the car and the overlook. If I stopped to adjust the camera, however briefly, the plague of mosquitoes would descend. I ended up with this picture, and then hurried back to the refuge of our camper.

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Back at the lodge we had breakfast (luckily the mosquitoes weren't so bad up there). I looked out the window and the light on the dunes was perfect, so I rushed out to get a picture. It's amazing how the subtle difference in light can change the appearance of the dunes. 

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One of the most popular activities in the park is to go sand-boarding or sledding. So we rented a board from the lodge and then made a return trip to the dunes. Riding a board down the dunes is a lot of fun, but you have to be careful. If you wipe out, you will end up completely covered in sand. Your hair will be coated with sand. Your shoes will be filled with sand. Anakin Skywalker would hate it here.

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It's hard to appreciate the sheer size of the dunes unless you see them in person, or try to climb to the top. People attempting to climb the dunes started to look like tiny ants going up a hill.

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I'm not entirely sure why, but the mosquitoes left us alone while we were out there (maybe because it was getting to be the middle of the day?). But it was starting to get hot. There is hardly any vegetation on the dunes, and no shade. So on sunny days it gets really warm out on the sand.

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But luckily there is a waterfall that is conveniently located just outside the park, perfect for cooling off. More on that on the next post....