Long Weekend and Three National Parks

We had some miles on Southwest we need to use by the middle of August or lose them, so Candy planned a four-day weekend to Colorado and Utah to see three National Parks.  There are 63 National Parks, and we plan to eventually see them all.  We have seen well over half after this trip.  I will have to check the exact count when we get home.

Our trip began poorly.  Our flight from Orlando to Denver was delayed several times by lightning.   We eventually left three hours late.  Then when we landed in Denver, they didn’t have a gate for us, and when they found a gate, it took a while to find someone to drive the jet bridge to our plane.  We ended up driving three hours in the dark through unfamiliar mountains to get to our hotel for the first night.  We arrived at 0200 local time, or 0400 Florida time.  Ouch.

The next morning, we got going early.  Interstate 70 was closed due to mud slides, so instead of a three hour drive to get to our first destination, it took over seven hours.   Along the way, we saw some interesting scenery.

A rest stop along I-70
Rain in the distance. It seemed strange to see rain so far away coming toward us.
Roadside views enroute to Canyonlands National Park.

Canyonlands National Park

Finally we arrived at Canyonlands National Park.  Due to the long detour, we only had about four hours at the park, so we only took a small number of hikes to various vantage points and overlooks.

Entrance to Canyonlands National Park.

Our consistent disappointment on this trip was that the visitors centers at the national parks were essentially closed.  All the interior displays that described the park, its formation, what to do and see, etc. were all covered, or the building was closed.  (They did have the gift stores open for people to spend money — the hypocrisy of that is hard to ignore.)  Part of the enjoyment of the parks for us has been spending an hour in the visitors centers to LEARN something before going on hikes.  In many cases, there weren’t even any hiking maps or other propaganda available.

A view from one of the overlooks. The rock formations in the distance look similar to Monument Valley.

To me Canyonlands had the feel of both the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley.  While the Grand Canyon is certainly deeper, there was a majesty to the wide vistas of Canyonlands.

An overlook
A sweeping vista. This view is reminiscent of Bryce Canyon.
This view really looks like the Grand Canyon

We took a hike out to Mesa Arch, which was not too strenuous, and the view at the end was well worth the walk.

A view of the valley floor through Mesa Arch. Again, note the similar look to Monument Valley — but much, much larger.
A descriptive plaque.
Posing in front of Mesa Arch.

That night we stayed in Mesa, Colorado.  We stayed in the only hotel and restaurant in town.  Friday night was karaoke night.  We enjoyed a drink and some local color.  Everyone was friendly.  The karaoke varied from excellent to awful, but everyone was having a good time.

Grand Mesa National Park

Our destination for the next day was Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, or “Black Canyon.”  We could have taken two routes to Black Canyon.  We elected for the slightly longer route that took us through Grand Mesa National Forest.

Entrance to Grand Mesa National Forest

After a day of desert, a forest was nice.  Grand Mesa is the largest flat-topped mountain in the world.  It was wild to see lakes and creeks on the top of a flat mountain.  Unlike the national parks, the visitor center at Grand Mesa was open and fully staffed.  There were displays and rangers to show us the high points.

A descriptive plaque
A view across the Mesa.
One of the many lakes atop Grand Mesa. The most common activity in the forest is fishing. It makes one wonder how fish climbed 10,000 feet to get into one of these lakes. They are probably stocked now, but how did they get there originally?
We walked out to an overlook and saw “Island Lake” from above. The lake is on top of Grand Mesa, as were we, so you can get a sense of scale.
Atop Grand Mesa looking back toward Mesa, Colorado, and high desert.
Candy and her trophy husband.

Pioneer Town, Cedaredge, CO

From Grand Mesa National Forest we headed toward Black Canyon.  We stopped at a roadside attraction, called Pioneer Town, in Cedaredge, CO, which was surprisingly nice.  There were a number of buildings, a frontier street, and many historical artifacts.

A display of household artifacts inside one of the three original corn silos.
The frontier street in Pioneer Town.
Candy at the bar in the saloon.
The frontier mercantile.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Finally, we arrived at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, named after the railroad engineer who first explored the area looking for a place to lay a bridge.  He eventually determined that it was impassible.

Park entrance.

As with all the national parks, the gift store was open, but the visitors center with all the educational displays were closed.  Sigh.

Panoramic view from near the visitors center.
A view into the Black Canyon. The canyon is so deep and narrow at the bottom, that the very bottom gets very little light. Apparently the nearby Indians were afraid to go into the canyon for fear of never returning.
In this view, you can see the Gunnison river far below. This view also shows the the south side (to the right) is more gently sloped and more heavily vegetated than the north side.
Another view in which you can see the difference between the north and south sides. The south wall gets more sun and rain. The north face gets less sun, so the longer ice and snow cause the rocks to break off and form the steep cliffs.
The “painted wall” overlook.
Another view of the north side of the Black Canyon.
If you look carefully, you can see the river way down below.
You had to lean way over to see the river from the Devil’s overlook.
How did we get this picture of a movie star mixed in with our trip pictures?

That night we stayed in the GG Ranch bed and breakfast run by a German expatriate couple.  I was looking forward the the German breakfast during the whole trip.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Four hours from our bed and breakfast was Great Sand Dunes National Park.  Again the visitors center was essentially closed, but from what we could gather, there is an ancient lake bed across the valley that left a “sand sheet.”  The prevailing winds have blown the sand into dunes, because the tall mountains stop the sand from going farther.  Apparently these are the tallest sand dunes in North America and some of the tallest in the world.

The dunes are huge, and you can see them from a great distance. At this point we are more than 20 miles from the park entrance.
A field of wild flowers nearby.
It is difficult to get a sense of scale. LT Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) was the first explorer to see the Great Sand Dunes as he conducted his “reconnaissance.” He described them as waves at sea except for the color.
This is Pike’s first view of the dunes we saw during a hike.
It is difficult to get a sense of scale from these pictures. If you look very closely, the little dots in the center left are people.
Park entrance
A panoramic view of the dunes.
Just before the park entrance is the Oasis restaurant. Being the only food for at least 50 miles, it is a gold mine. Here you can rent sleds to use on the dunes.

We rented a sled to use on the dunes.   The guy warned us about going too fast, because the sleds can achieve 50 miles per hour.  As we were entering, an ambulance passed us, and when we got to the dunes, they were putting a guy in a cervical collar into the ambulance at the base of the dunes.  We were starting to wonder if this was a good idea.

Once we parked at the dunes, we had to walk almost half a mile to get to the dunes themselves.
This is a view from one of the shorter dunes back toward the parking lot.
A creek runs through the valley, creating the “Riparian Zone.” We had to cross this from the parking lot to get to the dunes. A lot of young kids were enjoying the creek.
Approaching the dunes.

Watch these video clips of us sledding on the dunes.  It was hard to make sure the the sled didn’t turn around while going down the dunes despite how much we waxed them.  By the end, we were getting the hang of it.

 

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Author: Buck Surdu

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