Monday, May 26, 2008

Southern Colorado Vacation

We arrived home from a family vacation to southern Colorado, including the Sand Dunes, Pagosa Springs, Mesa Verde, and drives over the state's most spectacular passes after a spring snow storm. Here are the highlights.

May 16 Friday

First stop - about 8 pm (45 minutes into our journey) at a convenience store in Fairplay for a potty break. Andrew was wearing his rocket ship pajamas - mom put them on to prepare for him sleeping in the car. I told Andrew he could buy one item (within reason), and he chose a dozen Hostess donuts - chocolate, powdered sugar, and plain. Not a bad choice, since it was their post-breakfast dessert for the next 3 mornings. We arrived at our first destination - the Medano-Zapata Ranch near the Great Sand Dunes - at around 11 pm. The ranch is 100,000 acres owned by the Nature Conservancy bordering the National Park. The Conservancy just recently opened their lodge and guest house for nightly lodging. Amy and I are long-time Conservancy donors, and we had been interested in staying at the ranch, but until recently the only option was to join a multi-day naturalist workshop. It was perfect for us. Of the 3 nights we were there in the 6 room guest house, we had the whole place to ourselves except for 1 night. The house has a large living area and kitchen, with a panoramic view of the dunes and Sangre de Christo mountains; a beautiful spot to enjoy a meal.

May 17 Saturday
After breakfast we went straight to the dunes. A steady cool wind was blowing from the east, making it just cold enough that we all wore light jackets. Medano creek was running strong and cold on the edge of the dunes. After crossing, we didn't go too far into the dunes before we settled in a nice spot and the kids started playing with their buckets and shovels in 30-square-mile sandbox. We all ran down the dune faces a few times, too. I got a good workout doing laps up and down one steep dune. After a picnic lunch, we stopped at the visitor center, where Andrew earned his badge as a Junior Park Ranger. He beamed with pride for the next few days telling anyone who would listen that he was a Junior Park Ranger. While Andrew earned his badge with Mommy's help, I took Elizabeth on a short nature walk. We see several bugs (she calls all bugs "lady bugs"), some animal burrows, and I pointed out to her a pile of deer poo poo. She now excitedly points out to us every pile of deer poo poo she sees. After naps for me and the kids, we mosied over to the main ranch house, where a fairly tame herd of deer was feasting on the green grass, and the kids got a pretty close look at them.

May 18 Sunday

I started my day at 5:30 am, hitting the road for a short drive to a trailhead, and got some uphill altitude training in. I ran up the Zapata Lake trail from about 9000 to 11,300 feet elevation and back again. That's a hell of a way to spend a vacation, eh? After breakfast back at the ranch, we all piled into the truck and went back to the dunes! We did a short nature hike where the highlight for the kids was throwing rocks into a stream, and then on to the dunes again. Andrew told us he didn't want to go to the sand again, but we knew better and took him anyway. This time we went to the east side, where fewer people go because you need 4 wheel drive and partially deflated tires to get thru the sand. The great thing about this spot is that the creek here runs right into the bottom of the steepest dune around, one with about 300 feet of vertical rise straight from the creek. Amy and the kids played in the wet sand and creek while I scaled the dune and ran straight down again, leaping several times as far as I could to land in the soft sand. The sand makes an odd rumbling noise when you land in it - hard to describe. I then helped Andrew build a sand castle and moat while Amy took her turn leaping down the dune. After all that, it was nap time for the kids, so back to the ranch we went. Andrew now said he loves the sand dunes, despite telling us earlier that day that he didn't want to go back.

May 19 Monday
This morning we went on a bison tour. A ranch hand drove us out where we got up real close to some of the ranch bison, including several calves that were about 1 month old. We got up close but stayed in the car to watch. The animals are huge and unpredictable. The conservancy maintains them as an essentially wild herd, providing no feed. They do round up and sell many of them each year to slaughter, but they are increasing the herd size. Without any wolves, they don't have any predators. It surreal to see about 3 dozen bison at close range, with the dunes and the snow-capped peaks of the Sangres as a backdrop. After the tour, we packed up and headed toward Pagosa Springs. Andrew and Elizabeth napped for about an hour (ahh, sweet silence!). We listened to C.W. McCall's "Wolf Creek Pass" as we drove on Wolf Creek Pass and stopped at Treasure Falls. With a drop of about 100 feet and and creek swollen with snow melt, this is the most impressive waterfall I've seen in Colorado. The short hike from the road for a closer look is well worth it. We're now at the Pagosa Hot Springs, where the kids have the only thing required for kids to have a fun vacation: a pool.

May 20 Tuesday

Tuesday was a kid-centric day with most of the day spent in the hot springs pool. Amy and I took turns getting massages, so wasn't entirely kid-centered. The hot springs are right next to the San Juan river, which was probably 6 feet higher than normal due to snowmelt: high enough that they put up sandbags to keep the turbid and frigid water out of the hot tubs.

May 21 Wednesday

After a morning dip in the pool, we hit the road toward Mesa Verde, stopping at Durango on the way for lunch and a stop at the candy store. At this time of year, Mesa Verde lives up to its name, with vivid green spring growth everywhere. Andrew earned his 2nd Junior Park Ranger badge, and we all toured the Spruce Tree House ruin. We spent the next 3 nights at Kelly Place, an amazing B&B west of Cortez, nestled in the canyons underneath 10,000 foot Sleeping Ute mountain. There are several Anasazi ruins right on the property, including one very well restored pueblo and kiva (circular, underground room used for ceremonies). It also borders Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, where several more cliff dwellings are a short hike away. There was a group of about a dozen people here on a "vision quest"; after a few days banging on drums and various activities at Kelly Place, they all packed up for a week of backpacking in the Utah desert. They were really nice folks, and not nearly as weird as you might expect.

May 22 Thursday

We spent the whole day in Mesa Verde, starting with the ranger-led tour of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in the park. Surprisingly, there is a winery and vinyard just up the road from us along McElmo creek - Guy Drew Vineyards. We stopped in for a tasting and bought half a case of wine. One of those bottles we promptly finished off back at the B&B while the kids napped. It was a cold rainy day, so enjoying some nice wine and a book was a great way to spend the afternoon.

May 23 Friday
Today we hiked a few miles into Canyons of the Ancients to see the cliff dwellings. They're certainly not as big or impressive as those at Mesa Verde, but the solitude - we were the only people there - makes it well worth the walk. Back at Kelly Place, we ate dinner and played games. They had an ancient Monopoly game without the board, so Andrew improvised a game - something like shopkeeper. He doled me out a stack of monopolymoney and then "sold" me various items and gave me change. So he got to exercise his math skills by calculating change, and he absolutely loved it. He insisted on playing again the next morning after breakfast!

May 24 Saturday

Today was a big driving day, but a beautiful one. The cold spring weather left fresh snow everywhere above about 8000 feet, and we spent a lot of time at these altitudes as we drove through Durango, over 2 passes to Silverton, then over Red Mountain pass to Ouray, and finally over McClure pass to Basalt and Glenwood Springs. If you've never been over these passes, they are absolutely spectacular. I also bought the most expensive gasoline I've ever bought - $4.29/gallon in Ouray. (Fortunately, and somewhat miraculously, I got 22 mpg in my 1995 Toyota 4Runner on this tank of gas - the best mileage I've ever gotten.) We spent the night with my dad at my parents' place in New Castle, and as usual, enjoyed great food and great company!

May 25 Sunday

We saw a bear! Driving home over Vail pass on Sunday evening, there was a handful of people stopped to look at something - a big black bear! Just a hundred yards off the road, the bear was grazing on vegetation. This is the first time I've seen a wild bear in Colorado. Pretty cool way to finish our vacation! (Unfortunately we didn't have a good zoom lens...)

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