Friday, October 28, 2016

The Wild West

Gorgeous Colorado
Having not started work yet, and considering that the weather was positively beautiful, we headed off for a little trip down to Southern Colorado. Aiming first for Mesa Verde National Park, and then for Great Sand Dunes National Park, we had chosen to grab a rental car on a off season special rate. The little Sonic Turbo was a bit of a beast, still getting ridiculous fuel efficiency, but with a little zap of the turbo at 3000rpm she kicked up the dust for sure. So we headed west from Breckenridge on I-70, where we quickly realised this was going to be as much about the journey as it will be our two destinations. We were in awe as we winded through the Glenwood Canyon, where somehow they have squeezed two travel lanes each directing within the steep walls almost right on top of the river. Probably one of the most spectacular interstate routes for sure.

The drive south
Just from looking at the map and planning a route based on the little dotted lines indicating scenic roads, we turned off the interstate heading south. Again, having no real expectations other than that we were to be journeying through the mountains, we were absolutely taken to another level of beauty and driving bliss. We were quickly winding up through a narrow mudstone canyon then popping out high up into the Grand Mesa National Forest. High alpine lakes hanging to the side of the pine covered tops, it really doesn't get much more spectacular. We made a few stops to sit and look, but there was just too many beautiful lookout spots, so we were happy to watch it all pass us as we wound up over and back down. We made our way through what is called the 'Western Slope', a dry high plains area, with pockets of small towns and groves of fruit trees and the sort. Ducking off onto a smaller road heading past the famous Telluride Ski Resort, we were passing across the Western edge of the Rio Grande National Forest, where the peaks grew towering high and ominously jagged.

The sunset at Mesa Verde
Making it to our destination very near the South Western corner of Colorado, we set up camp with a setting sun at the Mesa Verde National Park, with just enough light to quickly dash up the towering massif sitting at the the gate of the park to see the sun drop below the horizon over the high plans expanse with those rugged towering peaks north where we had just journeyed. To make the most of the day, we woke up before sunrise and we were happy to be headed deeper into the park and catch the sunrise over the sloping scrubby gorged plains, where we were about to explore and find the cliff homes of the Ancestral Puebloans.

The Cliff Palace

What American National Parks do best is make these special places accessible to all. So we spent the morning driving about convenient roads with a car park right by each area of interest. We started to feel dizzy getting in and out for the car so often, but we did see a lot. A beautiful dry environment, and a plateau carved with endless gorges, canyons and gullies. A place seemingly uninhabitable, however for a many hundred years around 800AD the Pueblo people called this place home, moving from above ground dwelling to wedging very intricate settlements of living and worship spaces into narrow shelves under on hanging cliffs. Settlements of 400 plus rooms, living quarters and kivas, linked with ladders and steps. Seen as an adaption for protection from attack and the elements, however at a certain point they just up and left. During the peak season you can take guided walks through a few dwellings, but we were happy to peer from across the way, appreciating the scale and space these people once lived amongst. 

Amy feeling small amongst the dunes
After the morning visiting the park, we headed east to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Again, the journey was as great as the destination. We headed through Durango to Pagosa Springs for lunch. We were welcomed by the biggest plume of smoke coming from town. Seemed the local steakhouse had caught ablaze overnight and was smoldering in a wrecked pile with multiple fire appliances still dowsing the remains. Heading on, we headed over Wolf Creek Pass, another badass switch back road that just seemed to climb and climb. The little Chevy turbo ate up the road passed the Wolf Creek Ski Field, which receives the highest annual snowfall in Colorado. Again, ducking out of the Rio Grande National Forest we found ourselves traveling across a large high plain area within the San Luis Valley, headed for what didn't seem like such a spectacular gray blob in the far distance. Well it turned out the grey blob grew and grew and grew until we were upon this great golden dune field wedged up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range. Making camp again just in time to head for a walk up the side hills to see the sun set once again, but this time over a very different landscape. Later we enjoyed a campfire and a stunning show of stars.

Another early morning adventure out into the dune field, we had free range of the terrain, no paths or trails to follow. Just follow others footprints or make your own. We headed for the less direct route to the top of Star Dune, the highest point in the park. From the top, the view was inspiring, and the idea of leaping down the steep slope was too good to turn down. With each leap and bound my feet would heave deep into the sand slope producing a somewhat unsettling sound like I was creating a large sand avalanche, none happened however. Shoes filled with sand did though. We traversed out along the dunes, sat and enjoyed the warmth, tranquility and the loneliness of being out ahead of the light autumn crowds. We made our way back and across the river that simply just runs and disappears into the sand.   

Feeling small amongst the Rockies

Continuing on our way back home to Breckenridge, we headed directly north towards Buena Vista through some less spectacular scenery, however still gorgeous wide open valleys with high, daunting mountains to the side. Very reminiscent of the Cass Range in New Zealand, making me feel very content. We made our way into Park County, the home of the cartoon Series South Park, and over Hosier pass and back to our home of Summit County. Just a quick trip away, that turned out to be a real welcome to the Wild West.
Great Sand Dunes

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