Our first stop in Colorado was the Great Sand Dunes National Park. We opted to try for the campground that was located on the inside of the park, and were met with disappointment when it was full. So we headed down the road to Oasis Campground and Restaurant it’s at the foot of the park, and rents equipment for sand sledding / boarding as well as be the only restaurant within a 30+ mile radius. Thankfully they had room for us, so we headed up the mountain and picked a place to pitch that was close-ish to the grave stones of the men who died during the gold rush, and also offered an incredible view of the park. After such a full day, we opted to batten down the hatches for the night and relaxed to the soothing sounds of Transformers.
We woke up in the Oasis Campground at four in the morning to the sounds of excited Coloradoans preparing for their morning hike. We opted to roll over and enjoy a couple more hours of lying in bed, listening to the mountain echoes. We realized a little while later that we needed to get going or we would miss out on all the sand sled rentals. So, we broke down, brushed our teeth and headed down off the mountain to the single restaurant in 30 miles for breakfast. Luckily, they spoke gluten free and gave me a decent breakfast. We rented a single sandsled, received a quick lesson from the staff, and we set out for the dunes.
The most interesting part of this experience is that none of the dunes are technically off limits. The staff renting you the equipment informs you to be practical about your capabilities. Which really means understanding that the arid climate will absolutely torch you, while the elevation in tandem will dehydrate you, a lot faster than you are accustomed to (particularly people who were raised at Sea Level). We opted to follow the trail of the people trekking ahead of us and headed toward the entranceway of the dunes. Thinking that nothing could stop our fully sunscreened selves, we immediately realized that we had not been fully prepared for there to be a creek separating us from the dunes (Medano Creek to be more accurate). We headed back to the car, changed our shoes to flip flops (Possible mistake?) and crossed the creek to get to the dunes. It was a solid distance from the creek to the top of the dunes where we saw a handful of people throwing themselves down on their boards. Already feeling winded (Read: Out of shape), we took a moment to ask a group of people how to successfully sled down sand. They took pity on our pale faces, realized we were not locals, and taught us how to sled. After already telling Joe I would go first, I skirted myself to the edge of the dune, held on to the provided handles, tipped myself over the precipice, and…. promptly careened off the sled and somersaulted down the rest of the dune, soundtracked by the hysterical laughter of everyone up on the ridge. Carrying what felt like a pound of sand in my pants, I shook off the best I could and trudged back up the dune to send Joe on his run. Who of course, completed the run perfectly, made it all the way down with not even a single extra grain of sand in his pants.
After a few runs, we began to regret wearing flip flops. Sand Dunes get hot, really hot - over a hundred and ten degrees hot. Bare feet on baking sand equals toasted tootsies. It’s not the walking on that’s a problem, it’s the walking up. When you’re climbing a fairly steep face of the dune, most of the sand piles on top of your feet, engulfing it in hot sand, cooking your toes. That, mixed with the thin air and beating sun, (as well as our time table) caused us to head back towards the car. Grateful for the relief of the running creek through the dunes to cool off our toes, we washed off as much of the sand as we could and then hit the road for Pueblo.
The drive was a pretty decent one, and my loving husband took pity on my sand covered body and found us a room atSanta Fe Inn Pueblo to put up for the evening. Fortune looked upon us and found us a gluten free pizza place that offered delivery to our hotel. Thrilled, we decided not to waste the opportunity to stay in and have a pizza / laundry date. We broke out the wine and the washer and got to work. We bought this little Panda washing machine with spin basket for about $70 and it is awesome. Truthfully, I wish I had known about these portable washers and dryers before we moved out of our house, but to have one on the road is crazy helpful. Our pizza arrived half way through our laundry night and was pretty good, but way more expensive than it should have been. We did a few loads and managed to wash all of our laundry, and then we hung all the pieces to dry on every piece of available surface we had in the hotel room, save the bed. There was underwear on shower bars, and luggage racks, tank tops and shorts on hangers and tables (the socks had a special place on the ironing board.) We fell asleep hopeful that by morning everything was dry and ready to be packed up for the next day’s Journey toward the mountains.
We woke up to completely dry laundry and happily packed up all our freshly cleaned possessions and hit the road to see Garden of the Gods , rumored to be one of the most beautiful parks our country has to offer. They did not disappoint - it was created by a collision of rocks in a volcanic shift that forced all of the rocks to stand almost entirely vertical, allowing for this unique mountain arrangement to happen. We signed up for a trolley ride for a tour of the park and enjoyed the personal stories of our tour guide “D”. He had previously been a park ranger for the Garden of the Gods and had worked the park his whole life. He was also a Paramedic who was frequently called upon to save the errant lost or injured high altitude hiker. So, most of the stories were about who got stuck where, and how he had to go get them. After listening to oddball war stories and theories on Santa Claus’ Summer vacationing spots (as well as NORAD answering his fan mail).
After leaving Garden of the Gods we headed to Colorado Springs for lunch. In the middle of the town is a place called Coquettes an entirely dedicated gluten free restaurant and bakery. Perfection. The staff was friendly, the restaurant was clean, and the food was spectacular. We made sure to take Flat bread, muffins, and pastries with us for the next few meals, and then hit the road for Denver. Of course, by hit the road for Denver, I mean sit in traffic as soon as you arrive at the city limits, because of Comic Con. At first we thought Denver was just funky, but then we started realizing that there were a lot more people dressed up in costume then there should be. That’s when we noticed the lanyard passes, and that foot traffic was headed in mostly one direction. Our timing is always so impressive. We finally trudged through the traffic, and explored little bits of the city in the car. It was then that we noticed that most of the residents were outside… packing their cars. We thought it was odd to see so many people all at once packing. It wasn’t a holiday weekend, it was just an entire city, packing up for the weekend. We brushed it off and continued on our journey.
We figured that we would camp a night in higher altitude on our way towards Dillon. As we drove higher up in the mountain, we began to realize why everyone was packing their cars. Colorado LOVES Camping. Loves, loves, loves camping. In a way that is both admirable and questionable. I know this because we visited 6 campsites in order to try and find 1 spot for the night and were turned away every time and these were large campgrounds. It was starting to get late, and we were at our wits end. So we started looking for affordable hotels that we could crash in for the night. Turns out that where we chose to park it for the night was some kind of tourist mecca. Understandably so, there was a mountain lake in the middle of some serious mountains. Being a ski town and lake town means all the tourists, all year long will pay whatever the businesses set as their prices. We stayed in Silver Inn a little way out of town and one of the only hotels in the area that still had an available room. We relaxed and set down to a dinner of peanut butter on flatbreads with a bottle of wine.
Breakfast the next morning consisted of pastries and Starbucks, so we started the day off right. We drove around the town a little bit, and then found our way to my brother Matt’s apartment complex. This immediately made both Joe and I very jealous because his view was spectacular.
We decided that later in the day would have a BBQ at our family friends' house, Greg, where we had an incredible view of the mountains, and a lot thinner blood for alcohol to swim in. We ended the day with a Target run to pick up food for a picnic the next day (and snacks for later) and watching Contact. Turns out this would be the *First Night* we would be spending inside our Element. So at 2 am, intoxicated and exhausted, we went out to the parking lot and made up our bed. We rearranged the cargo, folded out the platform bed, and hung our curtains. Believe it or not, we slept like babies. The curtain material dampens a lot of the ambient noise from outside, and our ceiling fan doubles as a “tower” fan and circulated air around the car. We woke up the next morning and took our time getting ready, we eventually met up with everyone and made our way up some of the mountains to see some of the views overlooking Twin Lakes. Then we headed down to hang out by the Reservoir to have lunch. However, we forgot that being an entire mile closer to the sun meant that there was less protection from said sun. So we took the wind tarp from our tent and built a shelter for everyone to eat lunch.
After spending time in the sun light (and some in shade) we headed back to Matt’s friend Mikes House to watch Game 7 of the NBA playoffs This would be the first basketball game that I watched from start to finish that I was not physically present for. It was a great game, and I’m glad we got to watch it with Matt. After the game, Matt drove us back up the mountain and brought us to a free camping site and helped us pitch. He spent some more time with us and then had to go home so he could get some sleep before work the next morning. We said our goodbyes, and went to sleep for the night.
The next morning, we woke up early, broke down quickly and went straight to River Runners. We headed to the drop in point and got suited up in our wet-suits for the day’s adventure. We signed up for a half day tour (which ended up being a little bit longer then we had expected) and met “Sweet T” who was going to be our guide for the trip. “Sweet T” was a transplant from South Carolina, and was very effective at telling us what to do. We also met our fellow crew members, a family from Chicago that was on vacation. To break the ice, I cracked a joke about our pizza being superior and we became friends (city-folk tend to understand each other). As a boat we were very committed to not being “Baptized in the Arkansas”, and did our best to have a solid team approach to the rapids. Joe and I elected to sit in the front of the raft so that we could have the “best seats in the house” – AKA; get soaked the most. For those of you who have never been rafting, these boats have no seat-belts or ways to restrain you if you flip, for good reason. But what that really means is you are responsible for keeping your own ass in that boat. The way this is accomplished is by anchoring your feet in a cross legged position with the built in pockets of the raft. So every time “Sweet Tea” would inform us that we are coming up to a rapid, every member of the boat would squeak their feet further in to their assigned pockets and prepare to be tossed. As a group, we were very successful in staying in the boat, and even assisted in the rescue of a baptized rafter (ironically named Noah). Out of the 9 boats that went out that day 1 full boat flipped, and another boat lost 2 rafters; this is an exorbitantly high number of people to get thrown in the river on one of their trips. The gathering of these lost rafters is what made us extend our half day trip by about an hour. After making our way through the rapids, we ended our trip in a “soft spot”, pulled out of the river and hopped on the bus that would drive us 20 minutes back to the launch spot.
Exhausted and mildly sun-burnt, we got changed for the rest of the days ride towards Durango. This momentary sheltering happened at just the right time for us to be covered for a “Sun shower”, or rather the more aptly named “sun-hail”. After the roof was done being pelted by small ice chunks we drove down out of the mountains as far as we could towards our next tourist stop, the 4 Corners. After several hours of driving and an exhausting day, we found a campsite and pitched. After we pitched and we were lying in bed, we heard a familiar sound off in the distance. It was that sound in the movies that everyone hears before they are eaten alive… Coyotes. Of course. So now Joe and I are acutely aware of every single tiny rustle that happens outside of our tent. Turns out, we are just as afraid of gophers poking around in bushes as we are of coyotes. Needless to say, we were too scared to eat dinner, and sleep did not come easy.