Offroading in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Dunes Pano

dunes-2The other 4WD club member bailed last minute, so I met up with Mike, a guest rider visiting from Louisiana, at exit 52 on I-25 at 10:15am. He loaded up and we drove up CO-69 until we reached our turn for County Road 559. It was a beautiful end-of-summer day, so we opened up the sunroof and took off the windows. The weather was mostly sunny in the mid-70’s with the beginnings of crisp air and a calm breeze.

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We made our way up the dirt road that progressively got rockier and steeper. In parts, I had to use 4-Low to get up slippery, steep sections. Trees lined the road, so while we knew there were mountains in front of us, there weren’t a lot of vistas. The road wound up the hill, passing a number of campsites occupied by pickups and trailers. Before we knew it, we were at the top of Medano Pass. We stopped to read the signs, greeted the only other Jeep we saw, and headed back down the other side.

The road was covered in small rocks all along the way down; it probably couldn’t have hurt to air down a bit to be on the safe side, but we persisted. The trail was not very technical, however there were six creek crossings – the deepest being 18 inches or so. We had seen a number of stock pickup trucks make their way in the opposite direction beforehand, so we knew it was possible to ford.

As we descended, the canyon walls grew higher, the road got a little windier. Wildflowers were blooming alongside the road and up above the burnt forest, you could see the aspens were starting to change along the canyon rim. Up ahead, the dunes slowly grew out of the horizon as the trail turned from dirt into sand. We stopped for a selfie with a deer, made room for several more vehicles coming up, and found a shady place for lunch.

dunes-15We continued down the trail until we broke out of the woods and into the valley. The steep, towering dunes stretched out for miles in each direction ahead of us. The sandy road was becoming harder to traverse and I considered airing down again. Mike and I took a few photos and watched the skiers switch-back up the face of the closest dune. We passed a campground and a number of rental cars before reaching the paved road.

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The trail itself was a little more than 17 miles and took no longer than 2 hours to complete. Had we more time, we would have taken a side trail over to Music Pass and attempted a hike. We parked in the lot in time for the rangers to bring out a fallen sandboarder to the waiting ambulance. The wide riverbed was nearby down a short path, but the river had reduced to a trickle. Families built castles in the sand while we crossed the inch-deep river, proceeding to climb the nearest dune.

People all over were playing in the sand, sand-boarding/sledding/rolling/falling down the dunes. Others were slowly trudging through the sand, hiking their way along the ridges up to the highest peaks. It was a lot hotter here and the increasing clouds were appreciated. Thankfully, we noticed no bugs.

dunes-24Having just recovered from a cold, I couldn’t make it too far without gasping for air. We returned to the Jeep and stopped at the visitor’s center for a passport stamp and some education. Afterwards, we drove down the road a ways and hiked up to Zapata Falls. It doesn’t look like it, but if you carefully walk up the rocks in the creek, you’ll enter a tall canyon where the falls are hidden.

It was later in the afternoon at this point, so we hit the road going south, heading east and eventually north, back to the meeting point. Mike and I stopped for dinner at the Silver Sage Steakhouse, no doubt the pride of Fort Garland, Colorado. The ride back was tiresome and it rained heavily in places. The dust from the trail combined with the smoke in the air made it hard not to rub your eyes.

dunes-stampWe parted ways around 6:45pm. Mike left to find a campsite for the night and I headed back to Denver, arriving shortly after 9pm. I would argue against doing another day-trip; an overnight would allow for a solid hike up in the mountains and more time to enjoy the dunes.

I would rate the trail as “Easy” and would probably air down my tires a bit for the south side of the trail and for the sand. My initial concern for going southwest to northeast on the trail (needing to air down for the sand and then not having air for the rocky trail) was unfounded, and I’d probably enjoy going up from the dunes side and back down again rather than go up and over.

Another park in the books!

Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake Hike

Bear Lake

My two-alarm system failed me (yet again), so I got to Loveland 20 minutes late for meeting Mark for breakfast at the Coffee Tree. Coffee and breakfast consumed, I grabbed my things, jumped in Mark’s Boxster, and we took to the canyons.

I had been to this area of Rocky Mountain National Park before, so I knew how busy it gets. We aimed to be on the trail no later than 8a, but thanks to my system failure, we arrived at 9:15. The queue to get on the shuttle bus moved quickly and after a few stops, we were dropped off at the (full) Bear Lake parking area.

Once on the trail, we immediately we started uphill. I was a little disappointed by the swarms of people and that the “trail” was paved, however once we passed Nymph Lake, the pavement degraded into a dirt path.

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Overlooking Nymph Lake

We trudged up the numerous stairs, passing lots of families with grumpy kids. Mark and I were engrossed in conversation and before we knew it, we had reached the second lake, Dream Lake.

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Dream Lake looking east

It was beautiful – set at the bottom of a steep hill, the lake reflected all the looming trees and was a lime green color when the light hit it right. This was a popular spot for fishermen. Hoping to leave the crowds behind, we pushed onto our destination.

Waterfall

We climbed many more stairs as we followed a creek towards it’s source.  The boulders and resulting waterfalls started getting larger and soon we came to the end of the trail at Emerald Lake. We had found the rest of the crowds seated along the rocky banks, enjoying the view and either the sun or shade. Chipmunks and birds desperately tried to dig through backpacks, looking for snacks. There was a slight breeze coming off Flattop Mountain and from where we sat, we had a good view of the Tyndall Glacier (or what’s left of it) above us.

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Emerald Lake underneath Flattop Mountain

The lake was becoming more crowded as the day went on, so after a few moments of rest and a quick snack, we made our way back to the trailhead. We were surprised and somewhat disappointed at how crowded the trails actually were. The fact that they were bussing people in from the overflow lot suggested it was a very popular weekend destination. We decided to view the nearby Bear Lake (which is the featured image for this post) and while resting in the shade, we talked with a park volunteer. According to her, attendance was up 12% from last year, despite 2015 being the park’s 100th anniversary.

Bear Lake

Bear Lake

We probably sat too long because we decided not to hike another 2 miles to Bierstadt Lake. The bus arrived and took us back to the car. Because we were already in the park, we drove up Trail Ridge Road to the alpine visitor’s center in the heart of the park.

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It was a beautiful day and the clouds were starting to roll in. Mark was kind enough to drive so I could focus on not focusing on the lack of guardrails along the road. Once above tree-line, I noticed how green the landscape is this time of year. We made it to the visitor’s center only to find a line of cars in the parking lot spilling into the road. Tired and hungry, we vetoed the center and headed back down the hill.

Deer friend

Deer friend

We exited the park and got caught in a small amount of traffic who was stopped to take photos of several elk grazing on the edge of the road. There was some festival going on in Estes Park and not wanting to deal with more crowds and traffic, we decided to head back to Loveland and find food.

By the time we reached 3 Margaritas, it had been 8 hours since we had eaten breakfast. We didn’t even mind the loud infant seated next to us, we just needed food ASAP. Afterwards, Mark dropped me back off at my car and we parted ways. Another great outing with excellent company. Despite the congestion, I still enjoyed getting out of the house and being in the woods.

The hike took us about 2 hours. The map below has the incorrect altitudes – the hike was 3.5 miles round-trip and we started at an elevation of 9,475 feet, climbed 635 feet, reaching a max height of 10,110 feet. I would go back as long as it wasn’t on a weekend.

Lake Helene

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Chris was in town visiting from San Diego for the weekend. Hoping for better luck at Rocky Mountain National Park this time, we filled our Camelbaks, loaded up the Battle Wagon™ and cruised up to Estes Park to hike to Lake Helene.

We arrived at the park-and-ride lot around 8:15a and ran to the crowded shuttle bus that took us up the hill to Bear Lake. Once properly sunscreened, we took to the trail. It seemed like we had chosen a less-popular route; the crowds quickly diminished as we ascended into the pines.

The trail was a steady grade upwards, but not steep enough to require frequent water stops. I brought my REI trekking poles (thanks, dividend!) to try out and found them to be pretty helpful on the hills. It was a beautiful, clear summer day and we took our time, arriving at the cutoff trail to Lake Helene in short order. After taking a rest, a few bites of meat bar, and snapping some photos, we made the descent back to Bear Lake.

When we got back to one of the earlier splits in the trail, we took inventory and decided we felt good enough to walk the 3 miles back to the parking lot. We don’t need a shuttle! The trail was mostly downhill and passed by Lake Bierstadt, where we stopped to finish our snacks and rest. The clouds were starting to roll in and it was getting warmer, but the breeze was refreshing and the view was spectacular.

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We continued on down the trail, which progressively became steeper. Rains earlier in the season had exposed many small rocks in the trail, which, combined with the current dryness and grade, frequently challenged our footing. After a mile of this, we both agreed we should have taken the shuttle back from Lake Bierstadt. We trudged on and made it back to the car around 12:30p, totaling 9.9 miles of hiking for the day. Not too bad!

IMG_5041On our way back to Denver, we stopped at the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder for a delicious lunch at Oak and to visit one of two Mont Bell stores in the U.S. Once closer to town, we stopped again for a tasting flight of sour beers at Crooked Stave and to stock up on odd beers and Boxcar coffee at the other stalls housed in The Source. A pleasant end to a relaxing day in the mountains.

Skiquel in Seattle

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Last January, my cousin, Lauren, organized a budget ski trip to Crystal Mountain for herself and more than a dozen of her friends from all over the country. This year was the “skiquel.” We all converged at the Green Tortoise adventure hostel in downtown Seattle for a weekend of relaxing, drinking, and camaraderie.

Friday

2-tortoise1I arrived in the PNW on Friday around noon and made my way to the hostel, conveniently located across the street from Pike Place Market. Andrea, another Colorado resident and skiquel attendee, met me in our 6-person room soon after. While walking out of the Target next door, Tracy, a swim team teammate of Lauren’s,  stopped me on the street and we came up with a plan for the afternoon over a shawarma lunch. Tracy and I convinced Andrea to join us at the nearby Rachel’s Ginger Beer bar while the other weekend participants filtered into town.

IMG_2850We tried a few ginger beer cocktails in the popular bar, making conversation with some tablemates visiting from Florida. Andy, Tim, and Kat joined us eventually. I got to say hello to Lauren, Dana, Cece and Anita before I had to part ways to head up the hill.

I made arrangements to catch up with Tim and Brian, fellow San Diego alums now residing in Seattle, over dinner and some Dunkelweiss. I Uber’d my way to Capital Hill and met Tim and his friend, Ray, at Rhein Haus (formerly Von Trapp’s) German beer hall. Brian and a few more of Tim’s local friends arrived shortly thereafter. The life-changing cheesy spaetzle that I remember from my last visit was now only available on the kid’s menu, which I had no qualms ordering from.

After an hour or so of fun and feasting, we all migrated a few blocks to Diesel for more drinks. There, we ran into many more of their friends, some even visiting from San Diego, sharing laughs and countless selfies. I had an morning wake-up ahead of me, so I stayed long enough for an Irish Car Bomb shot and found an Uber back to the hostel. It was great to catch up with Brian and Tim; our time in San Diego didn’t overlap very long, but mutual friends and Facebook have helped us get to know each other better over the years. I always enjoy seeing them.

Saturday

IMG_2880The room was awake by 5:00am and we started getting ready to meet the bus that would take us to Crystal Mountain, a 2-hour ride away. My snowboard binding had broken a week or two earlier, so I didn’t bring it with me. I hadn’t forgotten how difficult it was the year before walking 6 blocks and carrying a boot and snowboard bag , so I was happy to rent at the mountain. We stopped at a Starbucks to fuel up and arrived at the bus stop just in time to load up and find our seats. The $90 (up from last year) bus pass included our lift ticket, which, compared to the current Colorado rates, was a steal.

Somehow I scored both seats in the last row of the bus and was able to sleep on the way. It started pouring rain half way to the mountain, occluding our view of the sunrise and Mt. Rainier. By the time we arrived at the mountain at 9am, Kendall had already learned that all but two lifts were open because of high winds near the summit. I rented a snowboard, put on my gear and met him in the cafeteria, where the rest of the group had gathered to stay dry and wait until 10am, when we would get another update on the conditions.

We caught up, ordered food and beer, played games and did the best we could to entertain ourselves in the bar. A beer or two in, 5 of us decided to brave the elements and attempt at least one run. Lauren, Kim, Andrea, Steve and I geared up and hit the chair lift, but were immediately soaked. We made the best of it, taking some photos at the summit where it was snowing. The trails were traversable, but the rain and flat light made it difficult to see while moving fast. If you didn’t move fast, however, you would get stuck in the glue-like slush; obviously not ideal snow conditions. After two runs we called it a day.

10940607_10101231696122915_1966046486660764315_nIMG_2904The group spent the remainder of the day in the bar, where the selfie-stick and shotski made several appearances. You can imagine how the ride back to the city went on a bus with a dozen passengers who had spent the day in the bar. Thankfully most of the group passed out shortly after we were underway. Upon our arrival downtown, we schlepped our gear back to the hostel in the rain, showered, ordered nearby Thai take-out, and continued drinking. I sneaked off to pick up a pair of flannel-lined jeans from the nearby Carhartt store.

IMG_2907In my haste to meet the Uber driver, I had left my credit card at Diesel the night before. While everyone went to sleep, I mapped out my route and hopped on a bus. I’m still impressed by the public transportation in Seattle; it’s remarkably easy to get around on the buses and trains. The bar was pretty busy, despite the weather, but I collected my card and left. Rather than wait for the bus, I enjoyed a few minutes of solitude while walking back the 1.4 miles to the hostel in the rain.

Sunday

IMG_2913Brian had offered to show me around his new hometown on Whidbey Island, and, having never been that far north of the city, I took him up on it and managed to catch the early bus to the International District. Starbucks in hand, I walked over the train tracks to the King Street Station and took the Cascades Amtrak train north. Car 3 was mostly empty, so I took over the 2 sets of seats facing each other on the west-facing window for the 2-hour trip to Mt. Vernon, where Brian was waiting for me. While we were driving to the island, he handed me a stack of maps so I could decide how we should spend the day. After a tour of Deception Pass and Oak Harbor, we opted to explore the Olympic National Park, which meant we needed to catch a ferry from Coupeville to Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. The ferry had yet to arrive, so we parked the car in line and stopped at the nearby cafe for a muffin and coffee. Despite being in the rain shadow, it was still a wet day.

Thankfully, the ferry ride was only 30 minutes and we passed the time by bird-watching from the top deck. I’m fairly sure I saw an orca fin cut through the water before descending below the surface. After arriving in Port Townsend, we enjoyed a slice of pizza and meandered through the rainy, nearly-deserted, Bohemian town. We found a great record store, where Brian purchased a Lloyd Cole CD. A CD single. Not the good one. We hit the road to Port Angeles, a very commercial town where the entrance to the park awaited us. On the way, we talked of San Diego, our new cities, our adventure plans, and a laundry list of other fascinating topics that made the drive go by quickly.

IMG_2959Not knowing I was visiting a national park, I didn’t bring my passport along, though I did get the obligatory cancellation stamp. We spoke with the ranger, who gave us several good suggestions to choose from before it got dark. It was still raining, but Brian and I decided to attempt a short hike. The road was lined with steep, evergreen-lined peaks as we drove further into the park. I couldn’t believe how green it was nor that Brian had this amazing playground in his backyard. After a quick stop for supplies and fuel, we donned our rain parkas in the ranger’s station parking lot at Lake Crescent and started up the trail.

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IMG_3022We came across a handful of other hikers on the 0.9 mile loop, past the river and over two bridges to Marymere Falls. The gloomy day did not discount from the beauty of the 90-foot waterfall, accented by moss, ferns and other intense greenery. Pressing on, the trail led up a flight of stairs to another, higher view of the falls before starting the descent back towards the river. I’d estimate it was a 40-minute round trip. By then, Crystal Lake was glowing a spectacular turquoise color due to a break in the clouds overhead. The water was not warm, no.

For some reason there was only one train listed as heading southbound to Seattle that evening, and we timed our return to Port Townsend so that we’d hop on the 6:30p ferry, ride the 30 minutes across the harbor, and drive to the Mt. Vernon station a few towns over to just catch the Cascades Amtrak back to town. Apparently the destination ferry landing was in shallow water, so we were surprised to hear that the ferry could not leave Port Townsend due to low tide. The next ferry would leave at 8:15p, which meant I was not destined to be in Seattle that evening.

We stopped at a Walgreens and headed to Brian’s new apartment, where he graciously put me up on his couch for the night. The long day got to us and, after a shower, a beer and more conversation, we turned in.

Monday

The commuter train, the Sounder, was running that morning, so instead of trekking back to Mt. Vernon, Brian kindly woke up early on his holiday off to take me to another ferry landing to catch it. Unfortunately, we just missed the 6:30a boat and I had to wait around for the 7:00a departure. This left me with just enough time to power walk to the Sounder station, buy a ticket, and wait half a minute for the double-decker commuter train to arrive.

IMG_3015I arrived back at King Street Station around 8:15a and chose to walk the 15 or so blocks back to the hostel just in time for most of the group to head out to breakfast. I was the only one not leaving that day, so rather than potentially spend the night with strangers, I fired up Hotel Tonight and scored a great price on a room at the centrally-located Roosevelt. I checked out of the Green Tortoise with the group and we headed into the market for a quick egg-and-cheese-on-bagel breakfast and to shop for coffee. Lauren broke out the selfie-stick one last time at the gum wall, and then I parted ways with the group to go check into the hotel.

I had planned on Monday being a work day, intending to hole myself up in a coffee shop and give myself time to address some personal projects that had been stagnant for awhile. Before this, however, I met up with Tim for a quick breakfast at Cafe Pettirosso on his way into work.

Most of the afternoon was spent at Kaladi Brothers and Starbucks, making some progress on the projects and people-watching. Later that day, I met Paul for drinks at Canon, a highly-regarded whiskey and bitters emporium. We chatted and enjoyed snacks before migrating to Elysium Brewing Company for some local craft beer. I grabbed a slice of pizza before crashing for the night.

Tuesday

The next morning, I took the light rail back to the airport to make my journey home. It was a beautiful, clear day (go figure) and we had great views of the Cascades from the plane. I finally got back to Denver around 3:00p, where Scott was waiting with my car.

Once again, I had a fantastic time hanging out with Lauren, Dana, their wild and crazy group of friends, and Kendall. It was also great to get to know Brian and Paul better while exploring various the parts of what makes Seattle a fun place to visit. I’ll be back again sooner than later.