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Colorado Tour (Part I): Sand Dunes & Zapata Falls

Not long ago, our family purchased a camper van, specifically a Ram Promaster cargo variety, that we have been building out over the past couple of months. We had slept in it and camped out of it all summer, but never for more than 2 nights. With the vehicle partially insulated with wool and the world going crazy, we decided it was time to take it to regions of our great state of Colorado that we had yet to visit. Even when living in the smallest of towns, sometimes you just need to get out for a bit; so we hit the road on a Sunday morning with our sights set on the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

This was only about a 2 1/2 hour trek from our doorstep and the boys (2 & 4) behaved exceptionally well (the little one napped, while big brother, snacking on trail mix, sang along to our set of tunes). Not only is it important for us to have snacks galore on hand throughout these little journeys, we gotta have good tunes: as Deadheads, we had dozens of live Grateful Dead shows to which we could rock out as we went rollicking through the hills of this long strange trip.

While skies were mostly clear, there were sections of southern Colorado that were quite hazy due to the wildfires. In marveling at the beauty of our country’s natural landscape, we were constantly reminded of the harm that our species was causing. When you can’t see a mountain in front of you on a good weather day, things are bad and they need to change rapidly, otherwise this could be our standard for outdoor adventure: “Put on your goggles and ventilator Junior. Look! You can barely see that bird up in that tree! Oh dear, your goggles are fogging up?” (see our posts on sustainability).


Out-of-state tourism has skyrocketed in Colorado this summer and the Dunes were no exception; even in October the parking lot was completely full, traffic coming and going at all times. No matter, we purchased a National Parks annual pass, thinking we’d be visiting more of these gems in the ensuing year (we hit 3 on this trip AND it’s good at National Monuments, post to come), we parked and we hoofed it into the granular abyss.

These temples of nature are read and heard about, but it’s not until you see them up close and in person, when you can fully understand why they’ve been selected as the upper echelon of natural landmarks. Massive mountains of sand created by wind and water, forming over millions of years. It’s hard not to be touched by the miraculous forces of nature that have literally shaped our world. And it’s difficult to ignore the natural symbolism of glory and fury that stands before us in space and time, and long after we depart from it.

Even though it felt like having a beach with no water, the boys embraced the sandscape and we took it all in. I had initially regretted not renting sand-sleds for them, but after witnessing numerous adults zooming down the hills on a hell-zephyr and face-planting, I figured “maybe next year”…anyway, we were still wiping sand out of their asses afterward.

That was an awe-inspiring hoot, but we wanted to hit one more spot before we found a suitable location to camp for the evening. Just 8 miles due south of the Dunes is Zapata Falls: worth the bumps. If you’re not carrying children, there is a trail at the base of the rocky road that we would recommend taking up to the falls, maybe 3 miles, but a lot of elevation gain. We drove up the rocky road instead and it was intensely bumpy, albeit I drove like we were in a monster truck. I need to remember to have those shocks checked…


I was most proud of Oliver (big brother) for hiking from the upper parking lot to the falls, a short but very steep jaunt. Once we arrived, we were greeted by a glowing basket of yellow aspens and a silver creek that snaked out of a 15-foot wide crack of a tremendous vertical rock wall. After witnessing people working their way out from the crack, we realized the attraction was in there. Jessica headed straight in with Oliver, while I carried Milo (the little guy), following just behind. The water was ankle deep and ice cold; just before the jaunt up, Jessica suggested everyone wear their water sandals and I’m grateful for that, as well as for everything she does.


Through a combination of rock-hopping and snippets of a lower extremity ice bath, we wound our way into the damp and cool cavern. As we listened to the waterfall become louder with each step, I couldn’t help but feel like one of the Goonies, checking around the cavernous walls for booby traps…just in case. There was no “One-Eyed Willie” treasure, but the aesthetic payoff was grand, as we stood in awe for a number of minutes (there was only enough space in there for Jessica and I to post up on one small rock each while holding a kiddo) before stepping back out into the open realm, sans Chunk, Sloth and the gang…although we did have some pizza later on.


Experiences like these are often categorized as epic because of the journey required to reach them; this one may have been small, but was also quite poignant. Trail running, hiking, biking and traveling provide us with these opportunities to fulfill a primal need to see what’s around the next bend. And the more our little guys continue to grow, the deeper we will be able to venture into our natural surroundings together, searching for the next waterfall or canyon view to satiate our appetite for the majestic.


At this point, we had ourselves a full day and while Jessica had mentioned a campsite nearby, I felt like we should push our way westward and set up camp closer to our next stop, Pagosa Springs. A risky move, for the low, smoke-filled valley we had to drive through was a number of miles and it was late in the afternoon, but I figured we could find a nice spot near South Fork if we only drove an hour or so.

Keep in mind, we were winging it on this trip, mapping out our general route and destinations, but merely hoping that we could locate safe spots to set up camp along the way (unbeknownst to us, there was a friendly little app out there that tells you where every single campground, fire ring and suitable pull-up spot are located; more on that in the next post) . We finally started to see National Forest Access signs and ducked into the first one we came across…it was sharp and steep and after 2 miles of this service road, we realized there may not be any pull-off spots, at least for a while.


We turned around, somewhat frantically, and got back on the main road and did this once more, the sun offering it’s final acknowledgements for the day behind the narrowing river canyon. Perhaps there was a mountain oasis waiting atop these roads, but we’ll have to explore them another time.


Winding our way up the road along the river, chasing the dissipating sun, I had my first “oh, shit” moment. “What if we can’t find a spot at all?!” The shadows were increasing and the tension was building when we came upon a sign for Big Meadow Reservoir campground…eh, “what the hell” and up into the impending darkness we went.

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