Colorado Roadtrip : Great Sand Dunes

You can find more of our Colorado adventures here, and if you like travel posts, we have a lot! We took this road trip in our *new* van (can’t wait to tell you more about it); this post gives you a little overview of what we pack in the van. And here are some of our basic tips for camping with kids.

Earlier this month, we went on a five-day road trip to south west Colorado. It’s a part of the state we haven’t explored, but had heard great things about. We set out excited to experience the beautiful San Juan mountain range. Let me spill the beans right now: this trip was awesome (I’m writing this about a week after the trip, and we’re still talking about it). We loved the scenery, the hot springs, and the towns we visited.

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This is going to be a two-post report. In this post I’m going to share photos and from the first bit of our trip that was spent in Great Sand Dunes National Park, and in the second post I’ll share photos from our visits to Pagosa Springs and Ouray.

We left after work on Tuesday and drove until we reached Great Sand Dunes (it was sometime after midnight). Rather than head straight to the park, we took the rocky and bUMpY 20 minute ride to Zapata Falls, camping there for the night. When we woke up in the morning, the view was breathtaking! From high on the hill, you could look down and see the sand dunes with the mountains in the background. Don’t you love waking up to a surprise like that? roadtrip2

We were so excited to get to the dunes that we had breakfast, stretched our legs, and then got back in the car and headed into the park. Sadly, we didn’t take the time to hike to the actual falls at Zapata Falls. That’ll have to wait for our next visit!

Campground

But, our timing was perfect, because we drove into the park, took a quick stop at the visitor’s center, and then took a drive through the unreserved campground and were able to snag a spot as someone was checking out! I definitely think timing was on our side, there seemed to be daily-turnover in the park midweek, but then as we were checking out Thursday morning, it seemed like everyone coming in had plans to stay through the weekend.
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The Dunes

After securing the spot, we drove straight over to the sand dunes. We knew we wanted to hike on them, and everyone warns that it’s best done either earlier in the morning or later in the evening – times when the sun isn’t shining as bright and the dunes are cooler.

As you can see in the photo above, we came early enough in the season so that the water (from snowmelt) was still flowing through the park. This creek dries up by late June, and I’m sure that would create a much different (hotter/dryer/dustier) visit. I’ll share a few more pics of our time near the water later in the post. First, we just crossed it on our way to the dunes.

And those dunes are spectacular. It’s such a mind-bending experience to see these large (largest in North America!) dunes at the base of the granite mountains. From some angles you could see the mountains, and from others you just saw sand and blue skies.

If you look closely in the photo below, you can see people hiking off in the distance, and it helps to give you some perspective of the size of the dunes. roadtrip5 roadtrip6 roadtrip7 roadtrip8

We set out on our walk not having high expectations for how far we’d get (that’s the best mindset you can have with two little guys in two)… but I secretly think that both Calder and I were hoping we’d make it to the top!

We were prepared with both a larger hiking pack to hold the big kid and the ergo to hold the smaller kid. There were times when the boys were in their packs and there were times when they were out, and step by step we made progress until we made it to the top!

It was hard work, guys. About 2 hours of hard work. Every step you took involved some sinking into the sand and sliding slightly backwards.  roadtrip9 roadtrip10 roadtrip11

As you can see in the photo above, we carried along cardboard in the hopes of sledding down the dunes. Many friends told us that this worked for them. It definitely didn’t work for us. I’m not sure what went wrong, but we had the most success just sitting on our bums and doing a slow slide down the steeper sides of the dunes.

Dune Shoes : And, as mentioned above, the dunes do get hot. I wore sneakers, while Alex and Calder both had slip-on summer shoes. I saw lots of other hikers with sandals and flipflops. Honestly, I’m not sure what kind of shoe is best. The boys had trouble with sand getting into their shoes, and so did I! I didn’t expect it with my sneakers, but sand was sneaking in through the mesh fabric of the shoes. It even got stuck between the layers of fabric, and for about a week, it would slowly weasel its way out as I wore the shoes. But the sandals and flipflops also seem like don’t offer enough protection from the hot sand. Who knows, you just have to pick your poison. roadtrip12

After our hike, we were worn out and starving, so we headed back to the campsite for an easy ramen and eggs lunch, and then naps (for everyone!).

The Water

Post naps, we headed back over to the dunes, and spent a couple of hours near the water. The boys had a great time play in the sand and wading in the water while C and I had a chance to relax and enjoy the view.

Can you spot the deer in the photo below?! roadtrip13 roadtrip14 roadtrip15

Then it was back to the campsite for marshmallows, stories, and an early bedtime.
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Etc.

Just a few additional observations and hearsay about Great Sand Dunes :

  • sledding down the dunes : As I mentioned, many people told us to pack cardboard for sledding. That didn’t work at all for us. Maybe it will for you? We also saw people sledding and “surfing” on boards rented in the park. They look like fun, but you have to want to carry them up the dunes.
  • mosquitoes : We had no trouble with mosquitoes, but have heard from others that they can be overwhelming in June.
  • hiking : In addition to the dunes, there are many other hiking trails. We didn’t venture out on any, but would love to on a future visit.
  • campground store : There’s a nice little campground store that carries a wide variety of items. We stopped in one night for ice and firewood and saw that they also carried ice cream and avocados. Great store!
  • shade tents : many families brought shade tents to the water area, and that looked like a great idea if you planned to stay all day (it seemed like many people treated it like a beach day).
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Cultivate a Life of Travel

Live seasoned live a life of travel designTraveling extensively really comes down to a few factors: time, money, and willingness.  If you’re willing, you are capable of creating the time and funds to take a trip.  If I, the least motivated money maker on the planet, can scrape together enough cash to travel to 15+ countries, you can too.  I absolutely despise money and trading my precious time for work (some people read this as being lazy, but I assure you I’m not), but travel motivates me to make paper.  Traveling is a drug and I am in the throws of addiction.  Life feels dull if I’m not exploring. Here’s how I motivate myself to maintain a life revolving around travel.

Live seasoned live a life of travel19Live seasoned live a life of travel4 Live seasoned live a life of travel5 Live seasoned live a life of travel8

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Travel Debacles & Advice

Today I wanted to share some of the behind-the-scenes adventures that happened on our Mexico vacation. If this post scares you off of the idea of international travel, you can go back to this post and just stare at the beautiful photo of the ocean.

These are not the glamorous travel stories, rather, they are the stuff of nightmares, BUT I’m writing this post because everything turned out OK! I thought that sending these stories out into the universe could be helpful for a couple of reasons : 1. if something similar has happened to you, now you know you aren’t alone, and 2. if it hasn’t yet, maybe you’ll find some tips in this post that will help you on future travels.

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Debacle #1 : The Passport

This may be common sense, but when leaving the country, you need a passport. If you forget it, they won’t let you on the plane.

One of our travel buddies forgot their passport, and there was no way to get it before their flight was going to leave. It can be a costly mistake, but not the end of the world. In our case, they went to the airport when they were supposed to and were able to reschedule their flight for the next day!

The only loss was one day of a vacation and a rebooking fee, but otherwise, the whole debacle was an easy fix.

If this happens to you (i.e. that you’re going to miss your flight because of forgotten documents), the best solution is to call your airline or speak to a representative at the counter as soon as possible. If you’re lucky, they will be able to put you on the next flight, no harm, no foul.

Debacle #2 : The Rental Car

This situation is the one that gave us all a moment of panic except for Calder’s dad, and I’m going to chalk that up to his 80 years of life experience.

the scene : Calder’s sister, her family, and his dad were driving from the airport to San Patricio in the dark.

road conditions : As I mentioned yesterday, for the most part, the road was really nice and in great condition. There was one long section under MAJOR construction – as in they were dynamiting the bedrock, flattening and widening the roadway. The only other problem was that there were some random potholes and there were speed bumps when going through small towns.

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the rental car : When making travel arrangements, we reserved full-size cars from a major company, but you don’t pay for a car reservation until you actually return it. What does this mean? When you’re landing in a tourist destination, the rental car companies are lined up and ready to take your business. Your reservation ensures that you’ll have a car that you want waiting for you, but you’re welcome to go with another company in the airport.

In this case, Europcar whisked them away offering what sounded like a deal. The problem was, rather than getting a full-size car, they ended up with a cheaply built, smaller car.

the incident : They hit a major pothole – so big that their two front tires went flat! Not only that, but the car behind them also hit the hole and got one flat. This happened at 10pm. Ugg.

possible solutions : When they first called us, we were working through a few possible solutions :

  • We could take the spares from the other rental cars at the hotel (we had two there already), and hopefully replace both flats letting them drive on to the hotel.
  • We could send a rescue party and drive them to the hotel while getting a tow-truck to pick up the rental.
  • They could try to get to a 24 hr gas station and hopefully an attendant there could help them.
  • Rental companies have 24 hour hotlines. Europcar didn’t answer. Then called back 3 hours later… I’m linking to them because I want to call them out on their misdeeds. Petty, I know.

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wait, there’s more : This turned into a bigger problem for a few reasons :

  • They couldn’t get the lug nuts off the wheels.
  • They were two+ hours away from us.
  • They were traveling with a baby!
  • They had to keep driving for a few miles on the two flats to reach a gas station, and by then their rims were toast.
  • We tried calling tow-trucks and no one picked up.

*Throughout all of this, Calder’s dad wasn’t worried. His comment on the situation : “it’s happened before”. He was confident that this was now the rental car company’s problem and that they would know how to handle it. Once he said that (and everyone was safe and sound at the hotel), it was immediately calming and such a great bit of wisdom to remember for the future.*

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final outcome : Calder picked them up. They left the rental car parked at the gas station, but before they left, they took photos of the car from all essential angles showing the flat tires and destroyed rims as well as the license plate for identification. The next morning, they spent about an hour on the phone with the rental company explaining the problem, providing all of the details, and making arrangements with someone from the company to come to our hotel to pick up the keys.

In the end, they were charged $72 for the whole debacle. We’re not sure what this charge was for, but no one’s going to call and question it.

Our Advice :

  • Make sure you have comprehensive insurance when renting a car (something with $0 deductible). Know that if you’re renting in the US with a credit card, your card often has car insurance perks, BUT these may not apply if renting in another country (this was the case with Mexico).
  • Even if you don’t need a larger car, it may be worthwhile to rent one because it’s likely to be of higher quality.
  • If you’re stuck somewhere, but with cell service, send someone your location using a map app on your phone – then they can get directions to the exact point where you are.
  • TAKE PICTURES – this is so essential if you have to discuss property with someone from a distance. While it may sound like overkill, it’s useful to take pictures both before and after using any rental property, whether it’s an Airbnb rental or a car rental. That way you’ll have some sort of proof showing what the state of the property was in when you got there, when you left, and in this case, when something goes wrong.

Debacle #3 : The Bat

This is just a joke, but there was a bat in our room on the last night!

If this happens to you and it’s behaving oddly, stay away and get help. If there’s nothing odd, just find a large towel, carefully pick it up, and take it outside.

We loved the bat incident because it turned Alex on to bats in a major way! They’ve become our “unit” for the month of October, and I can’t wait to start talking about some of the fun stuff we’ve been doing at home.

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~

What crazy stories hidden behind the scenes of yesterday’s post, huh? And remember – If it’s happening to you, it’s likely happened before. Don’t worry. 

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