Night 26: Over the Rockies

Trip Start Jun 20, 2012
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Trip End Jul 18, 2012


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Flag of United States  , Colorado
Sunday, July 15, 2012

Night 26: Over the Rockies

Today we drove 268 miles north out of the San Luis Valley and then east over the Front Range of the Rockies. The fulcrum of this line was the town of Buena Vista. Weather was in the 70's most of the day and was getting cloudier as the day wore on.

Today we drove past some sights we haven't seen in many years since before Andrew was born. My goal was to maximize things to do while minimizing steep mountain passes. Southern Colorado is an uncontainably beautiful place with lots more to do than we have time for. After all, I am feeling a pull to get home even if I didn't get too far today. In the West, there sometimes is no choice about where to stop.

We began in Alamosa and took advantage of the town's services since today we would drive through some very stark areas. Step one was to hit the Great Sand Dunes east if Alamosa, a stark place if there ever was one. The dines encompass 30 square miles wedged into a huge corner of the San Luis Valley right up against the windward side of the dark Sangre de Cristo mountains. The contrast in color can be seen from miles away. The dunes rise to over 600 feet above the valley floor.

The sand was baking all morning in the southern summer sun before we arrived. Signage warned to take shoes since sand can heat to 150 degrees. Jessica sat in the shade while Andrew urged me to climb the dunes a half mile across the slippery sand. Usually a refreshing stream runs through here, but the drought made it tough to fund much water anywhere. I hoped Andrew would give up on his idea, and doubted he would. He was no longer the boy who whined on every little hike asking to be picked up. On this trip he had pulled us up and down mountains on paths I would never take except for his insistance. But the heat got to him. We were baking from the sun above a d beneath our feet. Andrew, and not I, suggested we try this another day. We joined Mom in the shade and played with the cool shaded sand for a long time. Sand angels, little sand miyntains, burying feet... We had to dig deep to find wet sand and since there was no ocean, it was impossible to build castles.

We went to the VC and heard camping filled up early here. A bad omen for tonight. At Mosca, we turned northward up the San Luis Valley and right past the reptile park that locals were treating as if it were Disneyworld. North of Mosca, agriculture ceased and the land was taken in its natural desert shape.

Soon we had made it to the place where the once wide valley narrowed to a point as the Sam Juan and Sangre de Cristos merged. I hoped that Loretta's, a place I once enjoyed a satisfying bowl of chili in the same room as a real cowboy, was open. Not only was it closed, the entire town it was in was closed. The only way out was a small mountain pass into another much snaller valley. The cool 9000 foot air and the lack of traffic made the pass a breeze. I love the view from the top of the pass where the trees open up to the empty desert of the San Luis abd Rio Grande below. Now we were in the Arkansas River watershed, a tributary of the Mississippi. We were closer to home. Not only does the geography change, so does the culture of the locals.

Over the pass we approached the town of Buena Vista, a crossroads of the Rocky Mountain region. From here you can go almost any direction. The town has a bunch of services and we took advantage and had sandwiches for lunch. After lunch we climbed a mother small pass into the Florissant Valley. From the top, you can see several 14000 foot high peaks known as the Collegiate Mountains, each named for an Ivy League school. It is an impressive sight, but usually these peaks have snow on them. This year, there was no snow.

The next valley was much more beautiful than I remembered from my last drive through here. It was forested with piņon and ponderosa trees broken up by yellow-green meadows. We were still high up at 9000 feet. The air was cool and dry as a bone. Another small pass and we entered the lower and more populated Florissant Valley, known for the Florissant Fossil Beds NM. The valley was once wetter and cooler which accounts for the huge millions years old petrified redwood stumps. Today, the towns and countryside were dotted with pretty barns and surrounded by round grassy hills.

The next and last Rocky pass brought us to the Front Range right beside the famous 14000+ foot high Pike's Peak where "America the Beautiful" was penned. This pass was the most challenging of the day with steep grades and winding roads. Since we were mere miles from the big city of Colorado Springs, there was also much more traffic to deal with. We passed the turnoff for the Peak Toll Road. I wad curious, but nit interested in paying the $29 toll. We passed the cliff dwellings which also suck the money out of tourists and fell into the foothills.

Along the way we saw thank you's all over for the firefighters who took care of the devastating Waldo Canyon fire that up until last week threatened this area with complete destruction. I only decided on this route after cobfering with the park ranger in Florissant who told me the fire was 100% contained.

In the foothills between Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs is the beautiful local park called Garden of the Gods. The "gods" in thus case are beautiful red rocks worn by years. They rise vertically out of the ground at 90 degree angles. The red of the rocks and the blue if the sky make for stunning
contrasts. The sun was setting behind the Rockies glowing against the red faces of the rocks. We felt compelled to hike and so we walked for over an hour surrounded by these peaks and colors. Climbers were attempting to scale them. Hikers enjoyed the colors and crisp air. Rabbits pounced around in the scrub. It felt wonderful.

But it was also sad. We were fresh out of "mountain majesty" and our task was to traverse the high plains. We researched with our newfound cell service and discovered the cheapest and most semsible place to bed down for the night between us and Chicago was Colorado Springs. Our drive was over for now. This conclusion was not reached easily.

We went out to eat, but found that our preferred restaurant was closed. There was a place with a curious Chicago theme next door, but we decided to try for a third place and left satisfied.

The night found us in a very clean motel in a good neighborhood. We enjoyed some TV and called it a day. Tomorrow will be a challenge. Driving across the Plains is never easy.

P.S. Observed barred windows on businesses in the more ne'er-do-well neighborhoods called "dispensaries" which dispense medical marijuana. I though Colorado Springs was a bastion of the Christian Coalition and the U.S.A.F. Oh, well...

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