The National Park visits started at Great Sand Dunes, south and a bit west of Denver. The next stop was Mesa Verde, in the southwest corner of Colorado. The last stop was Black Canyon of the Gunnison in west central Colorado, just south of Interstate 70.
Each park had a dominate feature, along with some hiking opportunities. In mid-May, some hiking (as opposed to a lot of hiking) was just fine. Need to ease into warm-weather hiking after winter in Wisconsin. And, the dominant features of the parks were spectacular.
Great Sand Dunes
The dunes are huge — America’s tallest at about 800 feet. Climbing the dunes seems to be a requirement for visiting this park. There are no marked trails on the dunes, and visitors are free to wander about. I saw people on the dunes all day long, but for me evening seemed to be the way to go. Really liked the shadows and warm sand was much better than daytime hot sand. Hiking up a giant sand pile is a fair amount of work.
There’s a trail to the dunes from the campground. The trailhead for the Dunes Overlook trail is also at the campground. This is a short, two-mile round trip hike, and it offers some great views of the dunes. There’s also an intersection with another trail that leads to Point of No Return. No idea why it’s called that so had to go see. Still no idea. But, beyond the Point of No Return is the Sand Ramp Trail. Basically, the sand ramp is sand pushed up against a mountain range. Went a couple miles on the sand ramp and then came back. The sand on the sand ramp seemed looser than on the dunes — and more challenging hiking. Every step forward included sliding back a foot or so, and that was the situation in both directions.
The non-sand hike I did was Mosca Pass Trail. It’s an out-and-back, three and a half miles or seven miles total. The way out is uphill (or up mountain) all the way. The elevation gain is 2,700 feet, which is fairly significant since the trailhead is at about 8,000 feet elevation. (That’s the elevation at the campground, too. It’s a high elevation park, so some time to get used to the elevation is a good idea. Met a couple young women from Florida on one of the trails. They were really feeling the altitude. All three parks I visited were at or over 8,000 feet elevation.) Mosca Pass is a nice trail, but not outstanding. I kept thinking there would be something outstanding at the end. Not really. But, it was nice to be in the mountains on a very lightly used trail. On the way out, I saw a total of four people, one of whom was from Wisconsin.
I knew this park was all about dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people, but I thought that meant cliff dwellings. That’s only part of the story. The cliff dwellings were the last type of dwelling. Earlier, pit houses were built, followed by masonry buildings and villages. The park does a great job of explaining and preserving the dwellings and history.
In mid-May, only one cliff dwelling was open for tours — Balcony House. It involves climbing a 32-foot high ladder to enter and crawling thru a 12-foot long tunnel that is 18 inches wide in spots. But, it was worth the trepidation. (See a post under the Trail Folks heading for more about the tour.) And, it was just fine that only one tour was open. That meant there were no tourists at the other cliff dwellings and no tourists in the photos taken from the overlook spots.
I really enjoyed walking through Coyote Village and the other Far View sites, which pre-dated the cliff dwellings. While you can’t enter these structures, you can get close and get a feel for the way of life of the people who lived here.
There are two mesas at Mesa Verde. Chapin Mesa has an archeological museum, along with several cliff dwellings. (Balcony House is on this mesa.) The hiking is basically a matter of walking to overlooks. Wetherill Mesa has a five-mile paved loop trail, with several spur trails to dwellings. I didn’t bring a bike on this trip, but lots of people bike that five-mile loop. In “prime” season, rangers lead a bike tour on this mesa. Walking it was very pleasant, particularly since there were so few people on the mesa when I was there. Also, the yucca plants were in bloom, and they’re super abundant on this mesa.
I became fascinated with kivas. According to the park brochure, kiva “refers to round chambers, usually underground, built in or near almost every village or homesite. Most have similar features and were likely used for combined religious, social and utilitarian purposes.” Don’t know that my backyard will accommodate one, however.
There are a few hiking trails near the campground. They seem to climb up the side of the mesa, offering views similar to what you can see from pull-outs along the road, with no shade visible. Didn’t do any of them. Maybe I was justifying being lazy, but strolling around the various dwelling sites and overlooks was fine with me. By the way, this is a driving park. It was about an hour drive from the campground to either of the mesa areas where the dwellings are located. The roads are steep and winding, with beautiful views.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The park brochure compares Black Canyon to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. It’s that type of canyon. The canyon is narrow and deep, 2,772 feet deep at Warner Point at the end of the park road. The rock in the walls is 1.8 billion years old. The pink veining is a rock called pegmatite, largely quartz. For someone like me, who is pretty crazy about rocks, it’s a great park. The ranger who did the geology talk did a very good job, including a nice demonstration of how the canyon was formed.
Some people hike down to the river from the canyon rim. Some people, but not me. I did hike the Oak Flat Trail, which is only a couple miles long, but rated strenuous because of the big elevation changes. And, I hiked out to Warner Point for some spectacular views. Essentially, I did the trails in the South Rim Road area. The serviceberry trees were in bloom, along with the lupines. That, combined with the amazing canyon views, made for some very nice hikes.
And, I drove out to the East Portal, where the road goes down to the river level. Quite a drive! It’s a totally different perspective on the canyon, and it offered some close-up views of the rock veins — so close I could touch the pink stone. At the East Portal, I saw a sun halo. There’s a photo of it in the gallery below. It was the first time I had ever seen one. What an experience.