Welcome To Colorful Colorado
It took a day and a half for me to reach Great Sand Dunes National Park from Sedona, Arizona. I left the state on Friday evening after finishing work, drove to the New Mexico border, and slept in the back of my car at a truck stop. “Slept” would be a bit of an exaggeration though. Realistically I laid curled up into a ball in the back of my Subaru wishing that I wasn’t so far away from my destination. But it this was still better than the alternative of starting out from Arizona the following morning. At least this way I was 4 hours into the 9 hour drive when I woke up on Saturday morning.
The rest of the drive was uneventful, as driving always feels to me. Some people revel in road tripping across the country, but I’m not one of those people. Put me on my feet all day, all night, and into the next sunrise, and I’ll love every moment of it. But make me sit still through a 9 hour drive and I’m pulling my hair out before I’m even an hour in.
But the beauty of living in the southwest is that everything is within driving distance. My week-long trip up to Wyoming was perfect illustration of that fact. A fifteen hour drive was anything but fun, but it afforded me the chance to watch the total solar eclipse and hike through some of the most rugged and beautiful mountains that I think I’ve ever seen in my 31 years in this life.
My destination was Great Sand Dunes National Park—a relatively small National Park located in southeastern Colorado. I had never visited the area before, and I probably never would have if it weren’t for Sharla. I met Sharla two years prior when she was working as a park ranger for Grand Canyon National Park. In the years since then she moved across the country a couple of times before finally landing at Sand Dunes around the same time that I moved to Sedona. Since then she’d tried to convince me to come and visit the park, and after my trip to Wyoming I finally relented and set the date on my calendar for September 21.
Although I hate driving those long miles that it took to reach the park, it was an undeniably cool experience to watch as the deserts of Arizona changed to the mountains of Colorado. By the time I reached the New Mexico/Colorado border I could look in almost any direction and find giant mountain tops, and I wondered which ones were worthy of the 14,000 foot designation.
When I planned my trip to Colorado I started looking at trails within the park, but part of my intention was to hike up to at least one or two of the 14,000 foot tall peaks that are scattered around the state. Conveniently, Great Sand Dunes National Park is in the heart of the Sangre De Cristo mountain range (“The Blood of Christ Mountains,” so named after the red glow that they present during sunrise and sunset). Within that range are 9 peaks over 14,000 feet, but I’d later learn that the range is long and the drive to reach the trailheads would take me several hours in both directions. Luckily however, three of those prestigious peaks are within a half hour’s drive from the park where I’d be staying throughout my visit to the state.
Much like my experience of driving to Grand Teton National Park, I found myself surrounded by natural beauty in the miles approaching Great Sand Dunes, but it wasn’t until I was almost at the gateway to the park that I could see the splendor that designated this land special by the National Park Service and the US Department of the Interior. Ten miles before the park entrance I first spotted the giant white rolling sand dunes to the northwest.
The dunes are like nothing that I’ve ever seen, and their placement amongst those giant Colorado mountains is nothing short of mysterious. It’s like walking through he Sierras and stumbling into a vast desert. The dunes are the largest sand dunes in all of North America, stretching thirty miles in diameter and reaching more than seven hundred feet above the rest of the land. And as if their presence alone weren’t odd enough, they’re pressed directly against those beautiful Colorado mountains. It was going to be a blissful week away from work.
Day 1: “The Sandlot Trail”
I hadn’t seen Sharla in more than a year and a half, and although our reuniting was superficially unremarkable as I pulled into the parking lot outside her employee housing unit, it was meaningful to me below the surface. We dated briefly before her work concluded with Grand Canyon National Park and she left for a new job, and since then we had only maintained minimal contact. During those months apart I’d remained mostly solitary in my life, especially in the last ten months. I had quit my job, I’d moved to a new town, started new work, and spent most of my time out hiking trails alone. In many ways this was my own way of celebrating life, and I reveled in every aspect of this isolation, but in other ways I was coming to accept that it was lonely to be walking in solitude.
As such, I planned my first hike in Colorado around her company. It’s a rare occasion that I’ll hike with someone else, but this felt like as appropriate a time as any to step out of my solitary habits and walk a trail with company. The mere fact that she works as a park ranger for Great Sand Dunes National Park was an added bonus, as she knew the ins and outs of the park far better than I ever would have been able to gleam during my short visit to Colorado.
The Sandlot Trail is the longest trail in the park from what I can tell. It wraps around the north side of the sand dunes in between the rolling white hills of sand and the mountains that stand in stark contrast to them. The trail stretches for nearly fifteen miles if you don’t have a vehicle to access the trailhead that’s deeper into the park, but my host in the park was familiar with the roads, and so we were able to get to the real heart of the trail via four wheel drive. From there, I hoped to reach the trail’s conclusion and then yo-yo back from there, but I was open to a shorter milage day if my company wasn’t as eager to cover miles.
The Sandlot Trail is an ideal exemplification of the park as it offers a perfect blend between the sandy dunes and the paths that climb higher up into the mountains. I gathered from Sharla that most people who visit the park hike up into the dunes like they would up a snowfield; there’s no given trail, because no trail will hold in the sand. Within hours the wind blows over the sand dunes and washes away even the deepest of tracks. There are however a few trails that start in the park and then climb up into higher elevations that aren’t actually encased into the National Park but are considered Sangre De Cristo Wilderness that I’d explore later during my time in Colorado.
The Sandlot Trail is the true northern edge of the sand dunes, but the dunes themselves encroach ever farther north with the blowing of wind so that the trail, no matter how well trodden it may be, disappears with time. It’s easy to follow in some places, but then in other spots it just vanishes into the sand. This was frustrating at times, but not so much that it gave either of us much reason to want to turn around. At all of the points where the trail became faint or eaten up by the sand dunes we were able to follow to the next point and pick up from there.
Within an hour of our starting the hike it began to rain lightly. We woke up that day to heavy cloud coverage all throughout the valley south of the National Park, but forecasts didn’t predict rain. Coming from Arizona, I expected that would be reliable, but I learned quickly (or I should say that I remembered quickly, as I’ve been in the mountains before) that predicting weather in high elevations around mountains like those surrounding Great Sand Dunes is akin to gambling. As such, the forecast that called for cloud coverage but no rains began to fail us quite early on.
Neither of us were particularly bothered by the rain, as it made for a beautifully textured sky and kept temperatures cool as we slowly made our way in a northwesterly trajectory along the Sandlot Trail. After three hours of hiking however, storm clouds to the southeast gave us a bit more concern as lightning began striking down many miles away. Despite the distance however, the storms were moving towards us as clouds intermittently broke through to blue sky from time to time, only to reform and start to rain again.
We crested the highest point of the Sandlot Trail and took a rest. By this point my shoes had filled with sand twice and had to be emptied, but were it not for the impending storms, I suspect that we would have continued on. I don’t like playing with fire though; the lightning storms could move south and miss us or they could continue on and hit us. If we were stuck out there in the rain it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but for the start of my vacation away from Arizona I didn’t particularly want to become stuck in a giant storm with the threat of lighting.
As such we made the collective decision to take a short stop for lunch, turn around, and head back to the car. Along the way the storm clouds continued to approach as we hiked back, stopping far more regularly than I normally would for photos. Like on our hike in it would rain for a few minutes, at times somewhat heavily, and then the rain would stop, and we followed suite by adding and removing rain layers as the miles went on.
My overall impressions of the park are hard to put into words after having hiked the Sandlot Trail. I would have liked to progress farther into the park along the path, but the weather wasn’t cooperative, and I knew that there were days ahead where I’d have the opportunity for longer miles. Like the other National Parks that I’ve explored however, I could tell quite quickly why that are has been designated as a National Park.
Were I to compare it to another park that I’ve visited, I’d probably pick Bryce Canyon. This is probably a weird one to pick since the two have so very little in common, suffice to say that they both feel so foreign and alien. Bryce is like a martian landscape littered with giant spires that look like they were built by six-foot long ants. Sand Dunes doesn’t look like that at all, but it feels just as strange in that giant white sand dunes are about the last things that you’d expect as you continue deeper and deeper into Colorado.
On the drive back we discussed hiking another trail up into higher elevations, but by then it had begun to rain steadily, and I saw no need to cover long miles so early into my trip to the park. The following days would be set aside for that. Instead we showered, traveled to the nearby town of Alamosa for dinner, and ended the day early. The following day I’d tackle peaks.
-Day 2: “Peaks and Perils”
I wanted to wake earlier for my second day that was allocated to climbing up towards the 14’ers, but it’s cold in Colorado. As we walked from the car to her home the night prior, the air was terribly cold. The part of me that remembers what it was like to grow up in Alaska is embarrassed to call that cold, but the part of me that’s been in Arizona for the last 11 years completely understands. Part of it may have been the fact that only four days prior I had been hiking through temperatures that were exceeding 105 degrees, and my body had become used to the heat. To make such a big jump from so hot to so cold so quickly was a challenge.
Or at least that’s the excuse that I used for sleeping in past six that second morning.
I finally reached the trail at around 10am. On my agenda was Mount Blanca, Elingwood Peak, and if time permitted, then I was considering a third summit of Little Bear, all of which rose up above 14,000 feet in elevation. I was reserving Little Bear for last however because my maps indicated that it was “class 4” climbing. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant in practical terms since most all of my hiking in the past had consisted of simple trails and distance, so I figured that I’d hike the two peaks that held “class 2” ratings, and from there I could consider my time and willingness to be exposed to more difficult climbing conditions and go from there. I also knew however that when the rainstorm came through the day prior it had deposited snow on the high mountain peaks, and that likely would farther complicate my hopes of reaching 14,000 feet elevation.
The maps that I carried indicated that the road leading up to the trailhead of these three trails was among the most rugged 4x4 roads in all of Colorado and that hikers should park at the base of the mountain, hike 6 or 7 miles in on the dirt road, and then they’d reach the true trailhead leading to the three peaks. I heeded this advice in leu of damaging my vehicle that had been so kind as to carry me all the way from Arizona so comfortably and parked at the bottom of the road.
Over those first four miles however, I was constantly wishing that I’d brought the Subaru higher up the road. It was rough, there’s no doubt about that, but it wasn’t a road that would have prevented my driving farther up. In fact there were vehicles of all sorts that were hiked many miles farther up the road than I had attempted to drive, and from time to time I even contemplated going back for the car but ultimately decided that I came here to hike so the worst thing that could happen would be that I’d end up hiking a bit farther.
The road walk itself was really more like a cross between hiking a dirt road and hiking a trail. It was never wider than one lane and it wound around like a switch-backing trail from 8,000 feet where I parked my car, up to around 11,000 feet where Lake Como is located. I will confess however that those last two miles of road are absolutely traitorous. They were no problem to hike at all, but it would have been a severe challenge to navigate any vehicle up them. Were I to hike the trail again however, I’d bring my vehicle about half way up the road, park there, and walk up to Como on foot. We live and we learn though, and I wasn’t fully upset about not driving higher because ultimately it just meant that I got to spend more time hiking.
Lake Como was a spectacular site. It’s just below the tree line and in many regards exemplifies a perfect blend between alpine forest and tundra life zones. It was cold, but not so much that I was much bothered by the temperatures. In fact I was able to sit there for a little bit of time while I let my under layers of clothes dry in the wind and sun while I dawned a down jacket—that same jacket that I carried with me throughout the PCT and most of the trails that I’ve walked since then. A trout of some kind swam away when I first reached the shore of the lake and it made me wish that I had the time to add fishing to my activities in Colorado.
There were many people at Lake Como. I met a group of three hikers who were on their way down from the lake in the miles before I reached it and they informed me that they were a part of a group of 30, but that most of the others were still at the lake. I didn’t take a survey of how many people were up there when I arrived, but it easily could have been as many as they claimed. It wasn’t necessarily crowded, but it was more than the five people that I encountered on my assent from 8,000 feet where I parked to 11,000 feet where I dried my clothes and ate lunch.
After my clothes were dried I continued on up what was still classified as a road on my maps but by now was looking far more like a wide hiking trail as I ascended higher into the mountains towards Blanca Not far from Lake Como is where the road ends however and where the true trail begins. It starts right above the true tree line, and after spending the entire day hiking along a dirt road, it was a magical feeling to be back on an actual footpath. Being above the tree line was magical too. I could see so much farther off in the distance, and the grander of the mountains stood out even more than it had in my ascent.
I met three other hikers on my ascent from Lake Como to the next main lake—Crater Lake—all of whom were hiking down and all had reported turning around before reaching “the saddle.” If I’d done enough research prior to my trip to Colorado I would have known what saddle they were talking about, but I was ignorant. All I knew was that I was headed up to a split in the trail where one path would lead to Mount Blanca and the other would lead to Elingwood. Both seemed simple enough from the maps that I had brought, but from what I gathered from the others on trail, I was underestimating what was ahead. They reported that it was cold, windy, and steep. And on top of those variables, there was far more snow up there from the day prior than they had been expecting. Already I was beginning to encounter some ice on the trail and I had barely broken 12,500 feet. I won’t go so far as to say that I was worried yet, but I was becoming somewhat hesitant of my assessment of the miles ahead.
When I reached the saddle it was clear why nobody else was up that high. To say that it was cold is an understatement. To say that it was windy is an understatement. The issues were compounded by the fact that I was wearing running shorts and a t-shirt at that point. The climb up from 8,000 feet (starting elevation of my hike) up to the saddle (13,750 feet elevation) wasn’t the most exhausting climb of my life, but it did cause me to break a sweat. I was actually sweating quite heavily when I reached Lake Como, and when I stopped there I changed layers to allow my long sleeve shirt to dry. I knew that at the mountain tops I’d need my warmer layers, and I needed to keep them dry. So I switched into my t-shirt, strapped my long sleeve onto the back of my backpack so that it could hopefully dry in the wind (which it did to an extent), and decided to bear the cold until reaching the saddle so that my warmest layers would be dry in the cold air up high.
So I reached the saddle in running shorts and a wet t-shirt. I was freezing cold, and the couple of people that I did pass between Lake Como and the saddle were all bundled up in long pants (snow pants?), winter boots, gloves, winter hats, and what can only be described as parkas. They would have fit right in at the ski resorts in the middle of winter, and they all looked at me sideways as I scurried up the trail in shorts and a t-shirt. I’ve grown used to hiking like this though. As long as I keep moving I find that I’m normally pretty comfortable in skimpy hiking clothes like this. It’s only when I stop or if they get wet that it’s a problem.
The saddle was an eye opening experience. The weather alone was extreme, but the floor fell right out from under me when I reached there. I thought that there would be a fairly easy trail up to the two peaks from the saddle, and I was completely wrong. I was shocked. Shocked isn’t even the right word for it. I was petrified. The trail up from the saddle in both directions was far, far more rugged and intimidating than I had been expecting. And to even say that it was a trail would be an exaggeration. There was no trail from the saddle. There was only a scant trace of rock cairns up steep slopes in both directions. And to compound the situation more, the peak of Blanca was coated in snow that had fallen the day before. I genuinely could not imagine hiking above there. But I’d come so far that it was too much to give up, and so I took shelter behind a single large rock cairn (which was really no shelter at all), changed out to my warmer layers, which were still not warm enough to keep me from shivering, and I ate a small snack to try and settle my mind.
I sat there at the saddle for about five or ten minutes, looking over my maps to confirm that I was actually reading them correctly, and as the minutes elapsed, I came to terms with the fact that I was not going to be able to make it to the top of the two summits that I hoped to bag that day. It just wasn’t going to be safe. They were too rugged; the weather was too extreme; the wind was blowing too hard; I was alone, and nobody would be there to help if anything went wrong; and as if all of these things were not bad enough, there was snow encasing all of Blanca. It took a moment for the reality of the situation to sink in, but I realized as I sat there in the torrential wind that it wasn’t going to be safe to go on.
I remained up there for ten minutes. I took some pictures of the beautiful landscape below, the rushing clouds to the south, and the basins of quaking aspen to the north that were beginning to develop their deep yellow and red fall colors. I wished that I had a telephoto lens to be able to take better pictures of them, but it was just not possible to put that kind of beauty on film. At best every picture was a simulacrum of something so much more spectacular than a picture can do. You know that saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words?”. Well I haven’t counted the words in this little entry, but I suspect that they exceed a thousand and I know that they’re nowhere near scratching the surface of the beauty that I found up there that was mixed in with the gravity of my having to turn around short from reaching either of the peaks that I hoped to hit that day.
I can’t explain what it was that made me change my mind and decide to hike up from there. I do know however that my mother wouldn’t have approved. Maybe it was the fact that the week prior I had been in Saguaro National Park and had failed to reach the point that I had planned because of difficulty navigating in the dark of night. As I sat there for my ten minutes of contemplation at the saddle, I realized how much I was going to hate it if I had to turn short again—the second hike in a row where I failed to reach my desired destination. I thought about the reasons that I had come to Colorado. There were a lot more reasons than just to tag 14,000 foot peaks, but I wanted to do that in addition to the other hikes that I had planned. I had never been to the top of a 14’er in Colorado, and being that Colorado is so famous for those high elevation peaks, I felt obligated.
Whatever it was I can’t really say. All I know is that I found myself packing my bag with intention of turning around and heading down from the saddle from there, but that’s not what happened. Something inside me said to go on and climb higher. Maybe just for a bit. Maybe just for a minute. Maybe just around that next cairn. Then one cairn led to another, and to another, and to the next. Reaching the summit of Mount Blanca was among the most difficult climbs I’ve ever done in my life. It has to be noted however that I’m not a rock climber. I’m a long distance hiker, and not a mountaineer. This was foreign territory to me. I’ve no doubt that there are those who will read this and laugh because Blanca is only a Class 2 climb, but for someone who’s never worked into that level of challenge, it was a hair raising experience—especially with the added difficulty from snow, ice, sever wind, and knowing that I was up there alone. If I had fallen… I won’t go any farther down that line of thinking.
I was the first person to make it to the top of Blanca since snow had come in the day before. I could see as I made my way up the ridge that there were no other signs of hikers in the snow. And I didn’t blame them. But at the same time I was grateful for whatever force it was that made me go on. The views up there were amazing. It was like being in an airplane, looking down on everything around. And I mean this absolutely literally, because Blanca is the 4th highest peak in all of Colorado. Nowhere else in the visible horizon was there a point of earth that stuck up higher.
The few clouds that were in the sky rushed by and it made sense why nobody else was up there that day. It was brutally cold, but it had been worth the work to get up to that peak.
From there I slowly worked my way back down to the saddle after taking a few pictures, and along the way I was unsure if I’d take the time to go up to Elingwood Peak from there, but when I reached the saddle, I knew that there wasn’t much of a choice. I had to do it. I had made it to the higher and more challenging Blanca, and to be this close to a second 14’er made me feel obligated. So step by step I made my way in the opposite direction of Mount Blanca to my second 14,000+ foot elevation point during my week long trip in Colorado. The following day I’d end up looking up to Elingwood from the basin of Zapata Lake, so even beyond being able to claim a second 14,000 foot peak, it became an orientation marker for me the next day.
On my way down the trail the sun was hitting the mountain at a much lower angle and casting gorgeous light all through the peaks, the lakes, and the trees. And to make it all the better there wasn’t even anyone out there. The groups of people who I’d seen at Lake Como were all gone by the time I reached there on my way down, and in most ways I felt like I was the only one on the mountain during my descent.
The hike down below tree line was long and my legs were becoming fatigued, but it gave me the day to reflect back on everything that I’d seen that day. From 8,000 feet to 14,303 feet there is a lot of change, and I was grateful to have reached the summits—even given the risks that it necessitated in the process.
The fall leaves were brighter in the lower sun—a stark reminder that summer truly has come to an end. Living in Arizona allows me to maintain the illusion that the summer months are still here because temperatures were still breaking 100 degrees in the warmer parts of the state when I departed for Colorado, but driving 9 hours north and watching the desert turn to mountain and seeing the yellow aspen leaves prepare for winter in reflection of the high-elevation fresh snow that I’d just hiked through earlier that day made the denial of winter difficult. But nothing lasts. I’m not ready to say that I’m prepared for the winter yet, but I’m willing to accept its progression. After winter comes spring. After spring means that I can depart for my next long trail if all goes according to plan. Then again however—and I’ve said this more times than I care to recall, “man plans and god laughs.”
The sun arrived at the western horizon within minutes of my arriving at my car, waiting just as I’d left it. I met Sharla after dusk had become dark and we drove into Alamosa for dinner at the local brewery. The beer was adequate, the food sub-par, but after hiking for the full day I was willing to accept whatever I could get. Food was food, and a little bit of beer made for a nice addition.
I wanted to make plans for more 14’ers the following day, but as I looked over maps that evening it was looking less and less likely. Physically I could have handled another big mile day with high elevation, but I didn’t want to have to drive 4 hours round trip to get to and from them. Ultimately however I left it to the next morning. I’d decide on the plans for tomorrow once the sun rose.
Day 3: Zapata Lake Trail (Stay on the Trail or Stay Home)
Morning came early on my third day in Colorado. Fog filled the valley around Great Sand Dunes National Park, a result of the little bit of humidity that remained after snow had fallen two days prior. Mostly the snow had melted by now, but there was still some dusting left up on those high mountain peaks. It was a cold fog—a promise that winter was not far away. I have been drawn to Colorado since before I visited here. For years people had told me that I’d love the state, and from everything that I’ve seen during my three visits, that seems to be true. But I’ve softened to the cold since moving to Arizona. It would be hard for me to go back to living in a cold climate. I never thought that I’d move away from Alaska, but after more than a decade in Arizona, I can’t see myself living in a place where snow covers the ground for more than a couple of months a year. Especially after making a move nine months ago from the mountain town of Flagstaff to the high-desert of Sedona, I think that it would be hard for me to go back to colder climates. Colorado is a heaven when the weather is pleasant, and I can imagine it being a paradise in the summer months, but I don’t know how I’d ever get through the winters. Here it was only September, but the mountains were already being dusted with snow and jackets had to be adorned to make it through the evening even at lower elevations. Winter would arrive soon. The turning leaves on the aspen made this promise.
I’d wanted to spend another day at high elevations and tag at least one more 14’er while I was in Colorado, but as I looked over maps and driving times, it became less and less reasonable of a plan. There were peaks within driving distance, but most of them were in the range of 2-3 hours one way. Considering that I’d already driven 9.5 hours one-way to get here, the last thing that I wanted to do was spend the rest of my vacation in Colorado behind the wheel of my vehicle. As such, after some deliberation I decided not to hit high elevation, but instead to hike one of the many trails in the area near Great Sand Dunes National Park.
There were more than a dozen routes to choose from, but the Zapata Lakes Trail was where I settled. I chose this for no particular reason, other than that it was nearby and hiking an alpine lake trail sounded like a blast, especially after hiking up to Lake Como the day prior. Como had been crystalline and beautiful in the way that I remembered high elevation Alaska lakes of my childhood. I wanted more of that, and so that’s what I went out seeking.
The trail up to Zapata Lake passes right beside Zapata Falls, a far more popular hiking destination because of it’s proximity to the trailhead. Like everywhere else that I’ve ever hiked, most people who come out looking for a hike don’t want to walk more than a half mile or so. As such, places like Zapata Falls are perfect. It’s a beautiful destination that doesn’t require too much strain to access. I didn’t really have all that much interest in going to the falls, but being that they were along the way, I decided to stop there and see what all the fuss was about.
The ten minute detour from my path to the lakes was very worthwhile. The falls aren’t actually visible from the trail itself; instead hikers have to rock-hop about a tenth of a mile up the river and into a narrow canyon. In the back of the canyon it feels like an amphitheater, and the sound of the roaring water from Zapata Falls is almost deafening as it echoes off of every wall. I realized as I arrived at the base of the fall that it wan’t just the proximity to a trailhead that drew hikers here—it was a destination worth seeking, and even if it had been farther off trail it would have been worth hiking to reach. Later in the day there would be far more people at the waterfall, but since I was there early when the air was still cold, there was nobody back there when I arrived. In fact, I only passed on pair of hikers (an elderly couple) on my way from the parking lot to the point where the trail leads into the river rock hopping section. And from that point forward in the day I would see a grand total of no one until I made my way back to the car at the end of the day. I was literally the only one who hiked up beyond the falls to the lake that day.
From Zapata Falls to Zapata Lakes the trail consisted of mellow grade climbing first through pine trees, then into aspen trees that were glowing yellow in celebration of the fall, and then back into more pine trees. There were two very mild stream crossings between the falls and the lakes, and of course I managed to step on a slick rock and dip my foot into ice cold water right before reaching the high elevation tree line. I figured that this would be more of an annoyance than it was, but overall since I was moving quickly and wearing wool socks, it wasn’t as much of a bother as I’d feared.
Above the tree-line was magical. Living in Arizona for so long I’ve nearly forgotten how beautiful high elevations can be. These are mountain landscapes that were carved out by glaciers so long ago that I can barely wrap my mind around it. The rocks are rugged and the terrain unforgiving. Few critters live up this high—only those that are evolved to deal with cold temperatures and extreme winds. The word sublime comes to mind, and it made me wish for a moment that I was equipped to withstand these kinds of environments year round. I wish that this could be my backyard.
Zapata Lake, like Lake Como is surrounded by tundra and high mountain escarpments. A narrow path runs through the landscape, and I suspect that it’s remained unchanged for decades. In lands like this, a trail cut into the earth above the tree line stays present for longer than time.
Wind whipped over the lake. Since my arrival to Great Sand Dunes the wind had blown with consistency. The only thing that changed was how hard it was blowing. Atop Blanca it blew hard enough that it was hard to stand, and near the dunes it was a steady force, but weather forecasts had predicted that it would be getting stronger as the week progressed. If I’d failed to check that forecast, no doubt I would have just assumed that it was because of where I was that the wind was blowing so hard, but it wasn’t just at the lakes. All around the wind was whipping with a fervor.
In spite of the wind however, these mountains were beautiful and awe-inspiring. And to have them to myself was a kind of magical that can’t be put into words. I’ve learned over the years that some things just have to be experienced to be appreciated. I can describe them, but a word can only do so much—a picture can only go so far. If you want to know then you have to go.
I ate a small lunch tucked away into the back of the canyon that held Zapata Lake like cupped hands, and from my vantage point I could see up to where I’d climbed the day prior. Directly to the north was Ellingwood Peak. With the wind blowing as hard as it was at the lake, I could only begin to imagine what it might be like up on those peaks today. I was grateful to have climbed them yesterday instead. It was the same beauty down here by the lake—or to be more accurate, I should say that it was equal beauty here. Those high mountain views were unique in a special kind of way, but so too was this lower land.
As I ate lunch, tucked behind a boulder that had fallen from the higher mountain peaks, I looked up to the ridge lines above, and started to think about a next step off trail. I took out my maps and studied the area, looking back and forth from map to mountain until I decided that there was a chance that climbing a rockslide to the west might be able to bring me to an access point to get to another 14’er peak. It was unlikely, but the more I studied the maps, the more confidence I built. It’s not something that I can actually justify, especially in light of what I now know, but at the time it seemed like a good idea. I decided then that I would pack my gear, climb up an unnamed rockslide to the west, and hopefully descend down the other side, then climb up to the peaks by Lilly Lake. It was a dumb idea, but I was convinced that it would work. With more time and planning, maybe it would have, but it was a crackpot idea as I conceived it.
I rarely ever hike off trail, and the next three hours exemplified exactly why. Within an hour I was standing on a steep hillside that brought to my attention just how bad a decision I’d made. I was off trail. Nobody knew where to find me if anything went wrong. I was climbing a rockslide with loose stones that could fall at any point. The wind was growing heavier. I was in a bad situation. But by the time that all of these things occurred to me, I was within close enough distance to the top ridge line to justify going on. And it was then that my situation became bad.
I was reaching up to a rock to pull myself one step higher when a boulder that was about three times the size of my body dislodged and came tumbling down on me. I stepped aside quickly enough to avoid being dragged down the rockslide with the tumbling stone, but I was in too precarious a place to jump away entirely. On its way down the stone rolled onto my leg, cut my hip, and left blood trickling down from my knee. It happened so fast that I didn’t feel the pain, but I knew that it was bad enough that it could have left me injured. I could feel adrenaline rushing through my veins. Down below me was over a thousand feet of steep rockslide, the wind was blowing well over 40 miles an hour with a deafening roar, and I was up here trying to figure out how I’d dodged that bullet. I knew that it had scared me enough that even if I were injured I wouldn’t know it for a moment. Instead I just started looking for blood. There was blood flowing down from my knee and my shin was scratched as well, but it wouldn’t be until showing that evening that I discovered how badly my hip had been cut as well. Ultimately however, I was lucky. The injury could have been much worse. It could have cost me my life if I’d not managed to get out of the way of the tumbling stone in time.
Despite the close call, I decided that I was close enough to the ridge-line to keep on climbing, and five minutes later I was at it’s top, but what I found wasn’t what I was planning to find. Instead of finding a route to Lilly Lake, I found a steep cliff at the other side of the ridge. I probably could have made it down safely if I’d had more time, and had planned my route more thoroughly, and if I’d had someone with me so we could watch out for one another, but as things stood, it wasn’t going to happen. Instead I took a picture, counted my blessings, and slowly and carefully made my way back down to Zapata Lakes. With every step down the rockslide the wind became less dominant a force, and when I finally reached the trail, I felt a gratitude that I had forgotten even exists. I remembered why the trail is home to me. The trail is safe. I know the trail. I don’t know the rockslides and cliff faces. I was playing with fire by stepping off trail, and the detour that lasted around three hours came too close to costing me in a severe way. I counted it as a lesson learned, and wandered down the trail that I’d climbed earlier that day.
The only wildlife that I saw that day was a lonesome marmot, but I could hear the whistle of pikas all about above the tree line. Pika are curious critters though. They don’t like to be spotted. I was lucky to see any of them the day prior in the high mountain tundra, but if I’d had a nicer camera I figured that I would have had the chance to get a better picture of them. Without a picture there was only memory, but that was good enough for me for the time being.
I reached the lower elevation aspen as the sun was nearing the horizon, and it cast a beautiful glow on the golden fall leaves. I hadn’t planned my trip to Colorado to connect with the changing of the aspen trees, but I was happy that it turned out that way. Sometimes good luck falls upon me, and I couldn’t’ have planned it any better.
Day 4: Rest for the Weary
I want to be the kind of man who never needs to take a break. I don’t know if I aspire to be a superhero of any kind, but I want to pretend that it’s possible for me to be in the mountains every single day without having to take a rest. Pretending to be able to do it is about as close as I’ll ever be able to come though. I’ve thru hiked before and I’ll thru hike again, but that’s no proof of impermeability to progressive exhaustion. Even in thru hiking there are trail town rests, and I don’t think that you ever reach a point on a thru hike where it stops hurting. Your body adapts, and with time you adjust to the pain, but there are consequences to going and going and going on and on and on.
My fourth day in Colorado needed to be a day of rest, and so it became just that. The company with whom I was staying had been insisting for days that I needed to visit the town of Cretstone while I was there. She told me that it was “a hippy little place kind of like Sedona,” and so with her as my chauffeur we traveled the hour and a half around the dunes that I had traveled so far to see to a little town tucked in between sand and stone. She’d spoken so highly of it that I had somehow built it up in my mind as a bigger town than it ended up being, but this isn’t to say that I was disappointed. It was cute in the way that only cute, little, Colorado mountain towns can be—isolated from the rest of the world by the mountains all around, yet still somehow connected.
I quickly learned that “kind of like Sedona” meant that there were a collection of Buddha statues and stupas spread through the community, and being there in the cool weather of September meant that we had it to ourselves to listen to the prayer flags flapping in the wind, accompanying the wind chimes that were hanging from every other tree. We ate Indian food at a place that had barely just opened, which was made very clear to us by the owner who apologized that half the menu items weren’t available, but that they had only just opened, and since they had only just opened, they didn’t have everything in yet. Also, since they had just opened, they didn’t have some of the kitchen equipment needed to make some of the menu items. Also… since they had just opened… they were understaffed in the kitchen… If we’d only be able to come back in a few weeks, we might be able to have the full dining experience that the owner had dreamed of when she first decided to open up in Crestone. But not today… because they had just opened.
For what it was I found the town worth the drive, especially being that I needed the time away from the trail. I needed the rest, and settling in a car for a few hours gave me exactly that. In the afternoon however, after we returned back to the National Park, I watched as the sun dropped closer and closer to the western horizon and felt the desire to be back out in it draw me back to my feet. Even if I couldn’t climb a mountain that day, I could at least hike up into the sand.
In hindsight, I’m rather glad that I didn’t allocate the entire day to wandering through the dunes. The afternoon was quite enough. I found that hiking on the sand dunes was about like I would expect hiking in a swimming pool to feel like. Progress is slow and frustrating. The sand permeates into shoes with seemingly no resistance. And the wind races over the dunes in a way that is quite beautiful as it throws dust every which way, but is just as painful as those particles pound any bit of skin that’s left exposed. Walking through the dunes is a special kind of challenging that I don’t know if I’ll ever seek out again, but on account of my traveling so far to see the “Great Sand Dunes,” it was sort of a necessary component of my trip to Colorado.
I walked up for what felt like an eternity, making what felt like no progress at all, and when I looked back from where I’d come, it was eery to see the footsteps that I’d left in the sand wash away. It made me feel like a ghost. Whatever markings I’d left behind to announce that I’d been there quickly faded into time and washed away with the wind.
I climbed up to the highest dune in the park, Star Dune, and couldn’t tell if this was some grand accomplishment (as it felt after the work that it took to get that far) or really nothing at all (as it looked by comparison to the 14,000 foot tall peaks all around).
The air became fridgged quickly that night. The sun set over the distant mountains, and the temperatures dropped far more rapidly than I was used to. But unlike the day prior, I hadn’t ventured far from shelter to get to the dunes themselves, and in short order, while the west still glowed, I was back indoors.
My time in the sand was short-lived, but I was still grateful to have had it. I needed it. I’d driven for the better part of a day to see the “largest sand dunes in North America,” and I realized that if I went back home only to say that “yeah, I looked at them and took a picture,” that I would have felt rather silly. Even spending as short an amount of time as I did felt somewhat strange, but it was something that I don’t think is really for me. I see myself going back someday, maybe years down the line, and camping under the stars amongst the sand, but ultimately, I think that sand navigation is a different game than the hiking that I’ve grown to love. Hiking in the sand felt more like swimming than hiking. And I’ll leave swimming to the fish. The good Lord gave me two legs with which to hike, and so I think that it’s the trail that will always hold my life and affection.
Day 5: Homeward Bound
I was sad to say goodbye to Colorado. But everything comes to an end eventually.
Before my drive home I was able to justify one final hike, and following the advice of my host in the park, I drove back into the park boundary and hiked the Mosca Pass Trail, then diverged off into what my maps listed as the Graphite Route, that led up above tree line and off towards mountain peaks that I only wished that I could have had time to explore. I was on trail for the better part of five hours, but it felt like barely a moment before it was gone and I was back in my car, making the nine hour drive back home.
I wondered, as I pulled back in to my driveway near midnight the following morning if perhaps I should have left earlier to get a head start on the drive, but I refused to regret my time on the trail. After all, what was the point of any of it? At a 10,000 foot perspective, it’s all pointless. Drive all the way to Colorado to hike back and fourth on dirt paths on the ground, then up and down mountains, only to drive back to where I came. I like to believe that I’m a logical man, but there’s something inherently illogical in hiking. Hiking is some strange dedication to the journey even while pursuing a destination. It’s contradictory in an of itself, but in all the ways that something can be loved, I love what it does for me. It makes me feel alive, and so I tried to remember that during the nine hours in my car that evening.
Three years ago I almost moved to Colorado. I was tired of my job and my life in Arizona, and I drove north to see if “Colorful Colorado” was right for me like so many people promised that it would be. But I never found what I was looking for on that trip, and so I found myself living in Sedona, Arizona instead. As I drove home from the dunes, I wondered if perhaps I didn’t give Colorado enough time during that first visit. I wondered, if maybe I had delved a bit deeper, I could have found that thing that I was looking for. Then I remembered the cold air from the night before and thought about how pleasant winters in Sedona tend to be.
Colorado isn’t going anywhere though. It was there before the glaciers came through and created those beautiful mountain passes, and I’ve no doubt that it will be there after the winter passes and another seasons invites me north. I’ve no doubt that I’ll spend more time there, and hell—maybe someday down the road I’ll find myself calling it home. I’ve no attachment to Arizona, after all. I’m simply there because that’s where I landed for the time being. And as much as I love Arizona, I was in need of a change, and I found that change nine hours north, nestled in between the mountains, and tucked into the sand. I found that change in colorful Colorado.