This was my first time in Colorado and, in true Colorado fashion, it went above and beyond my expectations. During our week and change in Colorado, Graham and I backpacked in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, drove the famous and dangerous Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, explored Denver (and Denver's breweries), visited the Garden of the Gods, backpacked in Great Sand Dunes National Park, drove the San Juan Scenic Byway and camped in the San Juan Mountains, and hiked through Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
It's almost hard to believe that we could have done so many amazing things in such a short amount of time, but that's one of the glorious things about Colorado. Simply put, the state is stacked. There are 58 peaks over 14,000 ft. and 637 peaks over 13,000 ft. in Colorado. There are four incredibly diverse National Parks; Rocky Mountain National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and Mesa Verde National Park. Over 35% of the land area in Colorado is public land. All of these qualities add up to create one super-state filled with intense outdoorsy folks pursuing even more intense adventures, and I loved being a part of it.
Great Sand Dunes National Park was, undoubtedly, one of the most unique things we've seen on the entire roadtrip. We were able to snag a free permit from the park service to backpack into the dune field and camp there overnight, something I'd been looking forward to for months.
Backpacking into the dune field was, however, exactly as rough as it sounds. Graham and I had arrived on a sunny day with temperatures in the high 80's, which makes any backpacking less enjoyable- but especially when hot sand is an issue and there's no shade in sight. I also quickly discovered that the likelihood of slipping down a steep dune slope is increased greatly with a 20ish pound pack on my back.
We ended up only hiking about a mile and a half into the dune field before starting to look for a spot to spend the night. Luckily, we soon realized that we didn't need to hike any farther in to get the seclusion we were looking for. After cresting the first major ridge in the dune field, we found ourselves completely alone, the only sound was the whistling of the wind, causing the sand to skim over the surface.
It was pretty unreal to look around and see only dunes, until they faded into the mountains in the distance. I felt so alone in a very different way than usual when in the backcountry. There was a sense of finality about being alone in the dunes because we were so out in the open. When you're surrounded by trees, hills, and valleys you never really know if you're alone or if there are other hikers or critters just around the bend. Here, though, there was just sand. And, once the wind stopped its howling, it was silent.
My other favorite part of Colorado was seeing the San Juan National Forest. My parents once spent a summer camping on the side of a mountain in Telluride, and I've grown up hearing about the beauty of the San Juans. We spent an afternoon in Durango, then camped off of a National Forest road just North of Durango deep in the trees. Then, through a series of minor snafus and spontaneous route changes Graham and I ended up driving the San Juan Skyway from Durango to Telluride. It took much longer than our previous plan, but ended up being so beautiful that it was worth it a hundred times over. Once we got to Telluride we knew we had made the right choice, as it was a gorgeous Friday afternoon in the little mountain town. We got to explore the farmers market, drink some local brews, and take a ride on the free gondola up the mountain. Unfortunately we had terrible timing; starting just the next day was a giant music festival with Pearl Jam headlining and every camping spot and hotel within a 50 mile radius was booked. We spontaneously decided to change our plans and go North towards Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Moab instead of trying to spend more time in Telluride then visit Mesa Verde National Park.
After a morning of exploring and hiking through Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, we finally started the long trek Westward and drove towards Moab. Moab would be our taking off point for Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, both within 30 miles of the campsite we found on the banks of the Colorado River.
I've been dreaming about visiting Utah for years, since I first read Desert Solitaire and became hooked on Edward Abbey. The way he writes about Utah's wild open spaces is enough to make anyone believe that they have to see it with their own eyes.
Truly, the only bad thing I have to say about Utah (besides their 4% beer) is that the heat in July was suffocatingly hot. The kind of hot that just makes you want to curl up in a ball in a shady spot somewhere and never move again. Basically, backpacking was completely out for us. We realized that even for a one night trip we'd have to carry somewhere upwards of 5 liters of water each, and likely more since every place we wanted to backpack in Utah was pretty rugged and would be a strenuous climb.
With our base camp in Moab, we explored Arches National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, and Canyonlands National Park. Dead Horse State Point is a little state park just a few miles up the road from Canyonland's Island in the Sky entrance, and features a beautiful view of a twist in the Colorado River, as well as views of the Island in the Sky in the distance. Apparently, the narrow point of land from where the park gets its name was once used by cowboys to corral wild mustangs. Once, all the caught horses were left on the point without access to food or water, and with the water of the Colorado River tantalizingly in sight but out of reach. They all died, leaving behind the name of the park. We tried not to think too hard about that tragedy while enjoying the view!
After leaving Moab, we drove West towards Capitol Reef National Park. It was the park I knew the least about, but ended up being one of my and Graham's favorite nights of camping. Capitol Reef is unique because in addition to its stunning rock formations, it has a rich cultural history. Part of that cultural heritage includes Mormon pioneers who left behind thriving orchards that the National Park Service has chosen to maintain, and allows visitors to pick their own. Our shady campsite was in the middle of multiple apricot orchards bursting with ripe fruit, and before taking a sunset drive through the rocks we picked almost a dozen. Some deer joined us to feast in the orchard, and bunnies later joined us in our campsite for dinner. It was an idyllic place, and a nice rest from the overbearing heat we experienced in the rest of the state.
As lovely as Capitol Reef was, my favorite park in Utah was certainly Bryce Canyon National Park. We've seen a lot of unique and impressive places on the trip - and especially in the last two weeks in Colorado and Utah - but hoodoos in the Bryce Canyon amphitheater were breathtaking. The hoodoos are these tall rock pillars that resemble a totem pole, or a very tall snowman, whatever works for you. Hoodoos
are formed by two main weather processes, frost wedging and rain. Frost wedging is the main force, and occurs when water seeps into the rock and freezes. Water expands by about 10% when it freezes, which gradually works to pry open the rock. Slightly acidic rain in Bryce also weathers the hoodoos, and gives them their rounded dome shape.
In a typical Hannah move, I epically wiped out on the first switchback on our first hike in Bryce, the Navajo Loop Trail, and gave myself the best scabbed knee I've had in years. I uncharacteristically left the first aid kit in the car, since it was a short hot hike and we wanted to keep the bag light. Thankfully I had my trusty hiking partner there to rinse out my knee wound during my brief moment of wimpiness, and the hike was still a fantastic experience.