Great Sand Dunes National Park: To the Sangre de Cristos

As we began our first big National Park trip in just shy of two years, Sean and I were not the same people we were when we returned home from our sixteen-day journey to San Francisco, Redwood National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Crater Lake National Park, and Portland in September 2019. No one was the same. No one is ever the same, but in this case the changes wrought by time felt heavier, sometimes more momentous, but often just murkier in the morass of the pandemic. The Parks too are always changing, but as we left for our new sixteen-day trip the smoke of the Dixie Fire wafted heavily across the interior West, Midwest, and even Atlantic seaboard. As our new trip approached, we looked back on that earlier trip and watched the reports of fire consuming Lassen Volcanic National Park, which Sean had declared the most beautiful we’d visited.

Many other things had changed, but the most personally gratifying was the maturing of Bold Bison, my firm. That previous trip had been the respite in the wake of departing Openlands. Now two years later, this Colorado trip commenced in the wake of my longtime professional collaborator Patrick joining the firm. Stepping away for my first big trip in a while, I was leaving my business in deeply capable hands. This particular professional evolution was underscored on the day before our trip, Friday, August 20, with a successful client presentation in the morning followed by a late afternoon gathering on Chicago’s lakefront to celebrate a whole series of delightful professional evolutions with friends who were former Openlanders. Almost all of us had landed in good positions doing meaningful work, whether it be in conservation or education. It was a good, celebratory moment before the trip.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Meanwhile that day, Sean was wrapping up a slew of work projects before his two weeks off. Elsa had been getting increasingly nervous about our departure, a jarring development after having us around nearly nonstop for eighteen months.

On our departure day, Saturday, August 21, my alarm went off at 5am, and I’d had alarmingly little sleep. I dressed and showered and began loading our gear into our car.

Our car. After some seventeen years for me and thirteen years for Sean, we now had a car: a Subaru Crosstrek ready for its first National Park adventure. It was a warm, humid morning on Lake Michigan, and by the time I’d finished stowing all our gear in the hatchback, I was pretty sweaty. So much for the shower.

As we made our final walk around the apartment to ensure the windows were closed, doors locked, stove off, Elsa knew we were leaving for a while. She comforted herself by hiding under the loveseat.

Sean took the wheel and after a quick stop for coffee we were headed south on Lake Shore Drive toward the Loop.

There was no traffic on this late summer morning, and we made good time out of the city and the near-west suburbs.

Soon we were crossing northern Illinois on I-88, with some light rain as we approached Iowa.

Mississippi River

We crossed the Mississippi into Iowa at the Quad Cities and continued west on I-80 after a quick stop for gas.

My mother was following our progress via text more than she’d usually have on one of our trips. She was momentarily confused when I said we were in Iowa.

“I thought you were going to Colorado.”

“We are. We have to go through Iowa and Nebraska to get there.”

Then after a long pause: “Oh I was thinking you meant Idaho. I’m never going to live that down.”

“Nope. You’re not.”

I had crossed Iowa before, many years ago on a frigid sprint from Ann Arbor to Badlands National Park. But that had been in the dark. It was a delight to see Iowa in the full bright light of summer. At least along the vein of I-80, it’s a lovely state, rolling and with more canopy, hills, and soy than I’d been expecting. Also lots of wind turbines, which delighted Sean.

Sean drove and I worked on penning a proposal for branding and website services, for a conservation coalition in the Sierra Nevada, that was due Friday. It was one of a few final items on my to-do list that I just hadn’t wrapped up.

Somewhere before Des Moines we traded driving duties. Sean played some podcasts (Greatest Discovery; Gayest Episode Ever; Yo, Is This Racist?) as we continued through a particularly lovely section of western Iowa.

Near the Iowa/Nebraska line, we were routed onto I-880 because of road construction in downtown Omaha. This little detour took us past a scenic overlook that boasted restrooms and a timber tower overlooking the Missouri River Valley.

From the top of the alarmingly creaky structure, we could see the skyline of Omaha in the distance with the lush Missouri River Valley and Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge in the foreground.

Missouri River. Image: Sean M. Santos

After our brief stop, we continued south into the Missouri River Valley, crossing the Missouri on Mormon Bridge and entering Nebraska, a new state for both Sean and me (which is becoming a rarer occurrence).

Since we were passing through Omaha (the 39th largest city in the United States, larger than Miami, Oakland, Minneapolis, New Orleans, or St. Louis), Sean fired up an audio book, You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar. Ruffin is a writer on Late Night with Seth Myers and hosts her own late show on Peacock. The book, cowritten with her sister, Lacey, documents some of the innumerable instances that Lacey has endured in decades of living in Omaha, the sisters’ hometown. Alternately funny and horrifying and ultimately overwhelming, the book was our audio accompaniment across Nebraska and northeastern Colorado. We were not quite finished with it by the time we reached Denver.

I-80 flirted with the Platte River, crossing it and offering us glimpses of it multiple times before we reached Kearney, Nebraska. Here the slow transition to the West was becoming apparent. It was not as dramatic a shift as crossing the Missouri in South Dakota. Nevertheless, the town fathers (presumably) of Kearney apparently saw fit to inform motorists that they are entering THE WEST by erecting a celebratory arch museum(?) thing across the interstate.

Image: Sean M. Santos

We stopped in Kearney for gas at the deeply unfortunately named Pump & Play (rivals Kum & Go) and a late afternoon take-out lunch from Culver’s. Because what’s a roadtrip from Chicago without Culver’s? It was interesting to see Kearney since we’ve long contemplated visiting this part of the continent for the annual congregation of Sandhill Cranes in late March. Sean is now much more dubious about this idea having now actually visited Kearney.

Platte River

It really wasn’t until we were almost to Colorado that we encountered the infamous feedlot stench of central Nebraska, but shortly thereafter, we said farewell to I-80, that legendary path from the George Washington Bridge to the Oakland-Bay Bridge, and continued southwest toward Denver on I-76.

Almost immediately after entering Colorado, the freeway rose into some scrubby, rolling hills. Off to the northwest, a ribbon of tree canopy indicated the path of the Platte.

More importantly for my soul, we began to see sagebrush.

Sean had been driving since Kearney, but in Sterling, Colorado we switched again so that I could bring us through the final push to Denver.

Image: Sean M. Santos

The sun was setting amid a dramatic jumble of rain clouds and wildfire smoke from the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Add in glimpses of the moon and Venus and it all felt a touch apocalyptic.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Almost suddenly, we were in downtown Denver and navigating to The Art Hotel, our home for two nights. We pulled up in front of the hotel, parked, and rearranged the back of the Crosstrek before loading our duffel bags onto a cart and handing our keys to the valet.

On this Saturday night, the lobby of The Art was hopping with largely maskless guests and revelers. There appeared to be some sort of corporate event happening. Sean waxed nostalgic about not really seeing twenty-something corporate dudebros in all the months he’d been working from home. For years, they had been part of both of our daily maneuverings through the ecosystem of the Chicago Loop.

Our room, a king-bed suite with purported views of the Front Range (we were splurging a bit having not spent any money of travel in so long), was splendid. Sean, who loves a hotel room, was quite pleased.

After we dropped our things, we headed down the street to a liquor store for Negroni fixings (we preferred a cocktail in our room rather than at the crowded hotel bar), where we got chatting to an employee originally from Wisconsin. He was reacting to our Illinois licenses. We chatted about our trip itinerary and he was very excited for us for our impending visit to Mesa Verde.

Back in our room, we sipped our drinks, relaxed, and went to sleep.

On Sunday, August 22 I woke up before Sean and had a peek at our view of the mountains. It was a beautiful morning. The recent rains in Denver had driven much of the smokiness away, at least for the time being.

Image: Sean M. Santos

We didn’t have any plans for the day. Our friends Rick and Erik, who live in Denver, were out of town but would be around when we passed back through at the end of the trip. And unlike National Park trips that began with flights, we didn’t need to gear up with camp stove fuel and such.

We relaxed in our room for much of the morning before heading downstairs to see about dinner reservations and such. After talking to the host at Fire, the hotel’s restaurant, we made a reservation for 6:30 and decided to return from our walk around Denver in time to take advantage of the hotel’s happy hour.

The Art is adjacent to the Denver Art Museum and cultural center complex. We wandered past the Capitol and toward downtown looking for somewhere to get food and ultimately aiming for Tattered Cover, a great little bookstore.

As we wandered down the 16th Street Mall people watching, we spied the building that the Denver office of Sean’s firm is located in.

We were getting very hungry by the time we reached the Union Station area. We decided to stop and eat at Urban Farmer, which featured locally sourced gastropub fare. After initially being told there would be an hour’s wait for a table, we were seated immediately when we clarified that we wanted to be seated outside. Coming from Chicago where mask mandates continue to be in place, we were not yet ready to sit inside a crowded restaurant. Sean’s sirloin and lobster benedict and my rabbit hash were excellent.

After eating, we walked around and around looking for Tattered Cover. It was not where I’d remembered. But I hadn’t been to Denver in a while, so I figured it was my memory. After we located the bookstore’s annex in Union Station, we sat down on one of the long wooden benches in the station’s great hall to investigate. I finally found a news story talking about how the shop was moving to a new development adjacent to the baseball stadium. Got it.

We went there. The shop’s new location was jarring. McGregor Square, the development, is an extravaganza of sports bars, condos, huge screens showing the game in the stadium across the street, dudebros playing cornhole. It was an odd location for the new two-story expansion of a well-curated independent bookstore. While the new Tattered Cover feels a lot like a Barnes & Noble, it retains its well-curated heart. I ended up leaving with a book about the Colorado Plateau, a small volume by Terry Tempest Williams, and Desert Oracle by Ken Layne, a collection of pieces from his late-night radio show about the California desert broadcast from Joshua Tree. It was a great find, and helped Tattered Cover keep its unbroken record of my finding new and interesting volumes featured on its shelves.

Sean also found and bought for me a little box of matches with a Rockwell Kent illustration for Moby Dick. Very neat.

Wandering back to the hotel, we stopped in a vintage candy and soda shop and a dispensary before crossing the art museum campus.

In our room, Sean got to partake in one of his favorite activities: watching Law & Order: SVU and dozing in a hotel bed.

We went down to the restaurant level for a happy hour drink on the terrace.

Image: Sean M. Santos

While we were sitting there, I remembered to phone the lodge at Mesa Verde to set up our dinner reservations for later in the week.

Back in our room before dinner, Sean was having a very nice time with his vintage candies, SVU on the TV, and COVID movie club. Throughout the pandemic, we’d been part of an epic Netflix/Prime/Hulu watch party series with friends on both coasts. The number of terrible movies we’ve watched is well over 100.

Dinner downstairs was excellent, particularly the scallops and the farro risotto.

We returned to our room, where Sean fell asleep while I drew a bath in the soaking tub.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Next morning, Monday, August 23, was a work morning for both Sean and me. We’d arranged for a late check-out so that I could take a late-morning Zoom meeting from our room. The meeting was about a very important Chicago-focused local food system initiative that will launch this autumn.

I’d been up since 6, finalizing some emails, working on the proposal due at the end of the week, and basically making sure Bold Bison was set before Sean and I started our drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park in the afternoon. Sean picked us up a healthy breakfast from the hotel restaurant, which we ate while we worked. He was also wrapping up a few hanging tasks.

Once those duties were done, we finished gathering our things and checked out. In all, The Art was just first-rate. We would absolutely stay there again.

After the valet returned the Crosstrek to us, we drove to a downtown Whole Foods to get fill up our coolers with fresh food. It was nice to have a soft-sided cooler for beverages (lots of kombucha) and a large hard-sided cooler for food. These little road-trip car camping niceties were unusual for us having never started from Chicago for a big trip like this before.

Whole Foods was out of ice, which was weird and alarming. Luckily, a nearby CVS had some. This lack-of-ice thing would become a motif on the trip, an odd little reminder of the far-reaching impacts of the pandemic, including global and regional supply chain shortages.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Then it was finally time for mountains. Instead of heading south from Denver to Colorado Springs, keeping the Front Range to our west, and then down around the bottom of the northern Sangre de Cristos, we instead went straight up into the mountains on I-70. The route was half an hour longer, but significantly more scenic.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

We left I-70 and climbed up CO-91 to Leadville, at 10,152 feet the highest city in the United States. We had taken this route on the recommendation of Patrick, who regularly vacations in Colorado, and John, who’d taken this route in 2018 to join us in Carlsbad.

From Leadville, where we’d gassed up, we descended south-southeast along the headwaters of the Arkansas River and the Arkansas River Valley.

Image: Sean M. Santos

In the Arkansas Valley, the Sawatch Range was to the west and the Mosquito Range to the east.

Image: Sean M. Santos

As we drove along, we finished up our audio book and then listened to more podcasts: The Experiment and The Memory Palace.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

We crossed Poncha Pass and dropped into the northern end of the expansive San Luis Valley. To the east was the dramatic wall of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Our destination was nestled near the southern end of this wall of mountains.

We were still many miles away when the tan blur of the sand dunes became visible against a low section of the Sangre de Cristos.

We followed the highway until we were fully south of the dunes, then turned onto a county road that led due east toward the range and the southern edge of the dune complex.

Low clouds moving swiftly across the valley threw the dunes into bright relief while the shrubby flats we were passing through were in shadow.

Up near the mountains, we turned left onto CO-150, which led to the Park entrance and our first National Park since Crater Lake. Park thirty-four. Finally.

Image: Sean M. Santos

In all, the drive was a scenic four hours and twenty minutes from downtown Denver.

Image: Sean M. Santos

We paid our admission at the entrance gate and drove slowly toward the campground. The views of the dunes and the mountains beyond were first-rate from the park road.

The view of the dunes from our campsite

We turned into the campground and found our site, number fifty-eight. To the west, the dunes loomed like some sort of Saharan fantasy beyond the juniper and piñon of the campground.

Image: Sean M. Santos

The most immediately striking thing about the campground was the kids. So often in the past, we’ve (purposefully) traveled to the National Parks in September, post Labor Day, when most kids are back in school. This trip, however, school was still largely out, and the campground was filled with families with children.

We dumped out some of our gear and put up our tent in order to make some room in the back of the Crosstrek for firewood. Then we drove to the campground store where we stocked up on a few bundles and a mess of rice krispie treats. Sean had had a hankering for them, and there weren’t any at the CVS in Denver or the gas station in Leadville.

We chatted a bit with Kimberly, the store’s proprietor. She lived just four miles from the Park entrance and talked up the great stargazing we were in for.

Back in camp, while the sun sank behind the dune field, we texted my folks to let them know we’d arrived safely. Then we poured some Prosecco, and Sean started a jolly fire.

Image: Sean M. Santos

For dinner, we grilled hot dogs and ate them with baby bel cheese and potato chips.

Mount Herard

We relaxed by the fire, reading and writing notes.

Eventually, Sean stood up and declared that he had done everything that he could do for that day.

I sat by the dying fire a bit longer before dousing it and climbing into the tent to join him. We both read for a while before sleep. He was reading Find Me, the sequel to Call Me By Your Name, for his book club. I reread some of the Park’s hike descriptions in the Falcon guide and the Park “black band” brochure before turning to Terry Tempest Williams and then to sleep.

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