Tag Archives: Camping

Dinosaur National Monument: Welcome to Jurassic Park

Camarasaurus

I have long wanted to visit Dinosaur National Monument.

The Monument, straddling the Colorado-Utah border, should be a National Park. By any conceivable metric, it more than deserves such a designation. At 210,844 acres, it is larger than thirty-one of the sixty-three Parks (larger than Shenandoah, Zion, Redwood, and Arches). Far more importantly, though, it contains three fundamental reasons for existing—any of which would warrant Park status—that make it important to history, science, and conservation. First, the Monument contains a world-important deposit of Jurassic-era dinosaurs: Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Allosaurus. Specimens from major museums across North America came from here. Second, the Monument protects important cultural sites, including many pictographs and petroglyphs made by the Fremont peoples one thousand years ago. And finally, there is the landscape itself. Here, the Green and Yampa Rivers cut through the eastern edge of the Uinta Mountains, creating a dramatic canyon country of more varied hues than the redrock landscapes of Arches and Canyonlands to the south.

When President Woodrow Wilson declared the establishment of Dinosaur National Monument in 1915, he only set aside the eighty acres comprising and surrounding the Dinosaur Quarry just north of Jensen, Utah. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who in 1938 expanded the Monument to its present size by protecting the Green and the Yampa in their entire courses through the Uinta Mountains. FDR’s designation was crucial nearly twenty years later as conservationists successfully fought a scheme to dam the rivers at their confluence at Echo Park. This historic win bookended the fight forty years earlier to save Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park from becoming a reservoir. In both debates, the American public was asked to grapple with the question, “What is the point of protecting a landscape as a National Park or Monument if it can be destroyed by dams or resource extraction?” While Yosemite lost, Dinosaur won. And the win at Echo Park would help to protect Grand Canyon National Park in the 1960s from a long-simmering scheme to dam the Colorado River within the National Park.

Perhaps it’s lingering resentment over Echo Park. It could be local resistance in Utah to public lands protection (even as the state campaigns for and receives millions in tourist dollars from visitors to its existing Parks). It could simply be its remoteness. Whatever the reason, Dinosaur has never been upgraded by Congress despite being for decades on short lists of NPS units most likely to become National Parks.

Congress notwithstanding, Sean and I chose to treat Dinosaur as an unofficial 64th Park, both in how we approached it in the trip and in how I am treating it here on the site.

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: Exploring the North Rim

The Narrows

Our friend Angela likes to say that Black Canyon of the Gunnison has the most metal name of any National Park. Seeing the chasm from the north rim, I’d argue that there’s a lot more that’s metal about Black Canyon than just its name. On Tuesday, August 31 (2021), Sean and I spent the bulk of the day driving around to the north rim to view its dizzying overlooks.

At one point looking down into the canyon on the north rim, even Sean was rattled and remarked, “The north rim is like someone who’s fun to hang out with, but you’re gonna get in trouble.”

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: Rock Stomp

Painted Wall (right)

Tuesday, August 31, the alarm clocks on our phones woke us a little after dawn. After dozing a bit longer, Sean and I climbed out of the tent to prepare for the day. “We have to go see Painted Rock,” Sean kept saying groggily. Indeed, we wanted to go and see the morning light on the Painted Wall—the highest cliff in Colorado—before going to the Ranger Walk at 9am. Then it would be off to the north rim for the rest of the day.

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: Warner Point Trail

Beyond the end of the road, Warner Point Trail leads to the highest point on Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s south rim. Named for minister Mark Warner, whose dogged advocacy led to the canyon’s protection as a National Monument in 1933, the trail is a short three quarters of a mile each way. As the afternoon of August 30 continued, we decided to hike out to see the view.

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: To a Great Gash in the Earth

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park protects 30,750 acres of western Colorado where the Gunnison River carves one of the most dramatic gorges on the continent. After lobbying by nearby residents, President Herbert Hoover declared it a National Monument just before he left office in 1933. Congress upgraded it to a National Park in 1999.

On the afternoon of Sunday, August 29, Black Canyon was our destination after our final morning and early afternoon at Mesa Verde National Park.

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Great Sand Dunes National Park: Relaxing in the San Luis Valley

Prairie Sunflower

The San Luis Valley is a high (average elevation 7,600 feet), huge (eight thousand square miles), and gorgeous portion of south central Colorado and northern Arizona. Sean and I had entered it from the north at Poncha Pass and driven through about a third of the valley to arrive at Great Sand Dunes National Park two days earlier. Now on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 25, we wanted to relax from our hiking by visiting a hot spring and exploring some of the valley.

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Great Sand Dunes National Park: Into the Dunes

Prairie Sunflowers in the dunefield

On Wednesday, August 25, the 105th birthday of the National Park Service, Sean and I ventured into the dunefield of Great Sand Dunes National Park. We’d gazed on it from varying distances for two days, but now it was time to experience it closely. On this second full day in the Park, we wanted to prioritize the dunes, but we also wanted to hike in them first thing while it was still cool and before the day heated up and made the experience less pleasant.

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Great Sand Dunes National Park: Mosca Pass Trail

On the afternoon of Tuesday, August 24, we continued exploring the parts of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve that were not actually the dunes proper. We’d decided to save them for the following morning, when temperatures would be cooler. We toyed with the idea of driving to a trailhead on the other (eastern) side of the Sangre de Cristo Range to hike to a couple of alpine lakes high in the range, but the drive was almost two and a half hours.

So instead we opted for Mosca Pass Trail, which leads from near the Visitor Center complex up into the Sangre de Cristos to a low pass between the San Luis Valley and the Wet Mountains Valley. The hike was 3.5 miles to the crest of the pass, then 3.5 miles back to the trailhead. The Falcon Guide rated it Easy. We figured it would be a nice end to a day of hiking around the foothills zone between the dunefield and the mountains.

We were wrong.

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Great Sand Dunes National Park: Between the Sand and the Slopes

Cathedral Peak and Escape Dunes Complex

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve protects 149,000 acres of dune field, transition zone, and a portion of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in south central Colorado. The Park and Preserve was authorized by Congress in the waning days of the Clinton administration in 2000 and established in 2004 under the Bush administration. The dunes proper had received earlier protection in the waning days of the Hoover administration in 1932 after local communities became alarmed that the dunes might be destroyed for industrial use for gold mining or concrete production.

That the tallest sand dunes in North America rise above the enormous, flat, high-elevation (above 7,000 feet) San Luis Valley in Colorado—and not in, say Death Valley, nor the Mojave, Sonoran, or Chihuahuan Deserts, places generally much sandier than the valley—is a unique circumstance of geography. The sand that comprises the dunes comes mainly from the San Juan Mountains dozens of miles to the west across the broad, flat valley. Sediment washed down from the mountains by snowmelt, rain, and the Rio Grande, whose headwaters are in the San Juans and which begins its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico by emerging into the San Luis Valley. Sandy sediment is deposited on the western side of the valley and then blown by the prevailing winds rushing down from the San Juans. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost range in the Rockies, run north-south for 242 miles, but the dunes formed only in a nook just north of Mount Blanca, the range’s highest peak and a sacred mountain to a number of Native American peoples. The dunes formed adjacent to a relatively low saddle in the range where three major ephemeral springs flow down into the valley. The streams, which secure the sand, are important for the stability of the dunes and for the hardy plant communities that grow from the extensive sand flats surrounding the dunes proper. But it is the storm winds rushing down from the low saddle in the Sangre de Cristos that balance the prevailing winds from the west, keeping the dunes themselves remarkably stable over years and decades.

Even with the uniqueness of the region’s wind and geography, the sheer amount of sand cannot be explained just by this process. More recent evidence suggests that the southern end of the San Luis Valley was once covered by a vast lake, remnants of which are visible as wetland complexes west and south of the dunes and a vast aquifer beneath the valley, which makes agriculture possible. It is the sand of this ancient lakebed that comprises the bulk of the dunes.

Tuesday, August 24, we’d spend exploring this singular place by getting to know the transition area between the dunes and the mountains.

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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.

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