Fall Break 2020, Part two – Colorado

After a few days stomping around a few of the parks in eastern Utah, we crossed back into Colorado to see a couple of the closer-to-home attractions that we just hadn’t found time for. The first stop was Black Canyon of the Gunnison, followed by Great Sand Dunes. These two parks make the 8th and 9th national parks we’ve visited this year. We figure that’s not too bad for a family with school-aged kids!

Day 5 – Black Canyon of the Gunnison

We spent Wednesday night at a hotel in Montrose, CO to be close to the entrance to the park, and headed over first thing in the morning. It was much cooler here than at the lower elevations in Utah, but still a very pleasant day. We started with a bit of orientation, driving along the south rim and visiting a few of the overlooks into the canyon. It really is quite impressive. My photography skills simply don’t do it justice given the significant differences in lighting from sunlight to shadow in such a deep, narrow gorge.

We hiked on the short Warner Point Nature Trail at the far end of the road to a nice viewpoint looking back east into the canyon. After a quick stop for another picnic lunch at Sunset Point (yes, every park must have one), we drove back to the visitor center to hike the Oak Flat Trail, which took us down into the canyon about 400 feet.

Since this was our fourth consecutive hiking day, the boys had had about enough at this point, so we decided to go easy. We drove down into the canyon on East Portal Road (about a 2000′ descent) to check out the Gunnison River and Crystal Dam. The road itself is a trip. It’s about 5 miles of 16% grade. The guy behind us rode his brakes the hole way down. We could smell them burning up from our car!

After the climb back up to the canyon rim, it was time to head into Gunnison for dinner and get ready for the next adventure.

Day 6 – Great Sand Dunes

Friday was our last day of the trip. We were all getting pretty tired, both from the physical exhaustion of numerous hikes and car rides, as well as of trying to dine safely under COVID restrictions. We left Gunnison early to head for the Great Sand Dunes. We’ve been trying to make it to this park for a few years, but something would always get in the way. Not this time!

We first hiked out into the dune field from the main parking area. Once again, the place was surprisingly packed for an October week day. Fortunately, we found a parking spot in the lot and grabbed another picnic lunch before heading into the sand, a roughly half mile hike through soft sand before reaching the first line of dunes.

Since this was at the back end of a week long road trip, we did not bother dragging our sleds with us as we had originally planned. It was lucky we didn’t, because we learned once we got there that the plastic sleds don’t work in the sand (despite rumors to the contrary). We came across a woman walking out with a rented wooden sled. She was kind enough to let the boys take a few rides down the slope. As you can see in the pictures, they had a great time!

We walked a bit up one of the dunes, though not to the top. We were all ready for an easier day. We just did one more short hike around a nature trail for a “non-dune” aspect to the park, and drove up the 4WD road to the “point of no return”, where you have to air down your tires to drive out onto the sand.

That does it for our 2020 Fall Break. We’re glad to be back home, but we’re already starting to consider what Spring Break might look like!

Fall Break 2020, Part One – Utah

With the COVID battle still rumbling across the country, we extended our streak of national park visits for fall break this year on another driving tour through Utah and Colorado. We started the trip in Capitol Reef, the only remaining park of the Utah “mighty 5” that we hadn’t yet visited. It’s fair to say it isn’t for everyone, but it definitely has some unique character.

Days 1 & 2: Capitol Reef

We did a quick pass through the northern part of the park on our drive out to Utah. Our first stop was at Sunset Point on the western edge of the park, right around – you guessed it – sunset. This of course drew a relatively large crowd of on-lookers. We didn’t get to witness a fabulous sunset, but the scenery did light up in some nice red tones. We also visited the nearby “Goosenecks Overlook”, where there are some dramatic bends in the Fremont River.

The next day, we were back for some deeper exploration with some hikes through the park. Our first adventure was to hike the length of the “Great Wash”, which is a dry river bed winding through a fairly narrow canyon. It was about 4.5 miles out and back, but was an easy flat hike. We followed that up with a hike to the Hickman Natural Bridge, a sandstone arch reminiscent of those in Arches national park. Then it was time for a quick jaunt over to Moab, where we spent the next few nights probing deeper into the two local parks we had visited a couple of years ago.

Day 3: Canyonlands

Monday we went into the Islands in the Sky district of Canyonlands. Incredibly, for a Monday in the middle of October, we had to wait in line for an hour at the ranger station to get into the park. The ranger told us they were expecting this to be the busiest October on record!

Luckily, we made it in and headed for some less crowded areas of the park since we had already seen the “headliners” on our previous trip. The first order of business was a picnic lunch. We chose to hike the Aztec Butte trail, where we found an awesome shady spot in an alcove near some Puebloan granaries with fantastic views out over the canyon. We continued up the trail to a steep climb up the Aztec Butte itself. Alex declared it his favorite hike ever, primarily because it involved scrambling up several steep sections of slick rock. Alex loves bouldering, and his version of “rock climbing”, so this fit perfectly.

That left us with just enough time to attempt the Neck Spring trail, which drops a few hundred feet into the north side of the canyon and follows the canyon wall to what were supposed to be a couple of springs and an old cowboy camp. The springs have apparently dried up, but the hike was still an excellent way to get deeper into this park. We’re starting to appreciate it more and more.

Days 4 & 5: Corona Arch and Arches National Park

Once again, we directly experienced just how busy this area is during October, and apparently especially so during a COVID October. On Tuesday morning, we thought we would go to Arches. When we arrived at 9:30, the park was already full, and the rangers were turning traffic away at the entrance. The only guidance was “try again in 3 hours”.

We decided to try the Corona Arch hike. Hey, it’s 2020 – the year of COVID. What could be more fitting then a hike to the Corona Arch? Luckily, the real crowds hadn’t yet tumbled to that option. We were able to find parking and made the 1.7 mile hike up the hill, including scrambling up slickrock with cables and ladders. The arch was well worth the hike. It’s a beautiful scene, and hard to believe it isn’t part of the national parks.

It was a little after noon when we got back to the car. We went to try Arches. Again, no dice. This time, the entrance road was full of cars pulled over to wait for the park to open. Discouraged, but not giving up, we went back into town to have a picnic lunch at the park, and ran to the grocery to load up on supplies for the next day. We tried Arches one more time at about 3:00, and were finally allowed to enter!

We headed to the far end of the park to hike through the Devil’s Garden – an area we did not get to explore on our first trip here two years ago. The trail was busy, but manageable. We hiked past numerous arches, as far back as the “Double O” Arch before turning back toward the trailhead near twilight. This trail was a lot of fun, requiring scrambling up gaps between rock walls and hiking along the narrow spine of one of the ridges. The scenery was truly stunning as the sun set. On the way out of the park, we hung out near Balanced Rock to see if we could see the Milky Way.

To make sure we didn’t get shut out again on Wednesday, we woke up early and pushed the boys out of the hotel before 7:30. Bingo! We did a morning hike along “Park Avenue”, then headed over to the “Windows” section of the park, where the boys scrambled up to the Double Arch, South Window, and Turret Arch. Then we drove along the Salt Valley Road to the Tower Arch trail, a 3.5 mile out-and-back with lots of up and downs, including some grueling sections hiking up soft sand trails. As they say, it was worth the effort. (52-90)

That wrapped up the Utah portion of our trip. We headed back on the highway to Montrose, CO to set up the next portion. Tune in this weekend to read about our visits to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Great Sand Dunes.

Half Moon Creek Backpack

With summer in full swing, it was time to strap on the backpacks. We chose the Mount Massive Wilderness near Leadville, partly for the destination of a high alpine lake, and partly because we haven’t camped in this area yet.

The drive in was a bit hair raising at times. We hadn’t planned on it, but the road to the trailhead put our car through one of it’s biggest tests yet. The machine pulled through with flying colors, even making a couple of people on ATVs pause to watch us climb a particularly treacherous spot.

The hike up Half Moon Creek

The hike was only 2.5 miles, but unfortunately we got off to a late start. We didn’t make it to the trail head until almost 5:00. This being our first backpack of the summer, and having a fairly steady climb up the valley, we ran out of daylight to make it to the lake. We set up camp about half a mile down the hill, in a pretty spot tucked into the trees.

The view from Half Moon Lake

Fire bans are in effect across most of the state, so no camp fire on this trip. The weather was chilly after the sun went down, but still pleasant for a high country camp. We had our standard freeze dried dinner, complete with a dessert (cinnamon apple crisp!) and some cheese and crackers. Then settled in for the night.

In the morning, we hiked up to the lower lake, which is set in a gorgeous alpine cirque tucked up against the west side of Mount Massive. We spent some time cooling off in the lake, before heading back to camp for lunch. After that, it was time to pack up and head back down the mountain.

Grand Tetons

After a few days in Yellowstone, we headed south to the Grand Tetons. The summer crowds were really starting to pick-up, but we found a few reasonably quiet places. We hiked up to Taggart and Bradley Lakes, which were both beautiful alpine lakes nestled up against the Teton peaks. We took some time to wade around in the cold mountain water, and just take in the scenery.

The next day, we were up a little earlier to beat the crowds to the trail systems around Jenny Lake, one of the hot spots in the park. We hiked around the lake to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. Lara and I had seen both of these spots 12 years ago when we first came to the park, and wanted to show the boys.

I continued my early morning photography hunt, again plagiarizing some of the most common photos from the park. I started with the Moulton Barn, also know as the most photographed barn in the world. I also made my best attempt to replicate Ansel Adams’ photograph of the Tetons with the Snake River flowing through the foreground. Next time, maybe I’ll come up with some original ideas!

A story about building a family