You bet! And they are spectacular.
Funny how maps only show you so much – depending on how closely you look. The trip from Crawford down to Great Sand Dunes NP looked as though our trickiest part was going to be the drive to Gunnison. How wrong we were. We did opt to take the route up and around to the west, going through Delta and Montrose down to Gunnison, reasoning that the easterly route we had traveled the day before was just too mountainous, curvy, icy … all of that, and the westerly route was not closed for construction on the weekend, and this was Sunday.
That was a smart move, since it was pretty much the same time and a much easier drive. The narrow pass where the rock sides of the road were being blasted back to widen the passage was tricky but not a problem. So as we drove alongside the beautiful, if low, Blue Mesa reservoir we were thinking we were finally out of the mountains and into smooth valley roads. That was until we were to pass over the Rocky Mountains and the continental divide toward Poncha Springs. We passed a tire chain spot and wondered about that, and then a sign announced the Monarch Pass Summit was 10 miles ahead. Yep, 10 miles of unrelenting 6 – 8% uphill grade. It was a slow go and as the engine temperature started to climb I pulled over to a nice paved pullout. We decided to have lunch while the very hot engine cooled down. Kinda thought it would be good to disconnect the Jeep if we were level enough, so back we went to pull the pins and disconnect. The last pin gave us some trouble, but we cheered when we finally pulled it out. And, hey, the Jeep is rolling backward … I quickly grabbed the bumper and dug in, Jackie ran around to jump in and mash the brakes and pulled the emergency brake up one more good click (it HAD been on) and we saved the Jeep from rolling off the hillside. Yeah, that woulda been fun.
So Jackie drove behind me as we slowly made our way up – this was an elevation change of 6,000 ft from where we started. At the top we paused once again at almost 12,000 ft, surrounded by spruce and alpine hillsides. Then down we went, shifting into low gear, heater blasting to peel off some of the heat load. With our 2-way radios Jackie said she would just keep driving the rest of the way and we figured we were home free until the road started climbing again with “Poncha Summit 7 miles” sign staring at us and another 6% climb. But without the Jeep attached the motorhome did not overheat and we made it back down the other side. Then the road became the straightest, flattest, most boring road ever through the valley. A couple of turns and we were at the park, headed for our campsite in Pinyon Flats campground. Pinyon trees, yes, flat, no. Tight spots, yes. Backed in like an expert – yes.
What a view! Across from our site was a mountain of tan sand dunes, hundreds of feet high. Shadows played across the dunes and it just seemed so out of place. The prevailing winds from the west long ago blew the sand from the ancient dry flat lake bottom across to the base of the Sangre De Cristo mountains, where lighter winds from the east blew it back into dunes. Awesome.
We were set for the night, this being a dry site we had plenty of water and were prepared for no electricity. We earlier figured out how to power Jackie’s BiPap machine from the house batteries and we were using the propane heater. If needed, we could fire up the generator to make coffee and charge the devices.
Overnight was not as cold, only got to 34 degrees, and by 9 or so we were out starting our hike to the dunes. We were layered up, hats and gloves, had water and walking sticks and were going to do our best to climb that sand. Yep. Going up, trying to stay on the ridgeline, no real path to follow, soft sand making for slow going. Many “catch your breath spots” as we are at about 8,500 ft and even tying your shoes gets you winded. We set a goal of a dune crest that was more than halfway up and figured that would be enough. I think the summit is about an 800 ft climb. Since we didn’t have sandboards to slide down, we just slid/stepped our way back down the sandhill. Loads of fun going down. And at the bottom we emptied out about a cup of sand from our shoes and socks. At least I did.
Check out a video of the hike here: Great Sand Dunes Hike
After lunch we hopped in the Jeep to drive back to Visitor’s Center and then to try a 4WD roadway that went up the mountain slope. They caution you to use 4L and to drive quickly across the soft sand, and lucky for us no one else was on the track. It was fun as you drove through tight turns banked up the sides and then across pretty deep sandy stretches. We turned around at the aptly named “Point of No Return” and did it all again. Had we been serious about going further we would have had to deflate the tires a bit, but with no compressor to refill them, not gonna happen. On the way back we finally saw a couple of Mule Deer bucks on the roadside, and despite ALL the whitetail deer we see at home, it was still cool.
Tomorrow we start the journey back home and plans are a little fuzzy. We called in a reservation at a campground in Lamar, Colorado for tomorrow night and are trying to figure whether to drop down to Oklahoma or keep heading east to Wichita, Kansas. I think we want to eventually drop down to Memphis rather than across to St. Louis, but we shall see.
Thanks for sticking with our western adventure. I know I can get a little wordy sometimes, but if you ever consider doing the sort of travel we do, you ought to know what to expect – great and not-so-great.
And I have to think that Mom and Dad are looking down on us and helping smooth the way for our adventures – they loved camping, travel and the outdoors so much I am sure they are with us on this adventure.