The next morning, we had originally planned to get on the road to our first attraction at 6 AM but we decided to push back our departure time when we found out the complimentary breakfast at the hotel began at 6:30 AM. This decision would come back to bite us later in the day. The breakfast was not that impressive - just a few assorted cold items. By 7:15 AM we set out for a 3-hour drive to reach our first destination for the day - Great Sand Dunes National Park. Yes, Colorado actually has sand dunes! The drive to get there was mainly on a two-lane road, but the scenery was gorgeous. There were fields of wildflowers - overwhelmingly black-eyed Susans. There were always mountains looming in the background. I never got tired of looking at them. Traci was my DJ as we lost radio stations. She would find an R&B, Top 40, 80's, or oldies station to listen to until it faded away. The Top 40 and R&B stations all seemed to have the same rotation of songs. I will probably recognize the music of all the genres the next time I watch a music award show thanks to the variety of music we listened to during this trip.
We made a stop at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis shop/restaurant which is a short drive from the park. The Oasis is the perfect name for the place because there is nothing else around for miles. We stopped here to rent sandboards so that we could sled down the sand dunes. You cannot rent sandboards inside the park. Upon entering Great Sand Dunes National Park, we made a quick stop at the visitor center and then proceeded up the road to the parking lot that gives you access to the dunes. The dunes cover 30 square miles. Some are up to 750 feet high. It was incredible scenery unlike anything I had ever scene.
The Oasis rental shop/restaurant - only one for miles around
We had to prepare for our visit. We carried bottled water in our backpacks. We wore sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat. We wore our hiking boots because we did not want to get our regular sightseeing shoes sandy. In hindsight, we should have also brought towels and a change of clothes. Most important, you do not want to go barefoot. The sand can reach a temperature of 140° Fahrenheit.
We gave the sandboards a try on some of the smaller dunes. The trick is you have to use wax that the rental place gives you to wax the bottom of the board after every run. Otherwise, the board will not slide. However, when it does slide, hold on! You are in for a wild ride. The board goes where it wants and will sometimes have you sliding down the hill backwards. We had fun sliding down the dunes, but it was tiring climbing them. Every time you take a step, your foot slides backward in the soft sand.
I really underestimated the amount of time we would spend on the dunes. I was sure that Traci would be done with the park within two hours. However, her FOMO (fear of missing out) kicked in. She looked up at some of the tallest sand dunes and saw people up there who looked like dots from where we were. She then decided that she wanted to climb to that height. It took us over an hour to get way up there and it was tough going. The sun was intense. Also, being at an altitude greater than 8,100 feet, the air was thinner than what we are used to. My heart was going like a racehorse. We took plenty of breaks, but we eventually made it to the top. On the way up, I was worried about the mother of the family in front of us. She was having a hard time, but the husband and kids would not let her turn back. She made it to the top, but she looked worn out. Traci and I told her we had been routing for her the whole way up.
I slid a good part of the way down the dunes on the sandboard from our maximum height but eventually got tired of waxing the board after every run. Traci walked down. We were so filthy by the time we made it back to the parking lot. There was a ton of sand in our boots. I accidently left one of the pockets of my hiking pants unzipped and ended up with a pocket full of sand. Nevertheless, we had a great time. I was surprised to see that we had spent four hours in the park.
sliding down the dunes
lots of sand in our hiking boots
The extra time we spent at Great Sand Dunes National Park really threw off our planned itinerary. We had a 2.5-hour drive to get to our next destination which would get us there uncomfortably close to its closing time. We had planned to go to the Royal Gorge Bridge located near Cañon City (pronounced Canyon City). We decided to go for it. We even made a quick stop at a quirky roadside attraction called the UFO Watchtower. Supposedly, there are some types of colliding vortexes here that allow people to see UFOs. Apparently, there have been more than 200 UFO sighting from this place. People leave all types of items in the field surrounding the observation platform. It was a fun diversion.
We continued on the desert road where I saw several mirages. I thought I saw buildings in the distance, but they turned out to be trees. The heat rising from the road made distant oncoming vehicles look distorted as if they were traveling underwater. I was not used to these wide desert landscapes, but I was enjoying the experience. The road eventually led into the mountains and down into a canyon. This was my absolute favorite stretch of driving during our entire road trip. The road became very twisty and at times, the speed limit dropped to 10 mph. We were surrounded by high canyon walls that appeared red due to the angle of the sun. Next to the road was a flowing body of water. Sometimes it seemed like a stream. Other times it was like a raging river. There was road construction in progress, so traffic came to a standstill occasionally. During one of these stops, we turned off the radio, let the window down, and just listened to the sound of the rushing water. The cool, fresh air travelling through the canyon was the icing on the cake. It was an unforgettable moment.
We arrived at the Royal Gorge Bridge at 6:15 PM which was 45 minutes before closing. We were given an end-of-the-day discount which allowed us to walk across the bridge for $21/person.
The Royal Gorge Bridge used to be a railroad bridge. Although, trains no longer travel across it, the bridge remains and holds the distinction of being the highest suspension bridge in the U.S. Today the Royal Gorge Bridge is a tourist attraction around which there is a small amusement park. There is a carousel, eateries, a bandstand, a theater, etc... There are other offerings for which there is an extra charge such as the aerial gondola (cable cars), ziplining, the Skycoaster, and rock climbing. The bridge is about a quarter of a mile long. The views into the gorge are amazing. It reminded me of a smaller version of the Grand Canyon. The setting sun made the view even more spectacular with the reddish-purple hues of the cliffs. We even saw someone rafting the turbulent Arkansas River far below the bridge.
Our walk across the bridge was fun. The flag of each state in the U.S. is posted along the bridge. We enjoyed looking for our home states. The bridge got a little bouncy at times as the tram crossed. There are several paved walking paths in the park. The tram is a convenient way of navigating some of the steep inclines. The friendly tram driver invited us to hop on, but we declined because Traci was determined to get as many steps as she could on her pedometer.
Being so close to closing time on a weekday, the park was pretty much empty. Even though closing time was at 7 PM, we were told that we did not have to leave until 7:30 PM. As we explored the park, we were starting to regret not paying extra for the aerial gondola ride across the gorge. It looked like such an amazing (even a little scary) way to enjoy the views. We heard the gondola operator telling a couple that he was sending the gondola across one more time before shutting it down for the day.
As Traci and I continued to explore the area, we heard the voice of the gondola operator again almost halfway across the park. This time, he sounded much more indignant as he said something to the effect of "Listen! I am sending this thing across one more time. Either you can get on or you can walk but at 7 o'clock, I'm going home!"
gondolas crossing the gorge
Well, okey dokey then. I don't know what the couple decided to do. As for Traci and me, we continued to explore the empty park. With most of the people gone, the wildlife began to roam. I got a little nervous when a herd of bighorn sheep began grazing near the path we needed to use. The horns of the rams were not fully grown and curled at this time of the year, but they still looked like they could do damage. I did not know if these animals were docile or aggressive. They did not move as we approached. They just gave us the staredown. Fortunately, we were able to slowly walk down the path without being attacked. Speaking of being attacked, I had to tell Traci that I would wait for her in the car. There were these gnat-like insects that swarmed me any time I stopped walking. They tended to go right for my ears. They nearly drove me crazy.
Oh no! Are these creatures going to let us pass?
From the Royal Gorge Bridge, we had a 1.5-hour drive to get back to our hotel in Colorado Springs. Along the way, Traci unsuccessfully tried to return her damaged merchandise to a different Walmart. Once again, there was no one to work the customer service desk.
It had been a long day full of activities. We were so busy that we never got around to eating anything since breakfast. It was now after 9 PM. We felt so hungry and grimy. We ended up eating at an Outback restaurant. We had been trying to avoid chain restaurants while on vacation, but Outback was close to the hotel and they closed at 10 PM. Continue...