After my trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park in August of 2011, I was left with a challenge: return to the area and finish the hike to South Zapata Lake. I had my chance in September of 2012. But instead of just heading up there, hiking up to the lake, and heading home, I decided to take a full week and make it a southwest adventure. My final trip used Great Sand Dunes as a basecamp for the South Zapata Lake trip, followed by a couple of nights at Mesa Verde National Park and a quick trip to Monument Valley.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Los Alamos » US285 » Alamosa » US160 » CO150 » Great Sand Dunes
- Day 1 - My adventure started with a drive up to Great Sand Dunes. Since I took the scenic route last year, I decided to take the more direct route this time and got to the park a little earlier in the day. After getting my tent set up, I had time to pop out and see Zapata Falls again. This time I was better prepared with sandles, so I just trudged through the (cold) creek to the falls while others clung to the slippery rock on the banks. It was a lot easier going through the creek.
- Day 2 - The following day was the big day: the hike to South Zapata Lake. I wimped out on it last year partly because of the weather, but mostly because it quickly became obvious that that wasn't the day for me to make a 10-mile round trip hike with an elevation change of 2900 feet. But this time I blocked out the whole day just for this hike, and I went for it.
The trail starts out at an elevation of around 9000 feet, and it only goes up from there. I quickly passed the spot where I turned around last year, but as I continued to climb my pace kept getting slower. I hiked past log cabin ruins, crossed creeks, picked my way across scree fields, and made my way over and under deadfall, going up, down, and up again toward my goal. Eventually I broke out of the tree line at around 11,600 feet and finished the last 1/2 mile or so crossing a nice alpine meadow. Finally I made it to the tiny lake itself, surrounded by bare granite cliffs on all sides. I spent 45 minutes or so up there in the solitude before heading back down to the trail head. In all I spent a good seven or so hours on the trip, making for a good way to spend the day.
Mesa Verde National Park
Great Sand Dunes » CO150 » US160 » The width of Colorado » Mesa Verde
- Day 3 - The next day I got up, packed up my campsite, and headed to Mesa Verde for a couple of days. This was kind of exciting for a boring trivia reason: after completing the drive between Alamosa and Pagosa Springs, I covered the last stretch of US160 through Colorado that I had never been on. Not that one of my life goals had been "drive the entire length of US160 through Colorado", but had it been, I would be done now.
I got to Mesa Verde early in the afternoon, so after getting my tent set up I had some time to go exploring before the sun went down. If you have never been to Mesa Verde, know this: it is a huge park. It takes about 30 minutes to drive from the camping area to the most interesting ruins, so be sure to budget some time in for driving. As I headed toward the ruins, I stopped at lots of overlooks, which ended up being a perfect way to spend the afternoon. Eventually I got down to where I could see Square Tower House, as well as some more minor ruins. By that time the sun was getting pretty low on the horizon, so I headed back to camp to cook up some dinner before it was completely dark.
- Day 4 - As long as I was this far west, I figured I should swing by Monument Valley as part of my trip. I decided to do that on day four, heading out in the morning and arriving in the valley at around 11:00. The monuments themselves are pretty awesome, but the unpaved road on the floor of the park is pretty terrible. If you go, I recommend taking somebody else's car.
I headed back down to the ruins after getting back to Mesa Verde to catch some of the ones I missed the first time, and on the way back to camp I got an unexpected sight: a bear crossing the road in front of me. I'm happy he was out there in the middle of the park instead of wandering around my campsite.
- Day 5 - The last day of the trip was mostly spent heading home, but before that I went on one of the up-close-and-personal tours of Cliff Palace. I remember this ruin being featured in my social studies book when I was in grade school, and at the time I thought of it as some mythical place that only existed in pictures. That made it pretty awesome to see in person instead.
On the way back to Los Alamos, I decided to be creative and take New Mexico State Highway 126 between Cuba and La Cueva. Let me make a recommendation to you: when you see signs that say "Road impassible in winter and inclement weather", believe them. Everything was fine for me, but it turns out the "highway" includes 20 miles of steep, windy, unpaved road