– Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado to Gunnison, Colorado –

Our alarm was set for 6am this morning, but we were awake at 5. The alarm may tell you one thing, but the sunlight tells you something else entirely. Ripley and I in particular were wide awake, though Mark was able to keep dozing a bit.

We still didn’t get out of bed until 6, and then we did so cautiously, worried about the mosquitoes. It was warmer last night than I expected it to be. It never went below 60, I think, though there was a bit of a bite in the air this morning. We crawled out of our tent in our running gear, determined to get our exercise, even though it looked like we had to run on the road.

Toting the princess across the cold water

In the end, we parked at the dunes parking lot and ran around inside the park on the main road. The altitude was a bit much for us, though Ripley and I didn’t mind as much as Mark did. Still, everyone survived, once they caught their wind.

With our run finished, we planned to hike a bit out into the dunes, since it was still early morning and cool enough for Ripley to walk on the sand without boots. Apparently later in the day it is quite hot.

Ripley frog-hopping in the sand like a weirdo

We shed our running shoes and switched to Crocs for the trek across the water and sand. We weren’t 100% sure it was the right call, and I’m still not sure now. On the one hand, you have to get your feet wet, so you need shoes you can get wet or take off easily. On the other hand, the sand is rocky in places and deep, and real shoes might’ve been nice.

Do you know how this place even got to be here? I didn’t exactly, before a bit of reading. It turns out that most of the sand came from the Rio Grande and its tributaries, when they ran through the San Luis Valley. They’ve since dried up, and the loose silt blew over to this area just on this side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Wikipedia can do a much better job explaining it than I can here.

My pretty baby, posing

It’s much farther out to the sand dunes than it seems from the parking lot. It’s a bit of an optical illusion. We started, of course, with crossing the little river, which is quite shallow but feels like ice. The water is so cold that after crossing, we were actually in pain. That’s right- so cold it hurts. And kids were playing in it yesterday. I mean, it was early morning, so the air was cooler, but still…

Mark carried Ripley across, so she didn’t get to experience the chill. I think she probably would’ve crossed on her own, given the opportunity, but perhaps not. This way, though, we spared her the cold, and we didn’t get her wet. Then she would’ve been absolutely covered in sand, considering the ridiculous way she rolled around and frog-hopped through it. We couldn’t go 10 feet without her pouncing on an imaginary bug or collapsing in the sand for a roll. She loved it. Thankfully, she wasn’t wet, so most of the sand shook right out when she stood back up.

Mark made Ripley and I clamber up this big dune for this picture

In Great Sand Dunes, people rent surf boards and sleds and other things like that to slide down the dunes. We didn’t really see any people doing it, but we saw several people carrying gear, and it was pretty empty before 8am in the morning. We only saw about 12 cars in the parking lot with us when we started.

Since the sun still wasn’t high in the sky, the walk was pleasant and mostly cool (it was around 60 or so degrees, I think). We climbed the first big dune we came to until we could see down into its little valley below. It’s neat, and I bet it would’ve been even better if we’d had time to go a little further, over the next hill. I’ve never been surrounded by sand dunes before.

Breakfast/Lunch spot

Ripley and I did climb another dune nearby, since Mark wanted a few pictures of us up there. It can be hard to climb it, with the sand shifting under your feet. It did make it fun to come down though, since you can sort of slide down step by step on just your feet. Ripley liked it, too. She really had a lot of fun out on the sand.

After we finished on the dunes, we drove back to camp and quickly packed up our stuff and showered. We were out of the park by about 10am and on our way north toward Marshall Pass.

Surprisingly good Oui yogurt by Yoplait.

We stopped in Poncha Springs for lunch. They didn’t have much in the way of options, but we were ravenous since we had basically skipped breakfast in the camp-packing confusion. We got sandwiches from a small local gas station that had a deli. The sandwiches themselves were fine, but the bread was divine. I wonder if it comes from a bakery in town.

Lunch also included some chips and yogurts from our cooler. Anyone that’s followed this blog for too long probably knows I’m a yogurt-fiend, and we came across these little darlings in Safeway yesterday. They are French-style yogurt, done by Yoplait. I normally hate Yoplait (too much added sugar and too little protein), but these were too cool to pass up. We’ve actually been seeing French yogurt a lot more in our local Central Market, so I wasn’t too surprised to see them. It always seems to come in a glass container and is sort of runny, with fruit or flavoring on the bottom. It’s got a bit more sugar and a bit less protein than I’d like, and those two things are especially true when you compare it to Icelandic yogurt, which is my favorite. Still, if you see one in your local grocery store, I say give it a try. They were nice.

The ice cream bowl on the way up Marshall Pass

With my yogurt review (haha) complete, we can get back to the story at hand. Marshall Pass is is one of two passes through the Rocky Mountains in the area, with the other being Monarch Pass, which is the one that Highway 50 runs through. Marshall Pass is almost (but not entirely) dirt and gravel, and tops out at 10,842 feet.

The story on the signs along the way told us that William Marshall created the pass when in desperate need to visit a dentist in Denver, but the Wikipedia article doesn’t repeat that little factoid, so I’m not sure it is true. If true, it’s kind of a funny reason to try to build a road over the mountains. Surely it would’ve been quicker to simply take the long way around. Building roads is a lot of work in the mountains.

Mark’s favorite things posing for a photo: Kristy, Ripley, and the Tacoma

The road is mostly wide and smooth, though it does have a few rougher areas, and areas with a steep grade. I didn’t see that they recommend it for only 4×4 vehicles, and in fact we did see a car or two, but the high clearance was still nice to have.

We stopped for a few photographs along the way, with Ripley and I hamming it up for the camera. Some of the cliffs were a little steep for my taste, so Mark occasionally had trouble getting me out of the truck when he wanted to go take pictures close to the ledge. I’m not a fan of any sort of drop-off, thank you very much.

These mountain goats are obsessed with salt in the road

As we came around a corner near the top of the pass, we saw a bunch of animals in the road in the distance. At first I thought they were some kind of goat, but then I thought maybe they were mule deer. Whatever they were, they didn’t run away when they first saw the truck, so we stopped and took a few distant photos of them.

We crept closer, sort of holding our breath, hoping to get better photos. As we did, two things became clear: they were definitely goat-like, and they weren’t afraid of us at all. In the end, we drove up and parked practically on top of them to take some photos.

The road on the way to the top of Marshall Pass

Mark angled the truck in beside them, and we took our time taking pictures while these critters, which we had decided were goats, were trying to eat salt out of holes in the road. It was the weirdest and most hilarious thing I’ve seen in a while. They were way too into their salt consumption to even care about Ripley whining at them, or the truck parked by them.

You can see in the picture that one of them is really going to town in a hole way down in the road. I guess it must’ve been good. ┬áIn looking them up for this blog post, I’ve discovered, however, that they are likely Bighorn Sheep and not Mountain Goats, which I had originally assumed them to be. If I’m right and they are sheep, they must all be female, because males have huge, curving horns. I would assume that, in particular, they are Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. I can’t swear to it though. I’m not exactly an expert in sheep identification.

Finally at the crest

Regardless of what they were, they were not interested in abandoning their hunt for salt, and Mark had to honk and pull forward more than once so we could pass them on the road. They ran back out as soon as we drove past. I’m pretty sure they were offended that we were bothering them on their road.

From there, it wasn’t too long to the top, where we stopped for some photos and a look around. It wasn’t a particularly spectacular view, but the drive up was fun, and the drive down turned out to be almost as enjoyable.

Looking down on Gunnison from Hartman Rocks

From there, we took 50 over to Gunnison, where we were planning to stay the night. It was only mid-afternoon when we arrived, but we spent a little time unpacking our stuff and taking it into our hotel room before we headed across town to go check out the Hartman Rocks.

Hartman Rocks is a mountainous area just outside of Gunnison where people go to hike, dirt bike, mountain bike, drive 4×4 roads, and ride horses, to name a few. It’s mostly made up of a series of rocky outcroppings and dusty red roads. We drove to the top to look around, slipping up the hill a bit until we turned on our 4-wheel drive.

Sketchy 4×4 road down from the Hartman Rocks

We took our photos at the top then picked a different route down, not entirely realizing that it wasn’t really a road, but a jeep trail. We made it out easily, but I have to admit that I was a little nervous. I think that’s the first time we’ve had our new Tacoma in 4-wheel drive for any great length of time. It goes without saying that Mark had a blast.

The roads weren’t terrible, but they were occasionally hilly and steep, which I suppose is fun when you are on a dirt bike or something like it. I guess now that we have a 4×4, I’m going to have to get used to the milder jeep trails like this. I think Mark wants to keep taking them.

Pizza, pizza

We were back in out hotel for an early evening around 5pm, and we ordered a pizza and brought it back for our dinner. It was good, but not great. Pie-Zan’s, if you’re curious. Mark didn’t like the crust too much, and I wasn’t a fan of the floppy New-York style of it. I like a little stiffer crust, thank you.

Tomorrow we will do both sides of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We have been once before, but we didn’t spend a lot of time with it, so it will be nice to see the North Rim for the first time, and take a little more time to enjoy the South Rim.

– Trip Total : 930 miles

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