John's Birthday and Trip to Great Sand Dunes NP

Happy birthday to my hubby!  His birthday was this past Friday and to celebrate, we decided to take a weekend camping trip to a National Park.  In fact, it might just become a family tradition of ours to visit a different National Park every year for John's birthday.  Honestly if you would have asked us Thursday morning where we were going we would have said, "hmmm... I don't know yet."  One of John's gifts was a Jeep trails in Colorado book so I decided to let him open his gifts early!

On Thursday night he opened up his new book, some little treats to eat and his new camping stove!  After going through the book trying to decide on a good trail, we choose Great Sand Dunes National Park.  It is about 3 hours south of Denver and because we were going to be gone all weekend we decided to take the Durango instead of the Jeep.  But that wasn't going to stop us from off road-ing!  I had no idea my mommy vehicle could do what it did this weekend!

We stayed up until well past 1 am packing.   Suddenly I had a new appreciation for the camping trips my family took as a kid.  I had no idea the kind of work that must have been involved while I peacefully slept in my bed back then!  After a short nights sleep we rose with the kids at around 7:00 am and headed out.  Our first stop - donuts!  Aaron had planned on this for at least a week, talking everyday about how he was going to get daddy donuts for his birthday.  Aaron, like his daddy, LOVES donuts but mommy rarely lets him get them.  So when I asked him what we should do for daddy's birthday he told me, "lets go get donuts!"  But John didn't want just any doughnut shop.  We went to LaMar's in good Kansas City roots fashion.

The drive was long.  But exciting as I had never been south through Castle Rock, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo.  We turned off on a small highway and made our way toward the Sangre De Cristo range.  Our off road adventure to our camp site took about 30 minutes through beautiful forest with breath taking views.  We found a great site and went to work setting everything up, hoping to beat the rain.  To our delight, the sun actually came out and once the site was up we had plenty of time to explore.

We set out on Medano Pass.  It is an old rugged road that has been there since the 1800's and has largely been left alone with the exception of a few signs so it was as if we had traveled in time and could picture the landscape over a century ago.  There were beautiful wildflowers all along the path and though we never saw any bears (to which we were a little disappointed) there were plenty of birds, rabbits, chipmunks, and deer to watch for.  One area of the pass had been burnt by a wildfire back in 2009.  It was amazing to see the forest rebuilding itself, little aspens growing all over the forest floor beneath the tall charred trunks of their predecessors.    I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of bugs for the most part.  They were there, but they mostly left us alone.  (We did arm ourselves with bug spray before we set off.)

We had no idea what to expect of the Sand Dunes.  The one picture we had in the trail book looked like a pretty good sized dune but it did not prepare us for the awe inspiring moment when we first saw them on the horizon just beyond the forest.  It was as if the forest suddenly stopped and from out of no where there was a desert with nothing but sand.  MOUNTAINS of sand.  Not just little hills you could ATV on.  These were giant mountains of 100% sand just sitting in the middle of Colorado.  Crazy!  As we got closer they seemed to stretch on and on but it was peculiar because the mountains served as a backdrop.  You could see the Dunes on one side, and the mountains on the other.  It was incredible.  The boys were so excited.  Aaron asked "can we play in it mom?"  OF COURSE!  God makes some pretty amazing playgrounds.

Armed with buckets and shovels we parked and headed to the creek that sits at the base of the dunes.  The sand was soft and warm and the water was cool.  We climbed a bit but only got a fraction of the way up as the clouds were closing in and it began to thunder.  There was a sign warning visitors of the dangers of lightening on the Dunes and to leave immediately as weather changes quickly.  So we had to say goodbye to the Dunes for the day and head back to camp.


We got dinner almost cooked before it started raining.  "Camp Cafe" as we affectionately called it served dinner up under a tarp.  It quit raining long enough to get a small fire going but by that time the kids were ready to crawl into bed.  It was pretty good day and there was tons left to explore in the morning.

On Saturday we woke to clear skies and sunshine.  After eggs, sausage, fruit, and coffee, we loaded up again and headed for the Dunes.  The temperature was chilly the whole time we were there, lingering in the 50's-60's except on the Dunes.  Actually it was quite refreshing.  The Dunes were bright and gleaming in the morning sun - and HOT.  Really hot.  Sand temperatures can reach 150 degrees mid day in the summer.  Luckily we were there somewhat in the morning so we could still play on it but climbing was very difficult because we could only go about 10 feet up before having to stop and rest and cool off our feet.  We managed to get up about a third of the way to the top where it leveled off into a nice flat area.  Poor Ethan decided to take his little shoes off and just stood there in horror as his feet fried.  I ran to get him and picked him up and I'm pretty sure my big toe had a blister from the heat when we got down.  If you sat on your rear it wasn't so bad.  We had fun getting down!  We explored the creek at the base and after a bit headed back to the car to get our lunches and found a picnic table.

Off to go exploring again.  We headed to the visitor center where we learned all about how the Dunes were formed.  Basically there was a volcano that erupted (a VERY long time ago) which moved the earth's plates creating the Sangre De Cristo Mountains and expanding the valley.  The lava melted the glaciers and a large lake was formed.  Over time the lake dried up and the winds pushed the sand against the range.  They are the largest and tallest Dunes in North America.  We picked up a cool National Parks Passport where you can stamp in each time you visit a park.  We are excited to start filling it up.

Next stop, Zapata Falls.  Just south of the park was a waterfall that we read about that is in a cave.  I was excited to see this!  We took the half mile uphill hike to the falls base and from there you actually have to hike in the creek to see the waterfall.  Many people make it up to the creek but never saw the waterfall.  I cannot imagine getting there and not going in the cave to see it.  But the water was frigid.  Like, make your feet burn it's so cold frigid!  Good then I was carrying Ethan on my back!  Aaron got to ride on daddy's back piggy-back style.  The fall was amazing.  It was worth every bit of discomfort to see it.  It is 20 ft tall and cascades down rocks that have been carved away over hundreds of years.  The kids that it was awesome and wanted to play in it. If only it wasn't so cold (and against the rules as there were signs posted about dangerous fast flowing water and low temperatures).

After that it was back to the camp site.  It takes a while to navigate the old Medano pass so we wanted to have plenty of time to get back.  It rained a little but cleared up as we got close to our campsite and turned out to be a gorgeous evening.  We ate early and had time for a post dinner stroll through the woods.  That night we all hit the sack before it was even totally dark outside.

Sunday morning was wet and chilly.  It had rained the night before and we decided we would just eat leftover cinnamon rolls and fruit in the car after packing our site up.  The ride home was loooooooong!  We had such a great trip.  I can't wait to go back and climb the Dunes to the top.  I was disappointing that we couldn't do it this trip but the sand was too hot and we could not have managed it with the kiddos.  Next time!  If you haven't been to see them, you should.  It was amazing.