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Review: Great Sand Dunes National Park 26 June 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Travel.
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And you thought they only existed in the Sahara, or off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But no, the highest dunes in North America rise in the middle of Colorado, hundreds of miles from the nearest desert and thousands from the nearest seashore. Luckily, though, they’re close enough to Denver to visit in a weekend. But when you find yourself at a loss for things to see and do there after the first few hours—a distinct possibility—the Sangre de Cristos rise to more than 14,000 feet behind the dunes, offering another and altogether different diversion.

If the existence of such a place, right here in Middle America no less, strikes you as a little strange, it ought to. In fact, most everything about Colorado should strike you as a little strange and a little wonderful. And of course, it’s no wonder that with attractions like the dunes and the 14ers and the road biking and skiing and hiking and, well, all of that, that people from out of state imagine we barely get any work done at all. I’ve had the good fortune to find myself here, writing about some of it, but it’s only been a sliver, really. There is so much more to Colorado, and to being a Coloradan.

Sorry for the detour.

At any rate, the dunes raise one question: how did they form?

The answer requires less science than you might think: it’s all about water. Despite their appearance as a dry, barren and otherworldly place, the dunes rely on an expansive aquifer, and two streams. Simple as that. Well, maybe not quite that simple. Not just any place with water can form dunes after all. Colorado’s massive piles of sand lie atop an unusual aquifer where the water table rises so high that it peaks above the surface forming marshes in an otherwise hostile climate.

Various geologic barriers prevent that aquifer from leaking into the surrounding area, so when streams carrying water from the mountains empty into the area, they remain on the surface well into the dry landscape before drying out. The streams essentially float on top of the high water table. Elsewhere along the range, streams that form in the mountains disappear into the ground just a few hundred feet into the parched San Luis Valley. But around the sand dunes, Sand and Medano Creeks flow freely, running right through the sand until they dry out well in the valley.

And that’s the key thing. When the wind picks up grains of sand anywhere else around Colorado, they fall at random. When the winds blow the sand into either of these creeks, though, the flow carries the grains back down to where they dry out. Then the wind blows again, across all those grains sending them back toward the creeks. Eventually, enough sand comes from elsewhere that it begins to pile up. Voila: dunes.

If the water table were even a few feet lower, the two creeks at the heart of this system would dry up sooner, and the sand cycle they promote would diminish or even disappear. Concern for that very scenario led Congress to designate the dunes and the surrounding lands over the aquifer a national park in 2004. Thus protected from other interests, the dunes to persist for as long as the water flows from the mountains.

I suppose that explanation went a little long, but really, it’s at the heart of the spectacle. Certainly the dunes rise high and look pretty, but to leave them still wondering “How?” or “Why here?” leaves it feeling hollow.

And of course, the dunes aren’t all science. The area has hosted humans for the the last 11,000 years, which is longer than you might think in North America, given that no one’s entirely convinced of a date when people showed up on this continent. Reading a book about that debate in college, it occurred to me that, actually, no one cares about Clovis man. The only name that you’ll remember out of the long history of peoples and tribes who followed is probably Zebulon Pike’s, of Pike’s Peak fame. In 1807 after seriously screwing up a mission to find the Arkansas River, he ran into the sand dunes instead, and, in an act that demonstrates that everyone’s a tourist, climbed to the top of the things.

You can, too. The entry fee’s $3/person, unless you’re too young or too old to enjoy it that much—in which case you’ll pay less. You can camp for $25/night, too, in semi-shaded campgrounds that overlook the dunes. They’re all right, but between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you’ll likely share the campground with everyone on earth, and their screaming kids/generators/whathaveyou. Camping’s free if you hike a ways into the mountains. As for more luxurious accommodations, I don’t think they exist.

A few other notes:

  • Be prepared to find sand in everything you own for the rest of your life, even in things that didn’t go to the dunes
  • Don’t wear shoes on the dunes. The first several hundred feet getting to them kinda sucks, but on the other hand, it’s better than hating life because your shoes have filled with sand.
  • Bring long pants/sleeves. If you don’t, you’ll find out sandblasting works, first hand.
  • Don’t plan on spending more than a day at the dunes. Once you’ve played in the creek and climbed to the top of High Dune, you’ve exhausted the opportunities. You could always hike Blanca or Little Bear, though.

Aaaaaand we’re back! 19 June 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
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Okay, it’s summer. We moved. I didn’t have internet access. Those are excuses, so let’s face it, I’ve been bad about posting. Once every few weeks isn’t good enough, so here’s how it’s going to work this summer: a new post every Sunday night, just for you, dear readers. Or at least those of you who’ve stuck around while I dallied.

Here’s what’s in store over the next few weeks:

  1. The sand dunes. If you’re from Colorado, you know about them. But have you been there? And if you’re not from Colorado, well, the idea that middle America is home to sand dunes hundreds of feet high should catch your interest, too.
  2. Bike to Work Day. Denver and Boulder send more commuters to work on bike than most cities in the country, and on June 22nd, both cities will make the two-wheeled commute an even more attractive option with breakfast stops and swag. I may catch up with pro-cyclist Rory Sutherland, who’s riding in Colorado’s USA Pro-Cycling Challenge later this summer.
  3. Cycling St. Vrain Canyon. It’s 20 miles north of Boulder, from Lyons to Ward, and it’s one of the most beautiful routes on the Front Range. Get ready for 6000 feet of vertical.
  4. Cycling Deer Creek Canyon. Head south, pass the Lockheed Martin whateveritis factory and ride from red rock country up to the aspens.
Maybe you’ll get some other things in between, but those are the posts each have a slot on the docket and we’ll get to them, together. But for the time being, my promise to you is a post a week, perhaps more if I get adventurous.
It’s summer here in the high country, so get ready.

Taos: Reviewed, Sort Of 8 June 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Reviews, Travel.
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If you enjoy tourist tchotkes, turquoise jewelry, and jokes about whites’ conquest of the West, visit Taos. For a better experience, skip the city altogether and visit Taos Ski Valley, just up the road, or the surrounding countryside, a moonscape of sage and volcanic hills straight out of 3:10 to Yuma.

To east rises the southern extension of the Sangre de Christos, verdant against against the dusty plain. North of the Colorado border, they scrape above 14,000′, here topping out at 13,161′ on Wheeler Peak. And to the west, well, that’s the west you see in movies. It’s brush and scrub, so dry your eyes will water and your skin will crack. It’s a place that makes Denver feel humid.

The Bureau of Land Management, who runs these parts, will remind you that it was not always so. That landscape of sage once included grassy plains as well, but as humans and their cattle moved in, the grass disappeared into hungry mouths and the sage spread. We’re altering the landscape still with grazing, road-building and extractive industries; the result is what you’d imagine: wild dust storms which strip tons (literally) of newly-freed topsoil and deposit it on Colorado snow pack.

The city itself remains a more permanent fixture; by some accounts, it has persisted for more than a millennium, making it the oldest continuously-inhabited place in America. If you’re into superlatives anyway. The pueblo began as a settlement for the roving Anasazi peoples, who may have moved from the Four Corners region to the Rio Grande Valley in search a of more consistent source of water. Today, the Taos Pueblo roots the town itself and still holds out as a dwelling for a permanent population of 150.

White folks discovered the area in 1615, dispatching with most of the native population and naming the town Fernandez de Taos. Armed resistance from the Pueblo peoples continue until 1696, when the Spanish Reconquest (not to be confused with the Reconquista) put the kibosh on all that. The John Wayne-style stuff stuck around longer with folks running all over the place fighting Comanches, and the citizens even staged a revolt after learning they’d been taken over by America in 1847. The newly-appointed governor, Charles Bent, met his untimely demise on the streets of Taos during that revolt—well before he’d received the chance to do much actual governing.

Taos’s reputation as a haven for artists emerging at the beginning of the 20th century. You can read about that part here, then ignore all of it, except maybe RC Gorman, who might appear in bar trivia at some point, and visit the hot springs instead.

From the city, head north to the light at Highway 64, then hang a left. A couple miles away on your right is Tune Rd. Follow that to its dirt parking lot terminus and pull out your swimsuit, backpack and beverages. The hike down is short, only about 400′ of vertical. At the bottom of the gorge lie two pools, one bathtub temperature, the other offering something closer to real “hot” spring heat. You’ll also find the remains of structures designed to corral the water, which has since chosen its own path. Across the way, an old stage road descends precipitously from the canyon rim. If you see “Harvey” whose name appears in chalk everywhere around the springs, sucker punch him for me, please. Thanks.

If you’re of a less adventurous mindset and public nudity gives you the willies, you might prefer the Rio Grande Gorge bridge, which features more folks from the elderly and Indian set, all of whom will be carrying cameras. It’s not the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands or anything approaching that category of beauty, but why not? You’ve already spent too much time in Taos, so it’s worth the trip just for a change of scenery.

I’m told that if you return to Taos, you’ll find an old pueblo there, dating back some thousand years or so. The Best Western on the drive in advertises authentic Indian dances every night, too, and if you drive up some road a ways to somewhere, you’ll also find real Indians dancing. I suppose Taos’ allure dwells in these sorts of things, but I can’t help but feel that it’s all a bit too reminiscent of Wall Drug, South Dakota’s largest tourist trap after Crazy Horse. There, and in Taos, authenticity implies curation. Taos has been done already, cultivated into a destination, and while I’ll stop short of calling it “lost,” it’s certainly a place that makes it difficult to find much of anything. Taos lacks the joy of discovery.

So discover the countryside, take in the art if you’d like but don’t come to Taos to wander. There’s so much else to explore.