Southern Colorado & New Mexico – National Parks Road Trip – Day 17 – Great Sand Dunes National Park, Hot Air Balloons & Santa Fe

Our morning in Pagosa Springs, Colorado started out with a beautiful sunny morning, perfect for the dozen hot air balloons to take flight to the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. We spent a couple of hours running around the town and surrounding countryside for the best views.

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Nearly all the balloons had come up from New Mexico, which is famous for hot air ballooning. Our best views came from a small neighborhood park with a view across a pond with the aforementioned mountains in the background.

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Leaving town to the east you quickly start to ascend Wolf Creek Pass, eventually reaching the pass summit at 10,870 feet, our highest altitude of the road trip. In addition to the usual collection of impressive switchbacks, and far mountain views U.S. 160 has an impressive ‘S’ curve tunnel. Once you drop down the eastern side and arrive in Del Norte, Colorado, you have reached an extensive, perfectly flat prairie that is the San Luis Valley.

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As you leave Del Norte and start across the flatland you see the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance, seemingly just a short distance away, but in reality they are 50 miles off. While the valley was filled with farms on this Sunday morning there was nobody out on the roads, so we were able to blast across the small country roads in rapid fashion, arriving at our destination in about 40 minutes.

The Great Sand Dunes National Park has dunes reach as high as 700 feet high, with the mountains behind them rising 3000′ and more up from the valley floor. As mentioned we could see the mountains from 50 miles away, and started seeing the white of the sand dunes from 30 miles away. The dunes were created by loose soil from nearby flat farm land carried by the wind and deposited at the foot of the mountains creating a wide tall dune with many ridges.

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Finally reaching the visitor center, we once again received some excellent guidance from the rangers and set off on a walk up to the first ridge of dunes. There was a scene of young men sand boarding down the dune just beyond us, children trying to sled, and people trekking the high dunes. The dunes were so high that people at the top looked like specks on a giant wall. The sand was difficult to walk in because we sunk with each step. Without a doubt walking in sand feels 10 times harder than walking on a dirt path, the pain in my knees noticeable.

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While there are options for going into the mountainous portion of the park, it is restricted to 4 wheel high clearance vehicles, so we opted to continue on our trip. About an hour south we arrived in Manassas, Colorado to see the statue of Jack Dempsey, a famous boxer, which the small town exploits to the fullest with a bronze statue and a museum of Jack Dempsey.

We quickly moved on toward New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment. The landscape of southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico is desert, exemplified by a group of tumbleweeds barely missed our car as we drove. Travelling down the road exposed us to pastures and hills but no towns or homes for a long time. Just north of Taos we stopped to experience the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, part of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, that spans over a very deep 650 foot gorge. Since the area just off the bridge is on state land, and not in the National Park Service land, we found a number of vendors selling trinkets and jewelry. Sadly since this bridge does not have extremely high railing, it is a popular spot for people committing suicide, as a result there are telephone hotlines to suicide prevention on each of the observation points on the bridge.

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We passed briefly through Taos, a ski and artist colony as we continued through the canyon to Santa Fe, stopping at our first Roadside America type place in days, the Classical Gas Museum along the way. We did not go into the museum but we did see old gas pumps and other weird items outside the building such as a pole of stacked tricycles as art.

We arrived at our hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Drury Inn, giving the dusty car over to the valet. Santa Fe is a very walkable town, so we headed off to tour the old town, taking in the sights of Spanish Puebloan style architecture and the abundance of art throughout the city. Since the early 1900s Santa Fe has been very strict with architecture laws controlling the look of all the houses, buildings and public works resulting in what is generally thought of as one of the best towns in America.

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Even the bridges and underpasses are decorated with art and more bronze statues dotting gardens and nooks for everyone to enjoy.

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Nearly every building and street had an artistic touch to it. Large churches, many galleries and a governor’s palace built in the 17th century when Spain controlled this area of North America were here. We walked through the town square as an artist fair was wrapping up and a Christian band played on stage.

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Our dinner in Santa Fe was in a courtyard of the Palace Restaurant and Saloon on Palace Street, which specialized in Italian and Mexican cuisine. While waiting for dinner we decided to name the coolest person from each state. We thought Dean Martin was the coolest personality for Ohio trumping Paul Newman. Arnie Palmer was crowned coolest person for Pennsylvania. James Dean coolest for Indiana and so on. It was fun to find a cool famous personality for nearly every state before the arrival of dinner. After dinner we strolled the streets of town admiring the clean contemporary native style of Santa Fe.

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We got cups of gelato and walked a while longer through the city on a very pleasant night taking photos. Soon after getting back to the hotel, the fire alarm sounded but soon shut off. There did not seem to be a problem or it necessary for us to leave. We enjoyed our day and looked forward to seeing more tomorrow.