Tuesday, May 26, 2009

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I am not sure who picked the 4th Monday of May to celebrate Memorial Day, but I don't think he or she had a clue about weather patterns in the US. Almost without fail, Memorial Day weekend is cold and rainy no matter where in the country you are. This, despite warm sunny days that precede the holiday weekend; warm sunny days that dupe you into thinking THIS Memorial Day weekend will be different. HA!

For many years, my family would get together to go camping over Memorial Day weekend as a sort of annual reunion; the Kwasniewski Trailer Trash Weekend. May would start out cold and rainy, but then, toward the middle of the month, the skies would clear and the temps would rise. It would start to look promising for Trailer Trash! However, almost without fail, we would arrive at the camp ground on Memorial Weekend to rain, sometime torrential. We still managed to have fun - muddy fun - but ultimately we got smart and moved our Trailer Trash weekend later in the summer for better weather.

The same weather pattern happens out here in sunny Colorado. Memorial Day weekend seems to be the last blast of a rainy spring. This year, Jesper and I were jonesin' to get out of town and we somehow forgot that Memorial Day weekend was almost guaranteed to be rainy. Other than going to Ohio for my Father's funeral in March (not really a vacation), we hadn't been away from Boulder for a while. We were also ready to take Strelka for her first camping trip. The past two years had been shy on the dog-camping with Mushka being too sick to go anywhere. We wanted Strelka to enjoy camping so we were keen for her first exposure to it to be positive (read warm and sunny).

Where to go? All we knew was we wanted to get out of Boulder, ride our bikes a little, take Strelka and maybe hit up some destinations we had been interested in seeing. Jesper got it in his head to go see the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, home to the tallest sand dunes in the US. These dunes were formed by sand left behind after ancient lakes receded. Predominant winds from the southwest blew the sand toward a low curve in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The wind funnels toward three mountain passes - Mosca, Medano, and Music Passes. The sand accumulates in the natural pocket formed by the three passes and the opposing wind directions cause the dunes to grow vertically. The result is pretty bizarre; huge sand dunes nestled up against 14,000 foot, snow-covered mountains. They sounded pretty cool to me too!

As the weekend approached, Jesper and I scoured the weather web sites to see where the conditions would be best. We knew the forecast called for rain in Boulder, so we searched north, south and west (why bother going east?!?!). Much to our disappointment, we would have to drive to Canada, Mexico or Washington State to get away from a large green blob centered over the southwest. It wouldn't even help if we wanted to go east, because the entire eastern US was a bunch of green blobs too. What did I expect? It was Memorial Weekend after all, and that means RAIN.

So - there was nowhere we could drive to that would likely be dry. We decided to head south (toward the Great Sand Dunes) and play it by ear. We loaded up the Durangutan with camping gear, bikes and the dog and hit the road Friday after work. We had no specific plans and no reservations for camping spots or lodging. Some might call this folly on a holiday weekend, especially since all of Colorado is a tourist destination this time of the year (well, except eastern Colorado). We call it "spontaneous"!

Friday Night - we made it to Manitou Springs, home to the Garden of the Gods, definitely a tourist destination, but a spectacular one. As we were approaching the Springs area, rain looked eminent. Heavy, cold rain. Hmmmm... maybe we didn't want to spend the night in a tent (not that I knew where we would set it up in the first place). Good thing for iPhones! I researched pet-friendly lodging in the area. After many unsuccessful attempts, we got lucky and found a motel right in Manitou Springs. Josh and Josh working the front desk were super nice and friendly. The Mexican restaurant down the road was very tasty and the waitstaff was also super nice. There was even a park across the street from the motel to walk Strelka. It rained all night while we slept in our dry motel room. All in all, Friday night worked out great. Dodging the rain.

Saturday - After along night's sleep (I had been burning the candle from both ends the previous week and was SUPER tired), we headed over to the Garden of the Gods with Strelka. I am so glad we checked this place out! Talk about some freaky rocks!!! I get to see some pretty cool rock formations out west, but these are some of the coolest.

Freaky Rocks (photo credit Jesper Kristensen)

Jesper on the rocks!

We walked around for a couple hours, snapping pictures right and left, although the cloudy day did not make for ideal photography. The rain had abated for the morning, but the clouds were building up again. It began to pour just as we got back to the car. Dodging the rain.

We continued south on I-25 and stopped in Pueblo for a ride. We've seen lots of pictures of friends riding in this area and wanted to try it out. It's a little too far to go there for a day trip, so this was a good opportunity. Doh! - I forgot to bring my armor! Based on the pictures I'd seen, armor could come in handy on these trails. The trail system is somewhat a maze of stacked loops coming down rock lined canyons and gulleys with drops and big rollers. It looked like it might rain any minute, but the trails never take you far from the parking area, so we could always rush back if the clouds opened up. We met a very helpful local named Eric who gave us route recommendations (and some water); he said we should be sure to go down Hooters Canyon and Watertower.

Jesper coming up one of the many rocky gulleys at Peublo

I usually see photos of people going DOWN this!

We rode around for a bit more than an hour, and we did come down Hooters and Watertower, both of which were super fun. Hooters had some fantastic rocky/ledgy stuff that I had a ton of fun on, doing over and over so Jesper could snap some pictures with me as his model. Do I have to ride that fun stuff again????? Okay..., if you insist!

Me with my Blue Steel Face; it's gnarlier than it looks! (photo credit Jesper Kristensen)

I was happy to make this tricky turn on the 3rd try; sticking your tongue out helps! (photo credit Jesper Kristensen)

We could have played around for a bit longer, but the heavens were opening up and rain began to fall. We high-tailed it to the car. Dodging the rain.

We continued south on I-25 to Walsenburg. I love driving around places I've never been and may never be again. I mean, why would I ever go to Walsenburg, Colorado? We stopped at a liquor store in this tiny town to buy beer and wine. Not much of a selection, so we passed on the wine and left with a six pack of Tecate. We picked up US-160 in Walsenburg and headed west toward the Great Sand Dunes. As we drove, we watched spectacular weather happening all around us; localized areas of hail and rain punching out of the low, dark thunderheads. It didn't look very inviting for camping!

This time, I was not so lucky with the iPhone, namely because there was No Service. We were in the boonies. We didn't get service until we practically arrived in Alamosa, while the biggest town in this area, still a very small town. We called hotels and motels. We stopped in to inquire about room availability for the night. Everything was booked. All the camp sites were even booked. We were almost resigned to sleeping in the Durangutan when we stopped at one final hotel in Alamosa. Although they were booked, the nice folks at the front desk recommended two places in Monte Vista, an even tinier town off to the northwest. I called the first place and they had ONE room left and it was pet-friendly. We booked it immediately! We headed northwest, watching rain all around us and periodically driving through it. Dodging the rain.

Sunday - We decided to get up really early on Sunday to hopefully catch the morning sunlight on the Great Sand Dunes. We would need a miraculous break in the weather, but we figured the worse that happened was we got up early and it was still cloudy and rainy. We got up at 5:30 and it was still cloudy, but not raining at the moment. We checked out and drove back east to the Great Sand Dunes. Grey clouds hung low in the sky, but the sun was trying to peak underneath them over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We entered the park before the pay booth was even open and pulled into an almost empty parking lot. Even with the crappy weather, I suspect the lot would be full later in the day.

A river separates the parking lot from the dunes. Because of the moving sand, it is not possible to erect a bridge, so you have to walk through the water. It is shallow but wide. It is one cold MF too! That water comes straight down from the melting snow in the mountains. The water is so cold it hurts! Once across, we began trekking north up the dunes. It was chilly and a bit windy as the sun struggled to burst through the increasing cloud cover. We saw one other person with a dog; tiny ant figures off to the distance. Otherwise, we had the entire gigantic sandbox to ourselves.

A vast expanse of sand nestled up against the mountains (photo credit Jesper Kristensen)

The dip in the river made Strelka all spunky and she busted out several cases of the zoomies; dashing back and forth at break neck speeds. She was so darn cute! Up we went until we summitted the first wave of dunes. You can't see any dunes to the north of these from the parking lot, but once we reached this point, a vast expanse of undulating sand presented itself before us; surrounded by mountains shrouded in a white cloak of snow and clouds. It was very beautiful. We hiked around, seeking untracked dunes and trying to make the most of the increasingly poor lighting. We never saw a ray of sunlight hit the sand.

A boy and his dog

Jesper crossing the cold river to get back to the car

Finally, our meager snack of an apple and a banana wore off and we decided to head down to get some breakfast. Descending was easier than climbing up the dunes and Strelka got a charge out of racing down, almost out of control. We had good timing; once we crested the last big set of dunes we could see the masses beginning to ascend. I'm glad we visited this unusual geologic feature. I'm not sure when we'd get down there again, although we may go again if only to be there for better picture taking weather. Other than getting our feet wet in the river, we did manage to stay dry. Dodging the rain.

After a very yummy breakfast (awesome huevos rancheros) at a restaurant with lots of dead animals on the walls, we pointed the Durangutan north. Time to start heading back to Boulder. The Great Sand Dunes lie at the edge of a very large and flat alpine valley. When I say large, I mean large. Covering about 9,000 square miles (122 miles by 74 miles), and sitting at about 7,500 feet in elevation, the San Luis Valley is the largest alpine valley in the world. Expansive and flat as can be, the valley seems to go on forever. To the east lie the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and to the west, the valley is bordered by the San Juan Mountains. As you head north, the mountains pinch in, eventually swallowing up the valley just south of Salida. We drove through barely fields, potato fields, lots of alfalfa and rabbitbrush, all vibrant green from the recent and continuous rains. Once again, we could see powerful storm cells off in the distance, then closer and closer until we drove through cold rain showers.

I hadn't thought we would be going to Salida, but like I said, this trip was spontaneous and Salida happened to be on the way once we decided to make our trip into a loop. Salida is home to one of the most famous mountain bike trails in the world; the Monarch Crest. We rode the Crest last August for Jesper's birthday, but knew there would still be too much snow lingering to ride it in May. But maybe we could find some trails at a lower elevation that were snow free....

On the way into town, we pulled off onto some dirt roads in the National Forest to have a look-see. Maybe we could find a nice spot to camp. The roads were muddy from all the rain and the camp sites were full. Maybe we could set up in a flat back country spot close to a road. We found nothing flat (it is the Rocky Mountains after all!). We finally pulled off to the upslope side of a very exposed gravel road. It was still morning and the sun was making another effort to come out. We pulled out the camp chairs, fed the dog and got a sleeping pad out for her to lay down on. Jesper brewed a wickedly strong pot of coffee, which we enjoyed with a cookie and some reading.

Hanging out during the brief sunshine near Salida

Then, the clouds once again began to build up. We watched as they billowed up and surged toward us. It was time to pack up and get back in the car. Just as we were finishing, the rain came again. Dodging the rain.

We drove into town thinking perhaps we should try to find lodging. Finding a place the previous night had been difficult, so I was a tad worried. As we passed through Poncha Springs just outside of Salida, Jesper pulled into the first motel he saw. The proprietor said they had a room. The look her face when he asked if it was a dog-friendly room was priceless! She looked at him like he had asked if we could bring children in the room! Of course we could bring our dog in the room with us! Didn't everybody have a dog? Heck, she told us lots of customers brought horses with them (they of course stayed outside in the parking area). The proprietor had a Slavic accent and Jesper shortly noticed the small polish flag hanging in the lobby. Pretty soon, we were chatting about the Polish side of my family with Lucy and Bob, the Polish owners (like from Poland) of the Rocky Mountain Motel. My Dad would have loved this!

With lodging secured, we took strelka into Salida for a light lunch and sight seeing. We headed back to our room for nap just as the sprinkles began. Dodging the rain.

I don't nap much, but that little rest was delightful; I awoke refreshed and ready to go! We left Strleka in the room and once again made our way into Salida for dinner at a restaurant on the Arkansas River. We hit the hay early in anticipation of waking up before the rain clouds built up. Although the Crest Trail was covered in snow (3 feet in some places according to Polish Bob who had been up there the day before), we selected a route up Forest road 220 and then down the Rainbow Trail, which we had done before as the end to the Monarch Crest Trail ride last year. The ride would get us to just over 9,500 feet, which we figured would be clear of snow and cover about 20 miles.

Monday - At 6:30 am, we were the first people in the Bounty Restaurant in Salida Monday morning. Great omelets and coffee and super nice wait staff. After fueling up, we drove to the O'Haver Lake campground and parked the car. We started up the dirt road, the mud and puddles indicative that it had rained again the previous night. The road became rockier, more of a Jeep road, and began to afford us awesome views of Sheep Mountain and Antora Peak. We crossed Silver Creek a couple times; riding through when we could and running through it when we couldn't. Better to get the feet wet than the whole body!

Jesper on Forest Road 220

After 5.25 miles, we finally arrived at the Rainbow Trail intersection; 9 miles of up and mostly down sinewy singletrack lay before us. This is one fantastic trail! It is rocky is some places and buff in others. It travels through spooky, dark pine and aspen forests and then breaks out in the open meadows. The trail dips down and then back out of numerous drainages, perched along a tiny sliver of foot-wide dirt on the edge of the slope. We had the trail almost to ourselves, only seeing two hikers and their dogs. Fun, Fun, Fun!

Jesper on the Rainbow Trail

The morning began with a little blue sky and some sun, but the clouds once again began to roll in as the day progressed. We could see storms all around us, causing us to think we might not make it back to the car without getting wet. Miraculously, we made it to back down to US-285 without rain and we rode back up the bottom part of Forest Road 220 to the car dry. Dodging the rain.

It was time to head back to Boulder. We drove up US-285 in a line of returning vacationers. It was cloudy, but the rain held off all the way back home. We unloaded the car, grabbed a beer and hopped into the hot tub. That's when the rain started. No more dodging the rain, but hey, we were wet anyway!

Click here to See Jesper's many excellent pictures and here to see my photos of Jesper and such.


Nanako said...

Way cool pics and looks like fun only for those extreme sports fans like you! I have purchased pictures like those from iStock Photo...hats off the the photographer.

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