Driving Across The Colorado Plateau

Before I head to Europe, I decided to make the drive home where I could leave my car and visit with friends and family before the next big adventure. Instead of banging the 2,000+ miles out as quick as possible, I chose to take an extended jaunt across Southern Colorado. I wouldn’t be alone, as my girlfriend, the ever-traveling Glenna, would be coming along. In the sweltering heat of another 110°+ Phoenix summer day, we crammed the Dew Mobile full of crap and took off. With little room to move, we cruised on up to Sedona to take a little dip in Oak Creek. Before we could get there though, I accidentally swerved twice in town and hit the rumble strip. A vigilant cop quickly pulled me over, probably thinking I was drunk. I explained the situation, repeating lines from Easton Corbin’s song, “All Over the Road”. He took a peek at Glenna, nodded his head, and let us on our way. North on Highway 89, I parked the car at a gravel pullout and showed Glenna my favorite cliff jumping spot. With little hesitation, we jumped. As I hit the icy water below, the frustration and annoyance over the last month of work was washed away.

The water’s cleanse was symbolic of my current situation: no job, no commitments, free to follow my heart.

mt humphreys

After our jumps, we headed up to Flagstaff where we spent the night in a dispersed campground at the foot of Humphreys Peak. We cooked chorizo and filled our tummies with tacos and beans. The next morning, we rose early to climb Arizona’s highest peak. It is a fairly easy 5 mile jaunt up to the 12,637 ft summit. The initial trail is a set of switchbacks up to a ridge near the tree line.

mt humphreys

The final mile is a bit trickier and involves some scrambling around boulders. Posts help hikers to stay on the trail. The view from the summit is incredible. Smaller volcanoes- yes, volcanoes!- are scattered are visible in the surrounding area. The San Francisco Peaks, of which Humphreys is the largest point, is actually the remnants of an ancient volcano whose eruption was similar to that of Mt. Saint Helen’s. Its unique bowl shape is now enjoyed by skiers and snowboarders during the winter months. We relaxed on the summit for a bit, before making our way back down the mountain. Next stop, the Petrified Forest.

petrified national parkWhile the park has recently been expanded and is now fairly large, I would say it can still be covered in an hour or two. We parked at the Museum near the south entrance and strolled the short path at Giant Logs. The massive petrified logs tell of a vastly different time when the current arid desert was a tropical wetland and vegetation flourished, including these massive pines.Conditions had to be just right for the wood to become petrified. It is a meticulous process where minerals slowly replace every single organic molecule. petrified forest national parkThe largest log, interestingly named Old Faithful, was almost 10 feet wide at its base! We did another short loop called Crystal Forest where more logs were scattered about.Varying minerals accounted for all the incredible colors in the logs. At times, they almost look like an artist’s canvass. As a storm approached, we got back in the car and headed north to Canyon de Chelly. We caught an amazing sunset before calling it a day.

canyon de chelly

canyon de chellyEstablished in 1931, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located on the Navajo Reservation and is owned entirely by the Navajo people. It is the only National Park Service unit that is jointly managed in this way and visitor use is very restricted. Glenna was fortunate enough to take a guided tour down into the canyon on a previous trip, but we did not have the time or money to do so this trip. From above, the canyon is otherworldly.The walls fall in 1,000+ sheer drops to the canyon floor, where the empty red rock is drastically replaced by a carpet of green grass and giant cottonwoods. Many Navajo families still live on the valley floor, farming and ranching in ways reminiscent to their ancestors who came thousands of years before. canyon de chellyIn fact, Canyon de Chelly is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America. Unlike many other places, the ancient people never left and have been traced back almost 5,000 years! We visited several different overlooks, taking in different vantage points of the incredible canyon. The White House Overlook is the only place in the park where you can hike to the valley floor without a guide. The 2 mile trail earns you an up close view of the ruins of a small traditional pueblo cliff dwelling. Petroglyphs were visible in several places around the ruins. Nearby, Navajo people sold jewelry and trinkets in the footsteps of their ancient ancestors.

canyon de chelly

After a brief lunch outside of the Four Corners Monument, we headed on to the mecca of ancient cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde. Here, the Ancient Pueblo People had created castles within the cliff walls. We started off with a self-guided tour of Spruce Tree House. Considered to be the best preserved of the cliff dwellings, its 130 rooms make it the third largest in the park. It also is the only one where visitors are able to climb a ladder down into an original kiva- a circular covered pit used for ceremonies and gatherings.

From there, we raced over to balcony house for a tour with a National Park Service Guide. Entry to the cliff dwelling is via a 32 foot ladder. Since the original residents were very wary of attacks, they focused on ease of protection during their construction. This meant we also had to scramble through a 12 foot tunnel during the tour. Our final tour of the day was at the most famous of the cliff dwellings: Cliff Palace. This dwelling was built in a massive alcove and contains over 150 rooms. Our tour was took us along the main level of the dwelling, but it would have been really interesting to explore the upper levels and go into more of the rooms. After the tour, we ate dinner alongside the park road, watching the sun descend behind some nearby mountains.

mesa verde national park

The next day we bummed around Durango for a bit, strolling the main street and enjoying some ice cream. We planned on kayaking at Vallecito Reservoir, but the clouds looked menacing, so we opted for a short hike instead. We found a beautiful campground that night called West Fork. Over a fire we cooked some brats, sipping on vodka and mango Jumex. The next day we made a 6 mile hike out to Rainbow Hot Springs.
We were caught in an early storm and spent at least an hour trodding through mud in the pouring rain. Arizona may have spoiled me, but I’m not a huge fan of hiking in the rain.

The rain eventually subsided and we had a nice picnic in the sun. We initially missed the hot springs, but did find them on our way back. A little knee-deep, lukewarm pool of water with floating algae was our reward. Yay! I will say, we did find some respite in the water as the sky opened up and dumped some more rain on us. When the rain again cleared, we didn’t linger. A nice hot shower was in order after that hike, before driving on and avoiding a third downpour by eating at a wonderful Mexican joint in Alamosa.

weminuche wilderness

Our fourth of July was a unique one. We spent the day shredding the largest sand dunes in North America on our sand board and sled. The dunes rise up almost 800 feet from the valley floor and cover approximately 30 square miles. I had came out and sand boarded once before with TUBS, but it was still a blast.

great sand dunes national park

I’m no snowboarder and it still seems goofy to me to stand sideways, but I seemed to do better this time around. We made our way farther into the dunes, finding new runs to try and resting from the long trudge back up in between. Eventually we made it to High Dune, where we overhead a guy and his girlfriend who were planning on spending the night at Star Dune, the official highest in the park. I would really love to come back and spend a night out in the dunes. This time around, we would have to settle for a full day of boarding. Glenna was really good on the sled- it was similar to a small scale toboggan, but a bit harder to steer. When we were worn out for the day and a bit beat up from a couple crazy wipeouts, we headed back and attempted to wash some of the sand off. It will probably take weeks! We celebrated that night in true American fashion with another nice campfire, some well cooked brats, and some beer and cider. God bless ‘Merica!

A little hungover, we rolled out of bed and drove into Colorado Springs early in the morning. We searched for an attraction called Seven Falls before finding out it was closed. Then at Garden of the Gods, there were so many people we could barely find a spot to park. Not wanting to crowd surf down the trails, we headed to a smaller park nearby and took a nap in Glenna’s hammock.

garden of the gods Well rested- we made our way to nearby Manitou Springs. Resting at the base of Pikes Peak, Manitou Springs was made famous by its 9 natural springs- who would’ve thunk it? We taste-tested all 9, quickly realizing that they were bubbly and contained quite a bit of fizz. Then we relived our childhood in an awesome outdoor arcade that included ski-ball, buck hunter, and teenage mutant ninja turtles. The Women’s World Cup Final was on and we watched the USA women claim the title as they demolished Japan, 5-2. Some interesting locals provided some very entertaining banter. Glenna beat me for the second time in a game of giant Jenga, but I got some revenge in the pool hall. We set up the tent at the Barr trail head in preparation for the next day’s climb.

summit of pikes peak

pikes peak barr trailMy alarm went off at 2:50AM and I rolled over with a bit of reluctance. Glenna’s knee had been bothering her so today’s hike would be a solo one. I felt a bit bad for leaving her by herself, but I really wanted to summit another 14’er. In the darkness of the early morning, I set off with my pack. marmotNamed after an early explorer who ironically failed to reach its summit, Pike’s Peak sits at 14,115 feet. It was a haul to the top, over 13 miles one way. The first 3 miles were among the steepest. It didn’t help that I got a bit lost as well, and ended up climbing half of the Manitou Incline, a famous set of stairs that gains 2,000 feet in less than a mile. Read Glenna’s blog for her account. I got back on track and made it to the summit by 9:30 AM. I waited in a gift shop/restaurant up top, before meeting up with Glenna and riding the cogway down. From there, we made our way to Denver and met up with one of Glenna’s friends. We stayed in her new apartment for the next day and got a chance to check out the science museum and a bit of downtown. Then it was time for me to continue the drive home.

pikes peak summit

A week at home and then on to the 80 day whirlwind around Europe!

Somebody get me one of those shirts: “Life is Good”!

Written by Jake G

I'm a 26 year old who loves to hike, bike, backpack, and explore the outdoors. I'm a Midwesterner who currently resides in sunny Arizona. I hope to inspire others with my adventures and maybe give some advice for your future vacations. Follow me as I travel around the country and...
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