Three Colorado National Parks

Trip #7
August 17 – 25, 2021
Rocky Mountain National Park, Great Sand Dunes Park, Mesa Verde National Park

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Tuesday, August 17 – David picked up Al on Monday, after dropping Doug off at the kennel. On Tuesday, we loaded Al and the car up and headed to Rawlins, WY after work. We were going to attempt our first WalMart overnight. David had called to confirm overnight parking was allowed, and the man told him, “Yes, safe travels!” With a brief stop at Little America for a 75 cent ice cream cone, we arrived in Rawlins with plenty of time to park and get settled. There were already a couple of RVs parked, so we navigated around them for a good spot. It also turned out to be an 18-wheeler turn around lot, so we had to navigate around them too.

We enjoyed a lovely dinner of charcuterie and some wine while watching all the trucks and other RVs drive around. The night was pretty quiet and uneventful except for the trains and all the trucks that passed by. Woke up to do some work, drop into WalMart for some forgotten items, and we were on the road after lunch, headed for Estes Park and the Estes Park Campground at East Portal.

Wednesday August 18 – The campground is at the end of the road less than 10 minutes from town and the entrance to the park, so a great location. Hosts were super nice when David checked in and showed him where the spot was. We drove around and noticed that the spots were VERY close together, and that most people had tents or even smaller and than we had. Fortunately, our site was pretty easy to back Into, and it was pretty easy to level the trailer, so we were relieved. And true to the reviews, the playground was very close, and very well populated.

Untrue to the reviews, there wasn’t any cell service – Verizon or T-Mobile – even with the MIMO and the WeBoost. So, tomorrow’s work day would be at the library.

We tried to go to Claire’s for dinner (the reviews on FindMeGlutenFree were glowing), but they were closed. So we headed to the market for the rest of the taco fixings we needed. And to check out the library for tomorrow. And to talk to WeBoost as to why it wasn’t boosting the signal.

Thursday, August 19 – Conclusion from WeBoost: Their hardware can’t boost a non-existent signal (go figure!). So, off to the library, which ended up being a perfect workplace. Before we knew it, it was time to head into the park for our 4 p.m. ticketed entrance and allowable visit to Bear Lake. We arrived at 3:48, and the volunteer would not let us in. So, we headed back to the visitor center where Donna got her passport stamps and we both got a couple of t-shirts, some stickers, and a magnet, and we were on our way.

Thank goodness for our GPSy guide Guide Along. “Craig” told us about so much that we would have missed, so it was invaluable. After a couple of hours, we headed out of the park and thought about what to have for dinner. We called Claire’s and arranged to pick it up. Unfortunately, the fried chicken dinner while very delicious, did not agree with David. We are speculating that they use a lot of paprika in the batter. But Donna thought the Santa Fe Salad with steak was quite tasty.

Friday, August 20 – The second day of work in the library was good, and then off to the park for our 1 p.m. entry. Followed the GPSy guide Guide Along around to the other side of the park and kept a lookout for bears, but no luck.

We did however make it up to the Alpine Visitor Center at 12,000 feet!

It was crazy windy, but lots of fun. Drove along Old Fall River Road to get there – it’s the original road that was built in the early 1900s. It’s a one-way road and quite treacherous in places, but we did it! “Craig” our GPSy guide told us when the road was first built, Stanley Steamers and Model T’s were the first cars that drove it. The gas engine in the Model Ts relied on gravity (versus a fuel pump) so on the steep vertical climbs, the car had to go in REVERSE! This was a pretty harrowing drive going forward – can’t imagine having to do it backward!

The Old Fall River Road ends at the Alpine Visitor Center (which we visited) and there is a short walk to the “you made it to 12,000′ sign” where we took some pictures, and then we continued all the way out to the Grand Lake entrance station and drove around town, which wasn’t too exciting, so we headed back into the park and all the way back to Estes Park.

After getting a preview of the Stanley Hotel when we first arrived in Estes Park, we wanted to go and explore and see if we could have dinner there. This is the hotel where Steven King was inspired to write The Shining. While the movie wasn’t filmed there, there are many sets in the movie inspired by rooms at the hotel. It’s a very cool old hotel and it was fun to explore. Although we didn’t have a reservation for dinner, we were told it would only be about 30 minutes for an outside table, so we got a drink at the bar and sat out front on the veranda and people-watched. We even watched people do the hedge maze, a much smaller version of what’s in the movie. Soon enough our table – with its own firepit – was ready. The waiter was very busy with a lot of tables and not very attentive, so we had a very leisurely time since we weren’t in any real hurry. And because of the firepit, we were surprisingly warm.

Saturday, August 21 – We got up and began the tear-down process. We were headed to a Harvest Hosts place to stay for the night on our way to Durango. Along the way, we realized that we would drive (kinda) right by Great Sand Dunes National Park. We shouldn’t skip it – right? [We had completely forgotten why we were going to skip it – I’ll return to this thought a little later.] So we looked up places to stay near the entrance. The RV park right outside the entrance gate hadn’t been reviewed in a while, and the older reviews it did have weren’t great, but we decided to give it a try. They have hook-ups and literally, it’s a 10-minute drive to the entrance station. What could be bad?

We got the last spot in the RV park section, and lo, and behold and a big sigh of relief, it wasn’t horrible. Most fortunately they gave us the end spot on the entrance side, so we only had someone to the right of us, and open space on the left. We docked and headed into the park. Wow wow WOW. It’s really very cool. Tens of thousands of years ago it was a lake, and it has since dried up and the wind has created these sand dunes that are hundreds of feet tall and you can walk up them, like you’re walking on the beach, but you’re climbing up to the top. Since it was later in the evening (about 7-ish) it wasn’t very crowded, nor was it too hot, so it was a perfect time to be there. After a brief explore, we headed down and dusted off the sand and headed back to Al for some dinner – leftover tacos from Estes Park.

At some point driving down the road towards the park, the field in front of the sand dunes turned a vivid yellow. We learned that it is prairie sunflowers, unique to this area, and only able to grow in the sand dune environment. We tried to capture the vastness of this carpet of yellow, but we just couldn’t. We were hopeful David could fly the drone over it, but it was always too windy. Hmmm, that seems to explain the creation of the sand dunes…

After dinner we finally came to the realization of why we planned to skip this park: we had a timed tour at Mesa Verde to go into the cliff dwellings at 3 p.m. Durango is a 4-hour drive from the sand dunes (not counting the time arriving at our campground and docking), Mesa Verde is an hour drive from Durango, the place we needed to park to begin the hike to the cliff dwelling tour is a 1-hour drive from the entrance station, and the hike to the tour is another 20 minutes or so.

The Sand Dunes visitor center didn’t open until 9 a.m., so there was no way we would make it. We weren’t going to leave without getting our Great Sand Dunes passport stamp – and stickers and magnet. So we took a breath and decided it would be what it would be.

Sunday, August 22 – Donna headed to the visitor center at 8:45. David was going to do all that was necessary to ready Al for immediate hookup and departure upon Donna’s return. Sadly, the gloves and bleach spray were in the car, so the dumping part of the departure-readiness plan didn’t happen. We didn’t quite depart immediately upon Donna’s return, but we were on the road by 9:45 – which for us is pretty good.

Our drive to Durango was very unexciting and we got to the Junction Creek Campground around 2-ish. The drive up to the campground was through a residential neighborhood that was akin to lower Laurel Canyon, then up 2-miles of a heavily washboarded dirt road. It was a challenging spot to back into because it was facing the wrong way from the direction the car was, but David did it. It was also a pretty unlevel spot, so we needed lots of yellow risers, and then the hitch looked not very sturdy. BUT – it was beautiful and oh so quiet. There was so much spacing between campsites, it was incredible.

But I digress – we had a park to get to because we had tickets to do the Durango-Silverton train on Monday, so this was our only opportunity to see the park. The NPS app said the visitor center was open until 7, so we weren’t exactly hurrying, but when we took the turn to the park it said it the visitor center was closing at 4pm. It was 3:50. Yikes! We ran into the visitor center and got our passport stamp (phew!) and some stickers and a magnet – you know, the important stuff! A very nice ranger told us about a podcast done by a fellow park ranger, who is a descendant of the Ancestral Pueblo people, where she narrates a section of the road in the park. We also decided to do a “moderate” level hike to some petroglyphs. It was listed as a 2.4-mile loop trail that is “narrow, rugged and rocky with a scramble up a large stone staircase using hands and feet to climb to the top.” The petroglyphs were well worth the trip, but if this was considered a moderate hike, we didn’t want to find out what the strenuous hikes were like. This was plenty strenuous for us.

The cliff dwellings were so cool – it is impossible to imagine people actually living in them. We ended up driving out of the park after 7, and didn’t get back to our campsite until after dark. BUUUUT driving up the road to the campsite, we saw A BEAR! It was rummaging around someone’s trash can in the street and ran off as soon as we came upon it, but we saw it, and it was a BEAR!!! So exciting! Dinner was boiled hot dogs and chili – something quick and easy because we needed to get up early to make our train to Silverton in the morning.

Monday, August 23 – Up and at ’em – had to be at the train station at 7:30 for our 8 a.m. train to Silverton. It’s a 3+ hour ride through some beautiful scenery and some treacherous terrain – where Donna couldn’t even look out the window because of the sheer drop off the cliff right next to the train track. The train goes a maximum of 18 mph, 5 mph around the scary parts. And there’s even a flag stop along the way. It’s a popular place for hikers and river rafters and they use the train as their drop-off and pick up transportation. Kinda cool.

Silverton is a quaint town – but somewhat depressing. Think they have a good deal with this train service, since it brings hundreds of tourists every day through town. Had lunch at a great barbecue place with GF options, walked around town, bought a t-shirt, and got back on the train for the 3+-hour ride back. Found out afterwards, the train can go faster, but think they do it so slowly to prolong the visitation time in Silverton.

It was fun and we had a nice day sitting and doing literally nothing. That doesn’t happen very often.

Monday in Durango is the official “if it’s a restaurant it will be closed day”, so we headed to the market where we picked up a chicken and wedge salad fixings. But we arrived back at our campsite early enough where we could eat outside by the fire, and even had time to roast a marshmallow or two – the first time all week! And it also gave us time to start the dismantling process as tomorrow it was time to leave.

Tuesday, August 24 – Another early morning, as we needed to leave camp, find a dump station, and a place to work for a few hours. The free dump station ended up being not so great – and more work than usual, but we ended up at a lovely Walmart parking lot with a couple of other fellow RVers for our morning work time. The Wi-Fi coverage was good, so that was a relief, and there was a local coffee spot a short walk away.

Finally, it was time to head to our Harvest Hosts location – Buzzards Belly in Cisco, UT. But first, we needed to figure out what we would do for dinner. Himalayan Kitchen to the rescue. They even have a sister location in Pasadena! Dinner was ordered online and picked up on our way out of town.

We decided to take the longer route through Ouray, CO called the Million Dollar Highway, built in the late 1880s, with sheer drop-offs on the passenger side – and no guardrails in many locations. After we left Durango, before we got to the good part of the highway, we stopped at Honeyville – a honey manufacturing place. We needed honey for our annual honey gifts for Rosh Hashanah so this was perfect.

Back on the Million Dollar Highway, we climbed at one point up to 11,000 feet, taking about 45 minutes to go the 25 miles between Silverton and Ouray. The road looked like spaghetti noodles on the GPS. Ouray was like a 4-lane Park City Main Street, but it was a nice place to get out and walk around for a little bit. Then back on the road for another couple of hours to Buzzards Belly.

When we showed up there was another Airstream – one of the big ones. They waved when we drove in. We set up camp, poured a beverage, and took a stroll around Cisco. Population 20, maybe? There were lots of “houses”, but most looked empty, but when it was dark out, we saw a few lights in a couple of places. We heated up our dinner and enjoyed a quiet evening in the middle of nowhere. Except for the trains that came by in the middle of the night, which had to blow their horns essentially the entire part of the track that goes by where we were parked.

Wednesday, August 25 – In the morning, we went and visited the store. The Buzzards Belly lady always wanted to open a store like this and had the opportunity to buy this and hasn’t looked back. It’s like going to the Rose Bowl Swap Meet, a little bit of everything, with nothing really to buy, but fascinating nonetheless. We worked for a little bit and then packed up and headed home.

The very nice Buzzards Belly lady told us about some rock art and a ghost town on the way toward home in Thompson Springs, just a few miles away. We got off the highway for some gas and to see the rock art. Donna asked at the gas station if the road was passable with the RV. The answer she got was “it’s paved”. Not a suitable answer, so we stopped in the RV park a mile or so from the gas station. David went into the office and talked to the RV park lady who not only gave him a map of the area but offered to have us drop the trailer in her parking lot.

We headed up the road sans Al, to explore. The rock art was very cool – and looked like aliens had been there. We drove further up the road to find the ghost town in Sego and found a crumbling Pioneer house and a bread oven. David flew the drone around the ghost town – all that was left was the remnants of the general store and one of the houses. We headed back down the road to pick up Al, make a quick lunch for the road, and finish the drive home. It was a cool detour to take off the beaten path that we never would have known about if not for the very talkative Buzzards Belly lady!

At the intersection of the 191/6 and the 15, instead of going through Provo and up the 15 or over Provo Canyon we stayed on the 191 through Duchesne and connected to the 40 through Heber. It was a longer route, but through a beautiful canyon where the highway signs indicated “open range”. We were on the lookout for free-roaming cows, and at one point, an on-coming 18-wheeler flashed its lights at us. Sure enough around the next bend were a handful of cows grazing on the side of the road. This continued for a bunch of miles. Soon enough we were close to Heber and had looked at Instagram to see if Yalla Food Truck was open. Luckily, they were set up on Main Street, so we stopped to pick up some dinner to enjoy once we arrived home. It was a perfect end to a really fun week of National Park visits.

Total Miles: 1,415

  • Tips from Trip #7:
    Reservations aren’t always necessary everywhere as long as there are BLM roads around.
    Just because a place has questionable reviews, doesn’t necessarily mean it will be awful. It might be worth a drive-by.
    If the menu plan says to go to the market to restock some things – GO TO THE MARKET to restock some things!
    Park closer to the dumping hole, and make sure it’s not up on a curb or the angle won’t be right for draining (yuck!).


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