Day 11 – Friday, June 17, 2022 – Cortez, CO to Alamosa, CO
The journey slowly east home has begun! Today we planned to spend the morning at Mesa Verde National Park, right outside of Cortez, then drive 3-4 hours east to Alamosa. Spend a couple nights there, then Lincoln, NE (UGGHHHH), then home!
We bounded up and out of bed (well, Zoe was curled in a ball saying no, but that’s her baseline morning wake up), and we went down the hall into the breakfast area. The hallway lined with suitcases outside of rooms should have been a sign. The ENTIRE HUGE breakfast area was filled with elderly people wearing name tags on lanyards slowly eating. Oh, boy. There was a woman in her 20s on crutches struggling to get her food, and you think any person there got up to let her sit down? Oh no, they didn’t. We got our food and we buzzed back to the room. The message was clear: get the H out of the hotel before that bus tries to fill up with suitcases and the tour group. Matt threw the bags into car and we hurried off.
So Mesa Verde National Park is literally 5-10 minutes outside of Cortez, but the drive into the park takes a while, as you are driving over switchbacks the entire time going up on to the mesas. It is quite beautiful, with sweeping views. We didn’t see too many other cars initially. Our first goal was to see the Step House, which didn’t require tickets; our second goal was to see the Cliff Palace, for which the road was under construction and tickets were not available. (yeah…. so if you decide to go here, tickets for 3-4 of the Pueblo dwelling tours go on sale 14 days ahead of time. We clearly have taken a more lax approach in planning to this trip, so we didn’t know that until last night. Lesson learned, haha!).
We made our way down the Weatherall Road, only open April-Sept, and stopped at turn outs to see the views – very pretty! We ended at a parking lot where you could hike to the Step House or the Balcony House Tour (note: each was a 15-20 minute hike away and we did see multiple groups show up “on time” for their tours, and were told they wouldn’t make it in time as the tour started after the hike in – will make note of that if we ever come back).
The step house hike was gorgeous and the educational aspect of it (learning about the Basketweaver era of Puebloans) was very interesting. We all enjoyed it. We then hiked back and drove down to check out the other road in the park – the Mesa Loop Road. Oh geez – apparently tour buses are allowed in this park and whoa boy, were they flooding through, with slow moving groups of people flooding every scenic view point – the road was not set up well for this. Interesting that we have not seen that in any other NP this entire trip. There was a bus called Le Bus which haunted us at every turn, particularly Noah.
We did view multiple different dwellings along the way at information turn outs, and we did stop at the Cliff Palace overlooks. (Matt: “kids, you will see this picture in textbooks!” kids: “textbooks?!?”). It looked just like the pictures – just incredible. And for the record, Sarah saw the exact picture in her 5th grade Social Studies book, which just means we are old and used textbooks.
We then jetted down to the Visitor’s Center, picked up a “friend” for Z, ate lunch from the cooler (sandwiches and wraps) and got on the road to Durango. We slowly made our way down the highway among the mountains, through Pagosa Springs, on our way to Alamosa in southeast CO. We kept seeing vans with racer names and numbers and bicyclists along the roads (it was DICEY, man, on some of these mountain areas, too!) and finally we cracked and got close enough to find a racer name and number. OMG. We were on the same route as Race Across America, a biking ultramarathon. Oh how cool, from California to Maryland, with racers from all over the world? Sounds great, like the Tour de France? NO. They ride as much and as fast as they can to do it. They average 1.5 hours of sleep a night. YES. They are riding at night on no sleep at all. DEAR GOD. Anytime we saw one after that, we gave them a WIDE berth, let me tell you!
We finally got to Alamosa – we checked in at the Comfort Suites, which was kind of sketchy – we had a large two queen that had another room with a sofa bed and TV that was through French doors. Whatever, we are all happy. Matt then jetted off to Kristi Adventure Sports – he had reserved two sand sleds for us to use at Sand Dunes National Park tomorrow! Go Matt – this was a key awesome thing to do ahead of time so we could go bright and early to the dunes.
We then noticed the toilet didn’t seem to be working properly (Sarah regrets blaming Noah, sorry Noah!) and the staff worked on it while we were in the pool area. Well, they couldn’t fix it. So they pledged to replace the toilet in the morning, told us the toilet could be used for #1, and then gave us a key to a room down the hall to use for #2. Then the hotel owner gave us 5000 reward points (huh?) and told us he had stayed in the Comfort Suites in Waupaca 10 years ago. (Note: the same hotel owner also had a “talk” to B and Z about whipping their football around in the pool area – he is a busy guy – note: his talk didn’t seem to work much better than our talk and we had to remove their football from them).
For supper, kids demanded and got Little Caesars (whatever) and adults got burgers from Ruby’s Slipper, which were AMAZING. Sarah’s had bacon wrapped jalopenos on it and Matt got curly fries with his. The beer from the Square Peg… ehhh…..
Miles driven: 263.5
Random Fact of the Day: “Le bus” means “the bus” in French. Yes, Noah looked it up. Yes, we are running out of random facts.
Day 12 – Saturday, June 18, 2022 – Alamosa, CO
By this point, when asked what they want for the rest of vacation, every kid says “to sleep in”. Well, kiddos, today we are going to the ONE national park you have to get up early for, and then we have to drive two ten hour days to get home. So yeah… you can sleep when we are back in Wisconsin. Sorry, little ones.
We were up at the crack of dawn, hitting up the breakfast buffet at 6 am (along with a group of college students in a big van with WI plates). This was an even sadder breakfast buffet than Kanab (also suspiciously a Comfort Suites). We picked through what food was available (Zoe grabbed a pack of PopTarts – come on, now) and off we went in our car, towards Sand Dunes National Park!
The NP was located about 35 minutes from Alamosa and we probably arrived around 7:45 am – it’s open 24/7 but no manned entrance gate yet at this time of morning. We got into the parking lot which was 1/3 full already. The dunes are the tallest in the US, and did not disappoint! We grabbed our sand sleds, loaded up a backpack, and crossed a shallow river to get to the dunes. Now, it an ironic twist, it had sprinkled last night so the dunes were just slightly damp – and there were storm clouds covering the surrounding mountains. It all quickly cleared, as the gusting winds and bright sun came out. It was perfect – we would hike over the dunes, find some good slopes, and the kids would take turns sledding down – B had it perfected by the end of the morning. It was exhausting hiking in the sand – and we had sand everywhere!
We made our way down, with the kids sliding down the slopes and us following – it was easy to see why this was a popular park – multiple families had set up near the “river”, lots of people hanging out on blankets while others sledded or sand boarded. It was so pretty and fun!
We made our way down and washed feet off, and then encountered the mess of a parking lot. Matt had heard if you come at mid-day, you might wait 1.5-2 hours to get into the park. Now we know why. The parking area is smaller than most, and we understand why this place is so popular. It really was cool! We gave up our spot to another car as a ranger kept watch on the lot, and B scored a Connecticut license plate! (Good luck getting Rhode Island, eesh).
We then hit up the visitor center – this was the strictest place we had been. They kept a socially distanced line going out the door and only let in exactly the number of people that had left into the bookstore. Masks required. A ranger near the door explained that transmission rates were high in their county so requirements had changed recently. We had been wondering why the NPs were somewhat inconsistent with their requirements compared with others.
After the bookstore, we tooled down the highway, and Sarah spied the turn off to Zapata Falls, which was listed as #2 on the “Things to do in Alamosa” random list she found. We drove up a rough road for a couple miles to a trailhead spilling with cars and people. There was a ~1 mile round trip hike to a 30 foot waterfall that cut into a crevice then spilled into a rocky creek. It was great! We wore sandals on the short hike up, then walked in the rocky creek into the crevice to enjoy the waterfall. It was pretty crowded, and given it was Colorado, everyone had a leashed dog, which of course began barking at each other and fighting in the crevice area.
We hiked on down and rolled into town – returned the sand sleds, called to make sure the toilet was fixed, got back to the room and decided to make a buffet out of all the leftover cooler food. We then let the kids play on electronics – we adults headed for the creepy pool area and enjoyed ourselves for 15 minutes, then texted the kids that they could come. Immediately the pool area was full of screaming and cannonballs and annoyingness (which seems to be an actual word). But they had fun, that’s what counts.
When we got back to the room, we saw it was storming and raining for the first time in our two weeks. Perfect timing! We lazed about for the rest of the afternoon – younger kids got to eat cooler food for supper, and us adults and Noah got take out from Locavore, a local foods restaurant. This was delicious! (Paired with a bottle of Jose Cuervo margaritas, as we are done with the beers along this trip).
Miles driven: 93.1 – feels like nothing at all, nothing at all, nothing at all
Random Fact of the Day: The tallest dune at Great Sand Dunes NP, Star Dune, is about 750 feet high and the tallest in the United States. For comparison, the Log Slide Overlook along the Grand Sable Dunes in Munising, MI is 175 feet high (note: Matt and his family happily slid down the Log Slide Overlook to the shore of Lake Superior when he was a kid and it took them two hours to climb back up it to the parking lot as it is essentially a straight vertical climb).
Day 13 – Sunday, June 19, 2022 – Alamosa, CO to Lincoln, NE
Oof, what a drive today! Given our kids voted against driving through the night to get places (hey, who gave them a vote?), we tend to drive our butts off in long daytime hunks, and this felt like one of the longest.
We had gone to bed early and were up early – happy father’s day, Matt! Hope you don’t get permanent neck damage or tendonitis from all the driving (strangely, the kids continued to vote against Sarah driving). We ate more slightly questionable food from the “continental breakfast” and the car was packed by Matt, and we were ready to leave by 7.
We drove east through the San Luis Mountains, then after Walsemberg, got on the interstate heading north. For the record, this little county seat had TONS of affordable housing options. For all those people who whine nothing nothing is affordable in Colorado, they clearly just mean the disaster of the Denver-Colorado Springs metro area, because there were plenty of houses here on the market! Poor little town was somewhat rundown though, but only a couple hours from the big boy towns up north.
We screamed up the interstate, stopping Pueblo for Starbucks treats and coffee, and then enjoyed the view of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs (back up site for NORAD, located in the mountain – very cool!). We saw two Blackhawk helicopters near there, as well as two Chinooks (the Blackhawks interestingly appeared on our flight radar app but the Chinooks did not). Then we entered the terrible traffic that took us up the corridor from Colorado Springs through Denver. At 10 am on a Sunday, it was a MESS.
We exited the metro area, then hit cattle feedlot nightmare land. And then the wind started. Wind, you say? Yes, it was 101 degrees with 30-40 mph winds. In Wisconsin, we call that tornado weather. Out west, we call that a regular day. We stopped in Fort Morgan, CO for DQ for lunch – there weren’t many options.
We drove on, crossing into Nebraska and stopped at a rest stop that Sarah had been wanting to stop at due to the presence of wagon swales from the Oregon Trail. Very cool! Sutherland I-80 eastbound rest stop in NE, for those who are interested. They have historical plaques. It was so windy we could barely stand up straight, a refreshing contrast to the 102 degree temps. We got back on the road, watching a dust devil make its way over to us. Luckily it hit the highway just after we drove by.
Kids were getting antsy, we picked up McDonald’s for them in York, NE – and finally made it to Lincoln at 8 pm! The wind cutting down driving efficiency and adding back an hour in the central time zone (UGH) made for later arrival time. We stated at a Best Western Plus which was fabulous, and Sarah brought the kids to the pool while Matt ran out to Toast, a restaurant weirdly situated in a subdivision nearby, for a special Father’s Day supper. He got the Thai chicken wrap and Sarah got a veggie burger with jalapeños and hot sauce. Matt drank a chile pepper beer with his food – delicious!
We all snuggled into bed. When Matt asked, “Kids, are you going to be sad we won’t all be sleeping in the same room tomorrow” No one was sad.
Miles driven: 718.4
Random Fact of the Day: dust devils typically form on barren terrain (out west – check), in fair or sunny conditions (yup – check), and conditions with little wind, as the wind will destabilize the atmospheric conditions that help form them (wait, what? – the biggest one we saw was on the windiest day, oddly). We saw lots of dust devils out west, including a small one that hit a child in front of us on a hiking trail at Canyonlands (ironically, that child was the son of the guy from North Carolina from our hotel, who we ran into everywhere).
Day 14 – Monday, June 20, 2022 – Lincoln, NE to Home
This is it. Packed the small duffel bag we brought into the hotel, grabbed a little breakfast, and got on the road. One more day of driving and then home, same route as before, right? Nope, Google and Apple Maps both said to NOT go through Albert Lea because of road construction but to go through Iowa and pick up 151 instead. Um, well, OK. We tried it. We missed a lot of turns. We kept going. We’re home. Many mistakes were made today, including missed turns, hitting the Beltline at rush hour, and trusting that Lamar’s Donuts of Lincoln wouldn’t just substitute in other flavors if they didn’t have what we ordered. Sigh.
Miles Driven: 627
Random Fact of the Day: Our “usual” Culver’s order for our family cost TEN DOLLARS less in Iowa than Wisconsin. WTF?!? Not so much a fact as a random complaint.
Last Random Fact: All together 4929.1 miles. WHOA.