(See our trip in pictures on our Instagram Hashtag!)
On June 6, 2016, our family of four embarked on an ambitious trek through the US Southwest. We wanted to take our sons to see at least NINE National Park Service sites (parks, monuments, or historic sites) in the course of the twelve days we allotted to the trip. Before we left that night, I had put in many, many hours of planning for an itinerary that would hopefully allow enough time to actually enjoy each park, as well as time for family meet-ups along the way. Here’s how it panned out in the end…
We took advantage of leaving in the evening of the last day Tom had to work before his vacation. This gave us a 4.5 hour head start on our first, long day of travel south through Colorado. We spent our first night wedged between semis at the Cheyenne, Wyoming, Flying J truck stop. It was loud, and I am sure I slept a total of three hours that night, but it was worth it to wake up, grab some breakfast from the nearby McDonald’s, and be on our way. And it was free!
Day one took us to Alamosa, Colorado, where we stayed at a really nice KOA (review coming shortly!), just minutes from Great Sand Dunes National Park. We got there early enough that afternoon to swim and then drive over and scope out the park for an adventure the next morning.
We were able to get some lovely sunset photos, walk into the Medano Creek at the foot of the dunes, and discover we did NOT want to drive up to Zapato Falls as the road was all rock and felt like it was ripping our Durango (and our spines) apart!
Day Two started with a return to GRSA (have you seen the National Park Service site abbreviations online), with a stop first to pick up a specially-designed sand sled at the GSD Oasis, just at the entrance to the park. The rental rate was $20 for the entire day, and included a cube of wax to keep you flying down the dunes. These sand dunes are not conducive to snow sleds, as the texture clings to everything, so it is advised to rent a special sled or board for the experience.
This little general store has an assortment of supplies, decent restrooms, and very, very friendly and helpful staff.
I watched them go through a rush slam of customers, and they handled it with grace and agility! They also have gasoline available, just in case you find yourself a bit low, like we did!
We took the sled out and went for a few runs, working our way up to larger and larger hills. The boys loved sledding so much that Tom and I only got to take one run each! We knew that this was already going to be a highlight of the entire trip.
It was an incredible start, and we have agreed that we need to return to Great Sand Dunes again, as we just touched the tip of the experience. We are interested in doing some hiking, getting up to the highest dune, Star Dune, at 750ft above the base, and exploring along the creek for tracks and animals. We had to hurry off by 11:00 am, as we had a drive that ended up being nine hours (or more) down to Carlsbad, NM, and a campsite where we would meet Tom’s sister and family.
The remainder of Day Two was spent driving over incredibly unforgiving roads through New Mexico. There was really no traffic, but the road conditions made it difficult to travel up to the speed limit with our RV in tow. Regardless, there were some spectacular views, amazing cacti, and plenty of mountains to soften the blow. As a bonus, we got to spend a few minutes in Roswell, site of the famed “alien crash” from 1947. Everything in town played on the alien theme, even the fast food restaurants! We arrived late to our campsite (another review coming soon!), and had just enough time for s’mores before hitting the sack.
Day Three began with an easy morning, trying to take it slow with the rising temperatures. This was our hottest day on the entire trip, as it topped out at 112 F in the middle of the afternoon. Dry heat or not, it was WARM! We headed to Carlsbad Caverns NP in the early afternoon, and went down the 750 ft elevator into the Big Room self-guided tour.
Wow. Just wow. The underground conveniences were a bit unsettling (how do they do their plumbing?!), but the tour itself was beyond words. You see, in the Black Hills, where we live, there are two very large caves, but they are LONG not TALL. Most of the time on the tour you have to duck your head to get through the trails. That is not the case here. The Big Room is immense. It’s like putting a crystal ceiling over three football fields and dripping walls down around it! Even our photos can never do it justice, but hey, we tried!!
The close to Day Three was another heart-stopping, bucket list moment: Bat Flight. We had been looking forward to this for months. Here’s the catch: NO electronics allowed in the amphitheater. Ugh. Well, we believe in following the rules, so all of us, except for Tom and Linus, headed down to the viewing area to listen to the ranger do an excellent, down-to-earth talk about bats and the experience. She was great – informative but not over-zealous by any means. Tom stayed in the parking lot to catch video footage (where cameras ARE allowed) as they – hopefully – would fly past. Success! The bats flew directly over him for the duration of the time we were able to stay.
Here’s our YouTube video which highlights the Bat Flight event:
You see, there was lightning in the area from the start, and at one point we all had to evacuate, after probably “only” 200,000 of the 400,000 bats had emerged, because caves ionize the air (which attracts lightning), and it was getting way too close to stay. Needless to say, it was an adrenaline rush followed by and adrenaline rush!
In the next post, Days 4-6, which involve THREE more National Park Sites (including one Monument)… stay tuned!