Great Sand Dunes National Park
But we did go there! After leaving lovely Del Norte behind, we drove eastbound along the Colorado Plateau to another big highlight in terms of National Parks – The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Driving up to the dunes it feels underwhelming as the mountains behind it are so much bigger, but once you are right in front of them their sheer size manages to grab you.
We first take a short stroll along the Mosca Creek – Montville Nature trail – which teaches us more about the surroundings and the park. The fall foliage is really coming out now, which makes for pretty pictures and great views across the valley. When we finish this short hike however, it is on to the main attraction: the Dunes! To make the most out of them, we have rented 2 sandboards to add a little bit of thrill to the downhill.
To get to the dunes you first cross a patch of sand which in summer is filled with water, the Merado Creek. Now it is just more sand to get through before the uphill section starts. Getting lost would be quite an achievement, but getting to the top is not that easy! Two steps forward, one step back, but we trod on having the end goal in sight; High Dune. Luc gives up close to the top, but Bo wants to make it there so together with mom the climb is continued. The views up there across the dune fields, with the snow-capped mountains in the back and the high plains stretching out under us, it was certainly worth pushing on!
Then of course the fun starts – the way down is filled with different types of downhills, and we cover them all, some more than once! Sand is eaten, boards got stuck, but all in all the sandboard adds a good extra layer of fun to the experience of the park. Of course it would not be a proper NP day if the work had not been done for a Junior Ranger badge, so the boys wrap up the day with their booklets finished and not only receiving a badge, but also a patch!
We round the mountain range and go northeast, which funnily and counter intuitively actually gets us downhill. More than 1600 meters lower than we started, we finish the day in the Lake Pueblo State Park campground which sits right next to a lake and a mountain bike park. Dinner and a proper shower again after a week makes for a perfect end of the day 😊.
Eastbound to Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
Our route is eastbound, crossing through Colorado and Kansas before going south through Oklahoma to Texas. On the way some more NPS sites await our arrival, but before we hit the pedal, we explore the area we camped in – Lake Pueblo. Sven and Luc head out on the MTB tracks while Bo and Kim check out the lake and have another go at fishing. While the lake seems to teem with fish, they are not very interested in the bright green bait at the end of Bo’s line… so unfortunately no fish for dinner!
The MTB crew go out on very strenuous trails, which causes some frustration with Luc once in a while, but in the end the pride of actually having done it overrules any negativity. The area is fantastic, the trails are on cliffs protruding into the lake and the different skill levels all have enough miles to go around. After all the hard work a well deserved warm shower is taken before we head out again.
After almost running out of gas (we seem to do well on the mileage which makes us forget to fill up after our magic 400 mile marker 😉), we do make it to Bent’s Old Fort. It is a trading post fort along the old Santa Fe trail (another east to west trail from way back when) and is completely rebuilt on top of the old fort. The place is a historic museum with people dressed up to the age and a great self-guided tour. Along the way you run into cats, peacocks and chicken in the strangest places, and learn a lot about the inner workings of a place like this 200 years ago. The boys get their pledge and badge and enjoy the outdoor area with goats and horses before going back to the RV.
We are clearly coming off the Colorado Plateau, as temperatures start to soften again, always a pleasant surprise as you get out of the RV. Our place to stay the night is at a State Park again, this time we are completely by ourselves, except for some big Tarantula spiders we run into, YIKES! Let’s keep those doors closed tonight 😊. Friendlier company are the local prairie dogs, a tortoise and the coyotes that howl at us that evening…
From Sand Creek Massacre NHS to state no 14: Kansas
Or at least that was the plan… as we drive out towards this NPS-site we first take a stopover at the local Walmart to do some DIYing of our waterpump and check some things online. Then we drive up, but it turns out the road to the site is a 9 mile dirt road in a not so good state, which we decide is not worth taking 1 hour to get there and back and get our entire RV rattled through and through. So we have lunch on the side of the road next to a field of cows, which turns out to be very entertaining, and then drive on to our destination for the day. Kansas is state no 14 on our list, and to complicate matters even more, the time zone (mountain vs central = +1 hour) does not start at the state border, but at the next county border.
Syracuse (not to be mistaken for the one on Sicily, Italy) is a little town which has little to show for, but a small pond and some sand dunes. They are nothing like the great sand dunes, more a patch with sand that allows for some OHV play, but the site has a picnic table, showers and toilets and as an extra bonus: WIFI! The boys entertain themselves with their monster trucks outside, as the weather has become nice and warm here again, while Sven attempts to take off the collection of bugs that has accumulated at the front of our RV over the past months… Half successful, but still a good try!
Another fort, and alpacas to top it off
We have a great night sleep, a hot morning shower and off we go again to cross Kansas from west to east in a matter of days… Now many have said that there is not much here to go visit, but we beg to differ. The vastness of the plains, the relative flatness of it (we are Dutch, we can certainly appreciate the flat!), and miles and miles of farmland might make for a monotonous drive for some, but for us it is a joy to roll through. The thing that guides us however beyond the National Park sites in the state is the aforementioned ‘Santa Fe Trail’, the trail that formed in the 1900s, connecting the west (Missouri) to the east – Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The trail is filled with sites to commemorate the past, varying from wagon ruts still found besides the road, to full-fledged forts that were set up as trading posts and helped keeping those that migrated along the trail safe. Today we visit another version of this; Fort Larned. With all the buildings rebuild and stocked to the rim with elements of the past, its visitor center has a great interactive museum on the area and history of the fort along the Santa Fe Trail. Thankfully it also tells the story of the Sandcreek Massacre – The NPS-site we missed out on -, a dark page in the Native American history where hundreds of women, children and elderly Cheyenne were murdered to set an example.
The trail was certainly no picnic! But taking over the grasslands where the bison roam and the Native Americans live was also not the kindest of ways to go about in a new part of the country. We could have spent more time but unfortunately the fort closes (damn you time difference! :-)), and so we drive on to our home for the night: Heartland Farm. It is a Harvest Host site, which is a farm with a wide variety of produce and animals, run by a sisterhood. We are welcomed by Imelda, a fierce 80+yo sister with a great sense of humor, who gives us a tour around the farm.
We meet the 100+ beautiful chicken, Willow the cat (who is carried around by the boys everywhere), the herd of Alpacas, and the farm dog. The farm has a farm manager as well and runs many initiatives from summer camps to pottery courses, and the 3 sisters (70+, 80+ and 90+!!) all still do their work every day. It is clear that a lot of heart goes into the place and it feels like a true oasis. We end in their giftshop with plenty of goodies to fill up the RV with, and walk away with hand made soap, jelly, lip balm and 2 alpaca finger puppets for the boys.
Out on the trail, into the RAIN!?
As we take our time the next morning and enjoy some more of the farm (including the silo made into a chapel and the ‘widest tree of Kansas’), we pack up our RV and head east again along the Santa Fe Trail. As we drive of the clouds start to gather, but fortunately along the day it stays mostly dry as we geocache some points on the trail and work through a workbook for the trail to understand the sites we see. The day is relaxed and entails mostly a lot of driving, finished up at a pretty fishing lake. The boys have a look around the lake, and in the evening a raccoon comes to check out our RV, but the most intrusive visitor is the RAIN…
The next day it is still raining and unfortunately it does not stop for the rest of the day. As we drive to the Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve it turns into a bit more of a drizzle, so we can still walk around the ranch and the pasture for a look around. But the rain is relentless and follows us out to Topeka, Kansas. Fortunately the site to visit is the Brown vs Education Board National Historic site, a museum around the supreme court case of the 1950s that pursued the end of segregation in schools.
As a Dutch native, and with the BLM movement still fiercely going on, we realize going through the museum that we have really no idea about the impacts of this part of the history in the US. Especially the time it took and the differences between the North and South of the states are truly astonishing at times. The setup of the museum was very well done and gave our boys also a good idea of the topic without being too overwhelming. As we have covered a lot of Native American ground on our journey, it is clear we are now entering the African American heritage part of the US… with many more places to visit!
Next week: Big change of plans!