New Mexico Museum of Space History

Alamogordo New Mexico was one of America’s early centers of space research and experimentation. It had the perfect climate, weather, topography, and remoteness for rocket research and testing. The New Mexico Museum of Space History is dedicated to both the history and science of space exploration and rocketry.

Up up and away!

Both Trail and I were excited to check out the museum and delighted by what we found there. The museum is a small tower on a high hill overlooking the salt flats of Alamogordo. As you approach, the first thing you encounter is a park surrounding the museum. There you can find large artifacts including an entire rocket ship, engines from the F-1 rocket, and wreckage from a V-2 rocket. A few items are reproductions but most are the real deal; actual machines from the history of rocketry and space exploration.

rocket_science

Part of the F-1 rocket engine located in front of the museum. Quite a machine!

Inside the museum, you can find a gift shop and can purchase tickets to the various attractions they offer. In addition to the museum, they have a planetarium which boasts to being the world’s first 4k resolution dome theater. While that sounded pretty cool, we decided to just get a museum pass for two. The gift shop was better than most, with a great selection of stuff for any space geek. I was really drawn to the reproduction NASA patches you can buy. So cool! We don’t generally buy much on our travels but we did get a holiday gift for a friend.

The museum is laid out in an interesting way. You jump into one of the world’s most awesomely decorated elevators and ride up to the top floor. From there, you wind your way down one floor at a time with each floor having its own focus or theme. Some revolved around artifacts while others offered hands-on experiences. Throughout the whole museum, a series of chronological portraits and pictures detail the pioneers of space exploration. All are inductees of the International Space Hall of Fame.

This elevator was really cool. They are  just photos on the wall, but if felt immersive.

This elevator was really cool. They are just photos on the wall, but if felt immersive.

Favorite Bits

I was most fascinated by a floor dedicated to space flight controls for rocketry. On display were the gyroscopes and gimbals ranging from the early V-2 prototypes to modern digital systems. A film near the entrance to the room explains the basic principles on which they work using various children’s toys as concrete illustrations. These devices are both beautiful to behold and fascinating to ponder. I could vividly imagine the thrill of engineers must have had to first imagine and then engineer theinnovativeive machines.

These are the amazing machines that were designed to control rocket trajectories.

These are the amazing machines that were designed to control rocket trajectories.

Trail’s favorite hands-on item was the space launch rumble simulator. It’s a large console with a wide standing screen and beneath it, a raised metal platform, much like a giant scale. Standing on the platform you select which space vehicle launch you want to experience. A video plays showing the launch, speakers play the roar of the engines, and the metal platform rumbles and shakes to simulate the ground vibrations from the launch. It was such good fun that we had to try all of the launch scenarios.

The last room is dedicated to the latest inductees to the International Space Hall of Fame. For 2015 they decided to honor filmmakers who inspired the public with their visions of space and space exploration. Walt Disney, Fritz Lang, George Lucas, George Melies, and George Pal were all featured. I was not familiar with Pal and Melies so it was interesting to read about their work.

A moon rock encased in a glass pyramid. One of many artifacts at the museum.

A moon rock encased in a glass pyramid. One of many artifacts at the museum.

More to see

After finishing with the museum proper, we headed over to look at a building housing a rocket sled used for deceleration tests. If featured the complete sled system, its innovative water break, and details of the brave men who rode the sled. Finally, we went to the planetarium building where there were further exhibits on mars exploration and some really stunning satellite images of the earth.

All in all the Museum is well worth the time it takes to explore and the modest fee they charge for entry. I highly recommend checking it out if you find yourself in the area. Space flight highlights some of humankind’s greatest virtues: curiosity, courage, innovation, and determination in the face of adversity. Contemplating the challenge, adventure, and discoveries of space exploration always gives me a sense of pride and hope for the future.

I thought it was a fake rocket made of a grain silo at first. It's actually an original test rocket.

I thought it was a fake rocket made of a grain silo at first. It’s actually an original test rocket.

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Colorado’s San Luis Valley

Over the course of a few days in October, we set out to explore the San Luis Valley, an area of Colorado that also includes Great Sand Dunes National Park. Nestled between the Sangre de Cristos mountain range to the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west, lies an area that technically should be a high desert. Hidden beneath the ground, shallow aquifers nourish the land with water. In some places the aquifers reach the surface and form warm springs, marshlands, and lakes. At over 7,600 feet above sea level, this high-altitude depositional basin covers approximately 8,000 square miles of southern Colorado and a small portion of New Mexico. The Valley stretches 125 miles from north to south, and over 60 miles from east to west. This unique combination of geography creates an expansive and diverse wildlife habitat for us to experience.

Blanca Wetlands Slowly Drying Pond

Blanca Wetlands Slowly Drying Pond

Wetlands Paradise

By the late 1800s, European settlers cultivated much of the land, crossing the valley with irrigation canals and wagon roads. Scattered but extensive wetlands dot the valley. With hardly more than 7 inches of rainfall per year, the main water sources are natural springs, meandering rivers fed by winter snows, and artesian wells. Wildlife tends to concentrate around these wetlands and provide a spectacle for bird watchers. My hope is to get some good wildlife viewing in before the birds escape south for the winter.

Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge

On a windy day, we drove out to Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge , one of three Wildlife Refuges in the San Luis Valley. This nutrient-rich habitat perfect for grazing, roosting, feeding and playing by native and migrating wildlife, including loons, pelicans, herons, egrets, swans, hawks, eagles, falcons, sandpipers, owls, and twice a year in fall and spring, as many as 20,000 sandhill cranes.

Upon arriving, we take the 2-mile Rio Grande River Trail. The cold air chills me to my bone and wind billows through lush yellowing grasses ambivolous of my feelings. I spot a variety of habitat types, but I am drawn to the dense stands of willow and towering cottonwood trees as they sway in the wind. Above us, a Northern Harrier fights gusts of the wind above swaying grass. I begin to think that we won’t see many birds in flight as the air violently swirls about us. Later we spot a lone Black-crowned Night-Heron standing near the river shore, tucked in among the reeds. In a small field of grass, we got a brief visit from a Horned Lark. On the way back, I spot a few Barn Swallows hidden and sheltered within a a shrub. We only make it half way along the trail before the wind gets too much for me and we head back to the truck.

Alamosa Rio Grande River Trail

Alamosa Rio Grande River Trail

Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge

Not to be undaunted, we drive to the west side of the valley to Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, where the Sandhill Cranes like to roost. Small flocks fly about on their 6-foot wingspans and all of them are making a beautiful racket which sounds like a deep rattling bugle. A ratcheting cacophony that is both harsh and mellifluous. Intermingled flocks of Canadian geese honk with their familiar calls.

I take a moment to set up my camera and tripod. After taking a few photographs, I step away to view a few cranes to through the high-powered telescope. That’s when the strongest wind yet topples over my camera and tripod, shattering the display panel. I look inside and see that the mirror is cracked. I loved that camera and try not to cry. It won’t be for a while until I can get a new one. Hitch lovingly consoles me as best as he can.

Monte Vista Sand Hill Cranes and Canadian Geese

Monte Vista Sand Hill Cranes and Canadian Geese just before my camera bit it

Blanca Wetlands

On another day, we drive to the Blanca Wetlands Recreational Area. According to the online material, Blanca houses over 200 ponds, marshes, and playas, which are excellent habitat for large numbers of waterfowl. The roads into Blanca are rough, deeply rutted, and commonly washboard. We initially notice that a number of the ponds are dry, the bottoms lined with cracked earth.

We first stop at a place called Snipe. Here the pond has shrunk significantly leaving a playa made of a white crust earth. There are no birds here, but the white dusty earth is stark and otherworldly. We then drive to North Mallard, and find a set of wet ponds filled with a blue clear water. We can see pond fish swim lazily and distant herons take wing.

Blanca Wetlands White Playa

Blanca Wetlands White Playa

The Foothills

Located on the eastern border of the Rio Grande National Forest, there is a ponderosa pine and juniper ecosystem that gives way to sagebrush at lower elevations. These foothills also house spectacular rock cliffs coveted by rock climbers of every level. We set our sights to this area hoping to experience something new.

Elephant Rocks

We slowly make our way along a dirt road deeply washboard, dusty and rough. From a distance, it is an odd site filled with giant boulders wish look gathered and lumped together by some intentional hand. At the trailhead, an old and curious kiosk explains the naming of Elephant Rocks. Many of the boulders here have indents supposedly formed by prehistoric elephants or wooly mammoths rubbing themselves up against the rocks. I’m guessing that kiosk was written in a time before people understood thermal stress and frost weathering. Here the rocks are a remnant of Fish Canyon tuff, which was large volcanic ash flow deposit resulting from one of the largest known explosive eruptions on Earth over 28 million years ago.

We walked along a rough trail filled with yellow grasses and surrounded by Elephant rocks on either side. We saw snakes slither and lizards skitter among the rocks. I spotted a few Rock Wrens, Green-tailed Towhee, and a pinyon jay. We rounded a corner, a Big Horn Owl greeted us with a screech and hoot. I later learned that the trail we hiked contained traces of the Old Spanish Trail. We hiked for about 2 miles enjoying the scenery before heading back. As we piled into the truck, we spooked a lone male pronghorn and watched him quickly disappear into the tall grass.

Elephant Rocks Trail

Elephant Rocks Trail

Natural Arch

We head slightly deeper into the Rio Grande National Forest along another dusty dirt road, this one filled with ruts in addition to washboards. We pass towering rock formations formed by that ancient volcanic eruption 28 million years ago. From a distance, we can make out the lava flows and lava domes. After a few twists and turns, we found the Natural Arch.  Wind, rain, and frost beat upon the volcanic dome for thousands of years until the Natural Arch formed.  At the bottom of the arch, a ton of rock debris collect as weathering evidence. Above we can see the outlines of a new arch forming. We find a trace of a trail and make our way up the steep slope. Although the distance is short, the going is rough and rocky. Slowly we make our way to beneath the arch. We rest and enjoy our reward of a fine view.

Natural Arch

Natural Arch

Penitente Canyon Closed

The international climbing community frequently flocks to Penitente Canyon for the 60-70 incredible sport climbing routes. The unusual volcanic landscape (rock that eroded and cracked over time) not only created a mystical backdrop for recreation, but the smoothed and rounded rock-face provides good hand-holds! South facing routes can be climbed year-round and range from beginner to advanced levels.

Sadly, the road to Penitent Canyon blocked our way with barricades and signs declaring some kind of special event.

View From Natural Arch

View From Natural Arch

Volcanic Dome

Volcanic Dome

Natural Arch From Halfway Up

Natural Arch From Halfway Up

Natural Arch From Below

Natural Arch From Below

From Behind Natural Arch

From Behind Natural Arch

Elephant Rocks

Elephant Rocks – Partially shaped by ancient elephants? Really?

Elephant Rocks Great Horned Owl

Elephant Rocks Great Horned Owl

Blanca Wetlands Pond

Blanca Wetlands Pond

Alamosa NWR Visitor Center

Alamosa NWR Visitor Center

 

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Airstream Thanksgiving: A year of travel, a night of thanks

Thanksgiving holds extra significance for us now. When we set out on our traveling adventure we stuck around Seattle long enough to celebrate the 2015 Thanksgiving holiday with many of our best friends at the home of Kate and Jeff Grubb. Just a couple days after we were on the road, leftovers in hand, making our way across the country, warm thoughts of our friends in our hearts.

Home for the holidays or any time you like.

One year ago at the Grubb residence. Always a feast for the palate, mind, and heart.

This year the holiday finds us in near Big Bend National park in Lajitas Texas, a town where they have elected a Goat for mayor. Actually, he’s the third in a dynastic line of Lajitas goat mayors. He is easily bribed with peanuts but so far has kept the scale of government here well in check. We are an 8-hour drive and a couple hundred dollars in gas from the nearest friends or family so we are going it more or less alone this time. Not that trail and I ever really feel alone when we are together, but we do miss the comradery of our good friends and the grand meal of a communal Thanksgiving.

The esteemed mayor of Lajitas, Clay Henry III. Perhaps all politicians should be housed thus.

The esteemed mayor of Lajitas, Clay Henry III. Perhaps all politicians should be housed thus.

Trail, undeterred by the limits of our tiny but effective Airstream kitchen has undertaken to prepare a rather grand meal for us. The stove top and our combo microwave/convection oven do their part, but the heavy lifting is being done by a classic cast iron dutch oven. Every camping chef should have one. By applying a specified number of charcoal briquets to the top and bottom you can control temperatures and achieve a range of tasty results. Turkey, sausage stuffing, cranberry sauce, fresh baked bread, garlic mashed potatoes, candied yams, gravy, and pumpkin pie are all on the menu. Each hand made from scratch. Since the none of our equipment can really roast a turkey whole, it is being sectioned up. Some of it used to create stock, stuffing and gravy in advance, other parts to be slow roasted in the dutch oven just before serving.

Trail is busy cooking the stuffing for tomorrows dinner. Made with bread we baked yesterday, fresh herbs, turkey fat, and pork sausage.

Trail is busy cooking the stuffing for tomorrows dinner. Made with bread we baked yesterday, fresh herbs, turkey fat, and pork sausage.

The trick is that the meal has been prepared over the course of a few days. Everything just takes longer in a trailer. Of course, Trail is also a stunningly good cook. She puts a lot of research and planning into her grand meals and is always looking for ways to improve them. Even on the years when we have joined others for Thanksgiving, Trail tends to make a full regalia meal at home as well. It’s a tradition I wholeheartedly embrace.

Our plan is to set our picnic table with a feast, get a campfire going, and enjoy Thanksgiving as the sun sets over the gorgeous mountains here. Then we will watch the stars fill the night sky and reflect together on how amazingly lucky and fortunate we are to be here in this place at this time in our lives. We have a great deal to be thankful for, most of all one another. Here is hoping your Thanksgiving is equally rich in blessings.

This year's Thaanksgiving seating arrangement at Lajitas RV park.

This year’s Thaanksgiving seating arrangement at Lajitas RV park.

 

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Roswell: Alien Encounters

X-Files was something of a cultural touchstone for Trail. She delights in shows about sasquatch, aliens, ghosts, and lost magical treasures. While no true believer, she views them much as she does the lottery; incredibly unlikely, but with ardent hope and excitement that something wonderfully fantastic will occur. I, on the other hand, am too ruled by critical skepticism to have that sense of excitement. None the less, I enjoy them as imaginative fantasy.

Winding our way south through the deserts of New Mexico, Roswell was calling to us. A childhood touchstone for Trail and a point of cultural curiosity for me. Would we experience mind-blowing alien contact or just a lot of shoddy tourist attractions? The truth it turns out, is rarely exactly what you expect.

Roswell, like a lot of desert towns, is spread out. Land is cheap and rarely bounded by natural obstruction so you get endless strip malls and suburbs rather than a concentrated downtown. The hub of alien culture which the town is famous for is located in the historic heart of the town. There are no high rises but many historic buildings. One such older building now houses the International UFO Museum and Research Center.

A reproduction in wood of a Mayan carving purported by some to depict a visitor from another planet.

A reproduction in wood of a Mayan carving purported by some to depict a visitor from another planet.

The UFO Museum

To date, every UFO related place we have stopped has been a disappointment. Outside they may have some cool signs, but when you get there it’s little more than some careless artwork and cheap plastic toys for sale. Fortunately, while the International UFO museum has its share of both those things, it actually has quite a bit more to offer.

About a third of the museum is focused specifically on the famous Roswell incident. After discovering some debris on a local ranch, the US military declared publicly through the newspaper they had found the remains of a crashed flying saucer. Not long after they recanted the claim and instead declared it to be the remains of a high-altitude balloon involved in defense research. Conspiracy theories have been swirling ever since.

The museum does a great job laying out the context under which the announcement was made; a rising tide of interest in saucer sightings. Then it covers all the known facts about the incident in great detail. Finally, it presents artifacts and arguments both for the case for it being aliens and against. Not surprisingly, I found the case against far more substantiated and plausible. Nevertheless, both were presented in great detail and without editorial judgment from the curators.

Another third of the museum proper was dedicated to the broader UFO phenomenon and had displays detailing eyewitness accounts, photographs, and competing theories. A good survey of the alien culture landscape but not a lot of detail. The final third was focused on art inspired by UFO culture. A real standout is a life-size diorama of Greys greeting us with a classic flying saucer suspended overhead. Periodically smoke, light, and sound blasts forth from it to bring the thing alive. Not spectacular exactly, but charming in its way. Mixed in with the art are movie memorabilia including an autopsy scene used in the TV movie Roswell.

The UFO Museum? No, its just Halloween in the Airstream with Trail and Hitch.

The UFO Museum? No, its just Halloween in the Airstream with Trail and Hitch.

The Research Center

Both Trail and I enjoyed the museum, but it was the Research Center that really intrigued and impressed me. Located next to the museum it is primarily a library dedicated to UFO research. They have a pretty healthy book collection that covers both fiction and nonfiction works related to the UFO phenomena. Another room contains an extensive collection of well-organized periodicals and government documents. Computer stations allowed access to the catalogs for all this material as well as for internet research.

There were both public areas for reading and private rooms for presentation or study. The art collection also spilled into this space, but the quality of art was noticeably better in many cases. They also used some of the space to display a private collection of science fiction themed toys. One of my favorite items was a collection of architectural models done by local students imagining a future home for the museum and research center. We were both drawn to the place and tempted to plunk down and spend a day just reading and researching the archives. A fantastic environment for study.

All in all, the UFO Museum was worth the asking price, especially considering how cool their research center was. I wasn’t too impressed with the gift shop, but I’m not one for souvenirs. They did have a lot of audio and videos unique to the museum which true enthusiasts might find intriguing.

A cozy place to do some research on the UFO phenomena.

A cozy place to do some research on the UFO phenomena.

Hitting the Streets

Aliens rule the friendly streets of Roswell. Outside the museum, there are Alien themed shops every which way you look. It’s a nice promenade for window shopping and curiosity-seeking. Very near the museum, we found a Mexican bakery filled with tasty pastry delights at stunningly low prices. We stocked up with cookies and other baked goods we’d never heard of to take back to the trailer with us.

We also visited a local game store: Pair-a-Dice Game Shack where we talked with the owner about the local gaming scene (mostly card games) and the general challenges of running a small shop. Like nearly every game store owner he was very engaging and sociable. I don’t often write about it but we generally visit any hobby game store we come across in our travels.

The periodicals room is quite nice, lots of FOIA papers, journals, and NASA documents.

The periodicals room is quite nice, lots of FOIA papers, journals, and NASA documents.

Jesus, Gems, and Aliens Oh My!

Trail and I also both have a fondness for pretty rocks so we peeked in on a combination rocks shop and Christian bookstore called Anceints of Days. They had a few very nice large specimens as well as a blacklight phosphorescence room which was a treat. Most curious was a man by the name of Guy Malone signing/selling a book he had written about Roswell. Being the skeptical sort I am, I didn’t want to engage him directly about the content of his book so I asked him questions about his writing work in general and we discussed monetizing blogs for a bit. Later I looked him up.

It turns out his books make the case for the Roswell crash and other UFO abductions to be evidence for fallen angels, aka demons who torment those who are spiritually vulnerable. By following Jesus and protecting yourself in the proper ways, those suffering such torments as UFO visitations can be relieved of the burden. It certainly broadened my awareness as to the full range of UFO culture ideas and inspirations. Further research showed there is a whole community of Christians interpreting UFO experiences in this way.

Here is the friendly author Guy Malone signing his book, Come Sail Away With Me.

Here is the friendly author Guy Malone signing his book, Come Sail Away With Me.

Back to the Mothership

So it was that we, loaded with Mexican pastries and newfound knowledge of the UFO universe, returned to our space age Airstream leaving the strange yet charming mecha of Alien tourism behind. On our return, we loaded up Close Encounters of the Third kind followed by some stargazing to round out the experience. We didn’t see any UFOs but there were plenty of mysteries and wonders to behold in the desert night sky.

 

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Great Sand Dunes National Park

After what seemed like a brief visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, we drove south and east, where we spent a little over a week in October exploring the San Luis Valley area and Great Sand Dunes National Park.

In the middle of Colorado, stands the tallest sand dunes in North America, a crown jewel atop a beautiful and diverse landscape. Mountains, plains, wetlands, aspen forests, conifer groves, alpine lakes, and tundra encircle the dunes on various sides. Each of these ecosystems supports its own set of plant life and wildlife, promising unique experiences all within a short distance from each other.

Great Sand Dunes Panorama From the Grasslands

Great Sand Dunes Panorama From the Grasslands

The Great Sand Dunes of America

When we first arrived at the base of the sand dunes, I felt this indisputable spirit of wonder. So distinctly different from the shock and awe from my first steps out on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or from the otherworldly feeling from staring out into the black crusted landscape of Craters of the Moon.

I first saw the Great Sand dunes miles away, a dusty bright smudge against the dark looming Sangre de Cristo Mountains. As we drove closer to the park’s borders, I suddenly realized the immense scale of the sand dunes. The Mesquite Flat Dunes we visited in Death Valley earlier this year feels dwarfed in comparison to the Great Sand Dunes. Here the dunes rise up to 750 feet and over, while the dunes back in Mesquite Flat only reached 100 feet. As I scan, the sand seems to stretch for miles upon miles. Back at the visitor center, I later learn that the Great Sand Dunes extends for over 19,000 acres (roughly 30 square miles or 77 square kilometers).

Hikers look very tiny against the mega sand dunes

Hikers look very tiny against the mega sand dunes

How the Great Sand Dunes Formed

To me, it looks like an inland sea of sand sprawling from the Sangre de Cristo mountainside on the east and down into the plains of the San Luis Valley on the west. Over 440,000 years ago, streams carried sand and gravel down from the San Juan Mountains and into shallow lakes in the San Luis Valley. During seasons of drought, the lakes dried leaving the sand and gravel exposed. Strong south prevailing winds blew through the valley, picking the sand up from the dry lake beds. The wind then carried the grains to the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos. This continual depositing of sand for over 440,000 years resulted in the largest sand dunes in north America.

For every two steps up, I fall one step back as the sand gives way to my own weight. The wind picks up and pelts grains against my skin and weaves through my hair. Without a face mask, I know the grains would lodge easily into my mouth and nose. Winds can reach up to 40 miles per hour, reshaping dune crests in a matter of hours. Within a week some smaller dunes will migrate. Predominating southwesterly winds push them northward, while an uncommon but powerful northeasterly wind pushes them back. This back and forth motion keeps the largest of the sand dunes stable. This is why we can hike to High Dune and Star Dune time and time again.

This sand comes from the dry lake beds found in the San Luis Valley

This sand comes from the dry lake beds found in the San Luis Valley

Sledding on the Lower Sand Dunes

On another day, we stop by the Oasis Store, just outside the park entrance, and rent a sand sled and sandboard. With the boards, we also receive a small puck of wax to help with sailing down the dunes. Sorry snow sleds, cardboard, saucers and other plastic sleds won’t work, the sand is too dry.

We had a great time sand sledding and sandboarding. I preferred sledding for myself and found it fairly easy. All I had to do was just allow myself to follow the slope of the sand dune while going down. If I tried to steer in an opposing direction, I ended up catch the edge of the board and flipping over. Meanwhile, Hitch tested his skill with the sandboard and discovered that it takes a lot of core strength to steer and balance.

Hitch Getting Ready to Shred Some Sand

Hitch Getting Ready to Shred Some Sand

Montville Nature Loop Trail

When we were done boarding, we then took an easy hike on Montville Nature Loop Trail. This short half mile loop provided a nice reprieve from the crowds at the dunes. The trail guides us along the foothills beside a creek, and we stopped at a few points to enjoy the bubbling sounds of Mosca creek and the fall leaves. At highpoint and on a ridge, we got a great view of the sand dunes and Mt. Herard.

View of the Dunes from Montville Trail

View of the Dunes from Montville Trail

Mosca Trail

For hikers with more time, Mosca Trail splits off to the east from Montville Trail and follows the small creek to the summit of a low pass in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. It’s a lovely 3.5-mile one-way hike and winds through aspen and evergreen forests. American Indians and early settlers used this route for travel into the valley.

Mosca Trail Aspen

Mosca Trail Aspen

Medano Creek Missed

From April to June, the Medano Creek flows steadily from the mountains on the east side of the sand dunes. Since we our visit is in late October, there’s just a wet sand bed where the stream would be. The stream is fairly shallow but can surge depending on the snowpack. Maybe the next time we visit we can bob and float with the rest of the kids.

At the Base of the Sand Dunes

At the Base of the Sand Dunes near Medano Creek

Conservation at its Best

The need to protect the delicate watershed lead to the cooperative efforts of various government agencies and private conservation groups. In 2004, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve now include lands west of the original national monument once known and Baca Ranch, and the mountains east, once managed by the US Forest Service. With such unique biology and geology, how could we not spend the time and effort to visit the Great Sand Dunes.

Mosca Creek Panorama

Mosca Creek Panorama

Another Panno of the Great Sand Dunes

Another Pano of the Great Sand Dunes

Indian Grass grows quite well in the sand dune eddies

Indian Grass grows quite well in the sand dune eddies

Sometimes you need a mask to prevent sand in in your mouth

Sometimes you need a mask to prevent sand in in your mouth

Trail with her Sandboard Sled

Trail with her Sandboard Sled

Great Sand Dunes View From Afar

Great Sand Dunes View From Afar

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6 Tips for Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park

I’m going to be up front about this: Rocky Mountain National Park is very very crowded. Over 4.5 million visitors flock to this incredible land of soaring mountains, sapphire blue alpine lakes, and fantastic wildlife. Although the park has visitors throughout the year, Summer peaks with both local and international guests. Even during our visit in the month of October, parking lots filled to maximum capacity by 10am. In the summer, some parking lots fill by 6am! At Alpine Visitor Center, the bathroom lines were over 40 people deep. Campgrounds, although they are first-come-first-serve, fill up as early as 8am. Roads were congested with traffic and hikers press through the popular trails. One park ranger told me, during the shoulder seasons of Spring and Autumn, weekends are 50% or more crowded than weekdays.

Regardless of which season you visit Rocky Mountain, there are a number of things you can do to make your visit more fun and hectic-free.

Golden Beauty

Golden Beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park

Tip 1: Plan Ahead Before Going to Rocky Mountain

If you stay in Rocky Mountains National Park for less than two weeks, I suggest making plans on what you want to see. Visit the Rocky Mountain website, download some maps, read a few guides. Make a list of what you want to see and do. Knowing what you want to do before you get there will maximize your “doing-it-time” and minimize your “sitting-around-figuring-it-out time” while you’re actually there. Here are my favorite links that I used to help me plan:

Rocky Mountain Map - a good map will help save time

Rocky Mountain Map – a good map will help save time – Courtesy of NPS.gov

Tip 2: Pick the Right Season to Go

Selecting the right season to visit Rocky Mountain National Park will determine weather, wildlife, road closures, trail closures, and crowds. For myself, I prefer fewer crowds, more wildlife, and decent weather. This is why we went to the park in October. For yourself, consider what kinds of things you want or not want to experience.

Summer, June to September

According to Rocky Mountian Park Statistics June through September are peak visitor months. In 2016, July got over 900,000 visitors, while the other summer months get around 700,000 visitors on average. It’s hard to find solitude in the park during this season unless you go deep into the backpacking routes.

All roads, trails, and campgrounds tend to be open during the summer; that’s the main benefit of visiting during the summer. In additional to beautiful clear and warm days, wildlife is also rather abundant. At night the Milky Way fills the sky and air warm enough to sleep under the stars.

Get Ready for Traffic in Summer

Get Ready for Traffic in Summer – Courtesy of NPS.gov

Spring, March to May

In 2016, the average number of visitors for each month in spring was about 200,000. In March, there’s still enough snow for winter sports at higher altitudes. Not all roads and trails will remain open, check the Rocky Mountains Current Conditions page for updated info.

Spring is wet with snow runoff filling rivers and streams. Bull elk and buck deer drop their antlers. Spotted fawns stick, elk calves, and moose calves hide in the new green foliage. Bighorn sheep come down early morning and late afternoon to graze right along the roadsides near Estes.

Wildflower viewing - A benefit of a spring visit.

Wildflower viewing – A benefit of a spring visit – Courtesy of NPS.gov

Fall, October to November

Much like in the spring the average number of visitors to Rocky Mountain is about 200,000; most of them coming in October for the Elk Rutting season. During our visit in October, we had clear blue skies and crisp air with the occasional snow in the high altitudes. On the day we planned to drive along Trail Ridge Road to the east side of the park it snowed, and the rangers closed the road! Thankfully, we got to Old Fall River Road before the snow. Be sure to check for road closures on the Rocky Mountains Current Conditions page.

Let me say Rocky Mountian thrilled me in October!  We saw herds of elk and caught the bugling of several elk bucks. The Aspen Gold Rush, where the leaves start to turn a bright golden color in late August at higher elevations and then work their way down to lower elevations in October, rewarded us with gold and amber riots of color. Sadly we left before the Bighorn sheep could stage their head-butting contests in late October and November. Best of all, the mild temperates allowed us to do strenuous hikes without overheating.

Listen for the bugles of Elk Bucks

Listen for the bulges of Elk Bucks

Winter, December to February

This is the low season of the park, with an average of 100,000 visitors per month. There is snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the lower valleys. Downhill skiing at Eldora and Winter Park, and sledding at Hidden Valley. While brave souls can try their hand at winter mountaineering in the high country. Access roads will remain open and provide the winter traveler with a panorama of the high mountains.

There are limited services at campsites, so check before going. They do allow backpacking, but you’ll need a permit and a whole lot of skill. There’s a danger of avalanches, sudden snow storms, and hypothermia.

Dream Lake in Winter - Try Winter for some Spectacular Views

Dream Lake in Winter – Try Winter for some Spectacular Views – Courtesy of NPS.gov

Tip 3: Use the Shuttle Service

From May to October, the park runs a shuttle service and you can get as far as Bear Lake and Moraine Park all the way from Estes Park with just one transfer. In the summer, parking lots can fill up as early as 6am. In Fall and Spring, the lots are full at 10am.  I also suggest using the shuttle service as means to get back to your car if you decide to take a non-loop one-way hike. Also, don’t forget to check when the last shuttle leaves to prevent being stranded.

Rocky Mountain Shuttle Map 2016

Rocky Mountain Shuttle Map 2016

Tip 4: Go Early or Go Late

The peak time for Rocky Mountain is 10am to 3pm, so go before 10am or after 3pm, you’ll find parking and avoid the crowds. The park receives 50% more visitors on weekends than on weekdays, so make Saturday or Sunday your rest day and attack that hike on a Tuesday.

Bathroom Line at Alpine Visitor Center

Bathroom Line at Alpine Visitor Center

Tip 5: Go West Side for Solitude

I am a solitude and wilderness seeker. Occasionally, I need to get away from the swath of tourists and disconnect for a while. West of the Continental Divide sees fewer visitors than the east side. Moreover, fewer people also means more wildlife. Try Colorado River Trail on the west side of Trail Ridge Road across from the Timber Lake Trailhead, about 9.6 mi north of Grand Lake Entrance Station, you’ll gain access to nine backcountry sites. Furthermore, moose and bighorn tend to favor this side of the park, so that’s worth the visit. Be careful, Highway 34, also known as Trail Ridge Road, closes in the winter.

Colorado River Trail in West Rocky Mountain National Park

Colorado River Trail in West Rocky Mountain National Park – Courtesy of NPS.gov

Tip 6: Give Yourself More Time

Give yourself more time to enjoy the scenery, to find wildlife, and to discover that little bit of detail that others missed. Most importantly, give your body time to adjust to the environment. The number one killer in Rocky Mountain National Park is the heart attack, followed by falling. The average altitude of the trails is around 9,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. Listen to your body, and obey it if it asks for rest, water, or food. When we went on our 8-mile hike in the Bear Lake Corridor, it took us over 8 hours because we spent time resting and enjoying the scenery.

Hitch tired! Listen to your body and rest!

Did you forget your sunblock? Hitch tired! Listen to your body and rest!

Final Thoughts

Hitch and I only got to stay at Rocky Mountain National Park for a week, before we moved south toward other destinations. I truly believe it takes at least a month immerse yourself in the abundant awesomeness of this park. To get a deeper experience, I would really enjoy visiting in winter, but not in the Airstream. I need a roaring fire to warm my easily frozen feet. If you decide to visit the Rocky Mountains, give yourself more time than just a week, you won’t regret it!

View from Alpine Visitor Center

View from Alpine Visitor Center

The post 6 Tips for Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park appeared first on The Adventures of Trail & Hitch.

Rocky Mountain: Bear Lake Corridor Hike

With only a week to spend in Rocky Mountain National Park, I wanted to get the best bang for my hike. After much planning, I set my sights for a day hike in the Bear Lake Corridor. I check the weather and find a sunny day. I set a literary that includes several lakes along a trail filled with aspens in their autumn colors. On the day before, I prepare our backpacks with water, snacks, lunch, sunscreen, bug spray and our 10 essentials. I warn Hitch that this could be a long one and he seemed okay with it, at least before the hike he did.

Bear Lake Area Hike Map

Bear Lake Area Hike Map

Bear Lake Trailhead

On the day of our hike, we set out early in the morning for Bear Lake Trailhead, which is located at the end of Bear Lake Road via Highway 36. Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park make the Bear Lake Area a popular destination and the parking lot tends to fill up by 10am. During the summer, buses will shuttle hikers and tourists to various points along Bear Lake Road, but we arrive early enough and find parking right at Bear Lake. At the trailhead, a ranger station helped us with our last minute questions. The trail that loops around Bear Lake, following the shoreline, is one of the most popular trails in Rocky Mountain National Park even in winter. We don’t take that hike, but we make a short stop to view the Bear Lake before heading out on our long journey.

Bear Lake

Bear Lake – a popular destination for many Rocky Mountain Visitor

Nymph Lake

We ascend the trail through a pine forest for half a mile before reaching Nymph Lake. I fall instantly in love with the view. Waterlilies grace the surface of a dark blue lake. Pines frame the shoreline, while waterfowl feed on the weeds. I look up and see Longs Peak, Flattop Mountain, and Hallett Peak rising in the distance. Visitors crowd upon benches and rocks enjoying this popular destination.

Nymph Lake

Nymph Lake – I see a lot of hikers, sadly no nymphs.

Dream Lake

From Nymph Lake, we continue on another for another 0.6 miles to Dream Lake. Just like Bear Lake and Nymph Lake, Dream Lake draws a crowd, and for good reason. This lake rewards those who put in a little effort. The trail also provides a great view of Glacier Gorge before hand. When we reach our destination, I can see why they call it Dream Lake. The water reflects its surroundings like a mirror image, then occasionally the reflection shimmers and shifts from even a minute disturbance.

Dream Lake

Dream Lake feels like a Dream!

Emerald Lake

From Dream Lake, we continue for another 0.7 miles to Emerald Lake. As we gain altitude, a very pleasant and impressive looking pine forest surround us. To the left Tyndall Creek gurgles down the gorge and jagged spires of Flattop Mountain loom directly in front of us. When we reach the lakeshore, I check our altitude and discover that we’ve climbed 600 feet in about one mile from Bear Lake Trailhead and that we now stand 10,110 feet above sea-level. Whew! No wonder I’m breathing hard and my heart is about to burst!

Emerald Lake

At the far end of the lake, there’s a trickling waterfall falling down the steep mountainside. Emerald Lake feels intense as the surrounding mountains peaks seem to encase the lake.

Lake Haiyaha

For our journey to Lake Haiyaha, we have to backtrack 0.6 miles, down past Dream Lake to Glacier Trail Junction, where the trail crosses Tyndall Creek. From the junction, the trail takes us south and we flank Hallet Peak. For 0.9 miles we gain about 325 feet in altitude, most of that gain being in the first half. After that first sharp turn in the trail, the path opens up to a wonder view of Tyndall Gorge. We move forward and the trail levels out as we make way to Haiyaha Lake.

From Glacier Gorge, we follow the right fork in the trail which leads to Lake Haiyaha. When we reach the end of the path, I’m surprised to discover huge boulders and I wonder where the lake is. I see a few smaller pools, but the map indicates a lake more than a quarter mile long. We spot some hikers scrambling over rocks ahead of us and follow them.

Lake Haiyaha - Rocks. Lots of Rocks

Lake Haiyaha – Rocks. Lots of Rocks

I later learn that “Haiyaha” is a Native American name meaning “Big Rocks” and that proves to be accurate along the shore of Lake Haiyaha. As soon as we scramble over the huge rocks, we finally see the lake. I am stunned by the scene at Lake Haiyaha. The water is a deep green-blue. Otis Peak dominates at nearly 12,500 feet, while Hallett Peak looms at over 12,700 feet. Between the two mountains, aptly named Chaos Canyon looks like a scar of rugged and ruthless rock. To my left, I can bearly make out The Sharkstooth, a pointed rock which the only the bravest climbers dare.

Dotted around shore hikers perch themselves atop huge and small boulders surrounding the lake. We pick a boulder and have our lunch.

Dotted around shore hikers perch themselves atop huge and small boulders surrounding the lake. We pick a boulder and have our lunch.

Mills Lake

For another 1.8 miles, the trail leads us downhill and about half way Hitch starts to get cranky. We stop and rest near a pond filled with water lilies before we push on.  The trail then takes us down into Loch Vale and a crossroad. We take the south trail, which starts to ascend put only slightly.

By the time we reach the foot of Mills Lake, the hike has beaten Hitch and he finds a warm sunny spot to take a nap. I on the other hand push on. I make way over the rock face and through subalpine trees, and I am awarded the best view yet. Just nestled just below Half Mountain, Mills Lake clear blue waters shimmers. Near the shoreline, I can spot fish darting out under logs and rocks. I am surrounded by a stunning panorama of the Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda Mountain, Chiefs Head Peak and Thatchtop Mountain. Making way further down, I find a rocky outcrop that juts slightly into the middle of the lake. I sit and marvel, so very happy and amazed that I’ve made it this far. The sun still hangs high enough in the sky, and the light warm enough to lulls me into my own nap.

 Mills Lake is named after Enos Mills, the man commonly referred to as the "father of Rocky Mountain National Park". Mills became the area's first naturalist. He made great contributions to the field that would ultimately lead to that honored profession of a park ranger.

Mills Lake is named after Enos Mills, the man commonly referred to as the “father of Rocky Mountain National Park”. Mills became the area’s first naturalist. He made great contributions to the field that would ultimately lead to that honored profession of a park ranger.

Alberta Falls

Just the sun hits the crest of Thatchtop, Hitch has found me. He looks rested, but kind of cranky. We start to head back down Glacier Gorge Trail and toward Loch Vale crossroads. We turn right and make our way down a rocky path that parallels Glacier Creek. For most of the hike, we are shaded from the sun.

The trail starts to open up and we find another junction. We head straight and northward, following the downhill path. We then end up in an alpine forest filled with yellow and orange leaves. I can hear the rush of the waterfall up ahead.

Through the aspens

Through the aspens

The trail turns, and I can see Alberta Falls just through the trees.  We take a break, Hitch still looks grumpy. I ignore him and enjoy the sounds of the water rushing over rocks and the wind rushing through the aspens. Before I head out, I quickly check our location and find we’ve decided over 500 feet in about 1.5 miles. I am so glad we’re going down hill. My heart would have exploded by now if was an uphill climb.

Near Alberta Falls

The falls is named after Alberta Sprague, the wife of Abner Sprague, one of the original settlers in the Estes Park area.

Back to Bear Lake Trailhead via Glacier Gorge

We have 0.9 more miles to go before we get back to the car. The trail takes us downward and into Glacier Gorge. We weave through a mixed pine forest and aspen groves. At one point, there’s a break in the trees and I can see down into the valley. I can also spot the Bear Lake Road, hills on either side swathed in alpine green and dotted with aspen orange.

When we reach the bottom, cross over Tyndall Creek and trudge our way back up to Bear Lake. At this point, I’m really tired and can feel an ache in my thighs and calves. It’s late afternoon and the sun is fully hidden by the mountain side, I should be cold, but I’m working so hard up the hill, I heat up and I feel like I’m sweating buckets. I watch as younger and athletic hikers pass us. I’m kind of jealous and wonder if this is how Hitch feels. I don’t ask because I know he is not happy right now.

Tyndall Creek

Tyndall Creek, Water Fresh from Rocky Mountain!

We finally make to Bear Lake parking lot and into our truck. Hitch and I rest, drink and eat before heading back. We don’t say much to each other because we’re tired. We head to a Chicago pizza joint near our RV Park, which makes Hitch happy and he returns to being a nice human once his belly is full. For myself, I’m proud that I hiked 8 miles in the Rocky Mountains at an average altitude of 9,500 feet. I’m not fit, nor young or athletic, but I did it anyways. I got my beautiful alpine lakes and my golden aspen colors, so my reward is just.

Glacier Creek near Mills Lake

Glacier Creek near Mills Lake

Our rest stop pond near Glacier Gorge Trail

Our rest stop pond near Glacier Gorge Trail

Aspen Grove Near Glacier Creek

That iconic Rocky Mountain Aspen Near Glacier Creek

View of Nymph Lake from Above

View of Nymph Lake from Above

Hitch at Nymph Lake

Hitch at Nymph Lake

Me at Lake Haiyaha

Me at Lake Haiyaha

Together at Dream Lake

Together at Dream Lake

 

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Rocky Mountain: Old Fall River Road

When I think of great American Icons, Rocky Mountain ranks pretty high on the list, right up there with Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. I picked October to visit Rocky Mountain due to the famed aspen autumn colors and the elk rutting displays. I regret that we could only stay a week, but we got to experience some pretty awesome hikes and wildlife in that time.

Old Fall River Road

As you can guess by now, I like to include at least one good scenic drive when visiting a national park. I think it’s a great way to get an overview of the area and helps with figuring out what we want to do next. For Rocky Mountain, we went with Old Fall River Road.

In 1920, Old Fall River Road earned the distinction of being the first auto route in Rocky Mountain National Park, and the first route over the Continental Divide. The road allowed access to the park’s high country, but unlike Trail Ridge Road, which is well known for being the highest continuous paved road in the nation, Old Fall River Road is more of a motor nature trail.

Sign To Old Fall River Road - One-way only, Go slow!

Sign To Old Fall River Road – One-way only, Go slow!

Before hitting the road, I suggest going to at any visitor center bookstore and getting either an audio tour CD or booklet guide. Also, check for road status; Old Fall River Road can close during winter and is subject to the occasional maintenance.  This one-way uphill narrow gravel road, tight with switchbacks, requires a slow and cautionary pace. For 11 miles, the driving trail lead us from Horseshoe Park, through the park’s wilderness, and up to Fall River Pass, which is over 11,700 feet above sea level.

We passed a few signs indicated a speed limit is 15 miles per hour and for good reason, there’s plenty of loose rock, no guard rails, and punctuated with narrow curves. Thank goodness Old Fall River Road is one-way going up! There were a few times, I could reach out the window touch those yellow and orange Trembling aspen trees. Oh, there are conifers such as Ponderosa pine, Engelmann spruce, and Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir, but I wouldn’t want to scrape my hand against those needles even though they smell like high Christmas season.

Aspens on a mountain side

Aspens on a mountain side

Built By Prisoners

Long ago, this trail only serviced Indian Hunters on their way to find game and the occasional trapper once European settlers moved in. In 1913, before the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park, the state prison inmates carried out the early construction. The laborers were forced to build a three-mile stretch of road to Chasm Falls with no more than hand tools. Officials discovered that the convicts made little progress, so they hired contractors to finish the road.

Old Fall River Road

I can’t imagine climbing this road on foot! Let alone be building by hand.

The Alluvial Fan

Just before we start driving over a dirt road, we pass a messy assembly of boulders on either side of the road. There’s a short trail here and I can see a forest slowly recovering. This area is known as the Alluvial Fan and reminds visitors of what happened there in 1982. One July day, the Lawn Lake earthen dam failed and released 30 million cubic feet of water. The flash flood killed three campers and caused $31 million in damage to the town of Estes Park, Colorado, and neighboring areas. The waters rushed down the Roaring River valley and scoured out a large gully out of the mountain stream. Water flowed at a peak rate of 18,000 cubic feet per second, which meant the lake emptied in only about a half an hour, and left uprooted trees, mud, and boulders deposited as far as Estes Park.

Stream with in the alluvial fan

Stream within the alluvial fan

Chasm Falls

About 1.5 miles from where the road changes from pavement to dirt, we took a quick glance at Chasm Falls. Chasm Falls at 25 feet is probably the only real falls on the East side of the park.

Chasm Falls - The only real falls on the east side of the park

Chasm Falls – The only real falls on the east side of the park

Subalpine Ecosystem

After the falls, the road continues climbing passing into a subalpine ecosystem filled with Englemann Spruce and fir. There are a few windows between trees where we can see down into this spectacular valley. At Willow Park, I take out my binoculars and try to spot Elk and Mule Deer, but it looks like they’ve gone deeper into the valley. Soon we reach Fall River Cirque, a birthplace of glaciers that once worked their way up and down the mountain valleys. With the glaciers gone, all that’s left is a landscape which looks like someone took a giant scoop out of it.

View of the valley below from Old Fall River Road

View of the valley below from Old Fall River Road

Alpine Visitor Center

We then head up a headwall of an amphitheater-like formation before joining Trail Ridge Road near the Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass. Alpine Ridge Trail also starts here, but we forgot to bring warm clothing and won’t dare take the hike in shorts and t-shirts. Instead, we head to the visitor center and comfort station. We take a much-needed break and some lunch, before taking Trail Ridge Road back to town.

Old Fall Road seemed short, and I wanted the ride to last longer. The views were spectacular and worth the drive. I’m glad we were able to drive it before it closed for the winter season.

View from the Alpine visitor Center

View from the Alpine visitor Center

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The Stanley Hotel

I have this thing about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980s film, The Shining. I watch it annually as soon as October rolls around. I’ve read the book a few times, but I honestly don’t get the same creepy feeling as with watching the movie. You could say I’m a fan of the movie, but only in the fact that I watch it regularly and that I like sifting through trivia related to the movie. So when we set out on the road to see America, I had to include a few stops associated with the movie and the book.

In August, our trip to Glacier National Park took on us on that very road that the Torrance family’s Volkswagon Beetle took to the fictional Overlook Hotel. If you’re wondering, the film location for those aerial shots is actually Going-To-The-Sun Road in Montana. I loved that scenic drive across Glacier National Park, and I highly recommend it to anyone.

The Stanley Hotel

The Stanley Hotel – I can’t spot any ghosts in the windows, can you?

The Stanley Hotel

In early October, I thought it would be fun to visit both Rocky Mountain National Park and the Stanley Hotel. So on the day after our arrival in The Centennial State, we set out to Estas Park. The building on the outside was regal, while the interior felt opulent. The grounds still look lush with plants thriving off the mild Indian Summer weather, and yellow-leafed aspens shiver in a slow breeze. I really couldn’t ask for a perfect autumn setting than this.

The Hedge Maze - Still young and needs to grow

The Hedge Maze – Still young and needs to grow

The Gardens

In the front courtyard, young Emerald Green Arborvitae trees marked the beginnings of a small hedge maze, just like in the movie, although not as big or elaborate. Just beyond the hedge maze, there’s a canvas tent erected on the front lawn. This rustic base camp offers fun interactive learning or the freedom to hang out in the shade with a beer. Visitors can also play lawn games and enjoy campfire socials with smores and drink whiskey or wine. In the smaller tent, you learn more about where to go and what to do in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Stanley Hotel Gardens

Stanley Hotel Gardens – lovely in the autumn

The Main Floor

Walking up the front steps and through the main doors takes us back in time. There are creaky wood floors and a fireplace roaring right next to some overstuffed leather chairs. Behind the check-in desk hang decorative faux-brass room keys. Near the window stands a vintage Stanley Steam Car highly polished and gleaming in the sunlight. Guests weave up and down a vintage staircase since not many dare the old 1930s elevator. In the Concert Hall, an overpriced ghost tour begins with a seance and made complete with a lady in black lace. The only thing this place lacks is an eloquent staff dressed in crisp 1920s garb; both the restaurant hostesses and the clerk staff look haggard and kind of messy.

The Stanley is a Georgian era Hotel built in 1911

The Stanley is a Georgian era Hotel built in 1911

The Nosh

The restaurant and whiskey bar inside is draped in luxuriant furnishings and copper facades. I wish I could say wonderful things about the food and libations but they don’t amaze me in flavor or presentation – it just tastes like decent bar food. I guess you pay for the venue more than the meal. Downstairs is a cafe and espresso bar which serves pastries and drinks few levels up in quality.

Bartender! Whiskey, Neat.

Bartender! Whiskey, Neat.

The Lower Levels

Next door to the cafe, is the events office for those interested in buying tickets to ghost tours and other events. Just down the hall lives a small archives room where you can view historic photos, documents, and other artifacts. At the very end of the hall, sits the offices of the hotel’s resident medium and psychic, Madam Vera, who you can hire at some outrageous hourly fee. Tucked away in the corner, an unmarked door leads to a service hallway which you can only visit while on a ghost tour.

Guests getting a primer before the Tour

Guests getting a primer before the Tour

The Shining Inspiration

On October 30, 1974, Stephen King and his wife Tabitha checked into The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. At the time, the staff busily closing the hotel for the winter season, and thus they were the only two guests in the hotel that night. After having dinner in an empty dining room, the staff escorted them down long empty and eerie corridors to room 217, one of a few haunted areas in the hotel.

That night King, dreamed of his three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming – a possessed fire-hose wildly chasing his son. King then woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, and within an inch of falling out of bed. He got up, lit a cigarette, sat in a chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, King had the bones of the book. While Room 217 of the Overlook Hotel is featured prominently in the novel, the movie writers changed it to Room 237 for the film.

Long Lonely Halls

Long Lonely Halls

Room 217

I’m here at The Stanley Hotel searching for ghosts. Well, actually it’s the ghost stories that I want. While wandering the hotel, I learned the secret behind Room 217. In 1911, a freak gas explosion injured Elizabeth Wilson, a chief housekeeper. As she was lighting the acetylene lanterns in Room 217, the gas ignited in a quick but powerful eruption. She survived with broken ankles, but to this day takes special care of Room 217’s guests. Guests have reported items moved, luggage unpacked, and lights being turned on and off while staying in the room

A ghostly maid will unpack your luggage for you! The Horror!

A ghostly maid will unpack your luggage for you! The Horror!

The Ladies’ Man

Then there is Eddie, a ghost who initially presented himself with a foul odor, earning him the nickname “Stinky Man.” Apparently offended by the moniker, Eddie switched tactics and began exuding a more pleasant smell. As the resident prankster and ladies’ man, Eddie likes to stroke the hair and kiss the cheeks of female guests. He’s said to frequent the Concert Hall and the ladies restroom.

Do you prefer a pet or a kiss from Eddie the Ghost!

Do you prefer a pet or a kiss from Eddie the Ghost!

The Owner & His Wife

Freelan O. Stanley of Stanley Steamer fame constructed the 138-room Georgian hotel after contracting tuberculosis and his doctor ordered him to spend time in the fresh air of Estes Park. He enjoyed the area so much, he decided to stay. Today, witnesses claim that you can still see Stanley roaming the lobby and the Billiards room on late and lonely nights. While his wife, Flora, occasionally plays the piano when no one is looking.

Does Mr. Stanley the ghost drive a ghost car?

Does Mr. Stanley the ghost drive a ghost car?

Worth the Visit

The Stanley Hotel exudes an odd mix of tourist trap and genuine history with an excellent old world ambiance. Both Hitch and I would love to host a Call of Cthulu game for our friends in one of the private rooms. We also would love to stay a night for our anniversary, but locations south called to us. Perhaps another time!

Visit the Base Camp for whiskey, wine, smores, and Rocky Mountain Tours

Visit the Base Camp for whiskey, wine, smores, and Rocky Mountain Tours

Chillax in the Basecamp Tent

Chillax in the Basecamp Tent

The Archives Room - are the artifacts within haunted as well?

The Archives Room – are the artifacts within haunted as well?

Bar and Restaurant - Looking mighty fine in her coppery decor

Bar and Restaurant – Looking mighty fine in her coppery decor

A steam car! Does it steam carpets?

A steam car! Does it steam carpets?

The Lobby looks cozy

The Lobby looks cozy

Standing at the Front Steps of the Stanley

Standing at the Front Steps of the Stanley

The post The Stanley Hotel appeared first on The Adventures of Trail & Hitch.

Reviewing RV Parks

,I’ve reviewed every park we have stayed at since we began our journey. My motives for doing so are a mix of providing content for my blog, informing the RVing public, and getting some practice in writing reviews. In the process of doing these reviews, I’ve had to do some reflection on what makes an RV park good, what is fair to critique, and what is a fair price for the services they offer.

The Short Version

On one hand, reviewing an RV park is a simple process. Spend some time there, form an opinion of it, and write about that. Most folks want to know your bottom line; whether you liked it or not, and a little bit about why.

Make sure you feature the name of the park and where it is located in your review so that people looking for it can find it. If it is near a major attraction, mention that as well. This way folks looking for “RV parks near Yellowstone” find your review of a park near Yellowstone.

It helps if you develop something of a format to help you quickly and efficiently write up your reviews. I’ve settled on a format that starts with a summary opinion, gives some details about the park as bullet points, then ends with a few paragraphs on my experience and evaluation of the park. My thought is that folks can quickly get my take, then dig into the details if they so desire.

If you are making a blog post out of it, be sure to include some nice pictures of the park so folks can get an idea of what you are talking about, both good and bad.

Pretty much what I always imagined an RV park to look like, yet most of them don't.

Leeds had the nicest bathroom of any park so far. Clean and totally private with a large shower, nice toilet, mirrors, and large sink.

The Long, and possibly Boring Version

If the thought of a long discussion about RV parks and reviewing them sounds dull, by all means, stop reading immediately. I’m not sure how you got this far but it’s only going to get worse from here on out.

Consider your audience

RV parks serve a number of different clientele who are looking for different things. There are full-time RVers like ourselves. There are vacation RVers. There are folks looking for cabins. There are folks who want to stay in a tent. There are those who just want to park overnight. And there are some who want to stay for months at a time. All these people have somewhat different needs and expectations.

Age is another factor to consider. Some parks cater mostly to elderly campers or have an upper age restriction on who they admit. Others very kid friendly and have lots of playground equipment and places to play. Some folks want peace and quiet while others appreciate that their kids can have a grand time while they prepare dinner or just get some time alone.

When we write a review, we are often looking at a park from our own needs and perspective. I don’t really know what makes a great park for a tent camper or a person looking for a cabin to stay in. I can make some guesses but I’d probably miss something important. As a full timer, some amenities are more precious to me than someone on a weekend getaway. When I do my reviews, I do it from my own perspective, but for the sake of fairness, I try to at least consider what others might find delightful or bothersome about a park.

The other type of person likely to read your reviews are the owners and operators of the park. A wise park owner should keep tabs on what people are saying about their business and I’ve had a couple comment on our reviews. A good review can help a park’s business and a bad one can hurt it, though it may provide useful feedback to the park owner. While I don’t consider this my primary audience, I do keep them in mind.

This is the park office, chock full of interesting stuff like so much of this RV park.

Santa Fe Skies RV was the most lovingly maintained RV park we visited. They had state of the art hookups, beautiful art, and brand new washers and dryers.

Being Fair

Believe it or not, I actually struggle with this at times. I always feel entitled to my opinions but when I am publicly stating whether a park is good or bad I feel an obligation to put some diligence into my review. It is at these moments I keep the owner and operator of the park firmly in mind. Generally, these are small business owners looking to make a living and provide comfort and shelter to travelers.

It’s important to consider that not every aspect of a park is something the management can control. A park that is near an airport can’t reasonably stop noise from aircraft. Parks in the desert can’t be expected to have huge lush lawns. Those in a prime location is going to pay more for their land, and thus must charge more, than one in a remote rural area. A good review should make note of what you disliked, but any harsh judgment should be reserved for problems that can be laid squarely at management’s feet.

Trail loves gardening so keeping the flowers and decorative plants happy is as much fun as work.

We actually worked at Mountain View RV. They did a great job keeping things clean here and we tried to leave it in even better shape than we found it.

Judging Price

This is one of those areas where fairness is difficult to measure. Every park is unique in a number of ways. Different campers value different amenities and have different standards of cleanliness and aesthetic. The costs of the business can vary wildly as well. The cost of the land is something few campers will know but can drastically impact the price management must charge to keep the doors open and make a living.

Personally, I have a broad baseline of what I expect for a given price. If I feel I get more than I expect the park is deemed a bargain. If I get less then I deem it overly expensive. Here I try to be a good consumer and keep the consumer in mind while setting a baseline price that I think is fair to a “typical” owner. For me, $30 is my baseline for a decent, no-frills stay at a well-maintained park in 2016. At lower prices, I expect to make compromises and at higher prices, I expect something exceptional (which could be nothing more than a fantastic location).

Wood Shop

Preferred RV in Pahrump actually had an on-site woodshop for its residents. Not something you see very often.

Location

Location matters. Early in my reviewing, I didn’t take it into account as much as I should have. Having a location near the destination you intend to visit is an important factor in judging price. Each day you spend commuting between where you park, and where you spend your day is going to cost you time, and more objectively, fuel. Trail and I put together a small spreadsheet we use to evaluate park prices based on the cost of the stay plus the gas it takes to get to the local points of interest we plan to visit. Sometimes the closer park, with a higher price, is actually cheaper because of the reduced fuel cost.

Of course, location can also greatly impact the aesthetics of a park. Some parks have incredible views of natural splendor, dark quiet nights beneath the stars, and fresh air. Others are found near landfills and feature trains rumbling by at night, terrible aromas, and lots of bothersome insects. A great park location is worth a lot in feeling at ease and at home where you are parked.

Finally, there is the matter of convenience. If you stay somewhere for any length of time, having decent shopping options nearby is a real boon. Typically the most useful stores are grocery, hardware, automotive, and drug stores. A nearby gas station is also a big plus. One thing many don’t consider but can be crucial is cell phone service. Some parks have hardly any at all, while others are well covered by all the major carriers.

View from Wahweap.

View from our site at Wahweap RV, hands down the best RV park location we have yet had the pleasure of enjoying.

The Grounds

Personally, I like the grounds of an RV park to make me feel a sense of peace and comfort. That isn’t always easy to achieve given the local terrain or weather. Large shade trees are something I find especially nice in parks that have them, but they can take decades to grow and they are wasteful to maintain in desert areas. I am often disappointed by parks that leave trash and construction materials lying around haphazardly. It’s a bit like staying in a kid’s messy bedroom.

Often the quality of the grounds and the quality of the amenities go hand in hand. A park that takes good care of the grounds will take good care of everything else and vice versa. Thus this is sometimes an area where you can judge a book by its cover. If the place looks kind of run down and neglected on the outside, then it is likely that way through and through.

Customer Service

You definitely want a park to be welcoming and the staff to be friendly and helpful. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Like any business, some owners bend over backward to make their guests feel welcome, while others just want your money and to spend as little time with you as possible.

The nature of the customer service can also vary widely and may be a matter of taste. Some parks are run very professionally while other proprietors take a very personal approach to customer service and treat you more like a neighbor than a customer. Some parks are actually co-ops where the residents are the owners and managers. Sometimes these can be incredibly welcoming, and other times short time visitors may feel like their presence is an intrusion.

Here we are camped at Big Timber. Lots of nice shade to be had.

Here we are camped at Big Timber RV. Lots of nice shade to be had, thus living up to their name in a way few parks do.

Amenities

A big part of considering the value a park offers are its amenities. They can range from just a place to park your RV/Tent, to full on luxury resorts with drink service on white sandy beaches and live music every night. Generally, the more they offer, the better value the park is. Even if an amenity doesn’t do much for you, presumably there is someone who will appreciate it and it should be considered favorable for the park.

Essential Amenities

A place to park:  The only essential amenity in my mind is that they have a place for you to park and camp. Some parks are nothing more than some spots and a drop box to put your money into. Provided it is reasonably priced, there is nothing wrong with a park like this. What you want is a clean, level, easy to access space with enough room for your RV and vehicle.

Basic Amenities

Basic amenities are those that most RV parks offer and are key to RV living. It is what sets an RV park apart from just a park with space for RVs.

Electrical Service: It’s something we tend to take for granted as we are all accustomed to having in. When it’s not working or malfunctioning, it’s a big problem for a park. Since it takes some special tools to measure the hookups, few reviews will go into any depth here. Ideally, they will offer 20, 30, and 50amp hookups that can actually handle the loads advertised. The best will have surge protection and good working fuses to protect your trailer’s electrical systems. If the park has a separate electrical fee based on usage, you should let people know.

Water Service: Water is probably the second most common site amenity and one many of us can’t do without for too long before the RV becomes a glorified tent. A good water service has enough pressure to act as a “city” hook up for your RV and is safe to drink. That said, hard water is pretty common so having a good outside filter is a good way to help protect your RV’s water systems.

Sewer Service: Having on-site individual sewer service is what lets you stay put for longer time spans. Often when dry camping the first thing to run out is gray water storage. Most RV places that don’t have it on-site will have a pull up dumping station.

These ducks appeared to be long term residence. There are also tons of frogs, rabbits, and fish to look at.

Some RV parks also have wildlife on the grounds like these ducks at Sandy Dunes RV.

Convenience Amenities

These are amenities that come in very useful to many campers but go a little above and beyond the basics.

Bathrooms: For RV campers a bathroom is convenient but not necessary. For Tent and Cabin campers it can be nearly essential. The range of quality is vast, from the old outhouse to luxury private restrooms with full showers. The state of maintenance also varies wildly. Some are cleaned top to bottom daily, while others appear to get serviced only rarely and show years of grime and neglect.

Showers: Typically these are part of the bathroom but not always. While less essential than a toilet they are none the less nice to have as not all RVs have decent shower options. Like bathrooms, the quality can vary from downright frightening to nearly luxurious. Sometimes they will be coin operated so that people don’t just use up all the hot water with hour long showers, though needing to find quarters to take a shower can be a real hassle.

Laundry: While you can get portable clothes washers, they are small and a fair bit of work to use. Having an on-site laundry room is a really nice feature for a park. Typically they will be coin operated and the machines will be on the older side. We find prices vary wildly from downright cheap, to exorbitant prices for small loads. A good laundry will provide somewhere to sit and a pay dispenser for those who don’t have detergent.

Camp Store:  While it is a way for parks to make a little extra money, a camp store is also a very nice convenience for most campers. Typically you will find basic food items, snacks, souvenirs, and RV essentials like hoses and valves.

Wifi: This is an amenity of ever-growing importance for many. Most parks seem to offer it now, but it is often of sketchy quality. There tend to be two limitations to park Wifi. The first is the signal strength of the wireless, something the park can usually control with proper investments. The other is the total available bandwidth which is often well beyond the control of the operators, especially in rural areas and is why RV park wifi tends to fail in the evenings when everyone gets back home and starts trying to use it.

Mail Service: When you are a full timer or staying at a park for an extended stay, being able to get mail at the park is super convenient. Typically only parks with full-time offices will allow mail, and even then it isn’t a given. You should always ask before having mail sent to a park.

Propane Service:  The more remote the location the more convenient having on site propane sales can be.

Dishwashing Sink: This can be a key feature for cabin and tent campers. Parks hate it when you wash dishes in a bathroom sink or the like so most provide a heavy duty sink for dish washing.

Dog run: A good number of people travel with dogs so having a place to walk them at the park can be important. Of course, it should upon the owners to pick up after their pets. Some parks have fenced off areas so dogs can go off leash and play.

Firepit / Grill: One of the charms of camping out is cooking a meal beneath the big sky. Accommodations vary from a circle of stones to build a fire in, to gas grills in a covered gazebo with lots of picnic tables.

Security: Most RV parks have very little of this, but there are a few that are gated and monitored such that only residents or guests can get into the park. A good number of parks have key codes to get into the bathrooms which can help a little but seems aimed more at stopping public use of the facilities. Fortunately, serious crime at RV parks seems to be quite rare.

The club room is next to the laundry and is plenty comfy.

The club room is next to the laundry and is plenty comfy and makes for a peaceful place to relax.

Resort Amenities

Some RV parks refer to themselves as resorts, and these are the sort of amenities that tend to come with that designation. Of course, the quality can vary greatly on all of these and everyone’s idea of a resort is probably a little different.

Club Rooms: Many parks offer a public indoor space for campers. The quality varies greatly but you want a place where campers can work, play games, relax, watch movies, and otherwise enjoy themselves out of the rain and with more space than an RV typically provides.

Pool: Many RV parks include a pool of some kind. We’ve seen everything from tiny wading pools to whole pool complexes where the RV park was really secondary to the pool.

Amusements: Many parks offer some kind of entertainment for guests. A play area with swings and slides is common in many parks. KOA parks often have large bouncy air cushions to play on. Other parks will have a game room with pool, ping-pong, or other table sports. In the midwest, miniature golf courses are fairly common.

Restaurant / Kitchen: Offering meals on-site is often a nice feature for an RV park. Personally, my favorite version is when Parks have food delivery to your trailer from an on-site kitchen. It’s incredibly convenient and often very reasonably priced. Some parks have had very nice restaurants attached, while others serve common meals for residents in a large cafeteria.

Entertainment: Some parks will have live entertainment and community events scheduled. Typically these parks have a very large club house or a large meeting room and the events are not only for park residents but also the larger community. A few parks we have been to also offer church services in these spaces on Sundays.

Lovely pool area complete with white tail dove.

Casa Grande was one of my all time favorite parks, and this excellent pool was a big part of it. We swam beneath the stars most nights we were here.

Final Thoughts

I’ve gotten to know a few of the park owners and operators as we have traveled around the last year. I’ve come to appreciate that it’s not an easy small business to run. They are constantly fighting the weather, nature, and the effect their customers have on the property while providing a range of services, usually with minimal or no staff at smaller parks. None the less, you can tell which parks have operators with a passion for making their guests comfortable and those who just want the money and can’t be bothered. No park is perfect, but the ones that care and strive for excellence stand out. As reviewers, we should focus on rewarding these parks and letting other RVers know about them so they can enjoy their travels to the fullest.

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