When I found out that The Great Sand Dunes National Park was only three hours away from Denver, I immediately made plans to go. I have to give another shoutout to the Women Who Hike Colorado page for the inspiration and for helping me find a new travel buddy (and her pup)!
Our weekend started Friday after work when both of us drove south from Denver. The drive is a short four hours! We had planned to camp at Zapata Falls, but the road was terribly washed out from the recent snow melt. It was a blessing in disguise, because we found a wonderful Bureau of Land Management spot at the base of Mount Blanca. It featured a fire ring and a gorgeous view!
We woke up from a chilly night, enjoyed breakfast around our campfire, and decided to attempt the drive up to Zapata Falls. Good thing we did! The road wasn’t as intimidating in the daylight, but the entire four mile drive to the trailhead was very bumpy and rocky. What lay at the end of that bumpy road was worth every questionable turn we made.
Zapata Falls, in the middle of March, was a frozen masterpiece. The half-mile trail and the views surrounding the Sangre de Cristos mountains were covered in a light layer of snow. It made us feel like we were wandering into a true winter wonderlan, but none of this magical hike compared to the sheer beauty of the falls themselves.
The falls are hidden inside of a small slot canyon. Luckily, in the winter, you don't have to wade through water to see them. Instead, you have to carefully walk across and climb up the ice to see its shimmering sculptures.
We had the falls all to ourselves for about 30-minutes, so we took our time taking pictures and peering at the gushing water that could be see through holes in the ice. When we were done, other groups started to show up, and we decided it was the perfect time to head to the Great Dunes!
Our first stop inside the park was the visitor’s center to try to obtain backcountry camping passes. Sadly, since we had her puppy with us, we weren’t able to camp among the dunes. Dogs are allowed in the backcountry, at any time, but they are not allowed to 'sleep or stay overnight'. Weird, right?) The ranger did give us great advice on how to get up the dunes easily.
When we parked our car at the trailhead, it was snowing hard. We could barely see the dunes, which were only 300 yards away. We debated if we'd be crazy to go out there, but we bundled up and hit the sand.
Within five minutes of walking through the whipping and snowy wind, the sun started to shine and the clouds parted. We walked along the base of the dunes as flatly as we could before heading up the ridge.
We could not believe the views for the entire hike. Not only were the dunes themselves impeccable, but the 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains made the landscape that much more stunning, and the views only got better the more we climbed.
By the time we started to climb the dunes, we both had to strip off a few layers, because we had gotten so hot. Walking up the sand was not easy! For every three steps I took, I'd slide back one. Luckily, the melted snow made the sand a little sticky and made the hike a little easier than it normally would be!
We couldn't tell you our path really. We just tried to not change elevation too often and did it gradually when we had to. There are no trails or markers in the sand, so it will be up to you to find the easiest way up.
We reached the peak of the dune that we had chosen to climb, and we were rewarded with unreal views of the vast park. The dunes went on for as far as our eyes could see. It looked like they went right up to the base of the mountains. It was incredible, and we sat and stared for a few moments. The temperature had dropped, and the wind had picked up at the top of the dunes, so we didn't stay long.
The trek down the dune was much easier than the journey up. In fact, we ran and rolled down half the hill laughing and acting like children. It was wonderful.
When we reached the car, we decided to go back to the same campsite as the night before and get our campsite set up before dusk. It was already around 5:30, and we were exhausted from the long and exhilarating day.
We built a bonfire, roasted weenies, and made s'mores with the stunning views of Mount Blanca in the background. We sat around and made summer plans to climb the looming 14'er and camp in the dunes. Before calling it a night, we both agreed that today had been perfect. From the timing of the weather to the things were able to see, it had all fallen into place perfectly. We both went to bed with big smiles on our faces giddy to get back already!
It is so weird to look back and realize that it has already been three years since I took my senior spring break trip to Breckenridge. Now, my little sister is a freshman in college, and she decided to spend her spring break week with my parents visiting me in my new home in Colorado!
Colorado Springs: Broadmoor's Seven Falls, Garden of the Gods, and Air Force Academy
We started our week together by meeting up in Colorado Springs bright and early Sunday morning at The Broadmoor’s Seven Falls parking lot. We said our hellos, hoped on the bus, bought our tickets, and set off on our wonderful week together! Starting at Seven Falls was a great idea, because the park was practically empty, but it did mean that it was still a little icy and chilly.
The hike started with The Pillars of Hercules's epic orange slot canyons. It's just short of a mile to the falls, but it took us quite a while to walk while we were taking pictures and gawking at the massive rock formations. We followed the South Cheyenne Creek to the end of the hike where a platform with a little gift shop, restaurant, and, of course, the falls were waiting for us.
Overall, it's a short hike, but you might end up walking quite far depending on how many flights of stairs you climb or which trails you take at the top. We chose to climb the stairs leading to The Eagle’s Nest, because the other stairwell was very icy. After 224 steep steps up, we made it to the overlook to take in the panoramic views of the falls and the incredible Pillars of Hercules that surround it.
Most of the falls were frozen, but we could still hear water gushing under the tunnels of ice that were hiding it. It was stunning to see, and the views were great, but we were very chilly at that height. We decided to head back down the stairs and the trail toward the car after only about five minutes at the top. (You can see and read more about this quick hike in my seperate blog post, here!)
When we got to the car, we decided that our next stop would be The Garden of the Gods before heading into town. It was a 15 minute drive from the Broadmoor to The Garden of The Gods. We drove through the park stopping along Ridge Road to take pictures at every viewpoint or pull off available.
We, mystified by the vibrant red rocks, spent a couple of hours stopping and walking through the park. We all wished that we had gotten there earlier to do a hike and grab a parking spot so that we could have spent longer exploring around.
After my sister and I got an up-close and personal experience with some Mule Deer, we were ready to see what else Colorado Springs had to offer. Our next stop was a tour of The Air Force Academy from a family friend and current cadet.
We met him at The Cadet Chapel at the front of campus to start. It was the easiest building to find and meet at, and it’s pretty famous for its stained glass, so we wanted to be sure that we saw this first.
After the chapel, we wandered clockwise around the large courtyard that surrounds the Air Garden and the Spirit Hill in the middle of campus. Our first stop was Arnold Hall. We then attempted to get into the library and a few similar buildings with no luck, since it was Sunday.
We drove over to the sports facilities to see the lacrosse, baseball, softball, soccer, and rugby fields. We parked and walked inside to see some of the training facilities and wrapped up by driving to the overlook above the fields. It was a great view to end the wonderful day we had enjoyed together.
Golden and Morrison:
The next day, my family woke up early to visit the town of Golden and see my sister’s friend who attends the Colorado School of Mines. After grabbing breakfast and strolling through the shops, they stopped by Red Rocks Amphitheater on the way back to Denver.
Later on, we all met up and were ready to go to a Denver Avalanche hockey game at the Pepsi Center. My family loves sporting events, so we had a blast together getting rowdy at the game and hoping for a good fight!
Estes Park: Rocky Mountain National Park and The Stanley Hotel
Unforeseen in our plans was a “bomb cyclone blizzard” that was set to hit Colorado Wednesday and drop feet of snow. My family had to be flexible and cancel their plans in Breckenridge which was difficult, but it led to two days of board games, snuggles, and watching movies while we were snowed in.
Finally, the storm cleared up just in time for us to head north to Estes Park and check in at The Stanley Hotel. Before we dropped off our luggage, we decided to take the long route and drive through Rocky Mountain National Park.
We started at the Beaver Meadows Visitors Center and continued up Highway 36. Only certain roads are open during the winter months limiting where we could go, so we made a big loop on 34 heading toward the Fall River Visitor Center.
We stopped every with chance we had just as we had done at Garden of the Gods. We stopped for wildlife in the middle of the road, mountain views, a lake overlook, and other random stops along the way.
When we were out of the national park, we kept driving to Elkhorn Street and checked out the little downtown area. Every store had cute displays in the windows. Most were candy shops, so there were brightly colored, eye-catching arrangements everywhere we looked.
When we reached what looked like the end of the street, we decided to check out the Wapiti Colorado Pub. After filling our bellies with bison burgers and local brews, we finally went to check in and explore around The Stanley Hotel.
We, of course, went to the bar and ordered, “the hair of the dog that bit me,” (but actually ordered shining inspired cocktails and beers). We tried to get on a ghost tour, but they were unfortunately all booked up.
We still got to see where the haunted tunnels were and where a lot of celebrities had been, but we didn't see any ghosts or spirits during our stay.
We woke up the next morning to incredible views of the Rocky Mountains out our window and from the front steps of the hotel. It was the perfect view to have while saying our goodbyes to each other and the week we had spent together.
We parted ways hugging and planning when our next vacation will be. We are very excited to see what else Colorado has for us explore!
Steamboat Springs is one of Colorado’s many quaint and adorable ski towns. It is also home to the WinterWonderGrass music festival that John and I had been looking forward to since Christmas. I had heard nothing but great things about this little town, and it did not disappoint. Steamboat Springs and the WinterWonderGrass festival were much more fun than I could have expected!
We arrived Friday night after a dark, snowy ride from Denver. We were just in time to catch that night’s headlining act, Railroad Earth. As soon as we found a place in the crowd, it started to snow. The stage lights hitting the flakes looked like confetti fluttering around us, and the backdrop of mountains made this scene even more magical.
When they wrapped up playing, one more act, Pixie and The Partygrass Boys, started playing inside a tent on one of the smaller stages. We jammed out to a few hardcore hits like the Talking Heads's "Psycho Killer" before heading downtown to check out the nightlife.
We decided to go to the ‘Grass after Dark’ event hosted by WinterWonderGrass at Schmiggity’s. It featured the Jack Cloonan Band covering hit songs in a bluegrass fashion. We had a couple of beers and a few hot dogs while we danced around for the late-night tunes
Since ski towns are so popular this time of year, Airbnb’s and hotels can be expensive. We chose to take the less expensive route. We parked in The Routt National Forest and slept in our car camper. Park regulations state that campers’ vehicles must be two car-lengths away from the road. It didn’t take us too long to find a plowed parking space to back into comfortably. We pulled out our sleeping bags and called it a night.
Though we woke up stiff and chilly, the sleeping arrangement could have been much worse. Properly rated sleeping bags and lots of layers are critical. We were up early, so we decided to head into Steamboat Springs to find a bite to eat.
I had seen recommendations for Creekside Cafe on social media, so we luckily popped in before the morning crowd arrived. We enjoyed a hearty meal of waffles, bacon, eggs benedict, and espresso drinks with a little something extra from the bar. It was probably too much food before skiing, but we had yet to rent gear or buy tickets.
We walked down 11th Street to One Stop Ski Shop for our necessary rentals. It only cost us $25 each to get skis, boots, helmets, and poles for 24 hours. We loaded up all of gear and headed to legendary Howelson Hill ski area.
We had stopped in earlier to see how much lift passes would be. To our surprise, a single day pass was only $25. (Compare that to Steamboat Resort’s $199!) The face of Howelson Hill is dedicated to an intimidating black diamond run and several competition ski jumps. The back side of the mountain is low grade, green and blue slopes that wrap around to the front. These slopes were perfect for John and I, since we were beginners. We took almost a dozen runs from 10:30 am to 4:00 pm!
Our time on Howelson Hill did wear us out, but we weren't going to let anything stop us from dancing our tails off at the stages of Winter Wonder Grass. We saw Town Mountain, The Shook Twins, and The California Honeydrops before the headliners, Trampled By Turtles. We tent hopped and boot stomped throughout the night, but we left before the final show with hot plans in mind.
We wanted to check out Strawberry Park Hot Springs and have a good soak before the gates closed at 10:30 p.m. We meandered around different pools in the pitch black trying to keep an eye out for other bathers. After almost two hours of being steeped in piping hot water, we braved the cold and got out to find another place to sleep for the night. I couldn't help but go back to the hot springs the next day to document where we'd been.
It turned out that our parking spot from the night before was only one half mile from the springs. After another chilly morning, we made our way downtown to a warm breakfast as soon as we could. We found solace in a diner called The Shack Cafe where we both scarfed down hearty egg breakfasts and large cups of coffee before we even started planning our day.
Since Routt National Forest and the hot springs are so close to Steamboat Springs, we decided to go back to get a few pictures and explore more of the forest. We stopped at a spacey roadside shoulder with a wonderful view and a friendly snowman and decided to set up a recently purchased, compact table. We relaxed, enjoyed the view and played in the snow.
We were eventually joined by another couple who was also in town for Winter Wonder Grass. They gave us Klondike ice cream bars and went on to meet up with friends. The Klondike couple made for great company, and we decided to explore more of the forest after they’d left. We packed up and went up another snowy hill.
Little did we know, we were heading toward the Buffalo Pass Winter Backcountry Area. After parking, we grabbed a pass and took a stroll down the well-packed road. There are designated boundaries for motorized vehicles and non-motorized activities, but snowmobiling seemed to be the most popular hobby among visitors. John and I marveled at the pristine snow pack before making our way back to Steamboat for another night of strings.
Before we went to the festival, we stopped at a bar whose lights caught John’s eye. The Back Door Grill is a cozy, funky burger bar with annual awards. We had a quick beer, hot wings, and Cajun fries to fuel up for the festival’s finale.
We were greeted by tunes from Pickin' on The Dead before Billy Strings blew our minds. A shorter set of Town Mountain gave us a chance to warm up with coffee drinks from the tent’s bar before the big headliner of the night, The Infamous Stringdusters. We snagged some pizza before the All-Star, late night set, then we hit the road back to Denver.
Three hours and a few inches of snow later, we made it home safe and sound. We were exhausted, but we were in amazement at how incredible our weekend had just been. Winter Wonder Grass is a great reason to visit Steamboat Springs even if you aren’t hooked on bluegrass music yet. Dancing to the rhythm of a stand up bass with hundreds of joyous people can only add to the charm and opportunities of Steamboat Springs.
Talkin' 'bout Tacos:
I'm Taylor, aka Tacos! I am sharing my journeys and experiences from across the world hoping to inspire travel and adventure in all who read.