After an amazing time in New Mexico, we headed to Colorado and Utah! The snow covered peaks and chilly desert mornings have provided some of the best scenery and memories from the trip so far!
Blanca Vista and UFO Watchtower
We decided to begin our tour of Colorado with Great Sand Dunes National Park. The drive to Alamosa, CO from Taos, NM was magnificent. Almost as soon as you cross the border into Colorado, the 14,000-foot snow covered peaks pop into view. We stopped at Blanca Vista Park to enjoy some stunning mountain reflections in the still water.
We arrived in the Alamosa area in the evening and decided to spend the night at the hilarious and quirky UFO Watchtower Campground (see the excellent website here: http://www.ufowatchtower.com ). Once we spotted this alien-themed attraction, we knew we had to stay there. Apparently there had been several UFO sightings in the area, so the woman who owns the land built an observation tower to watch for UFOs and then turned it into a campground. There was only one other group camping, so we were nearly alone in the desert surrounded by mountains and twinkling stars. We saw no UFOs, but we did enjoy all of the alien paraphernalia and the vortex garden where guests leave tokens to absorb the energy flowing from the earth.
Great Sand Dunes (kind of)
In the morning, we took the short drive to Great Sand Dune National Park. As we drove in, I was really excited about the huge dunes (much larger than White Sands in New Mexico) and the backdrop of beautiful, snow-capped mountains. We arrived midday and after checking out the visitor center, I decided that we should hang out in the van in the afternoon and hike during sunset in order to maximize the beauty of the scenery (I had read many places that the shadows on the dunes look incredible during golden hour). We checked the hourly weather forecast and it looked pretty nice for sunset: partly cloudy and cool.
We hopped into the back of the van for some organizing and photo editing, but when we emerged from the van in the late afternoon, we were faced with ominous clouds covering the sky and bitter cold winds. I decided to take another look at the weather forecast and now was seeing a Winter Storm Watch and a huge, growing blue and green blob over much of Colorado on the radar. Never again will I trust an hourly forecast! After reading more about the impending storm and talks of yet another large snow storm developing for the following week, we decided that this was not our time to see Colorado. While I am sad to skip such a beautiful state and will miss seeing a handful of friends that I was so excited to visit, it will have to wait for another time.
Monument Valley and Goosenecks
After deciding to run away from Colorado and the snowstorms, we took off for Utah. We took a route that included a steep, winding mountain pass. The van was not happy with our choice of roads, and I was very glad that the snow hadn’t begun! We decided to head toward Monument Valley and were excited to learn that there were two consecutive nights available at the View Campground.
On our way to Monument Valley, we passed a sign for Four Corners. Not even realizing we were so close, we decided to take a quick ten minute detour to check it out. For $10 we saw the famous landmark where Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. We took some photos and spent maybe 15 minutes there. I’m still not sure it was worth the money, but I am very glad we were there during the off season because the line was very short (but you could see that the lines must be very long in the summer!)
We made it to Monument Valley just in time for sunset. It is a stunning area and the View Campground truly lived up to its name with an incredible view of the three famous structures: East and West Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte. We spent the next two days exploring the area and enjoying the desert views at sunset, sunrise, and by starlight. If you’ve ever seen the show Westworld (which I highly recommend), this scenery should look very familiar!
After two nights we were sad to leave this beautiful place but we were also excited to see what other gems lay before us in Utah. We stopped for some photos at the famous spot on route 163 near the mile 13 marker and enjoyed the last views of the valley.
We then made our way toward Moab, stopping briefly for lunch at Goosenecks State Park near Mexican Hat, UT. While they aren’t easy to photograph, the Goosenecks are a real geological wonder. The deep and winding chasm was formed by the meandering of the San Juan River several million years ago.
Moab, Arches, and Canyonlands
We then reached Moab, UT where we ended up staying for an entire week, the longest we’ve remained any one place since visiting family in South Carolina. We spent the week exploring Arches National Park, Canyonlands, and some of the beautiful areas around Moab. We had been to Arches before on a previous trip, but we still enjoyed it the second time around! The arches are such incredible geological formations that never cease to amaze me.
We enjoyed the short walk to Double Arch and the Windows as well as the narrow canyon hike to Sand Dune Arch. There were crowds of people in the park (we went on a Saturday during Utah’s spring break) which made it a little difficult to photograph the arches and to enjoy them in peace and quiet, but we made the most of it. We made the 3-mile roundtrip hike to Delicate Arch (30 minutes each way) at sunset. The sunset glow lit up the arch in a brilliant orange color as well as the cloud covered mountains in the distance behind it. Though the stream of people taking turns to get their picture taken under the arch was a bit distracting, the overall experience was lovely.
We also spent some time in Canyonlands, a park we skipped on our previous trip to the area. This is a beautiful and sprawling park with many viewpoints and hikes. We enjoyed the Grand View Point and took a short hike to see the different views. We also made sure to visit Mesa Arch at sunrise, which was actually a bit disappointing. For some reason, having seen beautiful photos of this arch at sunrise, I thought it was in some remote area in the desert and that it would be a peaceful and special place for sunrise. When we arrived at the arch, there was already a line of photographers with tripods standing directly in front of the arch, blocking the view for everyone else. We gently elbowed our way into a spot so that we could actually see the view. When the sun finally rose, it was an incredibly beautiful scene as the sun lit up the bottom of the arch in a beautiful golden glow. While it was not the serene and special sunrise I was expecting, it was still a sight worth waking up for. I now know to arrive well before sunrise if I want to do this again in the future and to bring hand warmers! I imagine that in the height of summer, the crowd would probably be even worse!
Dead Horse Point State Park was another highly recommended spot in the Moab area. Since it was a state park, rather than a national park, it was not covered under our annual pass. The entrance fee was $15 and we almost skipped this park. I am glad we chose to go! The deep canyon bathed in the glow of sunset was one of the best views of the trip so far!
After a recommendation from a Moab local, we decided to hike to Corona Arch, which is not part of either of the national parks. This was an easy and lovely 3-mile round trip hike (around 30 minutes each way) to the massive stone arch. We had heard stories of people rappelling and creating a giant swing from this arch in the past, but after a death a few years ago, rope activities are prohibited. We did see someone walking on the arch, which definitely spooked me!
We are continuing through Utah for the next few weeks and I am so excited to see some more national parks and do more beautiful desert hiking! Please keep your recommendations coming, you all have the best suggestions!