Monday, June 18, 2018

The Last Park of the Trip: A National Park Odyssey Days 43-44

Great SandDunes National Park to Rocky Mountain National Park

Josh packs the car which is parked just steps from our room.

It will surprise no one to learn that I’m a bit of a hotel snob.  I love me some high thread count sheets and kind of feel like a concierge lounge is a need rather than a want. Plop me down in a JW Marriott pretty much anywhere in the world and I’m a happy girl.  But this trip may have changed that just a bit.  It brought to light the glorious simplicity of the roadside motel. Why?  Because you can park right in front of the door of your room!!!!!  And when you’re unpacking and repacking your car every day or two for an entire summer, not having to schlep your luggage more than a few feet is HEAVEN!

(And yes, I know that there are people who never have to unpack their cars when they travel because they are avid RVers.  I am not those people.  I do not want to be responsible for washing my own towels or making my own bed while on vacation.  Now, if that RV were actually a Holland-America ship whisking me from exotic port to exotic port with a cabin boy in charge of my linens, sign me up.  I’m all about that kind of not having to unpack and repack. But I digress.)
In this picture you can see how the landscape at Great Sands Dunes goes from prairie grass to sand dunes to Colorado peaks.  Oh, and there's an elk, too.

On day 43 we packed the car—right outside our motel room door!—and then set out for the visitors’ center so that the kids could finish up their Junior Ranger booklets and earn their badges before we took off for our last park.  On our way into the park, we saw an elk in the distance, beautifully framed by the prairie grasses, the dunes, and the majestic mountains.
At the visitors’ center, the kids checked out the exhibits and finished some last-minute questions before being sworn in.  
Knox interacts with an exhibit that simulates the growth and change of a sand dune.

Kinley finishes up some pages in her Junior Ranger booklet.

Getting sworn in for the 22nd time on this trip!

From there, it was a 3 ½ hour drive to Denver where we had planned to meet up with Josh’s cousin, Beth and her family.  We couldn’t wait to see them and hold little Roman!  The drive was long, but the payoff was big—plenty of Roman snuggles!  Knox read him a book, and then Josh and I took turns reading to him.  He was very attentive and willing to listen.  And later, at dinner, he let me carry him all around the restaurant, Casa Bonita.
Todd Parr was a favorite author of both Knox and Kinley, and Roman seems to appreciate his talents, too!

Casa Bonita is not the kind of place we normally would have chosen, and Beth and Karsen certainly didn’t have it at the top of their lists.  In fact, it’s kind of corny.  The 52,000-square-foot facility seats 1,000 and entertains guests during dinner with puppet shows, a fire juggler, and a guy in a gorilla suit who dives off a 30-foot cliff into a pool below.  But we didn’t choose it for the food or for the atmosphere.  You see, Josh’s sister, Kelsey, was born in Denver.  In December of 1980, when Josh and his parents found out that a little baby girl was being placed up for adoption and could potentially join their family, they flew to Denver to meet her and bring her home.  And the day that she was placed in their arms for the first time, they celebrated with dinner at Casa Bonita.  Josh has great memories about that evening, and he wanted to share the experience with us.  And a memorable experience it was!  Plenty of cheesiness but also plenty of things to entertain a busy toddler while the rest of the group got to enjoy all-you-can-eat Mexican food.
Josh outside Casa Bonita where his family brought their new baby girl for dinner in 1980.

The decor at Casa Bonita is kind of over the top, but we still enjoyed it.  (From left, Karsen, Roman, Knox, Kinley, me, Josh, and Beth.)

The next morning, Karsen had to work, but Beth and Roman met us bright and early at our hotel in Longmont to join us on our visit to our 23rd and final national park of the trip—Rocky Mountain National Park.  At the visitors’ center, Josh and the kids stamped their National Parks Passports, and Beth stamped Roman’s for the first time. 
Roman gets his first ever National Park stamp in his passport!

The rangers told us that one parking lot in the park was already full, so we drove to the park and ride lot.  It was already full, too, so we decided to try to park at a picnic area that was near the trail to Bierstadt Lake.  We found a spot and figured out how to take a horse trail that connected to the actual Bierstadt Lake Loop Trail.  The 5.1 mile roundtrip hike had some steep-ish sections, but it was a good choice for our group.  Beth carried Roman in a baby backpack, so the rest of us couldn’t complain about the climb since we weren’t carrying an extra human on our backs. 
Knox, Beth, and Roman on the trail
Ready for adventure!

It was the perfect time of year for wildflowers, and we saw lots of interesting varieties as we hiked.  I was desperate to see a pika, a little mammal that lives in the mountains and looks kind of like a tiny rabbit with smaller ears.  But despite keeping an eye out for one (and perhaps calling, “Here, pika pika,” off and on a few times), I had no luck.  Along the way we did see a group of park interns who were hard at work on trail maintenance, but otherwise the trail was relatively empty. The view at the end was lovely, and we enjoyed watching Roman explore his surroundings when he got out of the backpack.  The lake was calm and reflected the majesty of the surrounding snow-covered peaks.

Lovely Rocky Mountain wildflowers

The beginning of the trail took us along a beautiful mountain stream.

Lumberjacks (park interns) at work on trail maintenance.

The beautiful Bierstadt Lake was our destination!

Knox and Roman explore the lake.

Josh shows Roman a duck hiding in the reeds.
Group selfie at the lake

Back at the visitors’ center, the kids got sworn in as Junior Rangers, and then we grabbed something to eat in Estes Park at Smokin’ Dave’s Barbecue before heading back to our hotel in Longmont.  One day certainly isn’t enough to completely explore Rocky Mountain National Park, so we’ll have to make a return trip someday.  Getting to introduce Roman to the joys of collecting National Parks passport stamps and share a part of our journey with family that we love made this park particularly special.  It might have been our last park of the trip, but it certainly won’t be the last stamp in our passports.
Junior Ranger badge number 23!
Our 23rd National Park of the trip!


  1. Very Informative and useful... Keep it up the great work.

  2. Gina, I had this blog entry opened on my I pad (that I rarely use) from last year. I opened it up today and read the post. My family lives in Cheyenne and we used to always go to Casa Bonitas with my cousins and aunts /uncles! We always loved watching the divers! We're headed to Colorado to meet our friends on Thursday. We hike near the Rocky Mountain National Park��

    Loved your entry and the photos!

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