Great Sand Dunes National Park – Alamosa, CO

It started with Dan (it’s usually his fault anyway :) ) hitting us up about a proposed trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park by some bus folks from New Mexico.  The idea was to have some NM and CO people meet somewhere in the middle for good times.  Leah had been wanting to go here for some time now and with Vandejo in good shape, we started making plans.  We made a schedule to leave Wednesday morning to cruise down and scope the place out and maybe grab a camp spot or two if it was filling up

Wednesday | 2008.07.09

We didn’t get out of town until noon or so, but with leaving a couple days earlier than most, we didn’t fret.  A quick stop for gas and we were on our way.  The plan was to take 285 South out of the Denver area and our path across the metro area got us a bit lost in a maze of high end houses surrounding Marston Lake in Littleton, CO.  After strolling through the development, we picked up our lower jaw and managed to find 285.

We were told by both fasterlaster and bret that the 285 route was highly scenic and a great road to travel.  We were not let down at all.  Cruising at about 50 to 55, we soaked in what landscape we could.  I think the kids may have even enjoyed looking around.  Imagine that :)  Baby Isaac slept pretty much the whole time, which gave us good vibes about our first campout with 4 children.  We noticed alot of BLM space on the way and they were all in areas that seemed great for getting away from it all.

One of the places we stopped at along the way was Collegiate Peaks Recreation Site.  This was just a quick stop to take in the views, and it was a very cool stop.  From here you can look out across the range at many of the Rocky Mountains peaks that crest over 14k feet.  I wouldn’t mind coming back to this spot as there are many outdoor activities to enjoy here.  Here is a link to the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness website.

VW bus camp out at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

A nearby stop in Johnson Village to fill up and we were back on the road.  But not before a lady stopped me at the gas station there to ask if we were headed back from the Rainbow Family gathering in Wyoming.  Not knowing what it was, I told her no and asked what it was about.  I got a description about a group of thousands of people that gather yearly to promote unity and equality.  There is no exchange of money and everyone supports a vision of healing spirits.  I asked her if this was kind of like Burning Man or something and she gave me a slight frown, explaining that Burning Man was more of a sexual thing and that Rainbow Family was about peace and promoting equalness among all humans.  We’ve not been to either of these, but a quick reading about Rainbow Family ended up telling me more about their encounters with the law and the torture of natural lands than it did peace and equality.  I think Leah and I would like to experience both Burning Man and maybe this Rainbow Family gathering, just for the shear sake of experiencing different types of culture.  With our kids all being fairly young though, it’s a bit lower on the list of to-do’s.

Once on the road, it was pretty much non stop all the way to the dunes.  If your on a similar route, you’ll want to take the turn off for CO 17.  This will take you down to Mosca, CO where you’ll head due East on CR-6N.  Turning north at the end of CR-6N dumps you right into the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

We were greated by a very beautiful sunset that gave the mountain range an orange glow as we pulled into the park.  We didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy it though because we were a bit concerned about where to find some cash to pay for the camping that was to come.  All through the trip we had meant to stop and get some cash, but we never did get around to it.  Digging in my pocket, I had about 4 bucks on me.  The kids were starting to get a bit hungry at this point and as such, they started complaining and everyone was a bit restless.  With the need to stretch our legs and eat, we drove on toward the park and saw a gas station just outside the entrance on the east side of the road.  PERFECT!  Surely they have an atm machines of sorts.  We pull in quickly only to find that they are closed.  This station seems to service an rv park and lodge that sits behind it.  I’m not sure if the lodge and rv park, or the station for that matter, are affiliated….but the lodge is called Great Sand Dunes Lodge.  It all looked a bit run down at first glance.

With the station being closed, we decided just to go on and get to the park so we could atleast get some dinner served.  I’m glad we didn’t drive all the way back out to Alamosa to get some cash.  Leah had mentioned them taking credit cards but we weren’t sure if we could pay for both camp sites and passes that way.  Turns out, we can pay for all of it with CC.  So, if your short on cash…don’t fret.  All National Parks take credit cards :)

There are two loops for camping with trailers etc in the Pinyon Flats campground.  There are other group areas but they are reserved for tent-only camping.  Even though is was Wednesday evening, we only found 3 spots open out of all 88 sites.  Luckily, one that was open had us right at the front of the loops, looking over the sand dunes.  Everyone else was behind us there was nothing blocking our view.  The site next to us was also open, so we grabbed that one too for when some of the other bus folks arrived.  After popping the top, we quickly threw everything out of the bus and stretch out a bit.  The bugs were pretty bad and being outside was not very enjoyable because of it.  We quickly reheated some chicken alfredo that Leah prepared the night before and then crashed for the night.

Our first night of sleeping six went fairly well, considering we were a bit rushed getting to bed.  Alissa slept up top with me. Leah, Cameron, and Isaac slept downstairs, and Katie slept on the floor.  Katie insisted the next morning that she slept like a champ, which was cool.  If she continued to sleep there, then Cameron could sleep in the cot (when we get one) and Leah would have the whole bottom bed with Isaac to get comfortable in.  Giving room to mom and a 1 month old makes things a bit more comfortable. Although it was a bit warm during the day, the night still dropped down into the low 40’s.  This was a pleasant surprise and made for a nice rest.

Thursday | 2008.07.10

Morning #1!  We eat.  No time to lounge around in the morning when you are traveling with kids.  The only way to get them out of your hair is to put food in their mouths :)  We brought an array of meals to have in the AM, but after getting to sleep late and not getting to sleep in this morning, a quick round of oatmeal was in store.  While heating up the water and stirring it in, I think about how nice it will be when they are just a few years older and can be more manageable during trips like this.  The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that these years will probably pass by quickly and I’ll be looking back and wishing they were little again.  Leah and I often mention that, and how the past 8 years of our relationship have gone by with such a blur.  Maybe I should just hope that in a few years, they’ll still want to go camping like this at all.

After breakfast the kids troll around on their scooters and I work on putting the tent up.  The circus tent is no longer an issue to deal with now.  Putting it up takes about 15 minutes now and it’s cool having an old school tent.  It’s been holding up well for us so far.  After we got that up, I moved all our gear into it.  It was nice to have the bus empty for doing local driving.

With the bus unloaded, we decided to head back to the service station that we had stopped at the night before to see what they had.  There were a few condiments that we needed and Leah was looking for some eye drops since her left eye was starting to bother her.  A quick stop there though, revealed that they really did not have much to offer in the way of supplies and getting help from the employees seemed to be quite a task.  Leaving empty handed, we decided to drive the nearest town with a descent store.  This turned out to be Monte Vista.  A 20+ miles drive west.  It wasn’t too bad though.  We drove through patches and patches of some vegetables along the way but we couldn’t figure out what they were.  Just before hitting town though, we passed a potatoe processing plant and figured that that must be what they were growing out there.  If you look at the map you can see just how many potatoes they are growing out there.  Probably giving Idaho a run for its money.

Colorado Potato Administrative Committee San Luis Valley

After picking up cash, food, beer, and a few other items, we headed back to the sand dunes.  On the way out of Monte Vista, we pass a sign saying “Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, San Luis Valley.”  It becomes apparent this town really does take potatoe’s seriously.  Was we start the drive back, I notice a bit of a noise coming from the engine.  A type of rattling almost.  It’s very slight though and goes away when I apply more gas.  With everything else seemingly fine and the noise not continuing to get worse, I don’t worry about it much.

We get back to the sand dunes and hang out for a bit a chow down some more.  The heat isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  The elevation helps on that, but there is a problem with lack of shade.  There are plenty of trees around, but ants with wings are dropping out of them which make them useless for trying to sit under.  That, and the fact that mosquitos are pretty heavy, are making for an afternoon that Leah and I would call “less than ideal.”

Not really comfortable hanging out at the campsite, we decide to hop in the bus and go check out Medano Creek and the surrounding area.  Medano Creek separates the camp site from the sand dunes and you’ll have to ford your way through it if you want to climb the dunes.  The creek was quite mild but flowing nicely.  It looked to be about 50′ across with the deepest spots being maybe 12 inches.  We all went and walked along the water, but decided we would wait until tomorrow to come back out and have fun with it, when some of the other bus folks arrived.  On the way back to the campground, we drove out on the Medano Pass Primitive Road.  This road requires a full on 4×4, except for the first mile or so.

Medana Pass Primitive Road
About an hour after getting back to the camp site, Dan and Bret showed up from the Denver area.  The parked in the adjacent spot and set up camp.  We met another couple from the Denver area as well that had recently purchased a bus that we being restored.  We all chatted for a bit before all the kids went up and checked out their very cool hammock.

At this point, Leah was not feeling very well.  She was ‘ok’ when we left so we headed out anyways and decided to play it by ear.  With no agenda or schedule, we could leave whenever and head back home.  Her right eye had been her main concern.  The lacrimal sac (I think thats what its called) had been red for a couple days now and was agitated.  The Systane we picked up at the store in Monte Vista seemed to be helping though.  Overall though, she still wasn’t feeling well.

We talked it over for a few minutes and decided that since she was feeling worse tonight than she was this morning, we should pack up and head home.  There was no reason to be out camping and feeling miserable like that.  The sand dunes were fairly close to home and we could easily come back down.  After getting home, we learned that she was fighting strep throat as well.  The Dr. said she was too tough for her own good.  Talk about a trooper!

With that in mind, I quickly tossed all our stuff in the bus and packed up the tent.  With our evening departure, we could get home around 1 or 2am.  Leah and I both had it in our minds though that stopping at a hotel might not be a bad idea either if we got to tired to drive.  For our route home, we decided to head south on 150 to US160 east.  I wanted to take this more populated route due to that rattling sound I was talking about earlier.  It seemed to be a little worse but the scenario was the same.  If I applied more gas it went away.  Transmission thoughts went through my head as we headed out of the park.

As we headed east on US160, the noise became significantly worse…and at a more progressive rate.  I started to take it easy on the throttle, coasting when I could.  By the time we dropped down into Walsenburg, I was pretty tired and we were already looking for a motel of some sort.  That was all put on the back burner though when the rattling noise got really out of hand and applying more throttle did nothing but make the noise worse.  The engine rpm did not change with the throttle.  I immediatley thought about the connection between the torque converter and the flex plate.

With scenarios racing through my head, we coasted down US160 (at this point its 7th St going into downtown Walsenburg) and rolled into a 7-11 with a gas station.  I turned the motor off and went to take a look in the engine bay, hoping for a simple and obvious fix.  I knew better though.  I had leah turn the ignition.  I could see the torque converter spinning in the bell housing, but the engine wasn’t turning.  The connection from the torque converter to the flex plate must have been broken.  I remember this connection very well from when I first pulled this engine to replace all the fuel lines and vacuum lines.  I was amazed that there was only three M8 bolts holding the torque converter to the flex plate.  That just didn’t seem like enough.  I triple checked the torque on these when I put them back in because I was a bit paranoid that something would happen with them.  Well, that was in vain apparently….because those bolts clearly were somewhere else along the side of the road.

At this point, its about midnight and this guy in a truck pulls up behind us at the pump.  He asks if there is something wrong.  I’m holding a flashlight staring at every underneather part of the engine I can.  Part of me wants to say “Here’s your sign.”  But realizing my position, I muster up a responce stating that I can’t start the engine.  He offers up some good luck and goes along his way.  Leah and I decide to push the bus over to a parking spot to get out of the way, so we do that and then start talking about how we want to pursue this.  We go over our options, although they are not all very ideal.  One, we can just try and camp in the bus at the 7-11 parking lot.  With four kids, one being a newborn, this is quickly moved down toward the bottom of the list.  Two, we can leave the bus here, and walk a mile or so down the road to a mom-n-pop motel.  Well, all of our gear is in the bus and since I had lost the keys a few weeks back, I no longer had the keys to lock the doors with.  I had only managed to replace the ignition key at this point.  We realize that if we go to a hotel, we’ll need to take our bus with us by having it towed.  Leaving our bus at the 7-11 is made an ever worse idea by the fact that the guy in the truck has returned two more times to the 7-11 in the past 30 minutes.  We ask the 7-11 clerk if he knows him and he says no, stating that he though we knew him.  Ok, leaving the bus is officially off the list.  Although it crossed my mind briefly, I thought about the fact that I did have the tools to drop the engine right there and investigate it.  I let it go though because I had no spare bolts to speak of, and we really just needed to get to a place where we could all just relax for a moment.

With our options laid out, we call a tow truck.  We ended up going with Daniels Towing and Auto Repair.  We were glad we did too.  After loading up the bus on a flatbed, we all hopped in the back of the crew cab truck and we drove the mile and half to the hotel we had called to earlier.  By the time we got there, no was answering the door.  The tow truck driver knows of another place though and we had three miles over to it.  After no answer to knocking on the door, he calls the owner and he comes and gets us checked in.  Being a small town, the tow truck driver knew everyone in town it seemed.  The driver and his helper unloaded the bus in the parking lot and headed out.  I’ll be keeping their contact info for sure….highly recommended. With our essential bathroom stuff, clothing, and electronics in the motel, we all crash for the night.

Friday | 2008.07.11

The next morning we assess our position.  How much would it cost to tow the bus all the way up to Denver from Walsenburg?  Its about 170 miles.  Can’t be cheap.  A look at the AIRS list tells us that finding someone near here where I can try and do the repairs myself, is slim to none.  Leah then says “what about jason and steph?”  Oddly enough, it fits perfect.  I had been telling Jason to come and camp with us at the sand dunes since we rarely get to camp together.  He had passed on the offer though, and it also happened that their kids were also out of town with relatives.  Combine this with the fact that they have a chevy suburban, and we have the perfect vehicle to hold a stranded family of 6, and tow their broke down vw bus.  But man, what a favor to ask.  “Umm, hey I know your busy, but can you hop on down here (170 miles) and pick my whole family up and tow our vehicle back to our house?”  Actually, Leah called and saved me from thinking for hours on end about how we could do this without having to hassel them.

Of course, they said yes.  I called a U-Haul in Colorado City where the Lasters could stop and pick up a car hauler on the way down.  A couple hours later, and we were loading the bus on the trailer and heading home.  Even with the hot weather, it was a relief to be on our way home.  Big thanks again to Jason and Steph for coming on down!

In short, I dropped the engine a couple days later to find all three bolts going from the torque converter to the flex plate….gone.  But, thats for another post :)  It was cool to see the sand dunes anyhow, and we’ll surely be heading back there to finish up this camp out properly.  Juding by the other pics that rolled into the original samba posting, a great time was had.  Sorry we didn’t get to meet all the NM folks….I guess we’ll just have to get together again for another camp out  :)

Troy, Leah, Katie, Cameron, Alissa, and Isaac

Related Links:
ALL our images from this trip
The Samba post that initiated the camp out.  Others trip reports and pics are here too.
Dan’s Pics
Bret’s Pics

7 thoughts on “Great Sand Dunes National Park – Alamosa, CO

  1. nice story. thanks for posting.

    It sure is nice to know friends with a tow vehicle!! I’ve been there getting projects home. never had to get towed over 100 miles (though AAA plus helped that time right AT 100 miles meaning 200 r/t for the driver)

    the upper arkansas valley sure is beautiful! there is even some streamside camping there.

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