I recently drove from Indiana to California to begin a new job in LA. My dad, Steve, joined me for the long drive and we stopped at a few national parks along the way, namely Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon. Due to the global pandemic, many of the parks were practically empty, a rare treat that made the frontcountry feel a lot more like the backcountry than usual.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
I’ve always loved the photos I’ve seen of Great Sand Dunes National Park — the juxtaposition of the sand dunes against dark, snow-capped peaks — but I’ve never really given any serious though to visiting. However, as it was only a few hours out of the way on our drive, Steve and I decided to stop by. We arrived around midday to storm clouds and high winds. Obviously, wandering around on sand dunes during a thunderstorm is a terrible idea, so we hung out in our hotel room, took a nap, and watched the radar. The storms looked to be clearing up at about 4:00, so we bought some sandwiches for dinner and made the 30-minute drive from Alamosa to the park. Visiting after a storm turned out to be a great idea: few people were there, the air was cool, and the wind had died down. Steve and I hiked up to “High Dune,” one of the tallest dunes in the park. The hike is surprisingly easy and offers some incredible views of the dune field and the mountains!
We returned the next morning to attempt the hike to Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America at 750 feet tall. However, the calm, beautiful weather we experienced the night before was gone, replaced by stiff winds and bright sun. After half an hour of wandering over the dunes while being blasted with sand, we gave up and returned to the relative peace of the mountain-side trails.
Mesa Verde National Park
We explored Mesa Verde mostly by car. The main attractions are the cliff dwellings built by Pueblo people that lived in the area between 600 and 1300 CE. I’d guess we got a pretty good luck at at least half of the park in one day; unfortunately, we were unable to visit the Wetherill Mesa area. We spent an hour or two hiking along the Petroglyph Trail that begins near Spruce Tree House. The petroglyphs themselves are amazing, but the hike is quite nice by itself!
Petrified Forest National Park
Located directly on I-40, visiting Petrified Forest National Park was a no-brainer for Steve and I. We spent only a few hours in the park but very much enjoyed several short hikes to see the badlands and an assortment of petrified wood. The quartz logs scattered across these plains were living trees about 1.3 million years ago, a mind-boggling amount of time!
Grand Canyon National Park
The lack of people in the national parks was most noticeable at the Grand Canyon. When I’ve visited in the past, the place has been packed. This year, Steve and I found the parking lot practically empty at 7:30 AM. We had the rim walk to ourselves for a few hours and then enjoyed biking to Hermits Rest on a road devoid of cars and buses. There were a few more visitors to contend with later in the evening, but still far fewer than normal.