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Old 02-17-2016, 12:55 PM
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Rezarf Rezarf is offline
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Default Planning a CO National Park trip for the family this summer, input needed

I am planning a 10-12 day trip through our Colorado National Parks this summer for my family. We are for sure hoping to see each of the three parks we haven't seen, Mesa Verde, Sand Dunes, and Black Canyon. Hulks thread got me thinking of tapping into the collective knowledge of the RS family :

I am planning on taking the 100, 3 kids (7,5,3) and possibly towing a small popup or just tent camp it with hotels every few days to keep the happy.

I thought about dropping down to Sand Dunes, cutting over hitting the other parks on the return, then bombing it back on I-70 home.

My questions are really pertaining to three things:
  1. What are the must see things in each Nat'l Park. Even the touristy things, but especially off the unbeaten path campsites, trails to drive, hikes, food stops, sights to see. (if its super secret PM me).
  2. Suggestions on the actual route, I have never been in our SW corner of the state and have never seen Telluride or the awesome trails down there. Are there a few that wont be totally out of the way that we should/could incorporate into our trip. Engineer, Imogene? Either with or without a trailer. Mild trails, I don't care to do Black Bear Pass solo with the kids and wife in tote.
  3. Any general thoughts, ideas or things you would do again if you've done something similar.

Thanks in advance-
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Old 02-17-2016, 01:17 PM
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Mesa verde, see the dwellings that are guided. Very cool.
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Old 02-17-2016, 02:29 PM
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If your kids don't already, all of the National Parks have Junior Ranger programs where the kids fill out a book and earn a badge. For our family it's been a really cool way to learn more about the parks we visit and the kids have got quite a collection going!
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Old 02-17-2016, 03:19 PM
SteveH SteveH is offline
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Go see Hovenweep when you're near Mesa Verde - you can four-wheel to one of the outlying ruin sites (easy trip, but not for Honda Civics). This was true 10 years ago - might double-check to see if it still is.

Be sure to climb the primitive wooden ladders at Mesa Verde (I did this in 1972, and 10 years ago - about equally scary both times). Amazing they even let you do this.

x2 on the Jr. Ranger badges - gives kids a mission while they are there.
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Old 02-17-2016, 03:37 PM
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Thanks for the comments so far, our kids have done the Jr. Ranger Badges before, its a great way for them to see the park.
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Old 02-17-2016, 03:45 PM
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Oh, you opened up a can of worms. This is my favorite stomping ground. Too much to cover, but here goes a few. Sand Dunes - At least travel to the top of Medano pass. I am not big on Mesa Verde because of too many people, but if you have not been there then definately. I love Hovenweep, very few people and alot of ruins, nice campground with ruins within walking. Other units of Hovenweep - Cajon, Holly, Horseshoe, Hackberry and Cutthroat Castle. Back roads to Hovenweep, Lowry Pueblo. If you are going to San Juans, do the Alpine Loop, Off-road but not bad. Take lunch and have a picnic in the park of Lake City. Near Creede - Wheeler Geologic Area. All day - used to be a National Monument, but too hard to get to, and not enough of people. Good off-roading. Going through Pagosa Springs - stop at the hot springs, the kids would like that.
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Old 02-17-2016, 07:56 PM
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Skip the campground at the sand dunes and camp up Medano Pass Rd. There are established sites and most have creek access for surprisingly good trout fishing. Check with the rangers for reservations but I think they are first come first serve. With that said, in three times through there we have never seen all of them full.

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Old 02-18-2016, 08:06 AM
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Don't forget to stop off at the gator farm on your way to / from the dunes. My kids got a huge kick out of it. If you're lucky they'll need help moving a gator and let you in with the big boys. That was a very "Steve Irwin" moment.

http://www.coloradogators.com/
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Old 02-18-2016, 08:39 AM
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Sounds like 10-12 days will barely be enough - and that's a good thing!
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Old 02-18-2016, 09:02 AM
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A few other thoughts.

What time of the year do you plan on going? It's really hot after June in all 3 areas, and the lack of cover makes the days pretty long and sunny for the little ones. If you have flexibility, consider traveling in June rather than July/Aug for that, plus....

The river at the sand dunes is super fun for the kids to play in, and it's like a beach from around May 15th to mid-June (depends on snow pack and temps). The river dries up significantly after June and it gets really hot on the sand. It's also super busy around Memorial Day and early June, so take that into consideration. IIRC, the camp spots inside the park are first come, first serve and fill up quickly on Thursday or Friday for the weekend.

If you drive through Pagosa Springs, Kips Grill is a great place for good cheap eating.

Mesa Verde is cool; your older kid will likely enjoy the ruins and the visitors center. There's a cool hiking trail west of Cortez called Sand Canyon where you can hike a mile or two (or more if your kids can hang) and get really close and personal with some ruins, but not deal with the National Park crowds. It's right off the side of McElmo Canyon road and hard to miss the trail head. Mountain bikers use the trail as well, but it's typically pretty quiet and really fun for kids. Again - Cortez is in the upper 90's during the summer, and there's not much cover so be prepared for the heat.

Driving north from Cortez up Hwy 145 is a beautiful paved drive. You pass through Dolores, Rico and over Lizard Head pass before dropping into Telluride. You can have your kids watch out the window and see who can spot the lizard head first. There is a big area to pull off at the top of the pass and wander around or cool off. If you don't pull the camper, take the paved/dirt track off Hwy 145 through Dunton (ghost town that's now an upscale resort), and then up and over a pass and back down onto Hwy 145. I don't think I'd want to take the camper through parts of the east side of the pass, but it's probably doable if you wanna chance it. Otherwise it's mostly 2wd with some narrow sections and dropoffs. I don't remember the road number, but it's clearly marked as you are driving north on Hwy 145.

If you wanted to skip Telluride, you could drive over Ophir Pass and drop onto Hwy 550 and then head to Silverton and Ouray. It's pretty tame but super scenic. I'd pick somewhere in this area to stop and relax for a bit.

We spent a couple of days (1 night) at Black Canyon. I was pretty impressed by the canyon itself, and the camping is sort of fun because of all the mule deer that hang out by the sites, but it's not worth more than 1-2 days unless you're going to hike down into the canyon. The drive down to the bottom of the rim is nice because there's some shade and access to the river.
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