Awakening before dawn on Saturday the 28th of January, I checked my phone for the Alamosa temperature. Sounds strange does it not? 17 below zero. Okay, it is January and it is the Ice Fest. The one time of year, winter, when we humans can walk on water, only because it's frozen! Remember the days when we looked out a frosty kitchen window at a thermometer attached to the house, checking the red fluid that would expand and contract with the actual temperature? The red stuff would easily have been midway between the minus 15 and minus 20 mark and generally quite accurate unless the sun hit the thermometer, warmed it up, and would no longer 'read' the actual temperature. Surely, I thought, it will warm up by race time at 9 AM. Yep, it did, all the way up to 9 below. But, no wind and the sun was shining, so we had that going for us!
The 'dio' (god) of the Rio Frio Ice Fest is WATER. Wait a sec? Is it not WINTER such that the cold is the star of the show? True, cold plays a role in assisting water by fluctuating temperatures from cold to colder to really cold, but it is water that can change its state of matter under many winter conditions, in shape and in volume.
On a training exercise for the 5k run, one of the events for the Ice Fest, I found myself up toward the Cat Creek Trail on the eastern slopes of the San Juan Mountains. Cloudy, with quick bursts of sunlight and occasional snow showers, muddy, snow packed and icy roads made me think of all the ways water can present itself to the surface of our planet. I was the only one parked where Forest Service Road 271 would normally continue on to the Cat Creek Trail. I parked, pulled my snowshoes out of my trunk and headed up the untracked road. My mind began to wander to all the states of water I was experiencing. First was snow, originally forming in the upper atmosphere, starting as a super cooled water droplet, freezing to a dust particle, then attracting more water vapor molecules as it drops toward earth, creating a beautiful six sided shape that dihydrogen oxide (H20) water drops form. We call it snow! There are as many different snowflake crystals as there are snowflakes, although I believe a few years back, scientists discovered two snowflakes that WERE exactly the same. And the number of snowflakes that have fallen within a hundred miles of Alamosa this winter would probably take up more zeros than I get on a blog post!
Great Sand Dunes National Park is open all year! I repeat, all year! From a distance the Dunes look two dimensional, almost fake and out of place, against the backdrop of snowcapped mountains in the winter. January, deep Winter, as good as a time as any to take my adventurous pal Elizabeth on her first journey to, and up the Great Sand Dunes! There are no excuses for not taking a quick day trip from Alamosa out to the dunes. In 45 minutes, you can be out of your vehicle and in the visitor's Center (9-4:30 daily except Federal holidays) or parked at the main parking lot for hiking the dunes.
The Dunes are spectacular in the winter. January is the same month that Zebulon Pike (yep, the Pike's Peak guy) and his expedition came over Medano Pass (also part of the park) with orders from President Thomas Jefferson to survey and figure out the fringes of exactly what the heck we had recently purchased from France in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase was not your normal real estate buy, as it involved strange political tensions between the newly born Unites States and the power player countries of Britain, France, and Spain = Mexico at the time. Read excerpts from his journals, and he and his men were fascinated by the sea of sand and the valley that lay before them! His words can be found at various road side stops on the way to the dunes or in the Visitors Center.
Rare though it is, snow can come hard and fast in the San Luis Valley! Such a day it was, when yes, a snowstorm was pounding the mountain passes and the valley floor. Often the valley is in a 'donut hole' of dry air while the surrounding mountain ranges are smothered in clouds and the storms blanket the peaks, which is the general norm due to the physics of weather.
"How do people live in this place? There's nothing here," the woman proclaimed, in the convenience gas station in Fort Garland on US Highway 160. Her question was seemingly directed to no one except maybe her husband looking for munchies. I was on a C-E-S, a coffee elimination stop mid-morning on my way to San Luis and points south. I could sorta see her point, she being obviously passing through the San Luis Valley for the first time going somewhere for Christmas which was in three days.
SAN LUIS VALLEY - by Bob Unterreiner - Cape Girardeau MO
This past October our family headed out West to see some of our National Parks. Our first stop along the way was the Great Sand Dunes National Park in the San Luis Valley. I had heard of this park with these giant sand dunes in Colorado when it was featured on CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood. When my daughter planned our trip, this was one of the parks that made the cut.
Running in shorts on Thanksgiving Day yielded soon to Old Man Winter over the course of the last weekend in November. From virtually no snowpack, to several feet deep is often the way the 'Old Boy' makes himself known. I was on my way 'down river' (the Rio Grande) from Alamosa to New Mexico for the Holiday when I stopped by Ojo Caliente Hot Springs, a prominent lodging, restaurant, and hot springs resort 90 minutes south of Alamosa on Highway 285.
The bonus for me is the Trail System to the west of the springs with the trailheads for several trails a few yards from the main springs and parking lots. The place was packed that morning and though windy, it was warm enough to run in shorts. I picked the Posi Trail, which, though little remains, was a large Indian village over 700 years ago. Why? The hot springs provided life giving warm water and the Rio Ojo Caliente continues to flow by the ruin as it did then. The land and climate were suitable for growing crops. Life was good for those villagers. Pot shards, reminders of their culture, are scattered everywhere! Pick up, examine and replace.
Amazing how many places and physical features in the West are named after John Fremont and Kit Carson. Cities, towns, streets, rivers, peaks, counties, schools, National Forests, even a ghost town, and probably other things I have missed!
Recently, Outside Magazine had an article that adventures in nature, considered 'outdoor therapy,' are as good for mental health as they are for our physical well-being. For me it was a 'duh' moment for I have always felt that way, hence my level of excitement and butterflies when I think of an adventure with a purpose.
MY EMBARGO CREEK ADVENTURE
The town of Crestone is the 'Outer Limits' of the San Luis Valley in a good way. Resting on the perimeter in the north part of the valley, 38 miles north of Alamosa, and 12 miles east of Highway 17, the town is easily accessible. During festivals and special events, Crestone is busy. Other times, like the day before Halloween, late October being considered off season as the calendar flows into the dark and chilly days of winter, Crestone is pleasantly peaceful. I took advantage of the perfect weather to go for a run up North Crestone Trail 744. I normally go up the Willow Lake Trail but it is good to change things up. I parked near the Crestone Art Museum in town on a quiet Sunday afternoon in perfect weather, no wind, with temperatures in the low 60s. Soft clouds filtered the low angle of the autumn sunlight. Alder Street going north will put you on the Camino de Crestone which will lead you up to the trailhead. Signs in town are lacking to point trail seekers in the right direction. I had to ask a gentleman out for a stroll.
Hear ye, hear ye, one and all, it is still Fall, as evidenced by the color still available on several trails in the San Luis Valley and along rivers, streams, and hillsides. September's full dress of colors, and our festivals celebrating such, are over, but it does not mean the trails close! Colors dull down in the aspen trees, but there are still plenty of good reasons to get out and hike or bike. This year the aspens, due to a late dry summer, showed more oranges and reds beyond the golds they usually give us. It has been an excellent color season! What about now into late October and early November? If an early winter storm with ripping winds holds off, colors will remain for a month or more. A few renegade aspens and cottonwoods hold their brilliant yellows, so bright in the sunshine that they look as if they are drawing additional power by being directly plugged into the Earth.
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