Colorado on Highway 150
Text and Photos by Curtis Von Fange
Highway 150 to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Southern Colorado seemed empty, remote and lonely. As it cut across endless sagebrush, I was surprised to see an innocuous sign pointing out a road to “Zapata Falls.”
Lured by the vision of an oasis of flowing water in such a harsh environment, I turned the wheel of my vehicle and started up the washboard road. It ascended gradually at first, but soon the gentle grade turned steep. A number of switchbacks challenged my traction. With each turn, the San Luis Valley, Colorado’s largest basin and alpine desert, seemed to grow in size. I could see that I was approaching a birds-eye view. Far below I picked out a huge dust devil scouring the basin floor. The vortex drew a hazy column of dust some hundred feet or more into the air. Sixty some miles across the valley I could just see the San Juan Mountain Range, which seemed to be almost floating in the haze. To my right the Great Sand Dunes looked more and more like a sand box.
After a few miles, the gravel road ended at the parking area. I reached for my water bottle and camera. I began to climb up the marked trail to the falls. The sign said it was only one-quarter mile, though it felt longer. I was thankful that I had worn sturdy footwear. The trail is a cross between a rocky jeep road and a dry creek bed littered with rocks and loose stone. The pinyon pines and flowering cactus added a wonderful scent to the high country trail, which rises from 9000 feet to 9400 feet above sea level. If you make the hike, you should take your time and enjoy the smells and sights. The Bureau of Land Management, which administers the area, seemed to understand these aspects of a hike in the high country. I found a number of well-placed benches.
After a 20-minute hike, I rounded a bend in the trail and noticed two things. First, to my surprise, there was a drastic drop in the temperature, perhaps as much as 15 or 20 degrees. It felt good to my sweating brow. Secondly, again to my surprise, I heard the unmistakable roar of falling water. Not a trickle, mind you, but a rumbling torrent, the sound of lots of water, many rocks, and a great fall. The trail descended gently to the creek. Sure enough, rushing water rushed over and around large boulders. A little bit upstream a mist floated out of a large fissure in the mountain. At its base flowed the rushing water.
I took off my shoes and socks and rolled my pant legs up to my knees. I stepped into the icy water, shuddering. I set my eyes on the fissure and pressed ahead. The creek was shallow enough in places to pick out a pathway among the rocks. I held onto the cliff face on one side with my hand. I tiptoed through the current, looking for flat stones to step on, and struggling to hold my balance. I set my eyes on the cleft and moved forward against the water flow and into the mountain gorge. The cliff faces on either side quickly rose to heights beyond my vision, narrowed to10 feet or so, and rounded a small bend.
After 30 yards or so, I experienced something wonderful. The thundering water from above slid down a chute into a large bowl of rock. Mist and splashing water filled the small stony opening, the quick evaporation cooling the air. A steady wind from higher up blew the cooler air downstream, thus dropping the outside temperature over a large area.
A small sandbar above the water gave me a temporary island on which to stand and take in what was happening. My numb feet were quite grateful to be out of the water, if only for a few moments. I slipped the lens cap off of my camera and snapped some quick pictures, including some of teenagers who, just like teenagers, had taken it upon themselves to jump in and float around in the bone-chilling bowl of water. Two others attempted a climb up the chute to another bowl where the real falls were.
I was able to work my way around the edge of the bowl, which was quite deep, to snap a couple of shots of the larger falls, which towered a good 50 feet above the second bowl. They produced the massive roar that I heard from further down the trail. Far above, the smoothly worn cliff walls gave evidence of an ancient channel for the flowing water. As the falls cut deeper and deeper, the earlier channel, stranded, grew higher and higher in the chimney until it now appeared 40 feet or so above the current channel. Its smooth surface contrasted markedly with the rubble and debris at the base of the falls.
Not wanting to get drenched by the splashing water and mist, I decided to return to the parking area. Again, I felt the thermal transition between the heat of the desert and the cool air around the waterfall. As I descended, I heard an ominous rumble from a distant thunderhead trying to cross the high ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The anvil-shaped cloud rose like giant cotton candy above the basin.
As I drove my car back onto the pavement of Highway 150, it dawned on me that the road now seemed less empty, remote and lonely. I had been accompanied by the towering whirl of a dust devil, a switchback road with impressive views, a wonderful hike to a fabulous waterfall, and a magnificent floating thunderhead above the valley floor. Indeed, Highway 150 to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument seemed downright crowded.
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