Part 3 of 3: Travel to CO Friend, Dunes & Waterfall

The next few days was a combination of travel, heading south for two new experiences: a stop for lunch in Woodland Park, then further south to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. 

Do you know the on-line game Words With Friends? I played a few years ago with my mom and a sister. I continued to play, they did not. Most players do not use the chat feature; however, Beth did. Through chatting, Beth and I compared the weather between Colorado and Arizona. Long story short, while in Colorado I texted her, we met for lunch with a great view of Pike’s Peak from Woodland Park, and I enjoyed meeting her with a delicious lunch too. Her niece ran the Pikes Peak Marathon a few days later and Beth texted saying her niece won the women’s division! Wow!

Great Sand Dunes National Park is a couple of hours drive from the interstate. I have always wanted to visit and this trip I was going to make it happen! I immediately felt the elevation as I was hiking on the sand dunes. It is over 8500 feet and the summit is a few thousand feet higher which I did not accomplish (8500 feet is my comfort, beyond can be an issue). The wind had flags straight out as I walked in the sand and felt like it could push me over. I got out of the wind in some places to watch people “sled” down the dune. It was hilarious to watch the varying degrees of expertise and I did feel bad for the guy who “sand-boarded” the dune quite successfully for 3/4 of it, but face-planted at the end! 

I met an Orlando, Florida couple who had questions about my van. They are backpackers who currently travel via their Honda Element and looking to buy a van. All that they said sounded like my story!

Great Sand Dunes Basin
Sled down a dune
Dig in the sand
See the child digging in the sand?
Hikers at top of the dune in the cloud … I see them!

Zapata Falls is a must-do hike!

Close to the national park is Zapata Falls. They need to update the sign at the entrance as the 2.5 miles road to the trailhead is now paved. The trail to the falls though is very rocky, steep in a short section as you gain from 9000 to 9200 feet.

The real challenge came when crossing the stream flowing from the falls. Ice cold water flowing over many rocks, some with algae; looking just a bit slippery. There were 4 crossings and then you had to lean over at one point to get a photo of the 30 foot high falls! No way was I standing in 3 – 4 feet of ice cold water to get a photo of the complete falls. If you go on this hike, bring hiking poles for the stream crossings to make your life easier. At 2 points, helping hands made my rock-jumping a bit safer. Very kind people!

Zapata Falls

Walking back to the trailhead I talked with a Colorado couple. They love to fish and have been to college and lived in different parts of Colorado. As I was pulling away in the van, the woman caught up with me … she wanted to be sure I had seen her t-shirt. I like it!

You never know what people will share with you in a day!

At nighttime I did have an altitude headache even though I was sleeping at 6000 feet. A couple of Advil took care of it for a good night’s sleep.

Desert Towns: Yuma & El Centro on I-8

First, a television report caught my attention: “1500 18-wheeler trucks leave here per day with produce”. Which desert town? Was it Yuma, Arizona or El Centro, California? Second, I had plans to travel to the San Diego, California area in search of a seashore bird: the black oystercatcher. I had never stopped in Yuma or El Centro when driving Interstate 8 to the west coast, so I decided now was as good a time as any to do so.

Learning about desert town: Yuma, Arizona

Attention speeding drivers: lesson learned without getting a ticket, but I saw others be pulled over. Watch your driving speed; 75 mph on the interstate in Arizona, but when close to Yuma it is 65 mph with plenty of police to catch you if you are speeding. Amazing the number of them I saw.

Guinness World Records listed Yuma, Arizona as the “sunniest city on earth”. Sunshine and warm temperatures 91% of the year is where thousands of RVers visit in the winter months! More importantly, ninety percent of all leafy vegetables are grown November to March in this county. When we eat a salad in the winter, the greens were grown here, the “Winter Lettuce Capital of the World”, Yuma Arizona.

While driving the interstate, even in summer, I saw local feedlots with as many as 120,000 heads of beef cattle. Date trees, especially Medjool dates, grow here along with over 100 other crops. Researching info for this post I discover kosher wheat is cultivated here since kosher rules dictate the wheat is not to receive additional moisture immediately prior to harvesting. Interesting; I never knew!

My arrival to this city is late in the day since I knew it would be desert dry heat hot. West Wetlands Park is on the Colorado River. My hope is to know something about it for future bird watching and/or need to take a driving break. People/swimmers at the river’s edge, on Centennial Beach, told me the water was cold. Compared to the hot air temperature it was refreshing. River tubing looked like great fun too! There is a hiking/biking trail for my future use. On this day, I only walked a short distance because of the heat and time of day. I still needed to get to El Centro.

West Wetlands Park in Yuma, Arizona

Learning about desert town: El Centro, California

Back on the interstate, a Border patrol checkpoint is at the Arizona/California border. At various places look south to see the border wall in the distance. A half hour from the checkpoint about 15 people apprehended by Border Patrol. The people were sitting on the ground probably to wait for transport since no way all could fit in 2 patrol cars. One Border Patrol person using binoculars was checking the hills. I have mentioned this before, it is not difficult to climb over the border wall. The difficulty is surviving in 100 degree dry desert heat! Getting found probably saves their lives.

While driving to Bucklin Park, I notice food processing places for the thousands of acres of winter vegetables produced in this area. This is an arid region, less than 3 inches of rain per year, with summer temperatures around 107 degrees Fahrenheit. I am escaping to San Diego’s mid-70 temperatures! 

Most visitors to this desert area ride off-road vehicles at Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area in the winter months (some dunes are over 300 feet) or visit the Salton Sea area further north from here. I took a quick walk in the heat of summer at Bucklin Park. Few others, people or birds, were here. I’ll note the park’s location in case any interesting birds are reported to fly through here this winter.

Bucklin Park in El Centro, California

Driving Beyond El Centro to the San Diego area

It would be interesting to understand the geology of this varied desert landscape – some below sea level, or once bubbling now solidified rock formations, or the sand dunes. Solar panels cover acres of land, as do gigantic windmills near mountain passes. Road signs let drivers know gusts of wind and sand are possible even in areas where there are no windmills. At another place signs tell us to turn off our vehicle’s air conditioning so the radiator does not overheat. For those who do not, water stations are along that 10 mile stretch of road. 

Sand dunes

Finally near the San Diego area, plants are green and the ocean water is welcoming. I arrive … and so did everyone else … hotels and campgrounds are busy and roads are full off traffic, but we are all here for the morning fog, cool daytime temperature and ocean water … at least I am! (This blog post is not meant to tell you everything about Yuma or El Centro; visit each when you can. Happy and safe travels to you.)

West coast of the USA!