Day 5


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Salida + Mount Princeton Hot Springs + Sand Dunes + Zapata Ranch
Smell the coffee! Placed on a table beside our door are steaming java cups and scrumptious house-made muffins. We gobble while packing. We check out of Salida Palace Hotel and on to next stop on our ramble.

7:30 am leave for Mount Princeton Hot Springs
We head northwest for 30 minutes passing through series of small towns. Snow on the Arkansas River Valley floor doesn’t stay long so fishing, zip lining, horseback riding, mountain biking and motor sports happen year round. Eventually our bus climbs up into the mountains.

8 am arrive + breakfast + tour Mount Princeton Hot Springs
Surrounded by 14,000 foot peaks and 3 nearby ski areas, this rustic resort is a skier dream destination. The full breakfast is welcome before we tour the property. Mountains, trees, skies, fresh air create a mantle for relaxation while optimizing health. Hot spring waters bubble up at 140°, creating hanging ground fog over the river. The 100% natural odorless geothermic spring feeds soaking pools arranged by degree of heat and connected by paths and bridges. Visitors soak a bit, move from one pool to another, often spending hours in the waters. A natural creek pool offers an authentic hot spring experience! A large pool hosts aqua exercises, and play areas exist in many places on the grounds. Popular with families, couples and singles, the resort has cabins, cliffside or hillside rooms and a hotel style main lodge. Weddings and conferences are often held in this pristine environment.

8:30 am tour + outdoor activity
7 miles up the road – higher into the mountains – the snow is deep. We’re visiting the historic ghost town of St. Elmo to reconnect with the old west. It is one of the most popular ghost towns in the state – an official National Historic Site. In its heyday, 1,000 people lived in this mining area. St Elmo, railhead for the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad offered passenger and freight transportation until 1926. Picturesque wooden buildings, in various states of disrepair, house a general store, post office, bordello and church, among others. Not surprisingly, the area has a new purpose – some of the best snowmobiling in the world is right here – verified by the many snowmobiles unloaded during our visit.

10:30 am depart for Great Sand Dunes National Park
Driving southeast we pass thorough San Isabel National Forest before reaching a long valley. Ahead are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A geologic cornucopia of grasslands, wetlands, alpine lakes, conifer and aspen forests — open to many types of exploration. An hour later we enter the Great Sand Dunes Preserve and finally, our destination, the Great Sand Dunes Park, established 1932 by President Herbert Hoover. A clear sunny day – in the distance we see the tallest sand dunes in North America (7,515 to 13,604 ft). 11,000 years ago, Stone Age nomads walked into the San Luis Valley to hunt mammoths, prehistoric bison and gather plants. A later people, the Ute, called the Great Sand Dunes “Sowapophe-uvehe”, meaning “the land that moves back and forth”, referring to dune movement. Want to learn more? Cick here to read a detailed scientific paper, On the Age and Origin of the Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, published 2007.

noon arrive Great Sand Dunes National Park Ranger talk, tour and explore sand dunes
We spend time in the interactive educational exhibits at the Visitor Center (great for any age – exhibits encourage learning and exploration) and fuel up with lunch before starting our climb up a dune. Ever tried sandboarding? You can do it here! Wear sun protection. Interested in bugs? There are 5 that live here and nowhere else! Lots to do here, plan to stay longer than we were able to.

Salida-ZapataRanch 98 miles

3:30 pm depart for Zapata Ranch
On the road again! but for only a short ride. Bordering the Great Sand Dunes Park & Preserve is Zapata Ranch. Owned by The Nature Conservancy, it is managed in partnership with Ranchlands. The property, a 103,000 acre bison and guest ranch, is located along the eastern wall of the San Luis Valley.

3:45 pm arrive Zapata Ranch
Kate Mathson, Ranch Manger, helps us check in. Each log cabin has two rooms with baths. Resort capacity limited to 26 guests. Kate meets us on the open deck to talk about the facilities and goals of the ranch. The scenic and ecologically diverse high desert grasslands, alpine forest, wetlands, creeks and lush meadows allow a livestock operation, working ranch vacations, educational programs centered around the bison herd and active conservation programs to preserve the land and promote its biodiversity.

4:30 pm activity near Zapata Ranch lodge loop trail walk, pet baby bison
After the talk we take a lodge loop trail walk that leads to the baby bison pen. Very social, he likes to be petted and we like doing it. Hear an owl and see lots of birds and wildlife in the area. The end-of-day distant views of the meadows, mountains and sky are breathtakingly colorful and beautiful.

6 pm appetizers in Zapata Ranch main lodge, followed by dinner
We meet in the main lodge for simple delicious appetizers, wine, iced tea, and have a chance to review our day. Copious dinner choices are served buffet style. Everything freshly prepared by the ranch’s chef de cuisine. Bison steaks are very tender. Salad is crisp green and fresh with choice of dressing. Veggie salad quite unique. Flan for dessert. Gourmet all the way.

8:30 pm free time to enjoy ranch
Games and outdoor hot tubbing after dinner.

overnight Zapata Ranch
Around 10 pm tuck into comfy bed to start a deep sleep.

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