As the Rockies descend from Canada, their summits rise across vastly different regions of the American West. Colorado holds some of their most splendid peaks and valleys, as well as one of the range’s most beautifully strange features: the Great Sand Dunes. Hot winds blow sand into huge mounds at the roots of mountains that rise from the desert plains of southern Colorado. In contrast, the high mountains in the center of the state are home to Maroon Bells, twin peaks near Aspen that are a draw for sightseers and hikers alike. As part of our road trip across the United States, we journeyed from New Mexico to Montana, from the Dunes to the Bells.
We left Taos, New Mexico, just as the sunrise colored the dawn sky orange. Our aim was to be camped at the Collegiate Peaks in central Colorado before the sun set. We began our journey at the tail end of the Rockies and descended from the aspen-laden hills and valleys of Carson National Forest into southern Colorado. As the trees gave way to flat, sparse land covered only by dusty rocks and scrubby shrubs, the sky opened up above us. With long, straight, dusty roads ahead and the cloudless expanse above, we felt as if we weren’t actually moving. Hours flew by and the only sense we had of time passing was the peaks growing from the horizon.
Slowly but surely, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rose above the plains, and we began to make out the shimmering outlines of our midday stop: the Great Sand Dunes National Park. As we drove down to the visitors center, the sheer size of the Dunes became apparent. Standing at an incredible 750 feet (250 meters) at their highest point, they are the largest sand dune formation in the United States. As the wind blows the dust from the surrounding dry lands into fine sand, it collects into massive piles on the banks of Castle Creek, and there it sits, baking under the heat of the sun.
After parking, eating, and taking in the view, we set off with sandals on our feet and cameras around our necks. We crossed a creek full of families batting mosquitos from their faces, trying to find some respite from the midday heat. The tops of the sand dunes loomed hundreds of feet above us. As we moved closer, we started to scale the sand — however, we soon realized our mistake. The sun’s heat had seared the faces of the Dunes, and now, with every step we took, burning grains poured onto the tops of our feet. It was unbearably hot. If the sand touched my skin for more than a few seconds, it felt like my feet were on fire.
Desperate to explore further, we ran, jumped, hopped, and slid our way around the Dunes, stopping just briefly to take in the magnificence of these great sandy mountains. We were far from the bathers by the water, and the silence was broken by nothing but a slight breeze that swished across the sand. The calm was only punctuated by the searing sensation of the sand cascading into our open shoes. We didn’t dare scale High Dune, the highest point of these burning-hot mounds of sand, for lack of water, sunscreen, and appropriate footwear. Despite our lack of foresight, we began our restless dance down the sands, with smiles on our faces and laughter echoing from the mountains beyond the river.
Returning to our van, we resumed our journey to Colorado. The road stretched on and, eventually, up. Heading west from Buena Vista, we sped into the mountains, and as the sun began to set behind the Collegiate Peaks, we pulled into a campsite nestled between the thick aspen forest. The gusts of valley wind shook every leaf in the forest that shimmered yellow-green and orange in the early-evening light. Wandering the campgrounds, we walked through the groves as they glowed under the sun’s ebbing rays. As night fell, the air became still. We stayed up by the fire, gazing at a clear, moonlit sky that was bright with stars and floating embers.
The next day, we left the aspens and headed for Aspen. We snaked our way along the route, climbing through winding passes and around hairpin bends. The pine forest remained thick on the slopes as we rose, slowly climbing toward Independence Pass and the Continental Divide. At its apex, we stopped, donned warm jackets to fight the alpine wind, and left our van to survey the beautiful views of the high mountains of central Colorado. From there, we gazed out over the roads we had just ascended and enjoyed a panoramic view of our future journey down into the valleys ahead.
Coming down the other side of Independence Pass, the van had to squeeze around blind corners that were cut into the side of sharp cliffs. At times, the road’s edge was only centimeters from our tires, forcing us to descend carefully. Once we cleared the sheerest part of the mountain road, the trees began to give way to lodges and small storefronts. Soon, we found ourselves in Aspen, a place that buzzed with hikers, holidaymakers, and wealthy homeowners. The town was charming and well-developed, with facades made of dark wood, glass, and fresh white paint. After a bit of maneuvering to fit in a packed parking complex, we waited at a tour center for the bus that would take us up to the Maroon Bells.
The bus rose through magical meadows and forests along the White River, and occasionally, the tree line was broken by the paths of avalanches. The Bells themselves remained hidden by the dense trees and steep hillsides. After getting off the bus, we walked up a short paved pathway and down into the Maroon Creek Valley. Resting on the shores of the lake, we marveled at the sight before us. Across the still waters stood the Maroon Bells, two hulking peaks of red rock that comprise two of the highest points in Elk Mountains. They are made of slanted, reddish rock carved by Ice Age glaciers and stand as one of America’s most striking landmarks. As I stood there, I couldn’t help but remember that they are colloquially known as “the Deadly Bells,” as they are notoriously unpredictable, with rock liable to break away at any moment.
Keen to get a closer look, we began our way along the trails leading to their base. We strolled through quiet forests, over bubbling creeks, and through tranquil fields carpeted in wildflowers, all while keeping our eyes peeled for the moose that called this place home. Everywhere we looked was nothing short of breathtaking. After hiking for a good few hours, we felt the day’s travels begin to wear at our tired feet, so we returned to the lakeside as we waited to catch the last bus back to Aspen.
Of all of the days we’d spent on the road, this journey was one I remember most clearly. From the peaks of the Great Sand Dunes to those of the Maroon Bells, this route took us through a great variety of America’s majestic landscapes. At every turn, we were in awe of just how beautiful America is.