An American excursion was the perfect way to get our toddler hooked on travel.
Southern Colorado with Kids: An Off-Road Adventure Through Nature and History, Falling in love with travel happened for me early – born in Kenya, raised in Paris, school in California, jobs in Argentina and Africa – and I absolutely want to instill that spirit of adventure in my own son.
We had booked a 2020 safari to South Africa for our family, planning to take Sebastian (2) on his first of many safaris, and we know how that turned out (COVID).
This spring, when the perfect opportunity for an adventure in the United States came our way, I couldn’t have jumped at the chance any faster.
Having spent considerable time in the Four Corners area of the American West (the meeting point of modern-day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado) where my mom, Marcia, was raised and now lives, I was excited to plan an itinerary that would get Sebastien out on his own little Extraordinary Journey. I knew the trip would be full of stunning views, the amazing natural world, wildlife, and a chance to see and understand the indigenous peoples of North America that would act as a perfect introduction to learning about history, culture, conservation, and adventure.
Even at two, Sebastien was all-in on the trip. The multi-hour car journeys were manageable with frequent stops and plenty to point at out the windows, and I can imagine that for older kids it will be even easier to manage road trip logistics, bigger adrenaline activities, and opportunities to try new things.
From Denver to Albuquerque: Get your 4×4 On
We landed in Denver and rented a 4×4 truck – with high clearance, four-wheel drive at the push of a button, and safety features. At first I thought it was a bit overkill, but as we began to explore the rugged terrain of the parks and monuments, I realized it was the very best way to access hidden gems and remote spots – especially with a kid in tow.
From Denver, we drove four hours south to Great Sand Dunes National Park. As you approach the park, the majestic dunes are everywhere, but it isn’t until you get inside the park’s gates that you really have a sense of the scale – tens of thousands of acres of sand, with the tallest dunes topping out at nearly 800 feet.
With beginner, intermediate, and advanced hiking trails, picnic areas, and viewpoints, the park is great for a tour. But where kids and grownups alike got to play was getting dirty in the sand. We rented sand boards for “sledding,” hiked up to the top of dunes and had fun tumbling down, and enjoying the snowmelt off the Rockies in early spring and summer to create this unique paradise of seasonal streams, pools, and rivers.
Afterwards, we took the 4×4 out to test its capabilities. Being able to go off-road confidently meant we got to visit some isolated and beautiful spots, and Sebastien loved the bumps and adventures of driving in the wilderness.
If off-roading isn’t your thing, you can always access these backcountry sand dunes via horseback. Being in the backcountry felt truly private, natural, and reminded me of my times in the deserts of Namibia.
Lodging at Great Sand Dunes: Zapata Ranch
Because of its remote location and rural setting, it felt like we were on a safari when we checked in at Zapata Ranch. The 100,000-acre property is owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy to provide landscape-scale conservation in this biologically diverse area of the world, and is home to bison, bear, elk, as well as housing a working ranch.
What it lacks in traditional luxury, it makes up for in authenticity, community, and comfort. Spacious rooms, a camp-like layout, friendly staff, and views of the park mean you’re truly immersed in the natural setting.
Like being on safari, Zapata offers full board, featuring a house-made menu of locally-sourced ingredients, all-inclusive activities of whatever seasonal work is happening on the property – from branding cattle to tracking bison – and that communal feeling of eating alongside fellow travelers at the various indoor and outdoor gathering and dining spaces.
We met folks from Oklahoma, California, and New York and enjoyed marveling at the experience – just like we would if we were sitting around the fire at night on safari in Africa.
Mountain Adventure at Dunton Hot Springs
Leaving Zapata, we drove south toward Four Corners, through the 11,000-foot Wolf Creek Pass, where we were able to get out and walk around in the snow, and arrived in Dunton Hot Springs.
This small, exclusive resort across the mountain from Telluride, is a perfectly restored mining town. The lodge features hand-hewn log cabins, an authentic saloon serving food of exceptional quality, hiking trails, on-site spa, world-class fly fishing, and the namesake indulgent hot springs set beneath shimmering snow banks.
Entering the all-inclusive resort space felt really like going back into Butch Cassidy country – in fact, Butch Cassidy’s signature is right there on the saloon wall. But don’t think you’re roughing it, Dunton has all-inclusive, five-star dining and best-of-everything details. From a selection of hiking boots to borrow to top-notch Orvis fishing gear and personal guides to high-speed internet, eBikes to check out, the lodge provides everything you need to enjoy your stay after a busy day of hiking, horseback riding, and wildlife spotting.
A stay at Dunton could be a weeklong trip unto itself as the attention to detail, breadth of activities, and tons of games, toys, hot spring pools, (and the requisite high-speed internet for staying in touch with the world) means that both grown ups and kids will love spending time here.
American History: Ancestral Pueblos
From Dunton Hot Springs, you can choose a day trip to some of the Four Corners oldest intact North American human settlements, the Ancestral Pueblos of the Navajo and other first peoples nations.
This last leg of our adventure, from Dunton to Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, was a beautiful and eye-opening four-hour drive through Navajo country. We recommend an early start and arriving in Chaco before noon, or the opposite: getting to Chaco in the evening and into the National Historic Park in time for sunrise.
The astonishing beauty of the ancient adobe civilization is often overlooked, and definitely hard to access without our essential 4×4, but it’s a serene and spiritual experience to be in a place that dates back to the 10th century (900 AD). Towering as high as four stories, these huge ancestral pueblo structures reminded me of my experience in the historic ruins of Rome, the medieval ruins of the Great Zimbabwe, and the ancient temples of southeast Asia. Bandelier National Monument is similarly interesting and under 2 hours from Albuquerque. If you don’t want to go quite as far off the beaten track, it’s a must do.
Staying in Chaco Canyon
Because of its remote location, there isn’t a place to stay in the park, but its location just two hours from Albuquerque means you can get there, spend a nice day with your pre-packed lunch, and be back to your hotel or on a flight that evening.
However, for those passionate about ancient history and peoples, connect with us to coordinate an overnight stay for special overnight luxury camping around a new moon to experience the vastness, connectedness, and unbelievable scale of the sky at Chaco, an International Dark Sky Park.
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