Part II: Camping in the Winter Sucks! (Colorado does not!)

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Getting back to civilization after being out in the wilderness is always a bit of a relief to me for some reason. I can’t tell you exactly why, I’d much rather prefer to be driving on a dirt trail with no one around for miles, but after a while it’s nice to have the ability to replenish your resources and like, use a real bathroom.

Upon arriving back in Pagosa Springs from the Williams Creek Reservoir we stopped at the first gas station we saw to fill up our tank and grab some ice for our cooler. What I hadn’t considered was that the ice in our cooler hadn’t seen any temperatures above 50 degrees, and was just as frozen as when we put it in. Both the ice in the cooler and the bag we ended up buying anyways lasted all the way back to Ozark. I also somehow completely forgot to screw the gas cap back on and close the lid, nearly driving off with it hanging open. Payton caught this and didn’t let me forget it every time we got gas for the rest of the trip.

I had decided we would start the day off with a trip to Treasure Falls, which is just at the bottom of the west end of Wolf Creek Pass. Over the summer I had stopped here and saw the waterfall from the trailhead, but didn’t actually hike up to because we were running a little short on time.

It didn’t take us long from Pagosa Springs to reach the pulloff for the “observation site.” The observation site is immediately off the road, and just like over the summer, it was packed with people. Pagosa Springs is a tourist town, and Treasure Falls is just another attraction. It’s appealing to literally everyone because you can see the waterfall from the parking lot, and the hike up to it is pretty easy.

 View of the falls from the parking lot just off Wolf Creek Pass. 

View of the falls from the parking lot just off Wolf Creek Pass. 

There are actually two trails up to the base off the falls, the aforementioned “Main Trail” and the “Primitive Trail.” Before we had even stepped out of the truck it was decided that we were going to be taking the Primitive Trail first.

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The trail was simply awesome. Mostly covered in snow. We’d never hiked in the snow before! Like at the Williams Creek Reservoir that morning, we were full of wonderment. Hiking on a snow covered trail in the middle of the mountains with your best friends to a cool frozen waterfall... Does it get any better than that?

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Eventually we ran into an unforeseen problem. The trail crossed the creek below the waterfall, and it was completely frozen. While it was only a few feet across, the ice was completely solid and very slick. So, that was it for the primitive trail. We’d go back down and head up the main trail on the other side of the creek. That was, until Noah decided he would give crossing a try.

Scenarios like this are fairly common when hiking with Noah. For example, he once climbed about 30 feet up the waterfall at Lost Valley in Arkansas. We’ve been waiting to capture his death with photos for years now. It hasn’t happened yet.

So, up the main trail we went. I don’t know how much easier it actually was than the primitive trail we had just been on. It was wider, sure, but also seemed longer and less direct. Eventually we had a chance to cross the creek on a neat bridge before heading up to the observation platform. The view was very good.

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It’d get better though! It was around this time that we realized we should be able to walk up under the falls since everything was frozen. It was also at this time that Bri and Noah decided to ditch the main trail and head to the falls on the opposite side, where there was no trail. I should note that this was definitely violating Tread Lightly principles (although so was our camp spot the night before, It's not the end of the world, just be concious about it) You should always stay on designated trails.  

Payton and I went back up the main trail and past the observation platform to the base of the waterfall. Stuff like this is why I think everyone should just get out to travel and explore. Literally anyone could have hiked this trail. Standing under a frozen  100+ foot tall waterfall is pretty flippin cool.

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The views from up here weren’t half bad either. Wolf Creek Pass is popular for a reason.

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Eventually we figured it was time to hit the road again. In true overlanding form, we didn’t really know where our next destination was. We had discussed getting in a couple of hours on the road while it was still daylight and stopping at or near Great Sand Dunes National Park on our way out of Colorado.

So, that’s what we did. We decided that rather than stopping at the dunes and being covered in sand for the remaining 13 hour drive, we would instead do my all time favorite hike: Zapata Falls.

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We enjoyed our drive out of the mountains and back into San Luis Valley. A trip to Colorado is not complete without heading over Wolf Creek Pass. As far as mountain passes, I think only Berthoud Pass west of Denver can compare.

After a stop in Alamosa for gas, we were all ready to be out of the truck for a bit. Personally, I was excited to have a chance to test out Dudley’s off road chops on the steep, rocky road up to the trailhead.

Dudley of course, handled the trail with ease. I can’t brag on this truck enough, it continues to impress me with each passing trip we take it on. These third generation Explorers have a reputation for not being entirely reliable (I can attest to this, this is my second third generation, and it does have a rebuilt engine to be fair) and not being very capable offroad due to having IFS/IRS. For what the travel we’ve done, this Explorer has lived up to its name.

Once at the trailhead we enjoyed the views of the valley and dunes while eating some very dry deli sandwiches. Views like this are what Colorado is all about.

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Look! Dunes!

We could have sat and enjoyed that view all day. I’d love to camp up here at some point actually (a bit of foreshadowing…?)

Maybe my favorite part of this hike is it’s length. While steep and rocky like the road up, the entire hike round trip is only about half a mile. Easily the best reward for effort I’ve seen. Like I said, this is my favorite hike in the entire world. I know how cool the view of the river coming out of the cave is. I was not prepared for how incredible it would be when frozen.

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Words really can’t do this place justice. Like at Treasure Falls, the river was slick. Noah was the only one who slipped and fell on our way in. I had tried to prepare the others for how cool the falls inside of the cave were, but we were still all blown away. Our pictures don’t really do it any good either. Thinking back to it, it doesn’t even seem like this was real.    

 Cave photography is hard. Getting better though. 

Cave photography is hard. Getting better though. 

I fell on my ass while in the cave. It hurt. Noah slid down the falls into a pool of water. It was all in good fun. We had saved the best for last, yet had still seen some absolutely incredible things, all in a matter of eight hours. We hadn’t been prepared for any of it at all.

We were most unprepared for the sunset when we arrived back at the trailhead. The sunrise that morning had been one of the best I had ever seen. This was easily the best sunset I had ever seen. We were in the right place at the right time.

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Colorado was bidding us farewell. It had been too good to us.

We weren’t out of the woods yet though. We weren’t even off this dang mountain yet.

This trip made me realize something somewhat ironic with my build of Dudley thus far. On my last Explorer (RIP Dora) I had off road lights not only behind the grille but also on my roof basket. A total of six. I don’t think they were ever actually used off road more than once or twice. Now, in a span of a little over 24 hours I was wishing for some extra lighting on Dudley. It gets dark quick out there in the mountains!

We did make it off the mountain with ease despite this, and in Blanca filled up our tank for the first leg of our drive through the night.

The thinking with deciding to drive through the night ended up being pretty simple. It wasn’t that any of us would have minded setting up camp and cooking another meal again, it was just too dang cold. Winter camping sucks. We would rather spend the night in the warm car where two of us could sleep comfortably at a time. We would also be getting back between 7 and 8 in the morning on Saturday, rather than early Sunday morning.

So, I took the first leg of driving. Taking us out of the mountains for the final time on North La Veta Pass before tearing through the night on the long and straight Colorado 10 to La Junta (Maybe a bit faster than I probably should have.)

My leg ended upon arriving in La Junta for another tank of gas. I had done all of the driving so far on the day was pretty done with it. Noah took over while I rode shotgun and Payton and Bri slept in the back. It already felt like we were deep into the night, when in reality it was only 9 or 10.

My original plan had been that Noah could get us to Dodge City, which was about three and a half hours away. Eventually though we ran out of Macklemore to listen to and things to talk about, and I could tell Noah was starting to get tired, so we called his leg over a bit early in Cimarron.

We stopped at a gas station to switch Payton and Bri up front. We rolled as the clock struck midnight, and they were closing up shop. The lady locking up the doors waited to see if we needed to buy anything, but I told Payton to just get gas in Dodge City. We had 130 miles to empty.

I’ve never found sleeping in the car easy. Especially my own, and especially when someone else is driving it through the night (although it should be noted that Payton is a very good driver, a fair bit better than Noah and Bri, although they both did well on this trip too.) Sleep came quickly for me this time though.

I’ve seen Payton like, really worried, very few times that I can think of. It was pretty obvious from his voice when he woke me up an hour or so later, that he was worried.

As it turned out, his phone had taken him north of Dodge City on Highway 50, instead of straight through on Highway 400 (the way we came in and the way I would usually take) so he hadn’t actually passed any open gas stations in Dodge.

Why was this a problem? Well ultimately my budgeting had been off, and we were starting to run short on money. All we thought we had was cash, and that wasn’t going to be doing us any good if all the gas stations we passed were closed.

We were in Kinsely, which seemed much larger on the map than what we were seeing. The readout on the dash said we had 30 miles to empty. I knew that was pretty inaccurate, as I had once ran this truck out of gas when it read 22 miles to empty. We were running on fumes at this point.

Noah woke up at some point in here, and said we could use his card if we could find a gas station. I’m guessing that Kinsely had a gas station somewhere with 24 hour pumps, but all we could find off Highway 50 was a small service station whose pumps had broken card readers.

The next town was Lewis, 9.6 miles away. It didn’t seem to be the size of Kinsely, but supposedly had a 24 hour gas station. We decided we would have to try and make it there.

 Not much out there.. Next open gas station was actually in Macksville. No way we would have made that.

Not much out there.. Next open gas station was actually in Macksville. No way we would have made that.

Then, somehow, as we crossed into the outskirts of Kinsely, a miracle. I knew exactly what it was, even though the others doubted me. A propane company with a single set of gas pumps under a canopy, a light shining right down on them. Dropped in the middle of a field, in Nowhere, Kansas. Self serve pumps selling diesel for farmers, and yes, unleaded too. We pumped away.

Sleep didn’t come as easily for me after that scare, but it must have at some point because before I knew it we were in Wichita, stopping to fill up again and switch drivers. It was Bri’s turn.

Unlike Noah and Payton, Bri had never driven my truck before. This was fine. I’ve only rode with Bri several times in her own car. She’s a fine driver. I wasn’t actually too worried, but I was enough to keep me awake.

Ultimately Bri was doing fine. This was easily the hardest stretch of driving we had on the entire trip, just because of the unholy hour we were doing it at.

As it turned out, we had a little more to worry about than being tired. Bri and I were both confused at first why some of the cattle trucks passing us were flashing their brights. Then we found out first hand.     

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As you can see, there isn’t much in eastern Kansas along 400. Between Ferdonia and Neodesha we had our first deer encounter. A buck, maybe the largest I’ve ever seen on or next to a road. It ran through a closing gap that was between us and a oncoming cattle truck, crossing maybe 10 feet in front of us.

After that, I was on the watch. As we went up on the 75 overpass south of Neodesha, I caught another deer running along our passenger side out of the corner of my eye. I was worried it was going to cross in front of us as we got near the top of the overpass, luckily it didn’t. I freaked Bri out a bit when I started yelling at her to stop though.

That was nothing compared to what was next though. Some 20 miles away from Parsons I told Bri that we would stop for gas and switch drivers when we got there. Probably less than a mile later, out of nowhere, we spotted another deer standing in the middle of the left lane. It happened pretty fast, we probably could have seen it sooner if Bri had the brights on, but I don’t think it would have mattered. We saw it too late, and it started to cross our lane as we passed by. I guess at the last second it decided not to kill itself by hitting us head on, and only sideswiped our drivers side.

I still don’t think it actually hit us that hard. Bri wasn’t prepared at all for it though, and began swerving back and forth in the middle of the road, still going probably about 50. I was pretty sure we were going to roll, it felt like we were. Noah and Payton who were both asleep in the back woke up during this and later said they thought we were actually about to die.

Credit to Bri though, she did get us back under control before we met any oncoming traffic, even if she did pull over on the opposite side of the road where I thought an incoming cattle truck was going to hit us head on. We did safely get back over to the right shoulder.

A recommendation I can’t make enough for anyone doing any sort of overland travel is that to keep a flashlight in every door on your rig. This is something that Clay Croft of Expedition Overland has talked about having in his XO rigs, and it really is just a no brainer. I have Maglights in the front driver and passenger doors, with smaller tactical LED flashlights for passengers. On this trip alone there were several times where having my flashlight at an arm's reach was pretty dang handy.

So I jumped out of Dudley expecting the worst, but was shocked when I saw no body damage at all from the hit. Even when we returned back home I was sure that I was going to find some scratch or small dent, but there really wasn’t anything.

Our roof basket had not fared so well. The cross bars had came out of their mounts on the passenger side, I’m guessing from all the swerving. The roof basket held on tight though (thanks to my custom mounts) and the weight of it kept the bars from completely sliding off on the drivers side.

Ten cold minutes later Noah, Payton and I had the cross bars back in their mounts and tight. I took over driving for Bri. We stopped in Parsons as planned, where I did a closer inspection of the basket and realized that my custom shovel mounts had been sheared clean off and that my shovel was barely hanging on. I threw the shovel in the back. Hopefully we wouldn’t be needing it at this point.    

We were just a little over two hours from Ozark. Those two hours felt very, very long. The rising sun actually seemed to make me more tired.

We made it though. After dropping Payton and Bri off at their houses, Noah and I rolled into my driveway at about a quarter till 8. It felt like weeks ago that we had just left, when in reality it was only 53 hours.

What a crazy 53 hours those were.

If I had to put it simply, this trip was all the adventure we were looking for, yet it was so much more than I think any of us expected.

One of my big takeaways from this trip is kinda the reason I started this website and write these blogs: Anyone is capable of having awesome adventures.

Ultimately, we spent between $400 and $500 on this trip. The large majority of that was gas. That’s to be expected when doing a 2300 mile trip. This trip could easily be done on a long weekend.

Trust me, if you really have a passion and a desire for adventure and travel, you can come up with a few days and a few hundred bucks for a sweet trip. Yeah it’ll be exhausting and it won’t go as you planned probably, but that’s all part of the adventure. Learning to adapt quickly and make decisions on any trip are skills that you can transfer to your real life.

As for my personal takeaways from this trip, I don’t even know where to start.

Most importantly, I’m pretty frickin’ blessed to have some awesome friends that will go on trips like this with me with short notice. That’s so important for this overlanding thing. Get yourself a team. You can make any trip happen if you have a team. Will it always be the same team? Probably not, but if you’re with like minded people who appreciate adventure, that’s all that matters.

Secondly, this trip gives me a ton of excitement for the future. Yeah, I have things I personally need to work on to become a better overlander. Finding camp spots, budgeting, photography. That’ll all come with more experience. We have things we need to work on as a team. Cooking, tread lightly principles, just small things like that. Like I said, it’s normal for teams to be changing from trip to trip, so there will always be some weaknesses there.

Really though, I’m excited though because I know Ozark Mountain Overland is ready for longer trips to even cooler places on our biggest adventures yet. I know we’re ready to make better content across more platforms and hopefully ready to inspire people. That’s what I’m in this for.

Until next time, get out there and have some adventure. Here in the Ozarks, and beyond.