Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Mission:Wolf

Mission:Wolf is a non-profit wolf sanctuary. It is in a very remote area of Colorado but it is open to the public to help teach people about wolves (they even have wolf "ambassadors" that travel with the volunteers around the country helping to educate people).

I discovered Mission:Wolf while researching Westcliffe, a small town in the middle of nowhere. It was a place we wanted to scope out as a possible place to live someday. Since Westcliffe fell between The Great Sand Dunes and home, we thought we could just "swing by there" to take a peek and maybe check out Mission: Wolf as well (especially since The Girl is crazy about wolves now, too).

Mission:Wolf sits at an altitude above 9000 feet just on the edge of the San Isabel National Forest.  The roads to the sanctuary are very rough and in the winter they can be impassable - sometimes even if you have a 4WD.


Once we got to Mission:Wolf, one of the volunteers came out to give us a tour. It doesn't cost anything to visit, but donations are encouraged (It costs a lot to feed a bunch of hungry wolves). The volunteer that helped us was fantastic! She spent probably 2 hours with just our group of 4 people and you could tell she loved what she did.


There were lots and lots of hummingbirds!
We toured habitats, learned the back stories of many of the wolves, learned about projects in the works (when we were there, they were working on completing fire shelters for the wolves and putting together a wildfire evacuation plan).


For the most part, the wolves were set up in pairs (unless they were a larger family or just preferred being a loner). I was able to get some great photos of this pair.


Ash was a little shy at first...


The founders and volunteers at Mission:Wolf practice sustainable living. They are off-grid and all of the electricity used is from solar power. They grow a lot of their food...in gardens like below or in greenhouses. Permanent structures are built using a passive solar design and constructed from recycled building materials.

Old screen doors bent to cover delicate plants. I think I'll do this as protection from hail!

The whole area gave me a lot of ideas for living an off-grid lifestyle - especially at 9000+ feet.

If you would like to stay overnight, visitors can pitch a tent in the camping area or opt to stay in the community tepee for a small charge.



The tepee had a surprisingly large amount of space!


By this time, there was another group finishing up their tour so it was arranged for us to all meet the wolf ambassadors face to face. This may be the most memorable part of our entire trip! Being kissed by a wolf is hard to forget!

We were told to line up and enter the fenced area single file and to not make eye contact.  We were also told to keep anything loose in our pockets or leave them outside the fence - including camera, water bottles and sunglasses, because the wolves were known to grab them and run. I left my camera with The Boy who opted to not go in the fence (he's usually skittish around big dogs). He took these pictures for us.


That's Mr. LH and I in the background. Zeab is the black wolf and Abe is the white & tan wolf.
Mr. LH getting "kisses" from Magpie. I think he got more attention from these wolves than anyone else in the group. He says it's because of the sausage he ate for breakfast.
Because she was the smallest in the group (and not seen as a threat by the wolves) The Girl was able to go separately to another area to play with the puppies (they were large for puppies). Unfortunately, you can't see them in this photo because they are laying on the ground.


We didn't really want to leave Mission:Wolf but we still had a long journey ahead of us and we were running out of day.

That's the sanctuary sitting on the ridge on the left.
As we left, The Girl decided she wanted to volunteer there when she was older - especially if we moved to the area. Heck, I want to volunteer there, too!

Once we got home, we decided we would sponsor a wolf. The Girl chose Magpie this first year. I think Mr. LH wants to choose Zeab next time (he's the huge black wolf in the fence with us). To sponsor a wolf, go to the Mission: Wolf website. It doesn't cost much and you'll get a photo, a membership and a subscription to the Mission: Wolf newsletter.



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Colorado Gators Reptile Park

North of Alamosa in Mosca, Colorado lies the Colorado Gators Reptile Park. We decided to spend the afternoon visiting there after our trip to the Great Sand Dunes.

If it appears this place is in the middle of nowhere, it's because it is.
Colorado Gators Reptile Park began as a Tilapia farm in 1977. Baby gators were purchased in 1987 to dispose of dead fish and filleted fish remains. It opened in 1990 to the public so everyone could see the gators.


Colorado Gator Reptile Park has also become a sanctuary for unwanted reptile pets. They not only have gators, but also tortoises, iguanas, and LOTS of snakes (shiver!). They even had ostrich and emu.

Awww! It looks like our very own Turtly!

This guy looks plump and happy - and look at all those fish around him!!!
I think everyone's favorite part of the park  was visiting with all the tortoises. Though looking at the size of some of them, we're going to have to think about housing arrangements for Turtly! It's a good excuse to get a greenhouse sooner rather than later...


Was it neat? Yes. Was it worth the admission price? Eh...probably not, but I'm still glad we went. The "Pickles" enjoyed it.

Note: You can pick up an admission coupon in the local tourist attraction newspapers that are found in hotels or online on their website.

Visit the Colorado Gators Reptile Park website for hours and prices.



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Great Sand Dunes National Park

The Great Sand Dunes.

Wow.

It is hard to get a real sense of just how big and impressive these things are without actually being there and seeing them for yourself.


Mr. LH had been itching to take everyone to the Great Sand Dunes. He visited it as a child and was impressed by it. Now he wanted to share it with the "Pickles". It was easy to choose it as a destination for our whirlwind weekend getaway.

The Great Sand Dunes Visitors Center has restrooms and water fountains. They also have a nice little museum area with hands-on activities, a gift shop and an outdoor patio area.


We thought it best to try to hit the dunes early in the day and explore the museum area afterwards when the sun was highest (and the sand was hottest).


You can get a smooshed penny here!


There are restrooms closer to the parking areas and the dunes that also provide outdoor showers/foot washing areas (you might find you really need it if you play in Medano Creek when the water is low).

By the way...those giant feet belong to The Boy...not me. He's grown a bit...
The Great Sand Dunes National Park website has a list of some things recommended for you to pack for your visit. I've added my own comments based on our trip.

 Shoes – The sand gets extremely hot on sunny summer days and will burn the soles of your feet if you don’t have a barrier between your feet and the sand. You can wear flip-flops, but it will be hard to walk in them. I know. I tried. You can wear sandals, but the hot sand will still scorch your feet. You can wear water shoes, but if the sand gets inside them, it will rub your skin raw. As odd as it may seem, it is probably best to wear regular shoes or hiking boots and socks.

With that said, if you happen to be visiting on a mild winter or autumn day when the sand might not get so hot, go ahead and wear sandals.



Clothing – Check the weather and plan accordingly. Generally shorts and a t-shirt during the summer months. Long sleeved shirts and pants on windy days (to keep blowing sand from stinging you). Storms can blow in fast so keep that in mind as well. Having a small pack with you that has a light raincoat in it might be a good idea.



Water – Remember, you’re at 7,500 feet – drink! You can refill your bottles at the welcome center. It got unbelievably hot on the sand and you will get tired and thirsty hiking up those dunes. Hey, you can always make a crochet water bottle holder to stash your water bottle in. That's what the "Pickles" carried their bottles in.


Sunglasses or Goggles - sunglasses worked fine for us, but had the sand been blowing, I can see where goggles would have been preferred.


Sunscreen - Okay, one of the first lessons we learned in Colorado was to always wear sunscreen when outside. With that said, basically the Great Sand Dunes is like visiting a beach without the water. Put on sunscreen.

Bandanna to cover face - We didn't need one (though as mentioned before the winds were fairly calm at the time). A bandanna doesn't take up much space and it wouldn't hurt to have one with you. Stash one away in your pack. We did, however, take a lot of hats.


Mr. LH zoomed in as much as possible to take this picture. That's me and The Boy sitting on the ridge at the point where I wimped out.
Camera – It is recommended you leave the point-and-shoot and the SLR cameras at home (blowing sand will seize the lens). Contour and GoPro cameras are best suited for the Dunes. That said, I kept my point and shoot camera in a ziplock bag while we were on the dunes themselves. It was harder to use, but it was either that or go without the camera. I've had sand ruin a camera before and I didn't want to have that happen again. We also used our phones to take pictures.

The Girl and Mr. LH were the only two in our group to make it to the top. I wimped out halfway up. The Boy decided to "keep me company".
Sandboard or Sand Sled - rentals are available at Kristi Mountain Sports. The price was very reasonable. We made reservations and pre-paid for one regular sized sand sled online (getting more sleds would have meant more weight to lug up the dunes) and since Kristi's isn't open on Sunday (when we needed the sled) we were able to pick up and drop off at the Alamosa Welcome Center in town.

Sand sledding down the Great Sand Dunes





They say the best time to visit the Dunes is in late May or early June when the snow-melt turns Medano Creek into something resembling a shallow river. It was late July when we were there and a smidgen of water was still running through, although that could have been the result of recent storms that moved through the area. It was nice after coming off the hot dunes to soak our feet in the cool water.



Visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park website.



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Whirlwind Weekend Getaway

We didn't take our usual trip to Vail this year. In fact, we hadn't really gone anywhere in the last year farther away than a day trip to the Garden Of The Gods back in January. Mr. LH had also been spending his summer weekdays teaching extra classes and most Saturdays TAKING a couple courses.  It was time to get away from everything for a bit.

We managed to carve out a couple of back to back days for our trip and planned it around two destinations fairly close to each other...The Great Sand Dunes and the small town of Westcliffe.  Mr. LH had been itching to take everyone to the Great Sand Dunes. He visited it as a child and was impressed by it. Now he wanted to share it with the "Pickles". I was focused in on Westcliffe, a small town in the middle of nowhere. It was a place we wanted to scope out as a possible place to live someday.

Saturday:

Mr. LH had a class to attend Saturday morning so it was late afternoon when we finally headed out for our quickie "vacation". The trip through Central and Southern Colorado was eye opening. The land changed so drastically from one city to the next.

Near Colorado Springs
Near Pueblo
 South of Pueblo, we stopped at a nice rest area to stretch our legs and see just how much farther we had to go (turns out it was a lot farther).



The irrigated lawns and all the trees made for a nice photo op.


I tried to show it in this photo, but you can see lush green grass everywhere the sprinklers are watering, but beyond the sprinklers, the un-irrigated areas are scrubby, brown and dry.


We saw these wind turbines under construction along the highway.


When we finally turned off the highway south of Pueblo and headed west, the views became some of the most breathtaking we had ever seen since we moved to this state. I spent most of the drive taking photos and video out the windows.

La Veta, Colorado 
The setting sun was reflecting off the power lines
 It seemed so odd to be this close to the tree line. I read somewhere the tree line in the Wet Mountains is at about 11,500 feet.


The sun was setting and skies turned a brilliant orange.


A home in the San Luis Valley near Alamosa.
We had reservations at the Super 8 in Alamosa and pulled in the parking lot long after dark. It was fairly inexpensive compared to other hotels in the area. The hotel could certainly use some updating, but we were happy to see the staff was very friendly and helpful and our room was clean and large and had a microwave and mini fridge provided. We unpacked and heated our dinner of grilled burgers (brought from home) and enjoyed a little bit of cable tv before everyone fell promptly asleep.

Sunday:

The complimentary breakfast at the hotel was great! They had the usual pastries, toast, cereal and oatmeal and fruit selection, but they also had eggs, sausage and waffles (not toaster waffles - they're the kind you make yourselves). We filled up in anticipation of a long, calorie-sucking day.

Our first order of business was to get our sand sled to use at the Great Sand Dunes. We had made reservations and pre-paid online through Kristi Mountain Sports. The price was very reasonable ($18 for the adult-sized sand sled). Since Kristi's isn't open on Sunday (when we needed the sled) we were to pick up and drop off the sled at the Alamosa Welcome Center in town.


 The Welcome Center is located in the historic Alamosa Train Depot. In fact,  the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad departs from here to take you to La Veta (you can purchase tickets online).


Once we picked up our sand sled, we turned east out of Alamosa and headed toward the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

the Rio Grande River in Alamosa, CO
It seemed to take awhile to get from Alamosa to The Great Sand Dunes. It could be because the land was so flat, we could see the dunes long before we reached them.



We had a wonderful time at the dunes! Read more about our trip to the Great Sand Dunes.

Afterwards, hot, tired and needing desperately to cool off, we hopped into the van and turned on the seldom-used AC. Instead of heading straight back to the hotel, we turned north on 17 and headed toward the unincorporated community of Mosca CO, home of the Colorado Gators Reptile Park.

The reptile park is another of those places we discovered online. (I believe it was the image of gators basking in the sun while laying on the snow that caught Mr. LH's attention.)Colorado Gators Reptile Park began as a Tilapia farm in 1977. Baby gators were purchased in 1987 to dispose of dead fish and filleted fish remains. It opened in 1990 to the public so everyone could see the gators.



We liked seeing all the gators, but we especially liked seeing all the "Turtly's". Read more about our visit to Colorado Gators Reptile Park.

It was nice to get back to the hotel. We were a happy, tired bunch but the "Pickles" still found the energy to play in the hotel's indoor pool for an hour or so. Mr. LH and I eased our sore muscles in the hot tub.

Monday:

Monday morning, we enjoyed another large complimentary breakfast and checked out of the hotel. We would be in the car most of the morning crossing east over the Sangre de Cristo mountains into the Wet Mountain Valley. Our destination was Mission:Wolf.

Mission:Wolf is a wolf sanctuary that is open to the public. I discovered Mission: Wolf while researching Westcliffe. Since we were already going to be in and around the Westcliffe area, we thought we could just swing by" to check out Mission:Wolf as well (especially since The Girl is crazy about wolves now, too).

But first, we had to get from one mountain valley to another. Instead of going around the mountains, we thought we'd go across them. The route didn't look too bad on the map...however, as soon as we turned off the highway, the road conditions...er...deteriorated.


We thought "Surely they'll get better!"


They didn't. The van was definitely not made for dirt roads. We got a pretty good idea how bouncy wagons were back in the day. We probably could have driven faster, but it was so bouncy and we were really enjoying the scenery going at a slow pace. The scenery was awesome!


Old schoolhouse / church in Malachite, CO
2 hours later (?), we pulled out of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and into the Wet Mountain Valley. But our road issue wasn't over. We crossed 69...one of the VERY few paved roads we've found in the county...and headed farther east to Mission:Wolf.

The roads actually got worse. Especially in the San Isabel National Forest area.


 I'm glad we didn't meet another car coming the other way!

Yes, folks...that is a drop-off to the left. I just had to keep my head turned the other way pretending I was searching for wildflowers.
We did finally make it to Mission:Wolf. 


One of the volunteers came out to give us a tour. She was fantastic and spent a lot of time showing us around, telling us about the wolves, their habitats, and their care. 


We were also able to go in with a larger group to meet some of the wolves face-to-face. This may be the most memorable part of our entire trip!

That's Mr. LH and I in the background. Zeab is the black wolf and Abe is the white & tan wolf.
The Boy chose to stay outside of the fence and take pictures.

Mr. LH getting "kisses" from Magpie. I think he got more attention from these wolves than anyone else in the group. He says it's because of the sausage he ate for breakfast.
Read more about our visit to Mission:Wolf.
Once we got home, we decided we would sponsor a wolf. The Girl chose Magpie this first year. I think Mr. LH wants to choose Zeab next time (he's the huge black wolf in the fence with us). To sponsor a wolf, go to the Mission:Wolf website.  It doesn't cost much and you'll get a photo, a membership and a subscription to the Mission: Wolf newsletter.
It was hard to leave Mission:Wolf, but we still had to check out the Westcliffe area AND drive all the way back home.

Westcliffe is a small town of about 600 (or so) in the Wet Mountain Valley. It sits right next to the town of Silver Cliff which is about the same size. The rest of the county is made up of two mountain ranges (the Wet Mountains and the Sangre De Cristos) surrounding the Wet Mountain Valley. We were in the south-eastern part of it and it was absolutely gorgeous! It wasn't scrubby like the San Luis Valley had been. Well, parts of it were scrubby, but not AS scrubby.

However, let me point out that all the roads were dirt. Some were VERY rough. It was difficult in places to drive. This was a beautiful, clear, dry July day. Those same areas could very well be impassable in the winter.



There are some things we would have to decide on, like whether we would be happy with limited internet. There is no cable or DSL in the rural areas of the county. This particular neighborhood is solar and wind power only (meaning they're not bringing power lines in). Finding water for a well is not guaranteed and if you find water, the pressure may be WAY less than was city folks are used to. Could we be happy being so isolated?


Those are all things to consider. But right now the main thing to consider is...it's still 2 1/2 hours to Denver (at least...and on a good day).


That's a long commute - even if it's just once a week. And Mr. LH isn't planning on leaving his job until he retires.

With the area sufficiently scoped out for now, we started back towards Denver. It had been a wonderful busy couple of days. A Whirlwind Weekend Getaway.



Budgeting a vacation:

It has been over a year and we're still working our way out of debt. We didn't forgo our Total Money Makeover budget to make this trip. We had budgeted money for our Vail trip but since we didn't go to Vail this year, that money became our vacation money. Even so, we didn't want to use it all.

Gas and hotel expenses accounted for the bulk of our budget. We couldn't do anything about gas prices, but we chose an inexpensive (but clean) hotel for a 2 night stay and used our AAA membership to get a lower cost.

Food can quickly become expensive on vacations. Since we were just making a weekend trip, we packed a huge cooler with food for a couple dinners (the hotel room had a refrigerator and microwave) and took advantage of the large complimentary breakfast offered by the hotel each morning. We also kept water bottles handy and had a load of snacks in the car. We did splurge on 50 cent ice cream cones one night.

The activities we chose were (for the most part) inexpensive or free:

  • The Great Sand Dunes was a wonderful activity that could easily take up the entire day. It was free. The optional sand sled was $18.
  • Mission:Wolf was technically free, though donations are encouraged.
  • The Colorado Gators Reptile Park had a hefty admission price but we knew about it and planned it into our budget. We also used available admission coupons to lower the cost.
  • There were a couple other places in the area we would have liked to have seen if we had the time. Near The Colorado Gator Reptile Park is the UFO Watchtower. This looks to be akin to other "roadside weirdness" tourist attractions but it would have been neat just to see it. In the Wet Mountains is Bishop Castle. I REALLY would have liked to have stopped here!
We wound up spending about $350 on our mini vacation. Not bad, though I'd like to get it cheaper next time. Maybe we'll stay at a campground instead of a hotel.

I came across a "Colorado For Free" website that I'll be checking out thoroughly.






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