The Best of Great Sand Dunes National Park

In less than two years I have visited this park three times. There’s just something special that keeps me going back for more. I’ve stood among the dunes in the height of autumn, when the winds were strong, the leaves along the mountains a golden hue, and the snow capped peaks stood ominous in the distance. I visited during the early spring when the temperatures were no higher than 25 degrees, and the sun didn’t rise until almost 8 AM, when the dunes were completely empty. And finally I returned during a warm July to the same dunes under seige of Thunderstorms. I could feel the electricity in the air, the warm wind whipping the sand in my face, and the rain pelting my skin. It’s a truly remarkable place and all of my experiences there have been different.

As someone who travels a lot,  I often forget to appreciate the moment. I always want to be on the move, finding new places, seeking adventure, and seeing as much as I can. Looking back I wish for each occasion, that we spent more time in this desert near the mountains. The simple beauty of it takes my breath away whenever I look through the photos I have.

Background

Great Sand Dunes is located in Mosca, Colorado spanning the length of the San Luis Valley which is an arid plain between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. How did the dunes form? Well, the valley used to be covered by a large lake. This lake served as the collection place for massive amounts of sediment that eroded from the mountains. As the climate changed the lake receded. The process was expedited by the fact that the valley’s southern end wore away and formed the Rio Grande Gorge which allowed direct drainage of the lake water into the river. Left behind were giant mounds of sand. And from there the wind went to work, forming and shaping dunes, moving them like waves through the years until they became what they are today. Today the dunes are stable they have been pretty much the same size and shape for more than 100 years.

The park stands in contrast with the surrounding mountains, and appears almost suddenly as you travel through a rather flat landscape. All of the roads leading into the park are long, flat, and straight. The dunes rise in the distance and look dwarf-like as if a large truck dumped sand at the base of the mountains. This National Park is actually home to the tallest dunes in North America. This park is underrated in my opinion because visitors underestimate all there is to do here. A few examples of activities are backcountry hiking (with a permit), hiking among the dunes and along the surrounding nature trails, dune activities like surfing, building sand castles, writing messages, sandboarding, sledding or skiing, and even rolling down the dunes if you don’t mind being covered with sand. Then there’s horseback riding, camping, and even swimming during the summer when Medano creek between the dunes floods, which is actually a lot of fun. The water is the perfect temperature and it helps to wash some of the sand off your body. I remember on my third visit we bathed in the river scrubbing our heads to rid our hair of the millions of tiny pebbles that had taken up residence there. I guess my point is to not judge a place by its appearance. It’s easy to assume there’s not much to do in a pile of sand, but if you give it a chance and let your imagination take over you will never be bored. The dunes also create the perfect diffused light which ends up being great for portrait and landscape photography.

Top 3 Places to Photograph

  1. High Dune:  There are five dunes that are over 700 feet tall. The high dune on the first ridge is neither the highest in elevation nor the tallest in the park, but it looks that way from the main parking lot. It is the most common destination in the dunefield because it provides a great view of all of the other dunes and surrounding area. On average it takes about two hours to reach High Dune. How will you know which one it is? Well, it’s the tallest dune that you can see from the parking area. There are many other dunes behind it and off to the side that are larger, but from the point of view of the trail head parking it’s the tallest. If you want to hike to the tallest dune in North America named Star Dune it will take five hours round trip. In my opinion you will still feel satisfied only hiking to High Dune. It’s hard especially during the summer when the sand is hot and the sun beats down on you relentlessly. When I went during July I took my shoes off to walk through Medano creek and I figured I would keep them off as I walked because it was just sand after all. I didn’t make it ten steps through the dry sand before my feet started burning from the heat. During mid-day the sand is hot enough to blister your feet. This was also the hike when my boots kicked the bucket. To be fair they were extremely old. My mom had purchased them during the 80’s, but they still were fashionable enough for me to want to take on trips. They had lasted me many rough miles through heat, cold, water, and snow, but it was the sand that did them in. As I trudged slowly up a steep incline dragging my feet I felt one of my soles give away. It slid right off the bottom of the shoes. Not five seconds later the right foot followed. I was soleless. Luckily a friend of mine that I was with had some medical tape that we used to secure it temporarily until we gorilla glued it later that night.

Once we reached the top all of the struggles through broken boots, high winds, frightening thunder, and intense heat were all worth it. We sat and enjoyed the panoramic vista before us. We took our shoes off as the sand had cooled dramatically in the few hours it took us to reach out destination. We snapped photos and waited for the light in the sky to fade. The pinks, purples, reds, and oranges of the sky seemed intensified by the plain beige of the sand around us. So even when you are climbing and asking yourself why you are putting your body through this hell, stick it out because the top will make you feel like you are discovering a new place for the first time.

  1. Zapata Falls: It’s considered one of Colorado’s many hidden gems and it’s located within the National Park. Because the dunes are the main attraction this waterfall doesn’t receive a lot of hype. Which is perfect for travelers who are looking to go somewhere off the beaten path. This secluded place takes a little effort to get to. Visitors in the summer and fall will have to wade through cold waters and maneuver over slippery rocks to reach the base of the falls, or you could opt to balance on a log bridge to avoid getting wet. In the winter and early spring the falls are frozen and cast off an eerie atmosphere in the crevice where you find a world of ice. The drive up to the trailhead parking lot is the difficult part. You will need an all terrain, relatively high clearance vehicle. At least something better than a 2012 Ford Focus. The road is unpaved, steep, and littered with relatively large boulders. In the spring when I went with my three friends we had so much stuff packed into the car that we were weighing it down even more, so the bottom kept scraping as we drove upward. Rather than risk ruining the car we opted out of the hike and returned to the main road. So while the falls are completely worth it. You should be well prepared before you venture to them.”
  2. Abandoned Cabin in Blanca, CO: About 15 minutes down the road from the Park on highway 150 there is this small cabin set back from the road in a large field surrounded by mountains in the distance. It’s a very photogenic spot and is one of my favorite places in the area. As I mentioned earlier when you are outside the park the area around you is flat for miles. There’s not much to see. My friends and I discovered this place purely by accident. We were driving to the park as the sun was setting. It had been a long day filled with travel mishaps.We were exhausted and our first goal was sleep. We had no intention of stopping on the way to the Dunes. The sun was setting and the colors were beginning to take over the sky. We were tired, but as we as  passed this cabin something in each of us changed. It was so perfect and unexpected out in the middle of nowhere, sitting comfortably as if waiting for us to find it. We looked at each other and just knew we had to turn around. We walked through the dry grass, sat on the porch and watched the sun set. I felt a connection with whoever’s home it used to be. Something, call it fate or coincidence brought us to this place at that very moment in time and I will always be grateful. Above the door on the porch someone had carved, “A little piece of Heaven” and to us on that day during that trip it truly was. We laughed, and took photos of the house, and one another. It was so spontaneous and invigorating to be out there living life on the road, one day at a time, enjoying moment to moment. And for that reason I encourage people to find this place, visit it, experience it, and you will feel at peace.

Planning your Trip:
When to go: Summer sees the most visitors, but the best time to go weather wise is late spring and early fall because it’s not too hot, or unseasonably cold.

What to do: Hike, camp, fish, backpack, sandboard, sled, and horseback riding.

Suggested Length of trip: 3 days to 1 week. You can certainly keep yourself busy within the park for three days, but if you are to spend a week there I would try exploring some of the surrounding area. Visit San Luis State Park, or Fort Garland, and Alamosa County. If you are in the mood for something strange check out the UFO Watchtower near Hooper, CO.

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