September 17, Saturday
The sun is shining upon southern Colorado this morning as Brian and Christie’s heavy-duty truck rumbles down 285 south of Salida. The mountain ranges to the east and west are wrapped in the dark green of conifers and at higher elevations patched with irregular blotches of yellow and orange – aspen groves changing color for autumn. In the valley, the cottonwoods are still clinging to their summer green, but the grass has given up the fight and one type of bush is awash in tiny golden flowers.
South of Villa Grove, we curve left onto 17 and before long notice a portion of the Sangre de Cristo range that appears to rooted in a drift of sand. This is Great Sand Dunes National Park, and today’s destination.
The sand dunes get taller and more impressive as we get closer. My only other experience with sand dunes was Coral Pink Sand Dunes state park in Utah, and the scale is an order of magnitude different.
Our group from the Xscapers SoCo Convergence stops at the convenience store just outside the park and rent two sand sleds at $20 a piece, an all-day rental which includes wax for the bottom to make it more slick. The shop also carries sand boards for standing up on, but none of us are feeling quite that adventurous (or coordinated).
As with all National Parks, Great Sand Dunes has an entry fee, in this case $15 per non-commercial carload and accepts the standard National park passes. There is one campground on-site and it’s operated by the NPS. There are no hookups, one loop is first-come first-served and one is reservable. Sites have a picnic table and fire-pit and there are flush toilets on site. There are a few sites that can accommodate RVs up to 35 feet.
Worth a note: Great Sand Dunes is more dog-friendly that the majority of National Parks. Dogs are welcome in the creek and on the dunes, just not in back-country areas.
We stop in at the visitor center and I learn a few things.
These are the tallest dunes in North America and most are Reversing dunes, formed by the collision of prevailing southwesterly winds coming down from the San Juan mountains broken by the occasional storm blowing from the northeast through the Sangre de Cristo mountains that the dunes stand at the foot of.
It’s a pretty magical place. Not only do you have the dunes backed by tall mountains, but Medano Creek runs seasonally in the foreground, at times it’s deep and swift enough for tubing. This time of year it’s little more than a wet stretch of sand, which admittedly does make for easier access to the dunes since you have to cross it to get to them.
When I think of big sand dunes, I think hot. But actually it’s a pretty comfortable day temperature-wise and I keep my long-sleeves on to avoid sunburn.
Our group troops up a nice, safe, bunny-hill sized dune to try the sleds.
What fun! The wax that needs to be rubbed on the bottom of the sled before every use makes a huge difference, and it really is a lot like regular sledding, but without the cold.
We all take turns, even two of the dogs with our group get to enjoy the ride. The dunes stretch all around, a foreign landscape.
A couple of us hike up a ridge of dunes that leads to a peak. It’s not the tallest dune in the park, which is some ways farther back from the access point, but the tallest visible from the creek. The strong wind and blowing sand dissuade us from making the top but the view is still quite nice. It takes a lot more effort to hike through sand than on a packed trail.
After a few more runs on the sleds, we retire to the picnic area to enjoy the lunch we packed. Birds chirp in the trees, the sky remains clear, and down from the dunes the wind isn’t as strong. A great place to eat.
All told, we spend a few hours in the park before heading back to camp. Visitors could easily spend a whole day here if you were into hiking or just sitting out on the dunes and relaxing. I would definitely come back if my travels took me this way again.
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