Cross-Country Trip V, Day 9: Colorado ~ Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National ParkIt was already starting to get warm as we ate our breakfast, admired the hawks circling the lake, and broke camp.

We drove northwest to I-24 and then north, crossing the border from New Mexico into Colorado. We made a couple of stops – first, at a KMart in Raton, NM to buy me some sweatpants (after I realized the next couple of nights would be cold camping), and then in Trinidad, CO to get ice and a few other things at Safeway.

From there it was just a couple more hours to Great Sand Dunes National Park. On our way, we drove past Mt. Blanca, the first “fourteener” we passed, standing at 14,345 feet. (It’s surprising how that doesn’t seem that tall when you’re driving on a road that is already higher than 8,000 feet.)

Great Sand Dunes National Park entranceThe Great Sand Dunes are a unique feature, and the tallest sand dunes in North America. The natural forces that created the sand dunes are well explained elsewhere. What I will add is that it’s impressive how large they are, and how much real estate they occupy at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. What is also impressive is how many different types of ecosystem there are to enjoy in this park – from alpine peaks and lakes to desert and grassland, and everything in between.

We got a nice spot in the busy campground, pitched our tent, and had lunch as we decided what activities to do in our half day in the park.

Our first stop was the visitor center. It had a 20-minute video that emphasized how the different systems interact with, and interdepend on, each other. It included some beautiful footage of the park in different seasons (noting that few visit the park in the winter), which made us wish that we were there during a wetter time of year. It seems Medano Creek is a pretty fun place to play when there’s water, but it was bone dry when we were there.

Zapata CreekNext we decided to hike to Zapata Falls. Ten miles south of the entrance to the national park is a 3-mile gravel road up the mountain, where there is an overlook (great view of the dunes), restroom, parking area, and trailhead. The trail, while steep, is fairly moderate and short (about 1/2 mile). It was busy but not crowded.

At the top of the trail is a creek. We then had to wade up the VERY cold water, perhaps 150 feet around a couple of bends, until the falls came into view. While not the most impressive or beautiful falls we’ve ever seen, they were pretty cool, especially the way they’ve been carving out the rock for untold numbers of years.

Having acclimated slightly to the freezing cold water, we waded down the creek just a bit. It was really too cold to get completely wet (a shame, since we had purposely changed into our bathing suits, hoping to use the water to cool down from the heat in the desert below), but I did soak my shirt and put it on before we hiked back down to our car. It was completely dry by the time we got to the bottom.

When we got back to our camp site, we had an early dinner, and then headed out to the dunes right around sunset.

Great Sand DunesThe temperature of the sand gets up to about 140 degrees, so it’s not really pleasant to hike them during the day. Once the sun starts to go behind the mountains, though, the surface starts to cool down.

As soon as we began walking on the sand, we realized it would be easier to walk barefoot. We followed the example of others and ditched our shoes at the trailhead, and set across the sand.

Hiking on the Dunes at DuskIf you’ve ever walked on a wide, sandy beach, you can get a sense of what the initial part of our hike was like. For several hundred yards, the ground is flat. The sand is not very fine, and has quite a few pebbles and rocks in it. The part that is *not* like walking on the beach is that there is no water to firm it up, so every step entails another step-and-a-half to continue moving on.

After that, we finally got to the dunes. Just like any set of hills, the near dunes are shorter, and they continue to get taller and taller. According to the Park Service, it takes about 75 minutes to get to the tallest peak. We didn’t feel like we had the energy for that, so we made it to the top of the third dune in, and sat there for a while.

Sand dunes under the starsDave took a bunch of cool night photos of the dunes while I made a sand angel. We enjoyed the stars, the incredibly bright moon, and the surreal landscape. We even saw a couple of shooting stars. (This time of year is the Perseid meteor shower, which wasn’t as spectacular this year because of the bright moon, but it was still possible to see a few.) It became extremely windy, and we realized that it wasn’t really pleasant to sit on top of a sand dune in the wind, so we headed back down.

This place is so cool. It’s really out of the way, but it was totally worth the trip.

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