Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve protects the tallest sand dunes in North America, and a whole lot more. From the San Luis Valley floor to the crest of the 13,000 foot peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
— the park and preserve contains ecosystems ranging from sand sheet to dunes to tundra
— each supporting specially adapted plant, animal and insect life. Days are typically sunny, even in winter, and nights offer skies so dark you can see the Milky Way.
Recreational opportunities include backpacking and hiking, car camping along the Medano Pass Primitive Road, and fishing and hunting within the Preserve. But don’t forget the dunes where you can try sand sledding, or take some time to splash around in Medano Creek. Whatever your interest, there is plenty to do no matter the season.
As you approach the national park from the west, you can see it from miles and miles away. The San Luis Valley is extremely wide and flat offering exquisite views of the dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Range. The valley floor is a grassland plain with seasonal wildflowers and prickly pear cactus in abundance. Wildlife includes water birds who visit the wetlands, lizards, elk and pronghorn. The photos below were taken along Hwy 6N and Hwy 150 as we advanced toward the entry to the park, starting from about 12 miles away with a zoom lens.
My brother Dave and I visited the Great Sand Dunes on Sunday, October 2, 2016. Our hope was to take the Medano Pass Primitive Road from the dunes all the way up and into the mountains to Medano Pass at 11,380 feet. No can do under the extremely dry conditions they had been experiencing for the previous month though. The sand becomes too dry, and soft, and vehicles simply tend to sink. You can’t go if you can’t get traction. So, we came up with an alternative plan.
We had made a visit here previously perhaps 20 years before when the Sand Dunes still had a National Monument designation. At the time we scaled some of the dunes, a task we found to be extremely hot and difficult. The sand is so soft that it takes three steps to advance three feet. So we looked for trails to explore on firmer ground. A couple caught our eye, including Sand Pit and Dunes Overlook.
Sand Pit Trail is a mile round trip that winds through the grassland between the dunes and foothills, while the Dunes Overlook Trail climbs 450 feet up to a great spot for taking in the grand scope of the sand dunes, as well as marvelous views of the mountains. The total round trip for the Overlook trail is about two and a quarter miles. We were in luck that the aspen groves along the ridges of the mountain range were displaying their brilliant golden glow.
Next, it was time to check out Medano Creek, the water drainage that flows through the flats that surround the dunes. April through June, during snow melt season, the creek really roars and kids like to come here with inner tubes and ride the small waves. In October, however, the flow is reduced to not much more than a trickle.
It is kinda like being at the beach. The sand through the grassy riparian border surrounding the creek is very soft and squishy. As you approach the creek, the sand becomes damp, like a beach at low tide. We did find some drift wood, but you aren’t going to find any seashells.
All good things must come to an end, so it was time to leave Great Sand Dunes. We were staying in the nearby town of Alamosa, Colorado on our way south to New Mexico. So as we made our way from the park to the town, we stopped at a few nearby recreation areas including Blanca Wetlands and Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge. Once again, it wasn’t the wet season so there wasn’t much happening, but some day we will be back in Spring. Here are a few final photos I captured as we left Great Sand Dunes National Park.