I had never heard of it. Last year, while traversing southern Colorado on Route 160, I drove right by it. I saw the sign but just kept on driving. Sand dunes and Rocky Mountains just don’t seem to go together in the same sentence or even the same paragraph. Subsequently, I read a couple of blog posts about it and decided to make Great Sand Dunes National Park one of my first stops on my Colorado Road Trip. I am so glad I did.
What a friggin awesome and unique place! It looks like it doesn’t belong here. This huge, I’m talking miles type of huge, pile of sand is smack at the base of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. A mini version of the Sahara Desert at the base of white-capped mountains! The words “Wow” and “Incredible” kept rising in my throat as I gazed at it. Just unbelievable.
Originally designated as a National Monument in 1932, it became a National Park in 2004. It encompasses over 44,000 acres and has the distinction of being the quietest National Park. I’m not sure on how and when that competition is held but I can vouch that It’s a pretty damn quiet place.
The San Luis Valley, north of Alamosa, is a broad barren desert like place. Its bordered by white capped mountains on its eastern, western, and northern edges. But on the eastern edge nestled up to the Sangre De Cristo Mountains, is this big deposit of chocolate colored sand. Its like a desert that shouldn’t be where it is.
The sand dunes started forming over 440,000 yrs ago from a nearby dry lake bed. Much like White Sands National Monument, the winds picked up the sand deposited the sand on the windward side of the Sangre De Cristo Mountain range. The dunes are still growing today and the park contains the tallest sand dunes in North America.
Its was fairly busy when we visited. The four major activities are seeing the Visitor Center, camping, playing in the creek, and hiking among the dunes. There’s no marked hiking trails in the dunes. The rangers just told me to go where ever I wanted.
To get to the dunes, we had to ford a wide sandy creek. It was knee-deep when we got there with surges of water barreling down the creek like a mini tsunami. It was bare feet in the water for us. Once across, we hiked up to the first level of some dunes to get a better perspective. Just awesome. It was a great place to just hang out and soak in the views. Some people we met where hiking to the top (about a 1.5 hr endeavor), some were sunning like at the beach, lots were playing in the creek, and some where “sand boarding” down the dunes. Here’s a video to show what it is like.
Great Sand Dunes is a great place to visit. It’s a unique experience. We spent the night right outside of the National Park. The National Park has a campground but it was booked solid several weeks in advance. We stayed are the Great Sand Dunes Oasis Lodge and RV Campground. The campground is a small gravel parking lot with full hookups. But it has spectacular views of the sand dunes. Its pricey at $38 per night but the location and views are priceless.
From the National Park, we headed north to Salida and the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.