Hello, and welcome to the second installment of my Colorado Summer Series! I would like to take a moment and say thank you to everyone who reached out to me and gave me feedback on last week’s post. The response was really positive and encouraging, and it really helps me when I hear from you guys! Plus I really want to cultivate and encourage interaction and engagement, so thank you for responding!
This week’s post is all about the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The last time I was there was just about three years ago, and for the rest of the family it was around five. We wanted to get some camping in while my sister was still here, and my mom had an appointment in Alamosa, so we came up with the idea to just head over there once we were done, which worked out really well.
The park is located in the southern third of the state, and is about a four hour drive from Denver. It is easily accessed from Highway 285, or from I-25 South. As someone who’s taken both routes, I recommend just taking I-25–the drive is MUCH prettier that way.
Similar to last week, the Sand Dunes are incredibly unique, geographically speaking. The park sits in the San Luis Valley between two mountain ranges: the Sangre de Cristo, and the San Juan mountains.
The dunes themselves are the highest in North America! The dunes came into existence a long time ago thanks to a behemoth of a volcano (the largest in the world, at one point) that used to exist in the area.
When it erupted, the lava created the base of the San Juan mountains that line one side of the valley. At the same time, the Sangre de Cristo mountains were forming on the other side of the valley. As the lakes in the area started to dry up, all that was left in their wake were the beds of sand. Wind blew down from the Sangre de Cristo mountains–bringing rocks, pebbles, and sediment with it–and pushed the sand up one side, while wind from the San Juans blew sand up the other, leaving it trapped between the two mountain ranges.
Once in the park, it’s easy to see and understand what I’m describing above. The mountains line the park, while the dunes sit essentially at their merging points. There’s also a creek, known as Medano Creek, that runs between the parking lot and the dunes. Depending upon the time of year and the snowfall from the winter before, the water levels vary. We got lucky this time, and the creek was pretty full. There is also a natural ebb and flow to the water, which is really neat to see. The phenomenon is known as a “surge flow,” and only occurs in three or four other places throughout the world! You can find loads of other information about the dunes and the park here.
On top of all of that, the site used to be home to three different Native American tribes: the Southern Ute, the Jicarilla Apache, and the Navajo. Which might explain why we stumbled across the above photoshoot between this woman and the person in traditional dress! (I bet her photos look incredible.)
Unlike the Paint Mines, this park is EXTREMELY touristy. The creek is by far the most populated area in the park. By mid-day the banks were completely lined on both sides with people. Going in the evening like we did is definitely the secret. By then most people had left for the day, and the creek was nice and quiet.
Another key to visiting this park is to plan to camp outside of the actual park. While it’s pretty cheap to camp inside the reserve, availability is sparce, and if you don’t book well in advance, you’ll be SOL anyway. There are a few cabins, an RV park, and a lodge just outside of the park, but the aforementioned rules apply here, too.
Immediately behind the cabins is a nicely sized campground. I stayed in this spot both times I’ve gone down there, and had no problems. That being said, the prices have definitely gone up since the last time I was down there. We paid $65 for two nights. Yuck! However that’s still cheaper than in the park, or in one of the cabins, which will put you out $55 a night.
The dunes themselves make for an excellent hike, but are deceivingly difficult. The closest of the two highest dunes, creatively dubbed “High Dune,” is a 3-mile roundtrip. Star Dune, the tallest dune, is located only a mile and a half beyond that.
Normally, 3 miles is no big deal, but my sister and I didn’t make it to High Dune. We’re both pretty experienced hikers, her much more so than I, but we severely underestimated the amount of water necessary to make it up there.
If you’ve ever run on the beach, you know how difficult it is to run on sand versus the pavement. Well, this was even tougher than that. The sand is loose, not like beach sand, and you’re gaining a lot of elevation fast! (Around 500 ft in 1.5 miles!) With these powers combined, and desert-like conditions, it turned out to be a lot tougher than we anticipated.
We went through three big Nalgenes between the two of us, and ended up hiking two miles instead of the full three. But boy, did it kick our butts!! It’s also important to note that we had a lot more water on us than most people did. Please don’t be cocky, BRING MORE WATER THAN YOU THINK YOU’LL NEED! I repeat: bring more water than you think you’ll need.
Looking back, we should’ve started our hike at least an hour earlier. We started around 9:30 am, but 8:30, or even 8, would’ve been a better time. The sand gets surprisingly hot during the day–it can reach up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit!
It’s difficult to understand and appreciate how massive these dunes truly are–which is why you should go there in person. 😉 In order to capture all of their awesomeness on camera, you need the light of the late evening. But since we hiked in the morning, I obviously wasn’t blessed with the appropriate lighting. The only way to begin to understand what they’re like from my photos is to stare at the tiny dots in the photos, which are people. Hopefully that gives you some perspective.
If you’re looking for somewhere to get away from it all, the dunes are a pretty incredible place. But if you go in the summer, just know that everyone else went there to get away from it all, too. Thanks so much for reading! What places should I cover next? I’m looking for recommendations! Until next week, my darlings!
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