View from the road at the main entrance to the park. This photo really puts into perspective the enormity of the sand dunes.
Upon planning my first trip out west to Colorado I studied maps of the state closely to decide which places to visit and which routes to travel. One day while looking at my atlas book I discovered a rather large green spot on the map that said Great Sand Dunes National Park. It sits a couple hours South of Colorado Springs and about another hour west of Interstate 25. Since we were going to be spending time in Colorado Springs I figured I would look up this park on the internet to see if it would be worth visiting. A photo I saw on their website, similar to the one I took below, just about had me sold.
One of the first things I discovered was that Great Sand Dunes National Park has the tallest sand dune in North America at 750 feet. I considered that a pretty significant fact and wondered why I had never heard of this park before. As it turns out the park was first created in 1932 as Great Sand Dunes National Monument. It got upgraded by Congress in 2004 and was established as Great Dunes National Park and Preserve. As of today, it is the newest addition to the national park system.
After looking at the website some more and learning about all the different activities to do there we decided to make this park a destination. The assortment of activities available include hiking (either on the sand dunes, along the creek, on forested trails, on alpine trails, or in the grasslands/ shrublands), backpacking, cooling off in Medano Creek, wildlife viewing, horseback riding, sandboarding or sledding down the dunes, picnicking, and camping.
This very steep dune creates the perfect opportunity for sandboarding
After careful planning, the day had finally arrived: we were driving down the entrance road into the park. Once I saw the sand dunes right in front me I was in awe. We paid the $3 per person entrance fee (which is valid for one week) and stopped at the visitor center where we got some information and a map of the park. We were going to be camping here for the night so we then drove to Pinyon Flats campground to pick our site. This is the site we selected:
After being in the park for less than an hour it had already completely exceeded my expectations. Being from the southeast, I had never seen such a diverse and drastic landscape. The 14,000 ft snow-covered mountain peaks were the most prominent sight to behold. At such high elevations the peaks remain snow-covered pretty much year-round. Then of course there are the sand dunes nestled at the base of the mountains. Their total mass encompasses 19,000 acres and from inside the park they have no end in sight. There is also Medano Creek which runs along the base of the sand dunes from about May to August. In June and July it gets deep enough to swim and splash around, making it a great retreat from the heat.
Our first order of business was to pay the $20 per night camping fee to reserve our spot. There is a self-service station at the campground entrance where you fill out information on an envelope, tear off the slip to attach to the numbered post at the campsite, put your cash in the envelope, and drop it in a locked box. Once that was taken care of we had lunch at our picnic table and then put up the tent.
With everything taken care of we could finally relax and take in the scenery, but we needed to explore this beautiful place, so we filled up our hydration packs, grabbed a couple of snacks and went for a hike. It was already afternoon by now so we decided to save the trek up the sand dunes for the next morning. As an alternative we thought a nice walk along Medano Creek would be enjoyable.
For at least the first 30 minutes I could not stop looking around. Every few minutes I turned and looked behind me. Then I looked to my left at the big piles of sand. Then I glanced to my right at what looked like just a regular beach. Next I gazed ahead and toward the sky at the majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains. I also watched the creek flowing right in front of me which happened to be very low in some spots and up to 6 inches deep in others. The scenery was so unbelievable that I felt like I was in some kind of fairytale. For hours we just kept walking, waiting so see what was around the next curve. With each step the mountains in the distance got a little bit closer. We walked for so long we ended up leaving the National Park and entered the Great Sand Dunes Wilderness Area.
It was at this point that we decided we’d better turn around and start back towards our campsite for some dinner and a good night’s sleep. It was already late afternoon and at 8,000 feet above sea level the sun was taking its toll on our bodies. We opted to take off our shoes and walk all the way back in the creek to keep at least some part of our bodies cool. The water was very refreshing but it was actually pretty difficult to walk in the sinking sand. My feet and ankles were working extra hard to keep me moving.
After about 4 hours of walking through nothing but sand and water with the sun beaming down on us the whole way we were ready to sit down and cool off. Even back at our campsite, though, the sun was shining directly on us and there was virtually no way to escape its heat. However, as the sun went down behind the sand dunes the temperature dropped dramatically. We were finally cooling off. One thing I learned about Colorado is that it can be 80 degrees during the day and brutally hot but once the sun goes down it gets really cold. I went from shorts and a t-shirt to putting on pants, a sweater, socks, and whatever else I had with me to keep me warm.
The sand dunes just after the sun dipped below them.
It was around this time that I noticed a whole herd of deer creeping their way toward the campground from the shrubland area next to us. There were about 20 of them just eating the shrubs and not really worrying about all the nearby people. They were all so pretty to see and it was the perfect ending to my first night in Colorado. After watching the deer for a while we curled up in our sleeping bags to keep warm and went to sleep. The next day we were going to wake up early and begin our journey to the tallest sand dune in North America.
The herd of deer working their way into the campground at dusk