Monday, May 23, 2016

Great Sand Dunes National Park

This is part of my continuing series on the National Park System.

Last year (2015) was our best year for park exploration. We visited 11 parks, including 7 that we had never visited before.

Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of three that we visited on our first-ever trip to Colorado. We spent most of our time at Mesa Verde National Park and at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, so we didn’t have a lot of time to spend on other things. However, both Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison were on our way, so we made time to at least see them.

For Great Sand Dunes, we ate lunch there, then had an afternoon to explore. Alas, such a limited time was not nearly enough to see all that I wanted, but it did at least give me enough to work with for a future trip.

Part of the challenge in this particular park is that it has so much. The dunes are the key feature, but there are a variety of habitats, from grass and wetlands to dunes to forests, to alpine tundra at over 10,000 feet. The dunes are tucked in a corner of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. The wind piles the sand up in the dunes, while a couple of creeks wash it back. It is a perfect confluence of factors which keep the dunes intact and in place. The mountains themselves contain alpine lakes and streams, while the wetlands in front of the dunes are home to diverse wildlife.

Because of our limited time, we were only able to explore a little corner of the dunes, and then wait out a thunderstorm in the visitor’s center. The kids got their Junior Ranger badges, and then we had to make tracks for Colorado Springs.

I very much want to come back and spend a week or so. I climbed a ridge, but there was insufficient time to summit the high dune. (These are the highest dunes in North America, by the way - 900+ feet) If we come back in the spring, the creek is flowing, and you can “surf” the surges. Likewise, you can rent sleds and sandboards for the dunes. The kids REALLY want to do that next time. Another visitor let them borrow a sled for a single run, but they want to try the boards too. And then, I would love to take a strenuous hike up one of the mountain trails. The campground looks pretty good too, which is good, because the park is quite literally in the middle of nowhere.

Photo list:

Three habitats (Dunes, creek, mountains) 

Near the top.

Kids sledding.

From the top of the ridge, I could see this thunder cell approaching. It was about 15-20 miles out, so I figured I had just enough time to get off the ridge and across the creek. As it turned out, we made it back to the parking lot just before the deluge. 

This is the ridge that I was on and the dune behind it. Once the cell hit, the wind was gale force. Those sand plumes are easily 30 feet tall. Glad I wasn't up there.

The Thieving Magpie. (Cue Rossini...)


  1. Really looking forward to seeing your photos from the Black Canyon. That's definitely one of the things out west I would want to go see in person someday.

    1. Black Canyon is a fascinating place. If you are interested in geology, it is a place where metamorphic rock half the age of the earth is exposed. (2 Billion years!) I wish I had had the time to hike all the way to the bottom of the canyon. Next time...

    2. Great Sand Dunes is on my short list of places to explore.

  2. I've been following your blog for a year. Absolutely love your take on most issues, agree with just about everything, have read some great books thanks to your recs, but have never posted because it seems other people always say the things I would have said, and better than I would have said them).

    Finally posting to say I lived several years in Del Norte, a tiny town an hour or so away from the Dunes, and highly recommend delving into the weirder history of the area before you visit again. It's THE hot spot of paranormal activity in North America, rife with many eyewitness accounts of UFO sightings, unexplained phenomena, and cattle mutilations. When I was in high school, a cow/calf pair was found just over the ridge on a neighboring ranch, their backbones removed and all blood drained. It was all anybody talked about for days.

    I have my theories on all that stuff, some of them unpopular, but for anyone with a taste for the mysterious, it's worth poking around. Unfortunately I can't speak for the quality of the books written on the subject since I've not read them, but I know there were several put out by Chris O'Brien that you can find on amazon.

    I was always fascinated by the fact that you can walk halfway up a dune, dig a few inches into the sand, and find moisture. You would think it would all drain to the bottom.

    Beautiful area no matter where you go. There's a gorgeous little waterfall/canyon area tucked away a short hike from the road you access the Dunes from if you're coming from the southern end, fun for kids and adults alike to feel like you're caving without actually going underground. I'll ask my family the name of it and pass it along.

  3. Ah yes, mom to the rescue. Zapata falls.

    1. That looks like a great hike. I will put it in my file for a future visit.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment. :)