Over Labor Day weekend we decided to head south to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in south central Colorado, only 50 miles from the New Mexico border.
It took almost four hours of driving to get to the dunes, but we enjoyed our time, stopping at small towns along the way, becoming particularly fond of Salida. I think I could spend more time in this adorable mountain town which has some great shops, a river running right through town, and ample agriculture and outdoor activities.
Traveling further south, the populace became much more sparse in the San Luis Valley bisected by Highway 17. To the east, the Sangre de Cristo Range rose starkly from the valley floor, much like the Rocky Mountain Front back home. The Spanish translation of Sangre de Cristo is “Blood of Christ”, and while the true origin of the name is unclear, some claim the mountains got their name from the reddish hue the range exhibits during sunrise and sunset when the alpenglow hits just right.
We arrived at the park around 6 pm and decided to check it out quickly before locking down a camping spot for the night. We changed our shoes and jumped out, thinking we’d just walk a little way up the dunes.
After crossing a creek and over a plain of sand, the dunes rise up in earnest. They were much bigger than I envisioned, rising roughly 750 feet. I find it amazing that a combination of factors such as a desert climate in the valley floor, mountain erosion, silt deposits, and the wind created these dunes over thousands of years. Scientists are still studying exactly how and why the dunes are so extreme, but most believe the unique curvature of the Sangre de Cristo Range along with the dry climate and wind attribute most heavily to their unique composition.
However they got there – I loved them!Many people sat and picnicked along the lower dunes, but the whole park is open to hiking. There are no trails, so one can pick a point and head out into the roughly 19,000-acre desert to find what their heart needs.
I wasn’t prepared to love the dunes, so I was taken by surprise when the serenity and elation I felt hiking and running them made it hard to leave. Hiking the dunes was definitely hard work, but once we scrambled up the looser sides of the lower ones, we found the higher dunes had a harder base and were great for running and playing. Many people rented boards and sleds to shoot down the dunes, but I found running down the sand was my favorite.
I think we all felt like kids on the beach and kept running farther and farther, wanting to see what was over the next dune. Once we crested the first two or three dunes, the park opened up and was practically untouched. We could easily find fresh sand to play in while the sun set.
I didn’t wear my GPS watch since I thought we would just take a quick jaunt up and come back, so I don’t know exactly how far we went, but we all determined we probably ran 3-4 miles along the dunes. The only thing that made us call it a night was the darkness setting in around 8 pm. I wish the light would’ve held since I could’ve spent many more hours in the perfect temperature and ambiance of the setting sun.
Every now and then, all elements of a place and time align to produce an experience that simply tops others, and that definitely happened for me at the dunes. They proved to be so much more than I expected, but perhaps that is why I loved them so much – I didn’t have any lofty expectations set for them to beat.
Our plan for the next day was to hike Mt. Blanca, the pinnacle peak of the Sangre de Cristos at 14,344 ft, but we ran into some mechanical issues. We chose to camp up the road leading to the Mt. Blanca trailhead, a road that proved to be very rocky and tough going. My pickup made it to a free dispersal site, but at some point lost reverse. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but, long story short, we couldn’t reverse so decided to head back the next morning and see if we could find a mechanic along the way.
By this point it was Labor Day Sunday, and no shops were open who could help us, so rather than camp around Colorado Springs and hike Pikes Peak on Monday like we had planned, we were forced to continue all the way back to Denver. The pickup drove fine going forward; I just had to watch where I parked!
On the way home, we made one more stop outside of Colorado Springs at The Garden of the Gods, an interesting park filled with red rock spires, cliffs, and formations. On a cooler day and with more flexibility, I would definitely come back and explore the area. It is a very popular park since it is practically right in Colorado Springs, so I think I’d have a hard time dealing with the large number of people who frequent the well-maintained park.
Even though my pickup now needs some costly repairs, I wouldn’t trade the experience of the dunes. I also wonder if a return trip would be as good, but I’m willing to try!