I’ve haven’t spent any significant time in Colorado’s San Luis Valley aside from speeding across highway 160 en route to Durango and back. I did a weekend in Alamosa and area to see the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The San Luis Valley is a unique part of Colorado, as different as the eastern plains are from the high Rockies. It’s the world’s largest alpine valley, stretching 60 miles between the Sangre de Christo range to the east, the San Juans to the west, and continuing into New Mexico to the south.
Wind carries tiny sand deposits from the Rio Grande River west across the unimpeded expanse of the valley, and stalls when reach the western face of the Sangre de Christos, forming and constantly shifting the the dunes below.
My first impression is that is was far larger than I expected. I’d seen photos but imagined a giant version of Lake Michigan’s dunes – scattered along the base more or less. Rather this is one large mountain (of sand) which shifts shape and morphs through the years.
In the spring and early summer the snow melts from the mountains, flowing down Medano Creek and creating a large lake at the base- complete with small waves from the uneven sandy bed. In the fall the lake dries, allowing for a 10 minute walk straight across to the base rather than wading.
After slathering on the sunscreen I found a group gathering with a ranger who was giving a talk about the geology and history. She was one for the best park guides I’ve listened to – and had a backpack full of various rocks and minerals found in the park, and even some entomology samples native to the area. Her husband was water commissioner of a nearby county and she explained in detail how scarce the water is, almost each drop of the Rio Grande and its surrounding creeks accounted for.
Our guide also pointed out the womens’ group responsible for petitioning Congress to establish the Sand Dunes as a National Park in 1932, preventing further exploitation of its resources from mining.
The distances are very deceiving. It reminded me of parts of Death Valley where something close is in reality four or five miles from sight. I hiked around for about an hour, exploring small valleys and canyons inside the lower half. To reach the very top is a 2.5 hour expedition. Along the roads are several trails providing great views of the dunes and valley.
Doing it: From Denver drive south on I-25 to Walsenburg, then 70 miles west on highway 160. Highway 285 south is far more scenic, but two lanes and busier on summer weekends.
The park is dog friendly. If you’re visiting for the day there are showers at the base to rinse off. (Just like the real beach!) Bring old but good hiking shoes if you plan to climb the dunes. Some areas are hard packed and easy to walk on but others are just like walking across the beach where you slip back and use lots of energy.
The Great Sand Dunes lodge is just outside the park, and there’s large campground in the park with facilities and even a small convenience store. The lodge has a restaurant on site, but any other services are 20 miles from the closest towns of Mosca to the west and Blanca to the south, and 30 miles to Alamosa. The upside of staying onsite is you’ll wake up to some amazing sunrise and can stay for spectacular sunsets.
There’s no marked route up or down the dunes. You just wander around atop the peaks or in the crannies til you reach a point you want. Then take it in, sandboard, roll, stumble or flop down. If you have a nice camera be sure to tape up the body with plastic. If the wind starts blowing it’s a sure way to ruin it.
Nearby Zapata Falls is three miles south of the park. It’s a mile hike to a waterfall, however it was closed for some reason during my visit. I ended up doing the Dunes View hike, one of many hikes around the area.
Returning I took the desolate highway 17 north to 285, through Poncha Springs and over Kenosha Pass back into Denver. The San Luis Valley is also a UFO hotspot. Halfway between Alamosa and Poncha Springs on Highway 17 is the UFO Watchtower. That’s on my list for next time.