Great Sand Dunes National Park

The tallest sand dunes in North America are 180 miles east of Durango near the town of Alamosa, Colorado. These sand dunes are massive and draw many tourists to see them every year.

It is unusual to see sand dunes in this part of the country so, how did they get here? Many years ago there were lakes here that covered the valley floor. Sediment from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains fell into the lakes forming a layer of sand on the bottom of the lake. Once the lakes disappeared, these sand deposits remained. Prevailing winds from the southwest blow the sand toward the base of the mountains while storms that come over the mountains from the opposite direction blow the sand deposits away from the mountains. These shifting winds cause the sand dunes to be in constant motion. There are different dune shapes and types of dunes formed as a result.

At the National Park, there are only a few areas where you can access these amazing sand dunes if you do not have a high clearance vehicle or do not want to hike into the back country. The easiest and the most popular place to park and walk out onto the sand dunes is from the Dunes Parking Area. It is a short 15 minute walk through the Medano Creek to reach the dunes. If you visit in spring, be prepared to splash through the water on your way to the dunes. At other times of the year, the river is dried up so you will not encounter water there. We had to take our shoes off and wade through the shallow stream to get to the dunes. We saw lot of children and adults who were sitting in the cool water and building sandcastles there. It was a good thing that they had places where you could rinse the sand off your feet and showers near the parking lot.

Once we climbed up some of the dunes, we got to watch people sandboarding and/or sand sledding. Some parents were trying to teach their children how to do this. If you want to sandboard or sand sled, you can rent the sandboards from several businesses in nearby Alamosa.

When you go to the National Park’s sand dunes, it is important that you time your visit well. The sand can reach 150° F in the hottest part of the day so it is best to come early or arrive late in the day because it is cooler and there are often fewer people there then. Also, the wind can cause problems while on the sand dunes since it can pick up the sand and blow it into your face or pepper you with it. The park service recommends that you wear eye protection and long sleeves. Thunderstorms can appear unexpectedly too. We experienced storms with small hail while we were camped there. In summer, we understand that mosquitoes can be problematic.

We made a quick stop at the Visitor Center when we arrived. There is an interpretive trail there and you can watch people moving up and down the sand dunes from afar. We also ate a picnic lunch at the Mosca Creek Picnic Area. There were some vending machines that sold water and sodas near there but there were no food vendors at the park.

If you have a four-wheeled drive vehicle, you can explore areas deep in the park. You can drive the Medano Pass Primitive Drive that will take you to the back side of the sand dunes. There are parts of the road that have lots of soft sand while other sections are very rocky. You may have to cross creeks as well so we decided not to take our tow vehicle into the back country.

There are several trails in the park that either require you to drive the primitive road to the trailheads or have significant elevation gain or both. We did not hike any of those trails.

You can camp on top of the sand dunes with a permit. We met some people who had spent the night under the stars up there. When they returned to the parking lot, they said that they had sand everywhere…in their gear, in their clothes, all over their bodies. They concluded that it was a wonderful experience but they would not do it again.

One other interesting thing that happened while we were near the Great Sand Dunes NP. We were heading to the park when we spotted the largest coyote that we have ever seen. David thought it was a donkey when he first saw it at a distance because it was so large. I thought it might be a wolf but, after talking to the ranger, we determined that it was a large coyote.

Another pleasant surprise was the wonderful campground adjacent to the national park where we camped. This used to be a state park but its water supply dried up and the state turned the management of the campground over to the state wildlife division. Consequently, if you have a Colorado issued fishing license, wildlife pass, or hunting permit, you can camp at San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area for free for 14 days. The campground has 50 amp electricity, covered picnic tables, and a dump but it is BYOW (Bring your own water!).

Southern Colorado has much to offer. We only got to explore a very small part of it before heading north to visit family.

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