After visiting my youngest son in Crestone, Colorado, where he was WWOOFing on a small organic farm, we went to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, about an hour’s drive west, then south, then west again. It would have been much closer if we could have flown like a crow.
The park protects the tallest dunes in North America, reaching heights of over 750 feet. The dunefield alone covers overs 30 square miles. The preserve also contains ecosystems ranging from wetlands to nearly 42,000 acres of pinyon-juniper forests extending to high elevation alpine tundra.
Congress has protected nearly 90% of Great Sand Dunes National Park and National Preserve as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. This includes the Great Sand Dunes Wilderness of 33,549 acres in the national park, and 41,676 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.
We first stopped at the visitor center to watch a film about how the dunes were formed, and then went to explore the dunefield from the main Dunes parking area.
Most of the sand here comes from the San Juan Mountains, over 65 miles to the west. Larger, rougher grains and pebbles come from the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. Sand and sediments from both ranges washed into a huge lake once covering the valley floor. As the lake vanished, prevailing southwesterly winds swept the sand grains in a pile beneath the Sangre de Cristos or washed them back toward the valley floor. Northeasterly storm winds blasted through mountain passes, piling dunes back on themselves and creating the tallest dunes in North America. The dunes are likely less than 400,000 years old.
The high, cold Sangre de Cristo Mountains collect and hold snow from October into April, releasing it in icy streams as spring brings on warmer temperatures. The creeks feed the underground aquifers for San Luis Valley residents’ wells, local agriculture and livestock.
From the parking lot, we walked 2.3 miles (3.7km) through the Piñon Flats campground to the Dunes Overlook Trail. Here, we strolled through sand sheet and grassland among gnarly juniper and small flower sand-verbena. Golden grasses and shrubs like rabbitbrush, starvation prickly pear, and narrowleaf yucca grow over old dunes, stabilizing them with their roots and reducing wind speeds with their branches and leaves.
From the overlook, we had a great view of the first ridge of dunes and the San Luis Valley.
After reaching a small hill where we saw panoramic views of the sand dunes, we headed back down to the parking lot. Sadly, I had reserved a hotel room in Pueblo, Colorado for that night, long before I knew my son would be in Crestone, and it was non-refundable.
My son and I had such a wonderful time together that I wished I could have spent a couple more days exploring the area with him. However, he had only one day off from the organic farm and I had reserved all my hotels for my 3-day drive back across the country.
After our visit to the park, my son wanted to visit an “awesome” hot spring for several hours, but I was getting worried about the time. I had to drive him back north to Crestone for an hour and then drive south again, backtracking past the Great Sand Dunes, and then east to Pueblo, Colorado for nearly three hours.
When we returned to Crestone, we had a wonderful, but very long (because of slow service) dinner at a homey restaurant called Desert Sage, where I enjoyed a huge meatloaf (much of which I gave my son to take to the farm) and mashed potatoes with gravy and vegetables. An accompanying glass of wine wouldn’t help me stay alert during my long drive to Pueblo.
I hate to drive in the dark, but by the time we finished our meal and I drove my son to the farm, it was nearly 8 pm. For what seemed like forever, I drove in circles around the dirt roads in Crestone, utterly lost. I couldn’t get my GPS to work, so I don’t know how I ever found my way out of those convoluted roads. Finally, I was on Route 17 heading south, driving on deserted county roads in the middle of nowhere.
At Mosca, my GPS took me on the “scenic route” which bypassed Alamosa, where I’d hoped to find a restroom. There was no “scenery” to see as it was pitch black outside. When I turned east onto Route 160, I thought it woudn’t be far to I-25, but the GPS told me to follow the road for 79 miles (!), crossing the North La Veta Pass of the Sangre de Cristos at 9,413 feet. There was hardly another car in sight in any direction.
Finally, I reached I-25 at 10:30 p.m. and headed north for 48 more miles. It was a drive I thought would never end. After Pueblo, I would still have three more full days of driving to get back home to Virginia.
Of course I got my National Parks sticker and cancellation stamp.
*Tuesday, May 22, 2018*
*Steps: 11,980 (5.08 miles)*
On Sundays, I post about hikes or walks that I have taken in my travels; I may also post on other unrelated subjects. I will use these posts to participate in Jo’s Monday Walks or any other challenges that catch my fancy.
This post is in response to Jo’s Monday Walk: Funazhinas to Odeleite Dam.
Gottcha this morning, Cathy! I came looking. Thank you! 🙂 🙂 And this would make a great link to the Lens Artists Landscapes, this week. Sometimes you can plan too much and it doesn’t leave room for manoeuvre, but at least you made the most of your time together. 🙂 I love all those big skies!
Nice to see you here, Jo! I had no idea he would be in Crestone when I planned my trip, and didn’t even intend to stop in Crestone at all. So, it was too bad I didn’t have more time there, but we at least had one day and it was really a great day. I loved the big skies out there too. 🙂
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Great time to spend with your son. We have done lots of Wwooffing and love it. But, oh dear, your GPS let you down badly. I do rely on “Siri” these days and wonder how I ever found my way around in an earlier life. Well actually I didn’t, often getting lost. Now a days I can’t see to drive in the dark
It was a great day, Pauline, one of only a smattering of good days that we’ve had in recent years. This town was out in the middle of nowhere, so it was no wonder I couldn’t get any cell reception to use my GPS. I don’t like driving in the dark either, especially late at night and in the middle of nowhere in unfamiliar territory. I didn’t like that drive at all. 🙂
All’s well that ends well
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Ah yes, seeing the junipers return to your photos reminded me of the two us laughing about your photographic fondness for those rugged characters, during the first part of the trip!!!
The photos of the rippling sand dunes, splotched with cloud shadows, nestled under the dramatic sky and above the yellow and green splattered desert scrub lands, certainly touched the senses.
The photo of you and Adam brought tears to my eyes, given everything that has transpired since then, and the uncertainties that lie ahead!
I certainly did have a fondness for those gnarled junipers and pinyon trees. 🙂 That picture of the two of us also brings me to tears. It was a rare good day, and I loved every minute of it. 🙂
Wonderful landscape! A shame the timing didn’t work out better with your son. That drive sounds nightmarish.
Thanks Anabel. I wish we could have spent more time together, but with him, asking for two good days in a row might have been asking too much anyway. The drive was definitely a nightmare. I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous and filled with anxiety on a drive! 🙂
I can imagine! I’d have been terrified.
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I’m glad you put a link to Wwooffing as I hadn’t a clue as to what it was but I’m pleased to add a new word to my lexicon. What lovely skies, reminds me of all those old western films I used to watch where the skies seemed to go on forever. I felt for you on that drive in the dark, I can’t drive at the moment due to an eye problem, but when I could I hated night-time driving anyway. I hope the visit to your son made up for some of the discomfort, but I’m sure it did.
I didn’t know about WWOOFing until I learned about it from my son. I loved so much of the southwest where the skies were so immense, Mari. The visit with my son was wonderful, but the drive was very anxiety-producing!
What wonderful sandscapes, and not only. That National Park is so diverse. Like you, I hate driving after dark, and I’m slowly learning not to book ahead. Usually it’s not a bother because I’m on back roads. Do you ever run out of NPs? I’m in granite country surrounded by NPs right now but I’m turned off by heat, and not too bothered because I’ve visited them all a number of times.
Thank you, Meg. The National Parks I encountered in the Four Corners area were truly amazing. I was lucky to experience them. I’m always afraid NOT to book ahead, especially when I will arrive late in a place. I should have definitely gotten a room that was able to be cancelled. I could have just lost the money, but actually there was nowhere to stay in Crestone and my son had to work on the farm the next day anyway. I had three more 10+ hour days ahead to drive back across country too.
We have so many National Parks and Monuments, especially out west, so it was a pleasure to visit as many as I could. We have a few parks/monuments here in my area, especially in D.C., but I’ve been to them so many times, I’m quite bored with them by now. Heat always turns me off; I’d always rather stay inside during summer. Not a fan of heat and especially humidity, which we have in great measure on the East Coast. 🙂
Never a 10 hour day of driving for me!
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[…] Great Sand Dunes National Park […]
Isn’t geography amazing – all that sand in the middle of nowhere!
I know! It is really a strange phenomenon. 🙂
Lovely to see your son! What kind of temperature does the dunes park get?
It was a rare good day with my son, Gilly. It was May then, so it was warm but not too hot. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are right there, plus Colorado is very dry, so it was quite comfortable. 🙂
Great scenery but sounds like a nightmare drive back – I would have hated every minute of it 😦
I was clenching the steering wheel the whole time; I had so much anxiety. I hope to never repeat a drive like that, Eunice! 🙂
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