great sand dunes national park

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.


Driving into Great Sand Dunes


Great Sand Dunes


my son at Great Sand Dunes National Park

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.


Great Sand Dunes National Park


Great Sand Dunes National Park

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.


driftwood in the dunes

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.


the Sangre de Cristo Mountains


driftwood in the dunes


the Great Sand Dunes

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.


Dunes Overlook Trail


Dunes Overlook Trail


Dunes Overlook Trail


Dunes Overlook Trail


Dunes Overlook Trail


Dunes Overlook Trail


juniper on the Dunes Overlook Trail


Dunes Overlook Trail


Dunes Overlook Trail

From the overlook, we had a great view of the first ridge of dunes and the San Luis Valley.


Dunes Overlook Trail


Dunes Overlook Trail


Dunes Overlook Trail


Dunes Overlook Trail

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.


Great Sand Dunes

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.


Cloudy skies


Great Sand Dunes

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.


Sticker & cancellation stamp for Great Sand Dunes

*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.