Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve


We had a great visit with Mo in Durango and could have easily spent another week there, but the road to Alaska beckons and so we headed on. Having seen the twists and turns on the Million Dollar Highway heading north out of Durango (and not seeing many guardrails!), we did a little research and decided that east on 160 was the way to head. But these are the Rockies, and they call it the Continental Divide for a reason! Our route took us over the Continental Divide at Wolf Creek Pass, elevation 10,857’. We weren’t fast, but made it with no trouble at all. In contrast, we entered the flat San Luis Valley on our way to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. We were looking forward to some peace & quiet & boy does this place deliver! It is still very early in the season, so the campground is maybe 20% occupied. And other than that: nothing.  Nada. No traffic or city noises for a change. Aaaah.

As we were getting closer to the Park, you could see the Dunes off in the distance at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From a distance they don’t look at all impressive, but then you realize that they’re piled up at the base of the Rocky Mountains. The mountain behind them rises over 5,000′ from the valley floor, so they really are impressive dunes: the largest or “among the largest” in North America, depending on who you ask (the tallest of the dunes is 750′ tall).

GSD4  GSD pinyon_sand

As we got closer, I joked with Eric that I didn’t see what the big deal was: it was just sand that blew up from New Mexico & couldn’t make it over the Rockies! But according to the visitor’s center, I was mostly right – ha ha. It didn’t blow in from NM, but supposedly from the San Juan mountains. Prevailing winds blow the sand onto (but not over) the mountains all year. In spring, snow melt brings it back along 2 creeks that encircle the dune field, maintaining a more or less constant dune field size. Pretty cool.

We had a relaxing couple of days here. Eric’s day off from work turned out to be one of the windier cool days, so rather than hiking we let some air out of the Jeep tires and headed down the forest service road to Medano Creek. The road winds beside the foot of the dunes before heading up the mountain. The upper portion is still closed due to snow cover, but we got to experience a great picnic lunch beside the gurgling stream before we headed back.

GSD Medano picnic GSD Medano

Then we headed over to Zapata Falls, figuring it would be in the lee of the mountain and therefore not as cold a hike. We were afraid we wouldn’t be able to see the falls, because everyone had told us we’d have to ford the creek a couple of times to get to them, and we weren’t crazy about getting our feet wet in 50 degree weather. But we figured we’d give it a shot & the hike would be fun anyway. Luckily for us (?) the upper portion of the creek still (mid-April) has about 8″ of packed, frozen ice/snow capping the running water, so we were able to reach the mostly frozen falls with no wet feet! Zapata falls also has a campground, which would be a great alternative to staying at the National Park during peak season. Neither has water or power at the sites, but Zapata Falls will be a bit trickier to drive to: the road in is unpaved and gains 1000′ elevation in 3.6 miles, with a few tight-ish switchbacks. Still, we feel we can easily get our 29′ RV up there, and at $11 a night with spectacular views of the valley & Great Sand Dunes, it’s a definite contender!

Zapata falls Zapata canyon in Zapata canyon up Zapata canyon

The critter watching was also great at Great Sand Dunes Nat’l Park. The chipmunks and ground squirrels running around the campground kept the kitties entertained, as did mountain bluebirds and crows. We also so an Abert’s squirrel, lots of mule deer, and a pronghorn! Our last day at the Park it turned cold and started to snow – time to go! A decent storm was predicted and we needed to lay in supplies & propane, and we have to keep moving north anyway. But our stay at GSD was very enjoyable, and it’s a place I’m sure we’ll return to.

GSD chillax GSD chipmonk GSD ground squirrel GSD magpie GSD Medano Creek GSD mule deer GSD panther GSD pronghorn GSD site 46 GSD snow peaks GSD snow

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