We had reservations at Pinon Flats Campground at Great Sand Dunes National Park. We were thrilled to get a site in the national park and were looking forward to our stay. The day before our scheduled arrival I received an email stating that “due to winter storm damage, the campground will be temporarily closed.” It went on to explain that our reservations were canceled and what we needed to do to get a refund. High winds from a recent winter storm caused extensive tree damage. Campsites and roads were blocked by downed trees and it would take a few days to clear the debris. That left us scrambling to find a place to stay for the weekend.
We found our spot at La Veta Pines RV Park in the quaint town of La Veta, Colorado. It’s an urban campground (I use the term loosely in a town with a population of 800 people) situated one block off of Main Street’s business district. We are 60 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s further away than I wanted to be but I justify it by saying it’s 60 miles closer to my next destination. Besides, we’ve been told by some people we only need one day to see Great Sand Dunes National Park anyway. So…I think it’s not too far away for a day trip.
We were up and out early the next morning for our visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park, but first a quick stop at the town bakery. Ryus Avenue Bakery is only open three days a week so the town folk line up early for the fresh bake goods. There were three…maybe four people at the front door waiting to get in as only one customer was allowed inside at a time. We bought a couple of bear claws that we ate during our drive to the national park.
As we headed out of town, we drove past some deer in the meadow. Then our navigation app put us on a gravel county road. Here we go again I thought as I’ve had some difficult experiences with these so-called short cuts. But this time it took us past a herd of pronghorn. Magnificent animals! They stopped grazing, raised their heads and looked at us as we drove past. One of them took off running, leaping over shrubs and rocks so gracefully. This must be the place where the songwriter stood when he wrote the words “where the deer and the antelope play.”
After driving for nearly an hour on U.S. Highway 160, we turned on Colorado Highway 150 heading toward the national park entrance. There was a pullout near the intersection where we stopped to gaze at the prominent snow capped Blanca Peak. At 14,351 feet, it’s the forth highest summit in the Rocky Mountains. It was a spectacular view.
At the entrance gate we found a line of cars nearly a half mile long, all waiting to get in the park on this Saturday morning. The park sees more than 500,000 visitors annually. Despite the long line, we were in the park in twenty minutes. Surprisingly, the visitor center wasn’t too crowded and we easily found a place to park. Hmmm…where’d all the cars go? We talked with a ranger who highlighted a map of things to see and we bought our typical souvenirs at the gift shop.
We could see the dunes from the visitor center. They’re the tallest dunes in North America. Isolated between the unspoiled shrub lands of the San Luis Valley and the snowcapped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the towering sand dunes were a bizarre sight. They seem out of place. It begs the question “How did this sand get here?” Well…we learned that the dunes lie in a pocket. Waves of sand created by millions of years of erosion are swept by the prevailing winds into a natural entrapment. This shifting sea of sand covers an area of 30 square miles.
We drove to the Dunes Parking Area located one mile north of the visitor center and discovered where all the cars went. Cars parked far from the parking area along both sides of the road indicated the parking lot was probably full. People where walking a long way on the road, with little regard to the traffic behind them, just to get to where they could access the dunes. I took a chance and drove in. My lucky Day! Someone was leaving and I pulled into the spot.
We stuffed our backpack with water and sandwiches and started toward the dunes. We walked across a dry creek bed. Medano Creek is a seasonal creek that flows during the spring and early summer. Snow melting from the mountains flows past the dunes and creates an unusual opportunity for more fun. I saw pictures of people on tubes racing down the creek.
As we walked across the soft sand, my eyes scanned the dunes. People were dispersed across a wide area so it didn’t seem too crowded after all. It was like a day at the beach without an ocean. People set up chairs with sun umbrellas and spread blankets across the sand. They brought coolers, radios, and games to play. Dogs were chasing frisbees. Children were rolling in the sand. It’s a giant sandbox where people come to play.
But the most popular activity, by far, is to race down the dunes on a sandboard. People climb to the top of a dune, then ride down like a snowboarder on a mountain slope. It looked like a lot of fun and maybe if we had a sandboard we might of given it a try. I thought we could rent one at the park, but that wasn’t so. You can only rent sandboards from venders outside the park. So we were content just to watch.
Another popular activity is to climb to the top of the dunes, some as high as 750 feet. Be prepared for a rigorous workout as it is not as easy as it might sound. A thigh burning hike to Star Dune, the highest of the dunes, will take more than three hours. The sand is so soft that your foot sinks below the surface. For every two steps forward, you slide back one. There are no designated trails as prior footprints are soon erased by the winds. It’s up to each hiker to decide on a path of least resistance.
There are a lot of ups and downs creating false peaks. Grammi and I discovered false peaks on our hike up the dunes. We climbed to one ridge after another. Each time we reached the top of a ridge we discovered another one lied beyond. After a while we felt we made it high enough and sat down in the sand. It was a lovely day. The sand wasn’t hot. The wind was calm. I’d read that a windy day makes for a miserable experience. Though we weren’t at the top, we still had an amazing view across the sand dunes. We sat and ate our lunch as we watched all the activities below. It was a perfectly unique spot for lunch.
There is more to do in The Great Sand Dune National Park, but not much. The sand dunes are what people come to see. There’s some hiking trails and a primitive road. We drove a short portion of the Medano Pass Primitive Road to the Point of No Return Parking Area. From that point the road gets pretty rough ascending to 10,040 feet with several water crossings and requires a high clearance four-wheel drive vehicle. I think it would be awesome to own a jeep…maybe someday.
We turned back and headed out of the park. Like so many others, our purpose was to see the sand dunes. We did that. No need to stay any longer. Maybe it was a blessing our campsite was canceled and we didn’t stay three nights here. But then again…if we had, we might of rented a sandboard or attempted to climb to Star Dune. We might of gone on one of the other hikes. Point is, if you want to see the Great Sand Dunes you only need a day. If you want to experience the Great Sand Dunes, you’ll need more time. Maybe someday we’ll come back, but it won’t be at the top of our list…unless of course, we bring the grandkids.
The next morning we were going to leave the campground, leave Colorado and head east. We didn’t have too far to go to our next stop (remember we’re 60 miles closer to our next destination) so we had some time for one last adventure. We took an early morning scenic drive. We drove State Highway 12, also known as the Highway of Legends, past Dakota Wall and Devil’s Stairsteps. Dakota Wall is also known as the Backbone of the Rockies, it is a sandstone rock formation created along a fault line where the earth’s crust was broken and turned upright.
We continued the drive to County Road 364 where we drove an unpaved road passing gorgeous scenery to the historic Cordova Pass at an elevation of 11,248 feet.
Patches of snow protected beneath the trees reminded us of last weeks snowfall. The cool air awaken our sensuous. It was one last experience in the Colorado mountains before going back east. It is and will always be one of our favorite places.
Until next time…happy days and safe travels.