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Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

As national parks go, Great Sand Dunes may be underrated. We had put it on our itinerary as a side trip from the drive across southern Colorado, figuring that it would be one of those parks that has one predominant feature and not much else. After all, it’s just a bunch of big piles of sand, right?

Turns out there’s a lot more here than that. Yes, there are enormous sand dunes, up to 750 feet tall, in a huge field just a short hike from the campground. But being bordered by both desert and the tall Sangre de Cristo mountain range, the environment is very diverse and there’s a lot to see, and a lot of great hiking.

great-sand-dunes-shoehorned.jpgWe weren’t sure when we arrived if we could actually camp in the park. The sites are generally short, meaning better suited to tents and small RVs. Big motorhomes have to camp at the Oasis Motel & RV Park just outside the park entrance. But most of the national park campground was vacant when we arrived, and eventually we shoehorned the Airstream and the Nissan into one of the larger spaces. The site slopes upward a lot, and the trailer definitely a bit higher on the front end, but it’s comfortable enough and the view of the dunes is spectacular. (No hookups, dump station, $14.) Plus we can hike to the dunes right from the Airstream’s door.

The geology of the dunes is interesting. The park has an very good Visitor Center, where you discover how the sand blows in from the San Juan Mountains to the west, drains down in creeks from the east, and then gets trapped here at the foothills. Two creeks circle the dunes, picking up any “escaped” sand and dragging it to the southwest side, where the winds redeposit it on the dune field.

Always eager to hear it from directly from the Rangers, we went to a scheduled sunset walk on the Wellington Ditch Trail, but there were thunderstorms in the area and the Ranger never showed up. Since the storms were heading away (all we got was about one minute of pea-sized hail), we hiked the trail ourselves, and then dropped in to the amphitheater for an 8:15 Ranger talk.

great-sand-dunes-manure-sign.jpgThe wildlife here is also interesting. Down in the dunes there are species that only exist here, such as the Great Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle, and through the foothills and lower alpine area there are black bears (bear-proof food boxes are in every campsite), deer and mountain lions. A black bear was spotted in the afternoon crossing the road between the campground and Visitor Center. On the other side of the dunes, the Nature Conservancy manages a herd of over 1,000 buffalo.

Up in the alpine areas there are marmots, bighorn sheep, and pikas, plus a very unusual salamander that actually survives the high-altitude winter by allowing itself to be frozen. The Ranger at the amphitheater talk had one and Emma was thrilled to hold the 7-inch creature in her hands (with gloves, since skin oils are toxic to the salamander).

The park was expanded in 2000 to include a chunk of the Sangre de Cristo range, which protects some of the area that contributes to the dune (adding, “and Preserve” to the official name). This expansion gives the park an enormous added dimension of mountain hikes and 4WD roads, which is what gives it a much greater status in my opinion.

With that addition, the park is more than just a place to hike around on some big sand dunes. There are some really impressive hikes up to high altitude, both easy and hard to complete. You can drive up from the base elevation of about 8400 feet, where we are camped, to mountain passes at 9900 feet, and then hike 2000 feet further up to a mountain lake, or you can just start hiking from several other points and get great views of the dunes without a lot of elevation gain.

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At this point we have already decided to extend our one-night stay to two nights. It would be easy to stay here for several days or a week if we were going to tackle some of the big hikes, but I am under work pressure and need to get to a place where I can get online a little better for a few days.   Cellular Internet works here, amazingly, but slowly.   Two nights will have to do, and I’ll make a note that the next time we come to Great Sand Dunes, we should bring full backpacking gear for a few days of hiking.

One Response to “Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve”

  1. sadira Says:

    Gosh…I don’t think I’d really want to shovel manure into my trailer at all (giggle ;) ) Lot’s of very cool animal sightings by the way…

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