The Great Sand Dunes! You see them coming before you get there. It is along the long thin line of highway 150, or county road 6 as you traverse the San Luis Valley with the looming Sangre De Cristo Mountains to one side. The dunes appear and then grow taller and taller as you approach.
The Visitor’s Center is dramatic and appropriate architecturally speaking, in a National Parks Southwest modern style that is beautiful and fitting for the location. Inside, there are displays and films to see and a small but well-stocked gift shop. There are not dining facilitates, so bring along a picnic you have planned ahead of time. One fact worth noting is that the women’s PEO organization began the effort to make Great Sand Dunes a National Monument, in 1932.
You will especially enjoy the large terrace or verandah, from which the view of the Great Sand Dunes is amazing. The Great Sand Dunes extend for more than thirty square miles, and include some of the tallest dunes in the nation, rising as much as 750 feet. You will enjoy the changing effect of light and shadow on the dunes and on the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains, among them, Mt. Blanca, the third highest peak in Colorado. Be sure to linger and make some photographs there, and to take in the sheer size of this natural wonder. Also notice the native plants that are at the edges of the terrace, with their welcoming blooms.
Then, if you are able, stroll down to the small river known as Medano Creek, at the base of the dunes. The walk is pleasant. And not difficult. Of course, take bottles of drinking water along with you. There you can observe the surging water flowing over the sands, one of the few places in the world where this can be seen. Children of all ages can spend a delightful day simply splashing in the creek.
If you want to climb on the dunes, you will have to wade the creek. Keep in mind the dunes are made up of sand, which means they are challenging under foot. The sand also blows around if there is any wind, so be aware of wind conditions before you begin a climb. Keep in mind as well that you are already at a pretty high altitude. You can rent sand boards and sand sleds to play on the dunes before you enter the park.
Those who are experienced hikers may opt for the somewhat challenging hikes in and around the park. Those who know the Great Sand Dunes well will encourage you to be there at sunset and when the moon is full to have some other-worldly views of this natural wonder. No matter when you go, you will savor your memories of the spectacular dunes, the snow-capped peaks, the pulsing Medano Creek and the towering Ponderosa Pines.
When you visit Great Sand Dunes National Park, also make a reservation to see the bison herd at the privately owned Zapata Ranch, which comprises most of the valley you drive through on the way to Great Sand Dunes National Park. not only will you be impressed by the close-up sight of these majestic animals in the second largest free-ranging herd in the USA, but also by the beauty and history of the ranch itself. The glad of ancient cottonwoods is cool and oasis-like, and even cooler to think that Zebulon Pike (yes, the one whose name is on Pike’s Peak) camped underneath this same grove of trees when he was on his western expedition at the behest of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson in 1808. Yes, you can stay there, today, in the warm and welcoming lodge. Have a bit more time? Head west to see Elephant Rocks and Natural Arch in Saguache County.