If you haven’t seen the Great Sand Dunes, you would be confused by the landscape and maybe not even believe it if someone tried to describe them to you. You don’t necessarily think of snow-capped mountains or natural running water when you think of sand dunes. Or, maybe that’s just me. No?
We recently visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park, and my mind was blown away. Located just outside of Alamosa, Colorado, these dunes were impressive. Not because of the gigantic piles of sand, necessarily, but because the gigantic piles of sand adorning the base aren’t how you’d imagine your typical Colorado Rocky Mountain range to appear. See what I mean?
Against the backdrop of the mountains, these sand dunes almost even appear small. I assure you, they are not. We hiked about halfway up one of them (barefoot) before we decided the sand was a little too warm and we needed to head back down to where we left our shoes.
The water is called Medano Creek and is derived from snow-melt. Its seasonal flow is dependent on snow in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above the dunes. You can tell from the darker sand that the area had recently been pretty full of water but was now being absorbed into the sand. It felt just like walking on a soft, sandy beach when the tide’s out. Here’s an area where the water had not fully absorbed quite yet. You can check the current conditions of Medano Creek on the Great Sand Dunes’ website here.
The Great Sand Dunes are part of the National Park System (so if you’ve got an annual pass, this is a great spot to use it on!) You can rent sleds or sandboards from the visitor’s center and either sled down the dunes or even sandboard on them (like snowboarding, but on the sand).
According to their website, the Great Sand Dunes are considered the tallest dunes in North America and its diverse landscape is made up of grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes, and tundra. You can see two people in the photo below to give you an idea of their size. I took this photo from approximately a quarter of the way up.
I wish we had more time during our visit because I probably would have attempted to sandboard! Unfortunately, we only had a little bit of time because we were actually on a road trip to somewhere else. Next time, I suppose.
There’s also a nice picnic area and a handful of camping spots in the park if you want to stay a couple of days to explore the area. The park is always open, and you can spend time experiencing it in the night for stargazing or having your kids participate in the Junior Ranger Night Explorer program. There are hiking and backpacking trails to explore so you won’t be lacking in a choice of adventures.
Just outside the park is another set of mountains that you can also hike and backpack. (The trailhead is literally like 3 minutes from the park entrance). These mountains have a waterfall a few miles into the hike. If you have a 4×4 vehicle, you can drive a little closer to the waterfall and then hike the rest of the way. This mountain range seems to have a name for each peak, so I’m not entirely sure what the range is called. Here’s a photo of those mountains:
The Great Sand Dunes was a pretty awesome place to visit, and I would not hesitate to go back and spend more time exploring. The diversity boggles your mind because none of it seems like it should go together, but it all flows so seamlessly. I’d like to get into the detail of how and why the dunes are nestled against mountains that logically shouldn’t have sand next to them, but it’s a science lesson in and of itself. If you’re interested in shifting of plates, fossils, wind funnels, and opposing winds, I encourage you to read up on it here. The National Park Service does a much better job at explaining it than me.
Have you been here? Let me know in the comments section!