The first time I saw the tallest sand dunes in North America, I was cruising overhead at roughly 32,000’ on a flight to Southern California. The pilot prompted passengers on the left side of the airplane to look out the window, mentioning something about a sandbox below. Dreary due to the long flight from Boston, I peered out the cabin window and rubbed my eyes a few times to bring focus to the sight below. Soon I was struck with awe at the unbelievable waves of windblown sand nestled into a crescent toward the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Range. The dunes were surreal and seemed so out of place in the middle of the country. I wondered how I’d never heard of this place before? The scene was like a photograph from a National Geographic magazine, taken in some faraway land. Whereas in fact, the location is actually just over a couple hundred miles south of Denver, making it a perfect weekend camping excursion.
Soon after moving to Colorado, one of the first road trips I took was down towards Alamosa to see the sand dunes from level ground. Until that point, when I thought of sand dunes I recalled my childhood on Cape Cod and the freezing waters and long sandy stretches of Nauset Beach. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve took my former notion of dunes to a whole new level. With ever-changing piles of sand that reach as high as 750 feet surrounded by six nearby peaks over 13,000 feet, the waves of sand juxtaposed by the snow-capped mountains is a delightfully unusual sight to experience. The peacefulness of the area is bolstered by the absolute quiet; a recent soundscape study conducted by the National Parks Service noted this as the quietest national park in the contiguous US. Originally established as a National Monument in 1932, the area was reauthorized as a National Park in 2004. If you’re into majestic and otherwordly scenery, a visit to this park is well worth the trip.
Once there, visitors have free-reign to hike the sand dunes and explore the surrounding streams and mountain paths. Despite solid effort, I’ve yet to see anyone snowboard or sled down the dunes with any level of speed or success. However, it looks fun to give it a shot. Climbing up is an arduous process, but the reward of running down while taking giant leaps in the sand is well worth repeating over and over. Endless photo opportunities abound as you walk the maze of dunes.
The sand can be hellishly hot (up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer. Having been a half dozen times, I actually prefer visiting in the fall and winter. If time permits, it’s a nice diversion when heading back from chasing powder at Wolf Creek. In all but winter, the technical Medano Pass Primitive Road is open for travel past the northeastern side of the dunes providing access to campsites and a high-mountain pass over the Sangre de Cristos. The road starts out with a few miles of deep sand, followed by a dirt road traversed by a river in a dozen places, many of them at least a foot deep depending on the time of year. Further up the mountain, as the name implies, the road can be described only as primitive at best. If you opt to check it out, go with a truck instead of a Subaru and be prepared for some axle-grinding. I managed the road on a loaded GS once, although given tremendously deep sand and ensuing challenges, I likely won’t try that again.
A visitors guide, including maps, directions, and attractions can be found at the National Park Service website: http://www.nps.gov/grsa