Our First Time Visiting Colorado To Discover North America’s Tallest Sand Dunes!
From New Mexico, it was time for us to head into another new state. We drove around 400 miles into Colorado, the ‘Centennial State’, swapping sunshine and high desert, as well as the prickly pear and cholla cactus for snow capped mountains, rain showers and icy roads as we travelled north heading for Rocky Mountain National Park.
What a difference a day makes!
Nestled against the rugged Sangre de Cristo Montains, the Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to North America’s tallest dunes.
We allowed ourselves a little bit of time to get used to the increasingly cold weather and the threat of imminent snow however, as we stopped at the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve en route. Created by a unique wind-powered geologic system, the dunes are the tallest in North America, rising 700 feet above the valley floor. Nestled against the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it is not what you expect to see in Colorado. But finding yourself in the middle of a desert whilst being surrounded by snow-capped peaks, is both a surreal and awesome phenomenon.
Our first stop in Colorado was a visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve.
Geologists say the Great Sand Dunes began forming at the end of the last ice age, 12 millennia ago. The headwaters of the Rio Grande carried sand down the San Juan Mountains to the open bowl of the San Luis Valley. The prevailing southwesterly winds, blowing at an average of 35 mph, carried the sand about 60 miles, until it ran into a natural trap, the imposing wall of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Although the wind changes the shape of the dunes daily, it is the series of rivers that form borders and keep the enormous sandy field in place.
View of the sand dunes from the side of the road before entering the park.
A unique wind-powered geologic system located in the San Luis Valley in Colorado.
Despite being one of the least visited national parks, we found the Pinyon Flats Campground to be busy during the weekend we stayed there in mid-October. However we managed to get a pitch with a great view that looked directly on to the dunes.
Our campsite that looked directly on to the sand dunes.
Every campsite comes complete with its own bear locker.
Our first camp meal of the weekend – Thai chicken noodles and vegetables.
After a quick look at the dunes when we arrived early Friday evening, by Saturday morning we were raring to go and explore. We left the car at the campsite and walked to the Visitor Centre taking in the scenery of the mountain foothills and surrounding grasslands, where we were finally treated to the sight of golden aspens. It was one thing we had hoped to see throughout our road trip but had missed as by the time we headed north most of the trees had already shed their leaves. Happily, this was not the case today and we finally got to see aspen leaves fluttering in their autumnal glory.
Setting off from the campsite to the Visitor Centre along the mountain foothills.
We finally got to see some golden aspens looking glorious in the morning sun!
The Visitor Centre has an interpretation video every hour which we stayed to watch, explaining the formation of the sand dunes and detailing the history of the park. After a quick read of the displays and exhibitions, we set off onto the dunes. There are no ‘walking trails’ as such; any part of the 30 square mile dune field can be explored. But there are two main sand dunes that visitors head for: High Dune and Star Dune. The ‘High Dune’ on the first ridge is neither the highest in elevation nor the tallest in the park, but it looks that way from the main car park. This is the most common destination for day visitors, as it provides a great view of the entire dune field. It is about 699 feet (198m) high. The average round trip hiking time to the High Dune on the first ridge is 2 hours. From High Dune, the tallest dune you see to the west is Star Dune, rising 750 feet (229m) from base to top. It is the tallest dune in North America. To reach it from High Dune, your journey will take you another mile and a half up and down across the dunes to its summit. The average round trip hiking time to Star Dune is about 5 hours.
Heading off across the dune field… In search of ‘High Dune’.
To the left of the picture is ‘Star Dune’ in the distance.
Wayne captures the ever-changing light and shadow across the dunes.
On the free map provided at the Visitor Centre, there are a few backcountry walks which will take you to the tallest dunes closest to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. However these are not possible without the use of a high clearance off-road vehicle needed to reach the trailheads. As this wasn’t an option for us, we decided to stay at the campground for just 2 nights. One day is ample enough time to explore the dune field and look around the Visitor Centre.
At a distance the dune field looks barren, but it’s actually home to a whole host of insect and plant species that have adapted to life in this unique Eco-system.
Dramatic skies loom overhead as a storm rolls through the valley.
Prickly pear. Rabbitbrush and yucca grow in abundance in the grassland and shrubs surrounding the dune field.
We opted to head up to High Dune so that Wayne could get a time-lapse of the ever-changing dunes and dramatic cloudy skies overhead. It’s actually really hard work walking on sand, especially when you’re trudging up thin ridges to make your way to the top, which always happens to be further away than you first estimate.
Having experienced hiking in sand dunes before in Huacachina in Peru, it’s fair to say your whole body gets put through its paces, not least the calf muscles that receive a thoroughly good work out. But witnessing the wind at work, changing the very shape and size of the dunes before your eyes is a remarkable sight, as is the great feeling of satisfaction at having made the first footprints in the sand! What’s even more fun is sliding down the dunes once you’ve reached the top, whether it be on a sand-board or simply making your own ‘ass path’ to the bottom!
All good fun, sliding down the dunes after the hard work of reaching the top! (Whether it be on a sand board or on your bottom!)
So our quest to reach the top of ‘High Dune’ began. Even from a distance, we could see a large group of people already at the top enjoying a bird’s eye view of the dunes below. But by the time we made it to the same spot, luckily for us the group was just leaving. So, alone, we settled ourselves at the very end of the ridge, just long enough for Wayne to capture a time-lapse of the dramatic skies lingering over the ever changing dunes below.
And just long enough to escape the dunes before a raging storm swept through the valley soaking everything in its wake.
Safely back at camp, we look on as dark skies loom overhead. An unexpected storm passes over the valley and across the sand dunes.
By this time, we had already taken a short cut from the dunes back to the campsite, and were both quite happily watching the storm pass by from the comfort of our tent!
We realised that we’d have to get used to this unpredictable weather however, (as well as a drop in temperature), as our next stop was further north visiting what is known as Colorado’s finest National Park – ‘The Rocky Mountains’. We spent a week at the Moraine Park Campground during ‘rutting season’ and had the pleasure of an up-close and personal experience with an elk, as well as a memorable hiking day trudging through snow to the summit of ‘Flat Top Mountain’. Read more about these adrenalin pumping experiences in our next post!