This has to be one of the most fun national parks in the country. Children laughing, frolicking in the water, splashing through the next wave. Families building sand castles. Teens flying colorful kites. Seniors watching in beach chairs under their canopies. Kids climbing up the sand, sliding down on their plastic sleds. Dogs playing at the ends of their tethers. Proud fathers filming the glory of it all.
“A national park?” you ask. Yes, even a wilderness area at that. “On one of the coasts?” Well, if Colorado has a coast, this has to be it: Great Sand Dunes National Park in spring and early summer.
Justly famous for its dunes–the tallest in North America–the fun is where Medano Creek skirts the dune field. The waters, having rushed down from the snow fields of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, reach the sand and spread out in a broad, many-braided flow of cool blue. It’s all sand and water, just right for bare feet.
The flow of water pushes sand into temporary dams, momentarily reducing the current. Then the dams burst, sending a wave into the laughing children.
With the rugged range as the backdrop and the great dune field in the foreground all this joyous mayhem couldn’t take place in a grander scene.
And when teens are looking for more adventure there are always the dunes themselves. High Dune, at 650’, hovers above the “beach” and is the most popular destination. On busy days people look like army ants, a marching column ascending the summit. Further into the dune field is Star Dune, which at 750’ is the tallest. Reaching its top is a real accomplishment.
Yet like so many things in the world this glory lasts for just a few weeks. Late in June the creek flow dwindles and the water simply disappears under the sahara of sand. By then the dunes are getting hot, up to 140 degrees on summer afternoons. The crowds are gone, replaced by those who hike the dunes in the cool mornings and explore the mountains by day.
Now the mountains. Three major trails ascend canyons into the range, through woodland into the high tundra. The most challenging takes a hiker huffing into the stratosphere, passing alpine lakes, to the 13,297’ summit of Mount Herard.
The park provides three camping options. There are 88 sites for car camping or RV’s, undeveloped areas reached by four-wheeled drive, and backpacking sites, either in the mountains or on the dunes.
My son had his heart set on a night deep in the dunes, so off we trekked, permit in hand, humping packs loaded with water over the first high ridge. Great waves of sand stretch to the horizon, a still and silent ocean. It’s a surreal world, one of graceful curves, soaring up in steep mounds and plunging into deep hollows. We set up our tents in a sheltered sand basin and settled into to cook dinner. I’ve slept in some strange places and this was one. Images from Star Wars come to mind. This just might be Tatooine. Watch out for the sarlacc.
But camping in the dunes did provide us in the best seat for sunset and sunrise. An early morning walk showed we weren’t alone. In some of the hollows plants made a stand, kangaroo rats dug holes and beetles scurried. Coyote had crossed in the night. Against the far ridge line of sand silhouettes of people marked the pilgrimage to Tall Dune. From a high point we could see the crowd in bright reds and yellows entering the stream for a day at the beach in the Colorado.
If you go….
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is about 5 ½ hours south of Cheyenne. Take I-25 south to Walsenburg, then US 160 west 57 miles. Turn right on CO 150, continuing 19 miles to the Park.
Entry fees are $3 per person. The visitors center is open from 9 to 6 daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Pets are welcome but must be on leash.
Car and RV camp sites are first come, first served. At $14 per night they include picnic tables, fire grates and restrooms with flush toilets and running water. Backcountry camping permits, whether by 4WD or backpacking are free. There are two motels, the Great Sand Dunes Lodge and the Oasis Motel.
“The Oasis” is a small store, gas station and restaurant. Other services can be found in Alamosa, 35 miles away.
More information is available at www.nps.gov/grsa