It’s springtime in Colorado, and you’re anxious to start your camping season. But, the mountains still have snow and nights are cold. So, you pull out a Colorado map and look toward the southern portion of the state, where temps tend to be higher and the ground drier. And there, below the large belts of green, is a vast area of high desert, and in that tan colored region, written in bold, is Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
Four hours from the Front Range and with few other big attractions surrounding it, the Great Sand Dunes National Park attracts just 250,000 visitors a year (compared to Rocky Mountain’s 3,500,000). But, as you drive south on Highway 17, passing signs for UFO-spotting sites and alligator parks, you can’t help but think you’re on a unique and out-of-this-world journey, that you left Kansas miles ago, and that something amazing must be waiting.
Then, you see it, thirty square miles of sand dumped in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, as though some of the Sahara has been transported to this less-traveled part of the state, and it dawns on you how surreal this national park must be.
The Great Sand Dunes were formed when a huge lake covering the San Luis Valley dried up and southwesterly winds blew the remaining sand up against the bordering mountains. Recognized as a national monument in 1932, and then a national park in 2004, the Great Sand Dunes is the perfect place to plan a springtime getaway. From May to early June, when snowmelt is at its peak, Medano Creek flows along the east side of the dune field. Families and groups prop umbrellas, relax in lounge chairs, and play in the calm water as the day passes in amazing tranquility. Moreover, spring surface temperatures are still comfortable, beckoning exploration, whereas summer surface temperature can reach 150°, making it nearly impossible to walk barefoot during the day.
Beyond the creek, dunes loom and are open for play. There are no paths or trails to adhere to. Rather, visitors are encouraged to go wherever they want, unleashing a child-like exhilaration. And while you can simply hike the dunes and run down their sides, which can feel like flying, sand sleds and boards are available to rent at the Oasis store, located just outside the park’s main entrance.
Spend the night and camp in the park’s Pinon Flats Campground. Or, stay nearby at the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool (aka the Hooper Pool), a 50’s style pool club complete with tent camping, RV hookups, and cabins. Those looking for a deeper sand dunes experience can strap on their backpacks and hike Cold Creek Trail (8.9 miles one way) or Sand Creek Trail (10.5 miles one way). With one of the darkest skies in the U.S., a backcountry trip into the sand dunes will give you one of the starriest skies you have ever seen. And while you are staring up at that sky, you will marvel at how unique a destination the Great Sand Dunes is, what a Colorado treasure it is, and how cool it is that you are actually there, in the middle of the Rockies, surrounded by mountains of sand.
For more information, visit the National Park Service’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. nps.gov/grsa/index.htm
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Lindsay Diamond is a novelist and freelance writer living in the mountains of central Colorado. Visit writerlindsaydiamond.wordpress.com to learn more.