Driving down La Veta Pass into the San Luis Valley, the yellow pop of aspen near its peak, we still believed we were just passing through.
Even as we turned off U.S. 160, we thought it would be a one-night pit stop, a quick 16-mile detour to see the tallest sand dunes in North America.
Then, we saw it.
Thirty square miles of sand, more Saharan than Coloradan, appeared as though it had been dumped into a nook of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The tallest dune rises 750 feet.
I could hardly look away — for the next three days and three nights.
With 250,000 annual visitors, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is not the most popular national park in Colorado. Not by a long shot. But flip a quarter and you may very well catch a glimpse. The park was iconic enough to be selected to represent Colorado on a new quarter, released by the U.S. Mint this summer.
My fiancé and I went at the end of September, joined by my sister and her boyfriend, visiting from Minneapolis. For my part, it was my first trip south beyond Colorado Springs since I moved to Colorado two years ago. I honestly didn’t know what to expect.
After a four-hour drive from Denver, we arrived at the park gates late in the afternoon and drove right in — no one was at the entrance station. There aren’t lines, or really many people, to slow you down that time of year. We also quickly found a site in Piñon Flats Campground, but since we arrived just as the visitor center was closing, we missed our chance to buy firewood inside the park.
(Thankfully, firewood is also available at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis store right outside the park until 7 p.m. The store is open seasonally, from April through October, as is the park campground.)
That evening, we pitched our tents, packed our food into the bear box (black bears are potential campsite visitors here) and started a fire.
The stars seemed infinite — as infinite as the grains of sand that formed the dunes in front of us.
We really did mean to leave the next morning, continuing a southern Colorado road trip that would have taken us all the way to Mesa Verde National Park.
Instead of moving on, though, we moved closer.
This place is amazing, almost, I don’t know, otherworldly, I said to my fiancé shortly after we arrived.
What if we just stayed? I asked, finally giving voice to the feeling growing in my gut since we pulled into view of the dune field.
If we stay, he said, we could go sand sledding.
My sister and her boyfriend were sold. The decision was final before we closed our eyes that night.
The next morning, we scouted out other sites on the loop as campers departed and moved our temporary home to a spot with a big shade tree and an unobstructed view of the dunes.
The Great Sand Dunes, according to geologists, were created after a huge lake that covered much of the San Luis Valley receded. Predominant southwesterly winds then blew the leftover sand toward a curve in the towering Sangre de Cristo mountains, where it piled up. Opposing winds, coming down from the mountains during storms, cause the dunes to grow vertically.
The unique ecosystem has been protected as a national monument since 1932, expanding in size and becoming a national park in 2004.
In the dune field, there are no marked paths or trails — anywhere you want to climb is fair game, as long as you stay off what little vegetation clings to life there. It’s a crazy concept if, like me, the dunes you grew up nearest were of the delicate, “don’t touch” coastal variety.
Park ranger Patrick Myers told me that all of their research has shown that the dune field here is “really resilient.”
“People can make sand castles and sled on them and splash on the beach, and it doesn’t seem to hurt the dunes,” Myers said.
Once you try climbing around, it’s easy to understand, too, why most visitors don’t make it past the first square mile of sand, as Myers also pointed out.
For one, the park sits at 8,200 feet — that’s higher than Estes Park.
Then there’s the sand. Soft and shifting when dry, the sand poses its own challenges.
Think about the last time you walked on a beach. Then make that beach rise hundreds of feet into the air.
Plus, it was unpredictable. Step once and the sand would be firm, just hard enough to keep you on top of the crust. The next, you would sink down, just a bit, or up to your ankle. Each step forward felt like two steps back.
During the summer, the surface temperature can reach 150 degrees — hot enough to blister bare feet — and hiking and climbing at mid-day is discouraged. But during the fall, when we visited, you don’t have to worry about sand temperature. We hiked at the peak of afternoon and had no problems, other than sand-logged shoes.
On Day 1, we made it as far as the first high ridge of the dune field, with the help of lots of water and lots of breaks. From the dune’s crest, our view to the west was ridge after high, sandy ridge.
Where are we, I asked myself again. What is this place? Mars?
Our true motivation for slogging up there was realized on the way down.
Before heading out, we rented two sand sleds and a sand board from the Oasis for just $20 each for the day.
The specialized sleds are really nothing more than laminated wood with handles (or foot holds). But do they fly once you wax the bottoms with the melon-scented puck of “Doctor Dune” included in the rental. At the park, sand sledding has grown increasingly popular in the past five years or so as the special boards became available, Myers said. But don’t bother with snow sleds, cardboard or saucers — you won’t budge.
Another lesson learned: Everyone will want their own sled. This is not something where you trade off. Also: Sledding is much easier than boarding, unless you’re an experienced snowboarder.
My first time down, I crashed, hard. One second I was flying down the slope on my sled, the next, I was airborne, and then falling, landing and faceplanting in the sand.
In the shock of it all, my first thought was, “I bet I just broke a rib. Vacation is ruined.”
Of course, I was fine. And soon, I was back on the sled, my face a little more exfoliated.
I’m no adrenaline junkie. But speeding down the dunes, I was overcome by the fun of it: Am I really doing this? And can I do it again?
It really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, my much braver sister pointed out, her face just as covered in sand, her sledding lines (and crashes) even more epic.
As sunset approached, we finally trudged back to our campsite, sand in every nook, pore and sock, but happy.
From dunes to forest
In terms of ecological diversity, Great Sand Dunes is hard to beat. There are sand dunes, of course, but there are also mountains, lakes, forests, meadows, creeks, grasslands and a seasonal alkali wetland called the sabkha.
On Day 2, we headed out on the Mosca Pass Trail, a 3 ½-mile-one-way route up into the Sangres, which shelter the dunes. The trail follows a creek through forest and boulders, eventually climbing to Mosca Pass.
Round trip, the park suggests giving yourself 4 ½-5 hours, but we left too late in the afternoon and had to turn back well before that.
Still, the quiet, wooded trail, with aspen just turning golden at the lower elevations, was worth whatever time you could give it. I would go back just to see it to the summit.
The transition from dune to forest happened quickly — cross the main road and you’re transported from sandy scrub brush and grassland to aspen grove almost right away.
In September, the average high in the park is 71 degrees, with lows near 42, according to the park service website. It was fleece mornings, short-sleeve days and campfire evenings.
The most popular time to visit is late May and early June, Myers said. That’s when Medano Creek, which flows along the eastern edge of the dune field, runs full with mountain snowmelt, and families splash around in swimsuits.
By September, though, the creek is a trickle — wet sand, really. But there are also the fall colors, aspen in the mountains, cottonwood along the creek, and by early October, the autumn migration of sand hill cranes begins in the valley.
“Fall is the rangers’ favorite time of year,” Myers said. “The weather is great, the vacations are over, and everyone seems a little more relaxed.”
On Day 3, I finally pulled out my camera to try to capture the view that brings people here year-round. There was nothing between me and the dunes but a sandy grassland traversed by an rarely driven primitive road.
I crawled out of my sleeping bag a half-hour after sunrise, the air still crisp, the campground quiet.
As the sun slowly crept above the Sangres, spilling warm, early-morning light onto the dunes, I was transfixed.
Surely this was some other world, some other place, not Colorado.
Plan your visit
Great Sand Dunes National Park is open 24/7 year-round, although hours at the visitor center vary depending on season. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. in fall and spring, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. winter, 8:30 a.m.-6 pm. summer. Entrance fee, $3 per adult for seven days, $15 annual pass. www.nps.gov/grsa/index.htm
Sand sleds and boards
Located right outside the park, the Great Sand Dunes Oasis rents a limited number of sand sleds and boards seven days a week between April and October. 5400 Colorado 150 North, Mosca. 719-378-2222. $20/day
Kristi Mountain Sports, 3223 Main St., Alamosa, also rents sand sleds and boards year-round. Rentals can be picked up Monday-Saturday during store hours or on Sunday at the Colorado Welcome Center, 610 State St., Alamosa, with a prepaid reservation only. 719-589-9759. $18/day.
If you’re not experienced at snowboarding, a sand sled versus a sand board, which is ridden like a snowboard, is likely the better option.
On camping at the dunes
Piñon Flats Campground has 88 sites open April-October. Reservations are not accepted for Loop 1, the area closest to the dune field — it’s first come, first served.
To claim a spot, pick up an envelope at the self-service kiosk near the campground entrance, fill out the form on the outside, put in your $20 per night, tear off the receipt and slide everything else into the locked metal tube. There are no refunds for unused nights after the envelope goes in the tube.
Reservations can be made for Loop 2 sites up to six months in advance at recreation.gov.