Saturday, June 16, 2012

driving colorado - from canyon city to great sand dunes national park

In need of a rest day after the three day climbing stint in Shelf Road, we headed southwest to enjoy the dynamic scenery of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Deciding to take the scenic route, we took a byway through the extremely rugged, steep and lush San Isabel Mountains. We stopped to photograph some bighorn sheep climbing up vertical granite and cruised on through wagon wheel towns dotting the mountainous landscape. We got a good glimpse of the white bark of aspen forests, high alpine pine stands, and saw a few peaks above timberline. Just when we thought we had reached the pinnacle of it all, the Sangre de Cristo mountain range jutted up against the sky, putting the San Isabels to shame. The road ran south east along the Sangre foothills, with a barren high plain ecosystem on the other side. The sun was setting during the entire drive - the huge sky of the west allows for several hour sunsets. As we finally rounded the southern tip of the Sangre range, we headed north towards the Dunes. A high mountain pass (over 9,500 feet) caused the van to sputter, barely making it up with little to no acceleration. High wind gusts blew the van around like a flag on a pole. It was quite creepy, keeping us on edge until we came back down to a still high 8,000 feet. A herd of elk crossed the road in front of us. Darkness finally fell as we cruised up the 16 mile, perfectly straight road to the Dunes. The entrance gate was unstaffed so we pulled in to a scenic view parking lot and slept for the night. I was quite excited to see what scenery awaited us when the sun rose.

The alarm went off at 6 a.m. after a dismal night of light sleep, and I wanted to pass back out. A large "WHOA" from Eric convinced me to sit up, and there they were. Massive sand dunes - dark tan against a deep blue sky. The pine-studded hills and snow-capped peaks of the 14,000 foot Sangre de Cristos surrounded the bone dry dunes with supreme grandeur. The dunes are a geological wonder, formed when an ancient lake dried up and westward winds blew every grain of sand up against the natural barrier of the Sangre de Cristos. Seeing the scale of it all gave a humbling sense of what I call smallitude, feeling entirely significant against the massive landscape.
the medano creek basin flanked by the southern tip of the sangre de cristo mountains - photo by dylan jones

one word - epic - photo by dylan jones

We had to move fast - the sun was already blazing and sand temperatures can reach 140 degrees in the afternoon. We filled up with water and grabbed a few snacks, heading for the intimidating hike to the summit of High Dune. The elevation of the dune basin is 8,000 feet - enough to give us East coasters short breath, naseua and headaches. On we trudged, taking it step by step, from dune ridge to ridge, trying to traverse efficiently. Heading straight up will kill your energy in a few hundred steps. High Dune sits 800 feet above the basin, offering a view of the entire sand dune field and the epic Sangre range. I couldn't help but wonder what it must be like to be in a caravan in the Gobi desert - a thought that brought some scary images of dehydration of third degree sunburn.

bone dry dunes contrast the lush pines of the sangre de cristos - photo by dylan jones
Unfortunately my camera didn't survive the journey, grains of sand got inside the lens and rendered it useless. What I did capture before she died was good enough for me. Some Coloradians hiked up with snowboards ready to shred the dunes but forgot to WD-40 the bottom for lubrication. It was still entertaining to see them slowly drop and roll down the massive dune face. Eric and I decided to run full speed down the biggest, steepest slopes of the dunes, sometimes getting up to 12 feet in a single stride - what took us 45 minutes to hike up, breathless and beaten, took us 8 minutes to speed down with big smiles and everything covered in sand.

forget a beach, we like high altitude and massive mountains for toes in the sand - photo by dylan jones
From the coffee shop here in Alamosa, due west of the Dunes, we will head north, then east back to Colorado Springs on a super scenic drive through the heart of the rockies. As much fun as it has been to experience the desert, I can't wait to get back into my love of lush, rocky and stream-filled mountain forests.


  1. i recognize those feet...these dunes surpass kitty hawk as monumental....but dunes are dunes, elemental and beautiful

  2. Wow that's awesome! I never even knew that place existed!

  3. Senor Fizer,

    Happy to see your having a great time. I've been checking out your website while I slave, I mean work away. Looks like a blast! Just wanted to drop a line and let you know your website is really cool.

    Rock on,


    1. Thanks Chris! We're living the dream right now for sure! I hope that the slave masters take it easy on you soon. I hope all is well and thanks again for following the blog!