After our one month stay in Santa Fe, NM we left after work on a Thursday night for Alamosa, CO and dry camped in the local Walmart parking lot. Marc had taken the Friday off, so we were able to get an early-ish start exploring the nearby Great Sand Dunes in the morning before heading up to Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs the same afternoon.
If it had been our first visit to these beautiful, scenic locations we’d have allowed more time – perhaps a day in each – but as our “home state” was Colorado we were already very familiar with them. That said, we’d never been with our coach “Rocky” and our Mini “Juice” and we were keen for some great photo ops!
We’d last visited the Great Sand Dunes in June 2011, driving 4 hours each way from Denver for the sole purpose of collecting a little bag of it’s fine grey/brown sand for Marc’s part of our September wedding Sand Ceremony. Marc was born and raised in Colorado while I (Julie) was born and raised in Australia, so I had family and friends bring a little bit of sand from various Australian beaches to represent my sand in the ceremony. To us, it felt more authentic and natural to use sand from our home states rather than buying the readymade pink/blue/purple/black sand you can get at Hobby Lobby! A Sand Ceremony is a modern version of a Unity Candle Ceremony and seemed appropriate for our outdoor wedding. As we each poured our own sand into a single vessel, the grains blended as a symbol of unity (of ourselves, family, friends and our experiences). As you will see from the photo below, we also chose to keep a little sand aside in each vial to acknowledge and represent our individuality within our marriage. So not only do we find the Great Sand Dunes unusually and naturally beautiful in it’s own way, for us it does – and will always – hold a romantic and meaningful significance.
As you approach to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, it’s the 13,000 foot peaks of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains that first capture your attention. It’s not until you reach the base of the sand dunes themselves that you become aware of their vastness! Imagine gazing up at a 70 story building – that’s how tall they are at their highest peak – stretching for miles…an ocean of sand hills of breathtaking magnitude.
We stopped at a couple of pullouts along the way before we even reached the park’s entrance, so we could capture the scenic shots we’d hoped for while the skies were still blue!
About The Great Sand Dunes
The Great Sand Dunes of Colorado are part of the National Park system. They are officially the highest sand dunes in North America and are surrounded stunning vistas of the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They are open year round and their ever changing beauty throughout the seasons combined with the effects of winds on the dunes ensures that no two visits will ever be the same.
The park spans 150,000 acres (605 square kilometres) and boasts the highest sand dunes in North America. The elevation ranges from 7,520 feet (2,290 meters) to a high of 13,604 feet (4,146 meters) above sea level – a difference of 6,084 feet (1,854 meters). The elevation at the Visitor Center and Campground is 8170 feet (2,490 meters). The park is open year round and sees about 300,000 visitors annually. Leashed pets are allowed on the sand dunes and main visitor area but not in the backcountry. The Visitor’s Center had an adult and child sand wheelchair (reserve ahead of time) and there are accessible restrooms and viewing areas. There is a campground within the park (no hookups) that accommodates tenters and RVs up to 35 feet for $20 per night, as well as a few private campgrounds that, while outside the park, are fairly close by.
How were the Sand Dunes formed?
The dunes sprawl across part of southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, a broad, arid plain between the San Juan Mountains on the west and the Sangre de Cristos on the east. Streams and creeks flowing out of the San Juan Mountains over millennia carried gravel and sand into shallow lakes in the San Luis Valley. During drought periods, these lakes dried, releasing the sand particles to the action of the wind. Strong prevailing southwesterly winds carry the tiny grains toward the Sangre de Cristos, piling them up against the foothills. The resulting dunes are the tallest in North America, covering more than 30 square miles. Adults hike across them and marvel at their beauty; children run and slide down their steep faces, enjoying a playground of fairy-tale proportions. – Source: National Geographic.
Time to play!
Being late April, the temperature was neither too not nor too cold (unlike our previous visits) and so it was ideal weather for taking a short hike into the dunes. However, with dark clouds looming overhead and storms in the forecast, we figured we’d stay safe and not wander too far from the coach. With the park brochure in hand from the ranger’s station, we skipped the Visitor’s Center and found parking for Rocky and Juice in the RV section of the main parking lot, right beside the dunes. The marked RV spaces aren’t designed for vehicles of our combined length (50-55 feet) so we had to park on a bit of an angle, thus taking up 2 RV spaces – but luckily it wasn’t crowded that day!
As excited as two kids going out to play in a big sand box, we kicked off our shoes and walked across Medano Creek – it had just started to flow and really wasn’t much more than a trickle, chilly from the snowmelt – and up and into the dunes. Marc ran up the first dune (showoff) while I wandered up in a more relaxed fashion and we played around like 2 kids in a sand box, running, jumping, posing for photos and generally being silly buggers – there is something about playing in sand that really does make you feel like a kid again!
Because of the elevation, weather can change quickly in the Great Sand Dunes – we’d been told that storms and cold temps can occur at any time of year and lightning strikes can be fatal. We were only out on the dunes for about an hour when we noticed some ominous dark clouds rolling in fairly quickly. We made our way back to the coach and arrived just in time, as the rain started to fall as soon as we stepped inside.
After a relaxing lunch, we hit the road again – headed to Colorado Springs and more photo ops at the Garden of the Gods!