Sand and snow are the themes of our next two National Parks. No, I’m not talking about children born out-of-wedlock in Westeros. After spending a warm long weekend in Cortez, CO and Mesa Verde, the next stop on our eastern journey was Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Wolf Creek Pass
The Great Sand Dunes are located in southern Colorado about smack-dab in the middle of the state. To reach them, we must cross the Great Divide. We get a tad nervous before big elevation climb and descent days. If you’ve been following our travels, you know why.
Well, Stan the Tan Van crawled up that mountain like a champ and the views were divine. Steep mountain sides covered in the season’s last golden Aspen leaves. A thin carpet of snow cloaking the highest peaks. And wispy clouds hanging just above the land. The journey back down was less picture perfect. Applying any pressure to the brakes resulted a shaking and shimmying of Stan. We couldn’t have possibly burned through yet another set of brakes, but they certainly weren’t working at peak effectiveness. There were some seriously white knuckles by the time we rolled down the last large slope.
It turns out that there’s a country song all about the nerve rattling Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado. While the fellows in the song are driving the opposite direction, our favorite section of lyrics perfectly sums up how we felt coming down that pass:
“Earl, I’m not the type to complain; but the time has come for me to explain that if you don’t apply some brake real soon, they’re gonna have to pick us up with a stick and a spoon.”
Great Sand Dunes National Park
After spending the night on BLM land about 10 miles from the park, we set out to see what all this sand was about. Great Sand Dunes is one of those places that’s just so oddly strange, you hardly believe it’s real. Enormous piles of sand that look like the barren desert sit grandly beneath the often snow-covered Sangre De Cristo mountains. Shallow clear creeks flow on either side of the dunes while deer and elk graze in the surrounding grasslands.
The park is home to the tallest dunes in north America at over 750 feet. One of the must-do’s is hiking to the top of one of the largest dunes. The hike begins by crossing the frigid Medano Creek. There aren’t any trails—just you and more sand than you can imagine. Some people hike up so they can sled or board down. And repeat. Honestly, one trek up was enough for us. We even saw one man crawling to the top, after which he proclaimed, “Well, this hike has stolen my dignity. This is the hardest hike I’ve done.” I assured him that if crawling to the top of a hike meant you had no dignity, then mine was long gone as well.
The dunes are created by wind and water. A large lake used to cover the area. When it dried up, wind carried sand across the land (as it still does today). Opposing winds from over the mountains push the sand back on itself to form dunes. Creeks continue to carry new (or recycled) sand particles out of the mountains and down into the valley below. Then the wind works its magic and more dunes are born.
One of most intriguing features in the park are surge flows in the creeks around the dune field. To us non-scientist folk, surge flows seem like backwards waves. What happens is that small sand dams form on the creek bed, gather water, then break, creating a wave that surges forward. This happens about every 20 seconds and is really fun to walk through.
A Snowy Afternoon and a Taste of the Rockies
Our next stop is Denver to visit friends who suggest we go to Rocky Mountain National Park for a day. We’ve never been there so this sounds like a perfect way to spend our visit and see the area. Trail Ridge Road that connects the east and west sections of the park is closed for the season so we opt for a short but refreshing hike on the east side. A soft snow blankets the ground in crisp white powder. Streams and falls are partially frozen making them look like giant dripping candle wax. A few flurries bluster around in the air and sparkle in the sunlight. We even saw a couple backpackers heading out on an overnight trip. It’s that lovely time of year where there’s enough snow to make everything look wintery and pure, but not enough to be a nuisance yet.
A Change of Plans – Winter is Coming
Our plan was to spend a week near Rocky Mountain National Park after leaving Denver. Well, nature had other plans for us. The snow line has been creeping down the mountains. A month ago, we encountered our first snow storm of the trip, outside of Capitol Reef. We were camped on a high windy rock surrounded by even higher mountains. Luckily the storm traveled around us, but it deposited a significant blanket of white in the nearby hills and mountain tops. This was our first sign that winter is coming. It’s also probably time to confess that we’re currently binge re-watching Game of Thrones.😉
Since then we’ve kept a close eye on the weather forecast. So far, we haven’t met any snow storms head-on, but we know we’re pushing our luck this time of year. Snow slinks in and out of the forecast daily. The cold factor is settling in too. Lows consistently in the 20’s and highs in the 30’s. All of our cooking occurs outside and with the dropping temperatures we start to imagine what it would be like to lose a finger to frostbite. With a fair amount of disappointment, we concede that it’s time to leave the mountains while all our digits are still intact.
We feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of outdoor adventures in Colorado. It’ll be one of our first destinations next summer and we hope to spend at least a month there.
Do you have any Colorado recommendations for us? Favorite outdoor activities, areas to explore, places to stay, or eat?