There was a line of cars the entrance where admission fees are paid (our senior pass gets us in for free), and initially I was surprised at how many visitors there were. Then we realized it is Labor Day weekend and this is a great place for families and serious hikers as well.
Our first stop, as always, was the Visitor Center. A 20-minute video is shown on the half hour and there are exhibits about the wild natural system in the San Luis Valley of high mountain peaks, streams, forceful winds, and, of course, the billions grains of sand.
The Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains (named by a Spanish priest in the 1600s) form a barrier that traps the sand here thereby creating these massive sand dunes. Here is a view of the sand dunes from the Visitor Center.
Nomadic people were here in the San Luis Valley 11,000 years ago. Groups of native people inhabited or visited the region for thousands of years. Spanish explorers entered the valley about 1600. Settlers, homesteaders, ranchers and farmers followed in the 1800s. In the 1920s, the sand dunes had become a tourist attraction. The local community pursued national monument status (that was granted in 1932). In 2000, the national monument was expanded through the acquisition of surrounding lands to preserve the delicate balance of nature that sustains the massive sand dune fields. At this point, it was designated a National Park and Preserve. I am always so thankful for those before us that had the foresight to preserve so many amazing natural wonders in this country.
We started exploring the area by following the .5 mile Sand Sheet Loop Trail that starts and ends at the Visitor Center. It provided us with a quick introduction of the Great Sand Dunes landscape. There are interpretive signs along the way about flora and fauna of the area. Here are the views of the dunes (west) and the Sangre De Cristo Mountains (east) from the trail.
Below is the trail, my hiking companions, and a view of the visitor center from the trail.
Next we drove the short distance to the Dunes Parking Lot. Medano Creek and the Dunes are accessible from this point. The parking lot was packed and we ended up having to park along the side of the road (as did many other visitors). We were so happy that dogs (leashed) are welcomed on the dunes here, and there were many, many dog visitors!
Medano Creek normally flows from April through May with peak flow in late May. The creek's flow forecast can be found at the park's website. When we visited in was 1/4 to 1/2", but it was still lovely!
The Great Sand Dunes are the tallest in North America and comprise only 11% of a 330-square mile deposit of sand. The sand is deep and really quite difficult to walk through for any distance. Sand surface temperatures can reach 150 degrees in mid-day so caution is required for visitors (including dogs!) Initially we had intentions of hiking the 2.5 miles to High Dune but realized that it was not a realistic goal! We did hike well into the dunes, however, to observe the many people (both kids and adults) sledding on the dunes. Those little dots on the photos are people!
It's difficult to explain the sheer size of the sand dunes. They are huge!
The Pinon Flats Campground is located east of the sand dunes and contains 88 sites for tents or RVs (although no RV hookups). Half of them are available for on-line reservations at www.reservation.gov.
Paved roads end at Pinon Flats, but those with high-clearance 4WD vehicles can proceed further north on primitive roads. There are several backcountry sites in the Dunes Wilderness and drive-in camping available at 18 forested sites along Medano Pass Primitive Road.
Numerous hiking trails can be found to lakes (Medano and Sand Creek Lakes), the forested canyons of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the dune field.
Below are additional views of the sand dunes and San Luis Valley along CO Rte 150 as we drove south to exit the park. What a beautiful area.
Admission to the park is $3/person for 7 days or $15 for a Great Sand Dunes Annual Family Pass. We were so glad we had the opportunity to visit this National Park as it has been on our list since the beginning of our travels. Visit their website for additional information about the park.