Of Sand and Snow: Great Sand Dunes National Park 

When we researched national parks to include on our Trekking the Planet NPS journey, we were surprised to discover sand dunes in the middle of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Great Sand Dunes not only lies between the Rocky’s San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains, but also contains the highest dune in North America, Star Dune (at 755 feet). The park lies at an elevation of 8,000 feet, so we were concerned that visiting in late March could be tricky. But little did we know that we would not only be seeing sand dunes, but experiencing snow.

Great Sand Dunes was originally created as a national monument in 1932. Unlike most national parks in the lower 48 U. S. States, Great Sand Dunes was designed as a national park and a preserve in 2004. The preserve portion of the park allows hunting, for instance, but with many regulations that must be followed. In 2016, Great Sand Dunes had about 388,000 visitors, ranking it 41st in park visitation.

Approaching Great Sand Dunes National Park

The park doesn’t have a campground, so our plan was to spend some time in its backcountry by obtaining a free permit. The forecast called for rain and the possibility of snow. So we were surprised when we arrived at the Visitor Center to get one of the last backpacking permits remaining for the day. The available campsite required a one way hike of 3.7 miles and an elevation gain of several hundred feet in the threatening conditions. We hurriedly packed up and made our way along the edge of the sand dunes.

How did dunes form in such a place? Sediments from both the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains were washed into the San Luis Valley between them. Strong prevailing winds from the southwest moved the sand against the Sangre de Cristos, resulting in today’s dunes. One unique thing about Great Sand Dunes National Park is that it has a creek running at the base of its dunes. We could see Medano Creek as we hiked and even had to cross one of its tributaries on a log several feet above the stream.

Medano Creek at the foot of the dunes

Even though we had a trail map from the ranger, we ended up getting lost and couldn’t find the turnout to the path taking us the final 3/4 of a mile to our camp. We spent about 15 minutes searching and finally came upon another hiker who pointed us in the right direction. The weather was getting worse and it began to sleet. We quickly covered the last part of the trail and were surprised to discover that there was a group of three guys at our designated site. They too had gotten lost finding their camp a little further away than ours and had decided to stop for the night. We quickly found a place close to them to pitch our tent as it began to snow. Soon we had dinner cooked and ate it in our tent as the wind blew fiercely around us. It was a chilly night (in the high 20s F) but we were warm and comfortable as the storm raged.

Sandy inside the tent as night falls

The next morning we woke up to find that several inches of snow had fallen. It was windy and cold. We made some hot coffee just outside our tent and ate breakfast. It still looked threatening, so we decided to pack up and make our way back to the car.  The snow was powdery and easy to walk in, so we made good time. As we hiked, we could see that some snow had fallen on the dunes themselves. Eventually we left the snow as the elevation decreased, and we reached our car at the trailhead.

Our campsite the next morning
Darren making coffee just outside our tent
Snow on the dunes as we hike back

With our overnight adventure complete, we decided to leave Colorado and head into New Mexico to hopefully experience some better weather. We visited two national monuments in that state: Bandelier and White Sands. Bandelier is an archeological treasure preserving over 3,000 sites. Of special interest are two Puebloan villages: Tyuonyi and Tsankawi. We walked through both and saw ruins from the mid 1200s to 1500s, when their people moved to homes along the Rio Grande River instead. We saw ground level sites, as well as petroglyphs and cliff dwellings, only accessible by ladders.

Darren peering in cliff dwellings at Tyuonyi
Tyuonyi ruins

We especially enjoyed our early morning hike at Tsankawi where we climbed a ladder to the mesa top site, walked along ancient footpaths and saw pieces of pottery on the ground around us.

Pottery pieces at Tsankawi
Sandy walking along Tsankawi footpath

We next drove to White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico. Here, we took a hike along the white dunes in the late afternoon. We were surprised to discover that we did not sink in the sand as we walked. This was because the dunes are compromised of gypsum, with water just inches below the surface, holding the sand together. It was easy to keep walking over dune after dune, and even though we kept track of our bearings, it was a little tricky to find our way back to the car.

White Sands National Monument

We will continue our travels in New Mexico below ground as we head to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. 

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