Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

 Hiking the Sangre de Cristos on the Preserve side of Great Sand Dunes.  Photo by Ben Travis

Hiking the Sangre de Cristos on the Preserve side of Great Sand Dunes. Photo by Ben Travis

Where would you guess the tallest sand dunes in North America are located? Maybe one of the major southwestern deserts or somewhere in Mexico. But sometimes geology can challenge your preconceived notions. I recently visited the 750-foot dunes in one of the newest national parks, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado.

 Illustration by Steve Stankiewicz, from 5280 Magazine’s “The Insider’s Guide to Great Sand Dunes National Park”

Illustration by Steve Stankiewicz, from 5280 Magazine’s “The Insider’s Guide to Great Sand Dunes National Park”

Just a four-hour drive from where I live, Great Sand Dunes (GSD) is a visual puzzle. It looks as if someone has scooped up part of the Sahara and dumped it at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Many people are not even aware of its existence. The dunes are in a valley sandwiched between the Sangre de Cristo range and the San Juan range. Having moved from the east coast, visiting southern Colorado is also an exercise in scale. The whole of my home state of Connecticut could fit inside the San Luis Valley.

Over time, sediment from the mountains landed or washed down into the San Luis Valley. The sediment was formed into sand dunes by winds blowing from two different directions. It also challenged my expectations to learn that thus far, the balance of environmental factors has kept them the same. The dunes are neither growing nor shrinking.

One half of the park is the preserve, where you can hike the forested Sangre de Cristos. It feels a lot more like other National Parks in the region or hiking anywhere in the Rockies. But turn left instead of right, and you are in the other half of the park: the dune field.

 The dunes are continually changing and look different in every light.  Photo by Ben Travis

The dunes are continually changing and look different in every light. Photo by Ben Travis

 Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.  Photo by Ben Travis

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Photo by Ben Travis

Scampering up small ridges and sledding down them will bring you a sense of youthful exuberance. However, here lies another conundrum of Great Sand Dunes: sand dune hiking is so much more tiring than the steepest hiking I’ve ever done on solid ground. I couldn’t help but dwell on the “one step forward, half a step back” phenomenon of continual sinking. Luckily, my reward was a beautiful, open view of the dunes at sunset with starkly shadowed faces. Also, the ability to run, tumble, scoot, or sled back down the dune for the descent.

There are some mammals, small lizards, and birds that live in or migrate through the Park and Preserve. But as with most wildlife sightings, it is completely dependent on time of year and luck.

Just outside of the park is another bit of San Luis mystery. If you drive over to Zapata Falls, you will find an extremely bumpy 1.5 mile unpaved hill. If you choose to drive up this gravel road, you will begin to regret it about half an hour in, for the sake of your car’s axles. But if you make it to the top, there is a nice vista of the dunes. Continue on foot down a short 0.5 mile walk and you will end up at a tranquil creek. However, things are once again not as they seem. Step right into the creek and follow it up a ways, stepping carefully on slippery rocks and keeping your hands free. Even in waterproof boots, this is a lot easier outside of the summer months, when the creek is lower. Continue fording into a dark crevasse in the rock and you will be rewarded by standing right next to a hidden, rushing 25-foot waterfall.

During my time in the wondrous Great Sand Dunes and San Luis Valley, I was reminded that the clearest insights and sweetest rewards follow a bit of confusion and challenge. It also made me think about seeking out hidden gems when traveling, not just the obvious attractions or most heavily-trafficked areas.