Great Sand Dunes National Park was a site listed in my Reader’s Digest 120 Scenic Drives Book that I used to make my drive around the USA four years ago. Unfortunately, I had to skip this National Park due to required maintenance on VANilla. I was very excited that I finally got to visit the park with David, Heather and Jaz this past weekend.
We made the estimated 4 hour drive in about 6 hours on Friday evening. Rush hour traffic held us up for about an hour, and we had to stop for gas and dinner. Without much light on the road it was difficult to see the turn for the Zapata Falls Campground. After one U-turn, we ventured up the 3 mile dirt road and found one of the last campsites around 10pm. None of us felt like setting up our tents, so the girls slept in the car while David and slept in sleeping bags under the stars. The clear night provided an amazing view of the Milky Way.
The next morning David and I awoke early and drove 24 miles to Mosca Pit-Stop for gas. For anyone who travels to this area, I recommend filling up at the last gas station passed on the way because the area near the park is desolate. Upon return to the campsite, we stopped to admire a small herd of elk along the roadside.
From the parking area by the campground, there is a short trail to Zapata Falls. The trail requires a creek crossing and a little rock scaling, but the jaunt isn’t that hard and the 25 foot falls that careens down the crevasse is certainly worth the visit! What an enjoyable first stop of the day!
Our next stop was deep in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and only accessible by small, high clearance four-wheel drive vehicles. Spots like these is why David keeps his truck around. We passed “The Point of No Return” and followed Medano Pass Primitive Road for 11 miles to Medano Pass. The 11 mile drive through deep sand, a shallow creek (which is deep in the spring and many times non-existent this time of year), and on a rocky road took about 1.5 hours.
Just before the trail to Medano Lake, we found a campsite. There are several campsites along the road which are free of charge and include a bear box for food. Most of the campsites were taken up by hunters, some who erected canvas tents and a small corral for their mules. Rifle season for deer and elk had just begun.
While I would have preferred to have hiked beneath the aspens adorned in golden leaves without gunshots in the distance, the leaf littered trail was still beautiful. We began the hike at 9,600 feet and gained about 1,900 feet over 3 to 4 miles in order to reach Medano Lake. Most of the first two miles followed a relatively easy grade which turned into a steep ascent toward the end. The calm afternoon offered a tranquil lake setting. For anyone with a small, four-wheel drive vehicle who enjoys fall colors, this is the place to visit in late September!
We arrived back at camp after our 7-8 mile hike just before sunset to set up our tents. The nice part about “car camping” is that dinner of ribs, veggie dogs, baked beans, and mashed potatoes is far more gourmet than the typical dehydrated meals we use for backpacking. We topped off our tasty meal with S’mores!
The quiet night turned violently windy around 11:15 am. We could hear the leaves shimmering in the distance a few seconds before the wind whipped through our camp. The fly on our tent shook while the straps held down by our stakes snapped back and forth. David did an excellent job staking the tent down in the hard ground because the corners remained secure. Our fly and mesh tent, however, didn’t keep dirt from raining on us! The sleeping bag was covered in a layer of fine grit! After 3 hours of crazy wind, we could scoop up dirt from the middle of the tent the next morning. But of course, the sand dunes were created by predominant winds and storm winds flowing against each other, so I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised.
After breakfast, we returned along the primitive road all the way back to Zapata Falls Campground to secure a site for our final night. This was certainly more driving that needed to take place if we were just visiting the park to slide down the dunes, but the park is very diverse with lots of options. Also, David had to leave us this evening, and I didn’t feel like I had the skills to take over the four-wheel driving. Zapata Falls Campground, though not as private as a camp site in the woods, is quite a good deal despite no water nearby. It’s only $11 a night and half price with a National Parks Card.
After securing our campsite, we stopped just outside the park at the Oasis to rent sandboards and sleds. The sandboards and sleds are $21 per person (more on this later). We returned to the park to attack the dunes. Some of the dunes are over 700 feet high. We inquired where to go with the ranger at the entrance station and he said with our truck, we should go back to Medano Pass Road to Castle Creek because a 300 foot dune stands just feet from the parking lot. It only required us to climb up. I can’t believe how long it takes to climb up 300 feet in sand. It was hard!
David, Heather and Jaz all rented sandboards which are wood with foot straps similar to a snowboard. The sandboard was smaller and narrower than a snowboard or the sled that I rented. The sandboard required going barefoot or in socks. On the sled, shoes were optional, but given I had to brake with my feet, I elected to wear shoes. All the boards we rented needed wax. My first recommendation is to climb the dunes without shoes no matter what…much easier! Second, hold the top of the board and shove the bottom of the board in the sand to use it as a post while climbing up…this was a big help.
After probably 40 minutes of climbing beneath a black sky, we finally reached the top for lovely views. The attempts at boarding and sledding down the dune was simply hysterical. I think we had more fun laughing at each other than actually sliding down. Being rookies, we made a variety of mistakes. First, we needed more wax on the boards. David, Jaz, and Heather had a hard time getting them to slide. Second, we probably should have all rented sleds. They go faster and are more fun. Third, we probably should have only rented two sleds and taken turns as after our one attempt, we were exhausted. No one wanted to climb up the dune again! Fourth, in order to get two runs in, we should have gone in the late morning, eaten a packed lunch, and then made another run as the afternoon was nice and cool. Regardless, we had a fun and finished just before sprinkles fell.
We relaxed at the campground in the late afternoon. Jaz built a fire. Heather played the guitar. David and I read. Soon dinner time came around and we made Frito Pie and S’mores! Time to work out again.
The wind overnight was relentless again. It continued through the morning. The girls and I planned to go to the northwest portion of the park to look for elk in the grasslands, but we didn’t realize we’d end up on another unpaved road for several miles. After seeing a Buddhist Retreat Center along the way which was interesting enough, we pulled the plug on driving further and headed home. ETB