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two girls in alamosa sand dune with sand boards

Beach or Mountain Vacation?

Enjoy both at Great Sand Dunes National Park!

Families are often torn between beach and mountain vacations. Problem solved. The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve provides both from mid-April into June. Because of higher-than-average snowpack and heavy spring rains, this year that time has been extended into July. Imagine my surprise on the Saturday after Memorial weekend and having to park over a 1/4 of a mile from the main parking lot. (In contrast the beautiful sunny December 18th day in 2014; I was car three in the lot that has hundreds of spaces.) Wow! Florida Beach? Southern Cal? Jersey shore? Snow covered Mount Herard to the northeast which provides much of the snowmelt water, assured me otherwise! I filled my day pack with necessary supplies - especially water, as the air temp was only in the low seventies, but between low humidity and a blazing high altitude sun, drinking water is required.

My usual goal of hiking to High Dune and exploring beyond from there was not on the plan for this day. I was here for the purpose of observing people having fun on the beach and playing in the waves, and to wander upstream and learn more about the famous Medano Creek/ Great Sand Dunes wave action! Hundreds of people were on the beach, climbing the dunes, wallowing in the warm water waves, tubing, building sand castles, playing frisbee with each other and their dogs, hanging out under their cabanas and relaxing, and almost everything you can do at a regular beach except for jet skiing and/or sailing! But, all of this without fear of sharks, tsunamis, incoming hurricanes, red tides, rip tides, motorboat wakes, or jellyfish stings!

Medano Creek

I removed my shoes and socks and stepped into the flowing waters of Medano Creek. From experience with other mountain streams and seeing the snowpack so deep and so close, I was expecting cooler water. Not so! Perfect hot tub/shower temperature! That took a few moments of scientific thought. The waves move fairly quickly downstream but the Medano creek bed is nearly 300 yards across and the watery waves move back and forth across most of the bed. The light colored tan sand is darkened by the water and the late May sun is high in the sky and intensely warm. Hmmm, must be all about the sun, the dark colored sand filled waves, the expanse of the creek bed, the shallow depth of the water, and the sum of all these converting sunlight, from 93 million miles away, instantly into heat!

I turned upstream and walked by many people who were having plenty o'fun. One couple was carrying their cat! Better than the cat being in a hot car! Crowds thin out quickly while hiking upstream. I observed and hypothesized on my own about the wave action as the creek bed continued to narrow and the rhythmic well timed waves became deeper and stronger and created strange washboard areas in the creek! As I tried to stand on the creek bottom to stop and take a picture, the next wave of water would quickly erode the sand from underneath my feet making me constantly readjust my stance. So, that's how it works! The water is flowing downstream and is pushing and plowing the wet sand on the bottom versus wave action crashing onto a beach and then receding more gently back into the ocean or lake without the force and ability to move lots of sand continuously for a long distance.

The water began cooling down in the narrower channels upstream but it was not even close to regular mountain stream cold. The fast flowing water picks up lots of sand as it flows downstream and when the stream water disappears completely underground a few miles away in the San Luis Valley beyond the dunes, it leaves the sand which dries out, gets picked up by the wind and blows it back upstream only to be carried downstream once again. I wondered if there is one grain of sand that has made more round trips than all the others and how many 'laps' that one grain of sand has to its credit? And over how many years?

I met a gentleman in the creek who had a cannon barrel for a lens on his camera which led me to deduce, he was serious about photography. Like me, he was walking through the deeper more forceful waves with his dog. I asked him how his dog liked the water. He assured me his playful boxer, who came over to me to say hello, liked it much better in the waves than when they were walking on the hot dunes. He showed me the makeshift booties he had made for his dog's feet from sacrificing the bottom of his long pants and had tied them around the paws with string he kept in his camera case. Ingenious for the situation.

About a mile and half upstream I left the creek and and hiked up the dunes and as he had mentioned, the sand was surprisingly hot. I had to walk rapidly for 30-40 steps, then dig my feet four to five inches deep into the sand to reach a cooler layer. I needed to either put on my shoes or return to the creek. Back to the creek I decided, but, as I approached a cornice overhanging the creek I could not resist. I took off my backpack and did a test jump. My free fall was about eight feet and I decided to go back up again and get a running start across the dunes for a bigger thrill and a longer drop. I did! Had a free fall of maybe fifteen or more vertical feet and landed in the steep sloping sand above the flat creek bed. It is a blind leap and it is important not to over jump the slope as the flat landing would be a less than wonderful, and perhaps injurious, thud. I went back up to retrieve my pack, glowing in the sensation of my one-second flight, and then hiked down the deep slope and into the comfort of the water.

I caught up to the person with the dog, and as we walked and talked, it was discovered that we had grown up 50 miles apart in the midwest. We agreed we did not miss the humidity! He had a hall pass for a few days as his mother-in-law was visiting his pregnant wife (they now live in Fort Collins, CO), so he was on his first trip to the Great Sand Dunes. He was taking pictures for his wife's business website so he was half working and totally enjoying! We parted ways.

Had I come earlier in the day I realized I could have helped kids build a sandcastle and then hiked to snowpack and built a snowman a few hours later! I will put that on the bucket list for next May! As I sat at the edge of the dune field near the parking lot to clean sand out of my toes, I philosophically wondered if I had just had a nice day at the beach in the mountains or a nice day in the mountains at the beach.

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