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two girls in alamosa sand dune with sand boards

Dune Day Afternoon

Great Sand Dunes National Park is open all year! I repeat, all year! From a distance the Dunes look two dimensional, almost fake and out of place, against the backdrop of snowcapped mountains in the winter. January, deep Winter, as good as a time as any to take my adventurous pal Elizabeth on her first journey to, and up the Great Sand Dunes! There are no excuses for not taking a quick day trip from Alamosa out to the dunes. In 45 minutes, you can be out of your vehicle and in the visitor's Center (9-4:30 daily except Federal holidays) or parked at the main parking lot for hiking the dunes.

The Dunes are spectacular in the winter. January is the same month that Zebulon Pike (yep, the Pike's Peak guy) and his expedition came over Medano Pass (also part of the park) with orders from President Thomas Jefferson to survey and figure out the fringes of exactly what the heck we had recently purchased from France in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase was not your normal real estate buy, as it involved strange political tensions between the newly born Unites States and the power player countries of Britain, France, and Spain = Mexico at the time. Read excerpts from his journals, and he and his men were fascinated by the sea of sand and the valley that lay before them! His words can be found at various road side stops on the way to the dunes or in the Visitors Center.

This kind of stuff goes through my head when I go out to the Dunes. We stopped at the Visitor's Center with all of four vehicles in the P-lot, one of which was a van from Colorado College in Colorado Springs. The students sat on the sunny benches and were chowing their bag lunches. Not sure what class they were, but could have been any of the major sciences or history. Elizabeth, being a bit of a rock nut, migrated to the geology displays. I went to the history section and was viewing the wooly mammoth bones that were found near the dunes.

These larger than elephant size beasts were hunted by native peoples back in the day, as in thousands of years ago before the Ice Age changed the climate and the vegetation. Plus, the valley floor, being a desert by definition with only about 10 inches of annual average of precipitation, relies on being 'watered' by the nearby mountains that receive over 40 inches annually just a few miles away and a few thousand feet higher in elevation! Remarkable how mountains squeeze the atmosphere and ring out the moisture flowing overhead during storm fronts in the winter, mostly in the form of snow that stays in cold storage until spring.

Six cars were in the dune hiking P-lot and Elizabeth remarked at how tiny people appeared who were already up high on the dunes. We sorted out our minimal gear quickly as the temperature was in the 20s and there was no wind. Makes for a magical day if the sun is out as it does not really feel cold because of the dry mountain air. However, take more clothing than what you think you need as wind can always be blowing as you climb. We hiked the 300 yards across the Medano Creek bed, covered in several inches of snow, unlike the south facing parts of the dunes, that with the sun angle hitting them directly, had baked off most of the recent snows. The dune surfaces are unique, as the melting snow makes for one walking surface, and where snow is mixed with sand and whirled together by the wind makes for another type of surface. There are also places where our feet posthole many inches deep into a sort of quicksand. Other footprints from previous hikers are frozen like plaster casts of Abominable snowman tracks. They are the size of the hiker's foot and may be four to five inches higher than the sand, frozen in place! There is loose sand, and also solid sand, as firm as a sidewalk, on the windblown ridges. The sun was out and the dune surfaces that were directly facing the sun were steaming, causing ghostly waves of fog to crawl upward across the sand. Eerie, yet beautiful.


Long distance views provide artistic landscape visuals of the whole valley. But, at your feet on the surface of the dunes are amazing sand paintings. As if painted by the best Native American artists, these forms and figures of different colored sands, mixed with varying sizes of sand grains, playing with snow and moisture and moved around on windy days, create amazing patterns. Pictures do not really do them justice. Come out and see for yourself!

Elizabeth was in to side trips, going over and peering into the deep sand pits sculpted by the ever-changing dunes, dropping into several, checking out the snow conditions on the shadowed north sides, traversing back and forth across the dunes, enjoying each step. At length, we were standing on top of High Dune with the views of the entire dune field. We were in a donut hole of sunshine as most of the rest of the valley was in light gray clouds. The local peaks of the Sangre de Cristos were darting in and out of the clouds and we had occasional views of the summits, but never for long. Down we went upon what Elizabeth considered the surface of the moon. We made big tracks in the 'lunar dirt' on our way down the steep slopes, feeling light as we worked with gravity. In a much shorter time than the climb, we were down on the lower almost flat dunes, in a field where specialized clumps of grasses reside as well as multicolored rocks, none bigger than a fist and most about coin sized. Heaven for Elizabeth!

She picked many of them up and examined them closely, from color and texture to wondering what minerals made up each rock. She grew up wandering beaches on the East Coast and Florida so she enjoys looking at everything inhabiting the sand. We both had a great day at the Great Sand Dunes. Go! Soon! Next up - preview of the Rio Frio - my third annual 5k on the Rio Grande...

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