Part one; Dunes.
There is nowhere in the world like this place.
Huge cascading dunes rise 750 feet from the valley floor, framed by rolling greenery, mountain streams and all set against the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies.
You could be forgiven for thinking that you had stepped through a momentary wormhole, transporting you from Southern Colorado and dropping you in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
You must wade through the stream of snowmelt runoff to enter the dunes, which quickly changes the Saharan Desert feeling into one of a British tidal seaside resort. Soon, however, my bare feet hit the warm, dry sand again, and I am back to being awestruck by the diversity of the landscape. Without craning my head I can see mountains, snow, green valleys and barren plains.
We begin the hike up to the top of the highest dune, for the full panorama and effect of our surroundings. It it not until you are in front of it, that you realise the scale. The starting point of the dunes lies at around 8000ft (2500m) above sea level, the altitude, coupled with the tiring walking through the soft sand is much more of a challenge than anticipated, and we are gasping for breath by dune one, with a damn long way to still go up! The people in the picture below give a bit of scale:
Before long, we decide to stop pushing and take it a little easier, resting every 100 metres or so. Some of our group take the opportunity to enjoy some of the other opportunities the dunes afford:
It took him about half an hour digging in the sand after this to find his phone again.
Despite arriving relatively early for us (around 9am), the morning (and sand) had really started to heat up, so we decided to pick up the pace to try to reach the highest point before the midday heat. I was still walking barefoot at this stage as my trainers proved useless in the sand. As we reached about 2/3rds of the way up, and walked off a ridge, we rounded onto a southwest facing slope. The sun had obviously been beating down on it since its earliest rays and the difference in temperature between the sand here and on the flatter surfaces had the hound and I skipping across it like a frying pan.
At this point, and with the peak in sight, despite a valiant effort to ‘sock’ the hounds paws to help him keep them from the hot sand, we were forced to retreat. While we could have avoided the slopes that had been in direct sunlight, the sun was bearing down, and it became evident that by the time we would have arrived back towards the bottom, the flatter slopes in the midday sun would have been much too much for Frankie. We made our way back down in a motion that was somewhere between run/roll/slide/tumble. Despite the frustration, it turned out to be a solid decision, as we later learned that in the peak heat, the sand can reach a scorching 66ºC.
While we had to turn back, our travelling companions made the peak and thankfully furnished us with some great shots to peak our jealousy.
While they slogged it on to the summit, we decided to take the newly fixed cruiser for a little spin off the beaten track to find a quiet shady spot for lunch, overlooking the mountains and dunes in all their splendour.
We managed to find a little spot and grab a bite with one of the most spectacular views we have yet to experience on our travels. Afterwards, we took the opportunity to take an exceptionally bracing paddle in the snow melt water, while the dunes towered nearly vertical around us.
We had an incredible time in this unique landscape, and will be returning soon to explore more of the off road trails that surround it. we are hoping to push the cruiser high up a mountain pass behind the dunes and spend the night, overlooking the sand and the stars.
As you leave Great Sand Dunes National Park (or enter depending on your priorities), you have the opportunities to push up a steep and rocky road, to Zapata Falls. The track, while not challenging, is rough and steep, but offers an unrivalled view over the dunes and the plains below:
There is a small parking area at the top, and the beginning of a short trail, leading up to the falls.
At the top, in a rocky gully, lies a torrent of fast flowing and numbingly cold water. Water that you must enter to make it up the whole way to the falls themselves. I traverse a the rocky edge of the gully itself, being incredibly certain not to misstep and deposit my expensive photography gear or myself into the icy waters.
After the traverse, we enter the water, instantly regretting calling the water in the lower valley cold. We walk up the stream, and into the ever narrowing valley (without the hound or the camera) and are met with the unfortunate realisation that we would have to get on hands and knees and scramble if we were to make it far enough to actually see the falls themselves.
Already not being able to feel our feet, I resigned to the fact that I was to be beaten twice in one day by the same landscape. Once as it would have been too hot on the dog’s feet, once as it was much too cold on my own.
It was still an interesting place, and with the addition of gully, mountain and waterfall, it completed the ever growing sense that we had experienced half of the world in one day. We had begun on dusty valley plains, walked on Saharan dunes, lunched on lush green mountainsides, hiked through mountain, river and gorges and all the while the snows atop the mountains themselves had looked over us.
On the walk back down we were treated to final, and perhaps the most awesome of all the views over the valley and dunes.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park, and the San Luis Valley that surrounds is a spectacular and unique part of the world. I cannot wait to explore it more. Stay posted for next time, off road around the dunes and up the mountainside to hopefully finding a place to camp with a view like this, illuminated by the milky way.