The Great Sand Dunes
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By Craig Kimble

Both my wife Sonja and I were ready to go camping this spring after a seemingly long winter. Where to go was the real question. Old man winter still had his hold on the high country and we only had an extended weekend, so traveling a long distance was out of the question. Then it came to us; "The Great Dunes" in southern Colorado would be an awesome place to spend the first of May.

The Great Sand Dunes are found in the San Luis Valley piled at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The dunes cover an area of 30 square miles with a height of 750 feet making them North Americas highest. The National Monument has 88 campsites dispersed on three loops of roadway. We picked out a good camp spot in the first loop with breathtaking views of the dunes to the west and snowcapped mountains to the north. A small stream flowed right on the edge of our camp adding a wonderful background sound to the view of this geologic marvel.

Leveling the camper didn't take long and the rest of our set up was a breeze. As the sun set, deer could be seen grazing the grassy plain that separated us from the dunes. The clouds slowly changed colors, from white to red to gray as the evening became night revealing the twinkling stars and a nearly full moon. Firelight flickered on the faces of my family as this first day of our trip came to a close.

Medano Creek flows along the base of the dunes carrying the snow melt waters of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The creek is known as a "disappearing creek" because it vanishes into the sand to the south. For us though it's a great place to kick off our shoes and have a little fun running through its waters. Molly, our dog, enjoys this the most by running uncontrollably in circles around us. It's also refreshing to cool off after a long climb to the top of the dunes

When climbing the dunes I noted places where the sand appeared to be wet. As it took over an hour to climb to the top of the dunes I had plenty of time to contemplate this fact. The problem is that it didn't make sense for the sand to be wet for any length of time, especially in the heat of the day. On my return down the dunes I stopped at a wet spot to inspect this condition more closely. To my surprise I found about 16 inches of snow pack below a thin layer of sand. The dog reveled in this find by eating copious amounts of this icy discovery. Now when I looked at the wet spots it was plain that they were all located on the leeward side of the dunes.

Atop the dunes the view is exhilarating. Facing west the San Luis Valley lays just beyond the massive dune field with the snow capped San Juan Mountains in the distance. To the south the 14,345 ft peak of Mt. Blanca and its neighbors. The Sangre de Cristo range continues northward until the jagged peaks of the Crestones to the north can be seen.

I have visited the dunes three times now and have seen a number of deer and a single coyote and a few birds but there is one animal that I have not seen. The Kangaroo Rat. The Kangaroo Rat is a little larger than a mouse with long hind legs and a tail that's longer than its body. When traveling the "roo" rat moves fast leaving only hind feet tracks separated by its tail mark. I find these tracks to be fascinating and good subject mater for photographs. If only I could see a rat.

A hike in this high-altitude desert is a must when visiting the dunes. Our hike this trip started at the trailhead near site 62 in the campground. The trail moves north through a mix of Juniper and Pinion pine with the dunes visible in the distance. At the "Point of no Return" we took the little used "Sand Pit" trail that took us on across the grassy plain with prickly pear and sage toward the dunes. At the "Sand Pit" we took "Primitive Road" that parallels the dunes to "Castle Creek" where we had a picnic under giant cottonwoods on the banks of Medano Creek. The slip face of the dunes at our picnic spot was impressive. Our walk back included a portion of the "Sand Ramp" trail that took us through the tall ponderosa pines. This whole hike lies at the point where the mountain and dune ecosystems meet giving the hiker a unique view into both worlds.
Our first camping trip of the year was a wonderful experience. So much so that we have decided to start a May Day tradition of visiting the Colorado beach, "The Great Sand Dunes".