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Summer Travel: Small Town // Big City

Published on: June 13th, 2014

{ No.1-Small Town: Great Sand Dunes } Elizabeth Escobar

When Zebulon Pike first came across the Great Sand Dunes, it was by accident. He was on his way to find the Arkansas River but instead ended up crossing over “sandy hills at the foot of white mountains.” A mix up that could happen to anyone.W

Some 200 years later, the route to the dunes is more deliberate—from the Front Range it’s a clear shot south down I-25, then west on US-160. Once you clear bustling cities (like, you know, Pueblo), the Sangre de Cristos rise into view with those sandy hills coming into focus at their base. The term “hills” was used loosely by Mr. Pike though, because when you’re up there pulling your feet through heavy sand with a plastic sled strapped to your back, it feels much more like scaling Mt. Everest than any knoll.

You’ll want your camping gear since camping is almost your only—certainly the best—option out in this remote part of the San Luis Valley, unless you come with an RV in tow.

Roughing it is how you get the full experience here—unobstructed star gazing, top-notch views of the sunrise hitting the dunes, and the occasional wolf spider in your tent (beware). If, for some reason all six campgrounds are full and you forgot your RV at home, don’t despair; the Great Sand Dunes Lodge is a ranch-style motel located at the entrance to the park in Mosca. Rooms are simple, but each comes with a private porch complete with wooden chairs for rocking—so pack the harmonica.

That sled you’ll be carrying? It’s because there’s nearly a requirement that you sail down the mountains of sand at least once. Wear sunglasses (sand will fly up), and clothes that you don’t mind sacrificing to dirt, and devote part of the day to climbing up and sliding down the sandy monstrosities. Between the warm wind’s push and the sand giving way, you’ll be convinced that sand luging should be an Olympic event.

Obligatory sledding aside, there are 30 square miles of dunefields for you to hike through however you like. There aren’t any trails carved out, so frolic at your leisure, but do keep in mind that the sand heats up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, so venturing out in early morning or evening is your best bet.

But when it is high noon and the sand is boiling, there are other things to explore here, too.

The Zapata Falls hike is a short treat located off of Highway 150, where water flows into a narrow crevasse and drops down a 25-foot waterfall. Of all places, the parking lot for Zapata offers one of the most camera-worthy views of the Great Sand Dunes. Assuming you can pull yourself away from the sight, you’re only a half mile of wading through water away from reaching the cool mist that radiates off of the falls. On days above 80 degrees (most days), this pseudo shower feels like you’ve stumbled into heaven. Bask in it awhile before heading back to the heat, or to the alligator farm.

I didn’t mistype; the Colorado Gators Reptile Park is located just ten minutes from the dunes. And while you might not be able to fathom why this a) exists or, b) is something worthy of your time, let me explain. The Young family runs what they call a “sanctuary for unwanted exotic pets,” and aim to educate people about their nonnative (to Colorado) animals. Almost weekly you can catch some afternoon gator wrestling (a genre of fun on par with watching roller derby), and you’re always welcome to pet or hold one of them. If you’re so inclined (I wasn’t), you can also check out Burmese pythons, red tail boas and rattlesnakes. Does it have anything to do with the sand dunes? Not really. It’s just one of those things that you can chalk up to being found only in Colorado.

As far as eating, you should definitely do it. However, options aren’t exactly abounding out here—McDonald’s is a rare sight and fine dining is basically extinct. If you’re camping, it’s much easier to pack in your own food (s’mores) and camp stove. More in the mood to be waited on? Try the San Luis Valley Brewing Company in Alamosa. It’s about a 40 minute drive from the park, but beguiling views of 14,000 foot peaks pass the time quickly, and the oven-baked Colorado Stream Trout (often caught that day) is worth any commute. Both the food and the day are washed down nicely with their Valle Caliente: a light Mexican-style lager infused with green chili.

When you get back to the park you can always go midnight dune sledding (I happen to know that glow-in-the-dark sleds exist), or sit outside talking, rocking, even journaling like good old Zebulon about your trip to the sandy hills. Life out here is slow, even if not always easy, so it’s best to do as the locals do and sit back.

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