The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve conserves the tallest sand dunes in North America, rising over 750′. Winds bringing exposed sand from receding lakes from the west deposited eroded sediment over a geologic time period of tens of thousands of years, forming 30 square miles of enormous sand dunes, estimated to contain over five billion cubic meters of sand.
|Trip Length||Day Trip|
|Activities||Overlanding, Hiking, Off-Trail|
|Transport||3.75 Hours by Car from Denver|
|Conditions||Sunny, Windy, Hot – Elevation 8,200′ – 8,700′|
|Doggo||On-Leash Requirement, Partly Off-Leash for Safety|
|Gear||Basic Hiking Kit, 4WD Vehicle|
Since the Mud Doggo and I were already in southern Colorado, I figured we could take a more scenic route and hit the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve on our way up to the mountain resorts west of Denver. I spotted a jeep trail on the map, which is exactly what I bought the cheapest 4WD vehicle for and so decided to split the day overlanding and hiking around the Great Sand Dunes. On our way out of the area, a sign for Zapata Falls caught my interest and turned out to be an exhausting but well worthy addition to our adventures in Southern Colorado.
We left Colorado City about when I intended, although I made a point to stop by The Lodge to thank the staff for their hospitality throughout my extended weekend. There weren’t any real weekday breakfast options so I hit the road early and picked up some breakfast tacos at a truck stop on I-25. The drive west across southern Colorado left quite an impression on me – rolling across the high plains in the Upper Sonoran Life Zone of Huerfano County toward the Sangre de Cristo mountain range – that explorers and settlers once walked across this country seeing this continuous and imposing mountain range before them and deciding that they would find a way through with wheels made of wood and barrels of salt-packed meat. It made me chuckle a little about the strip of beef jerky that was sitting in my console.
We stopped briefly at the visitor center for a map and I had wanted to ask some questions about the park, but it was woefully understaffed. So I decided to check out the Medano Pass Primitive Road (Old Jeep Trail on some maps). I wasn’t too concerned about the sand pits, despite not having serious off-road rescue tools that you’d normally want to have – a good shovel, a solid plate big enough to steady a jack stand on sand, a tow rope, or some sort of traction board, etc. – but I looked around and there was plenty of dead vegetation, I do have a folding trench tool in the trunk, and in a pinch, I was willing to sacrifice the pressboard trunk floor alongside one of the floor mats. More importantly, I was willing to turn around whenever I saw an obstacle I didn’t feel that the Mud Wagon was fully capable of crossing. I did have some concerns about some of the stream fords, but we would have to make the call when we got there as the flow varies from day to day.
Truthfully, we didn’t get too far along on the primitive road that heads up into the mountains and through a pass to the valley on the other side. The park service had shut down the road around mile 3 due to erosion damage they were in the middle of repairing when we rolled up on the Castle Creek picnic area. By then the Mud Wagon had already had the opportunity to roll up and down some gnarly rock faces, sand pits, mud pits, and some smaller water crossings, so I felt like we had a full experience. I did end up having to make some minor repairs, but we not only got our money’s worth out of Emma’s (the Mud Wagon) 8 inches of ground clearance – we were still good to go to drive another couple thousand miles in the next week. While the park service said the road would be reopened later in the day, the Mud Doggo and I decided that we needed to move on to the hiking or doggo-involved portion of the trip.
The dunes are pretty much what you’d imagine – giant piles of sand. I had designs on bagging the peak of the high dune, but frankly it looked a little crowded as the two dozen or so people out on the sands were mostly headed for it. There were two other lesser dunes that were perhaps only 50 feet shorter so I decided that we’d go after that one instead. I did mess up a little for this short excursion. I calculated that our hike would only be about four miles, which was true, but I only had two liters of water and a liter of lemonade for a total of really not enough fluids. It was another hot, 90+ degree day and there is naturally no cover whatsoever on a sand dune.
In the spring and summer, visitors have to cross the Medano creek, which is no more than a few inches deep in the deepest parts across a wide sand bed. Crossing it was pretty cool and the Mud Doggo seemed to like the taste of the clear mountain runoff water. Thanks to the partly cloudy day, the temperature of the sand didn’t rise too high, but the overall heat was punishing. Between trudging through sand, the high air temperature, the sun, and the incline getting up the numerous dunes to challenge the high dune, my heart rate was pushing zone 4 pretty much the whole time. I didn’t have the exercise capacity, the fluids, or even the time to climb atop the high dune – but I got a bit of summit fever. You can see the top so clearly without any rocks or vegetation in the way and I knew it was only a few hundred feet above me for the last and most difficult part of the hike. Oh! I should also mention there were some German 20-somethings that were using snowboards to do a little sand boarding. The Mud Doggo thought it was particularly cool so I let her off leash to chase some of them down the slope. I left her off-leash coming down the dune because I wasn’t so sure that I would keep my footing the whole way down. The sand presents almost at random firm surfaces and unstable footing.
When we returned to the car from the sand dunes, Maggie did take some water from Medano creek before I discouraged her from drinking too much. I ended up back at the car with no water remaining and only a little lemonade. I poured out some ice melted cooler water for Maggie to drink – as I had forgotten to stick to my plan to buy some water on my way to the park earlier in the day. The new plan was to hit a truck stop to resupply when we left the park in the early afternoon – but as luck would have it, I spotted a sign from the road advertising Zapata Falls. A twenty minute drive up the side of a mountain and another mile hike on a rocky mountain trail later, we were there. I filtered a couple liters out of the stream and then we waded into the canyon to see Zapata Falls. Highly recommend. Shoes will get wet, but that’s ok.
The rest of our day was spent driving up to Silverthorne through the high alluvial plains of the San Luis valley. That is to say, after a quick stop in the nearest town to give the Mud Wagon a coin-operated bath. Eventually we were back up in the mountains and there were plenty of places to check out along the way but we passed most of them up. We were booked to have a clean bed and a hot shower for the evening and I was rather eager to get there after four nights of wet towelette baths. I had the good fortune of hearing that a good friend of mine happened to be in Colorado at the same time I was. Also, I had to get back to work and the Wi-Fi awaited.