This is from my first trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park. I have since been back two other times which you can read about, here.
Our weekend started Friday after work when both of us drove south from Denver. The drive is a short four hours! We had planned to camp at Zapata Falls, but the road was terribly washed out from the recent snow melt. It was a blessing in disguise, because we found a wonderful Bureau of Land Management spot at the base of Mount Blanca. It featured a fire ring and a gorgeous view!
We woke up from a chilly night, enjoyed breakfast around our campfire, and decided to attempt the drive up to Zapata Falls. Good thing we did! The road wasn’t as intimidating in the daylight, but the entire four mile drive to the trailhead was very bumpy and rocky. What lay at the end of that bumpy road was worth every questionable turn we made.
Zapata Falls, in the middle of March, was a frozen masterpiece. The half-mile trail and the views surrounding the Sangre de Cristos mountains were covered in a light layer of snow. It made us feel like we were wandering into a true winter wonderlan, but none of this magical hike compared to the sheer beauty of the falls themselves.
The falls are hidden inside of a small slot canyon. Luckily, in the winter, you don't have to wade through water to see them. Instead, you have to carefully walk across and climb up the ice to see its shimmering sculptures.
We had the falls all to ourselves for about 30-minutes, so we took our time taking pictures and peering at the gushing water that could be see through holes in the ice. When we were done, other groups started to show up, and we decided it was the perfect time to head to the Great Dunes!
Our first stop inside the park was the visitor’s center to try to obtain backcountry camping passes. Sadly, since we had her puppy with us, we weren’t able to camp among the dunes. Dogs are allowed in the backcountry, at any time, but they are not allowed to 'sleep or stay overnight'. Weird, right?) The ranger did give us great advice on how to get up the dunes easily.
When we parked our car at the trailhead, it was snowing hard. We could barely see the dunes, which were only 300 yards away. We debated if we'd be crazy to go out there, but we bundled up and hit the sand.
Within five minutes of walking through the whipping and snowy wind, the sun started to shine and the clouds parted. We walked along the base of the dunes as flatly as we could before heading up the ridge.
We could not believe the views for the entire hike. Not only were the dunes themselves impeccable, but the 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains made the landscape that much more stunning, and the views only got better the more we climbed.
By the time we started to climb the dunes, we both had to strip off a few layers, because we had gotten so hot. Walking up the sand was not easy! For every three steps I took, I'd slide back one. Luckily, the melted snow made the sand a little sticky and made the hike a little easier than it normally would be!
We couldn't tell you our path really. We just tried to not change elevation too often and did it gradually when we had to. There are no trails or markers in the sand, so it will be up to you to find the easiest way up.
We reached the peak of the dune that we had chosen to climb, and we were rewarded with unreal views of the vast park. The dunes went on for as far as our eyes could see. It looked like they went right up to the base of the mountains. It was incredible, and we sat and stared for a few moments. The temperature had dropped, and the wind had picked up at the top of the dunes, so we didn't stay long.
The trek down the dune was much easier than the journey up. In fact, we ran and rolled down half the hill laughing and acting like children. It was wonderful.
When we reached the car, we decided to go back to the same campsite as the night before and get our campsite set up before dusk. It was already around 5:30, and we were exhausted from the long and exhilarating day.
We built a bonfire, roasted weenies, and made s'mores with the stunning views of Mount Blanca in the background. We sat around and made summer plans to climb the looming 14'er and camp in the dunes. Before calling it a night, we both agreed that today had been perfect. From the timing of the weather to the things were able to see, it had all fallen into place perfectly. We both went to bed with big smiles on our faces giddy to get back already!
I have since been back to the sand dunes for two other trips. You can watch and read about those adventures, here.
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Talkin' 'bout Tacos:
I'm Taylor, aka Tacos! I am sharing my journeys and experiences from across the world hoping to inspire travel and adventure in all who read.