Great Sand Dunes National Park and The Joy of Detours

If you’re traveling from Denver to Durango, you’ve got a few options at your disposal. I-70 through Summit County and along the Colorado River is a solid choice. As is 285 southwest out of Denver. Or you could take 115 from Colorado Springs past Pikes Peak and into Salida. They’re all beautiful.

Andrew and I were sitting in a coffee shop in Colorado Springs. It was a shade before 8am on a Friday morning. We spent the previous 13 hours in my Subaru driving overnight from Minneapolis. Our intended destination was far southwest Colorado for a few days of fly fishing on the San Juan River that’s just over the border into New Mexico. The bagel sandwich with ham, peppers, and salsa verde was breathing life into my weary self. We were planning our next move. Google Maps provided several routes to our final stop, all of which were around five hours of travel time. Our Airbnb wouldn’t be ready until 3pm, seven hours later. So we could afford to take our time.

Poring over the route options and locations of peaks, parks, and public lands, Highway 160 from Walsenburg passes conveniently close to Great Sand Dunes National Park. It was settled. We’ve got ourselves a detour.

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But first, a bit of background on the park. A quick peruse of the ol’ Wikipedia provides the following information. Great dune covers an area of 30 square miles and is the tallest sand dune in North America, at 775 feet. It was originally designated a national monument by President Hoover in 1932, then it was converted to a national park in 2004 by the lesser Bush (George W.). The sand is located on the west side of the San Luis Valley, pressed up against the Sangre de Cristo range to the east. A dead-end road that spurs north from Highway 160 takes visitors straight to the sand.

We didn’t know what to expect. Andrew knew there would be sand and I knew said sand would be in a tall mound. That was the extent of our Great Sand Dunes National Park knowledge.

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The dunes first come into view when you round Blanca Peak on Highway 150. The scale is hard to grasp from five miles out, despite a backdrop of snowy peaks. As you near the park entrance, you begin to see that this is no small pile of sand. When you park the car and take the trail to climb the dunes, it’s hard to believe what’s in front of you. I’ve never seen anything like that. Follow footprints in the sand with your eyes and you’ll see hikers hundreds of feet above you, small as ants. But those footprints can quickly disappear, as strong valley winds ensure that the dunes are always changing.

Good things happen when you wander from the main road. Check the map and find the green areas for public land to explore. Had we taken the route that Google Maps recommended (because it was the shortest), we would’ve missed an awe-inspiring place. If you have extra time, you’ve got room for an extra adventure. Find a detour and experience something new.

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