Saturday, June 16, 2018

Dunes Overlook

Great Sand Dunes
2.5 miles round trip, 500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Great Sand Dunes National Park entrance fee required

While Colorado's Great Sand Dunes are best appreciated by hiking into the dunes themselves, hikers looking for a more relaxed outing can consider hiking up to an overlook on the slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Range just off of the Sand Ramp Trail. This is a relatively easy hike with just a smidgen of uphill at the end and offers decent views of North America's tallest sand dunes.

This was the last hike that I did on a three-day February trip to the San Luis Valley. The first and third days of my trip had decidedly unpleasant weather, both featuring snowstorms; the thermometer broke above freezing for only a few hours in my entire trip. On my third day, I returned to Great Sand Dunes National Park after driving across San Luis Valley in the morning to visit Penitente Canyon; after being snowed on at the foot of the San Juan Mountains, I drove back across the valley to the Sangre de Cristos. To reach the trailhead from Alamosa, follow US 160 east and then Highway 150 north along the Sangre de Cristo Range into Great Sand Dunes National Park. Follow the paved road to its end at the Pinon Flats campground; in the summer it may be possible to park at the true trailhead off the B Loop in the campground, but winter visitors will likely have to park at the campground amphitheater as the campground itself is closed.

From the amphitheater, I walked past the closed gate on the campground road and followed it uphill to the B Loop; halfway through the B Loop, I came to the trailhead for the Sand Ramp Trail. I hopped on the snow-covered trail here and began to follow it north. Luckily, one other hiker had already come this way since the snowstorm two nights prior, leaving a set of tracks for me to follow.

The Sand Ramp Trail quickly exited the pinon pine forest into open scrubland. Views opened of the dunefield; the peaks of Sangre de Cristo, such as nearby Mount Herard, would usually be visible but at the moment were buried in clouds. The sand of the dunefield was intermixed with snow that had fallen in the storm just two nights before. Strong winds were whipping through the dunes: I could see plumes of sand blowing over the crests of the highest dunes. Looking at the undulating dunes, I could understand Zebulon Pike's description of them as looking like a sea in a storm.

Sand dunes from the Sand Ramp Trail
About a half mile from the trailhead, the trail dropped into a small ravine and crossed a creek, then climbed back out into pinon pine forest. The nearly untouched and unbroken snow cover gave the entire landscape a surreal and magical feel: what an odd sensation to be in a desert coated with snow!

Snow cover along the Sand Ramp Trail
Just slightly further down the Sand Ramp Trail, I arrived at the Dunes Overlook spur trail. I took the right turn here to follow the half-mile Dunes Overlook Trail uphill. The trail made a switchback on its brief climb as the trail made its way up along a ridge extension of the Sangre de Cristos.

A half-mile up the spur trail, I came to the lower of the two overlooks. A small wooden bench in a clearing provided a nice view of the dunefield, with the tall peak of High Dune easily identifiable. Looking north, I could see the Castle Creek dunes piled up steeply against Medano Creek. Looking west past the foothill dunes, I could see out into the sand sheet and sabhka in San Luis Valley, including the glassy surface of San Luis Lake in the distance. With clouds on the horizon, the San Juan Mountains weren't visible at that time, but presumably it would be possible to see the peaks on the other side of San Luis Valley on a clear day.

Great Sand Dunes from the lower overlook
The set of tracks that I had followed up turned around from the first overlook, but the trail continued uphill along the ridge crest. I followed the trail through the snow uphill through one steep section to reach the second overlook, which had another bench and provided a partial view of the dunefield and of the Sangre de Cristo Range to the south. From here, I could see deep into the undulating interior of the sand dunes.

Interior sand dunes from the upper overlook
Zapata Ridge, the Sangre de Cristo Range, and San Luis Valley
I retraced my steps to the trailhead and then began the long drive back to Denver to return to Seattle.

No comments:

Post a Comment