Great Sand Dunes! (Colorado) 19-May-2017

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

After our hikes at Palo Duro Canyon in West Texas, we roadtripped north to Alamosa, Colorado, gateway to Great Sand Dunes National Park.  When we’d lived in Colorado years ago, we’d driven by this park several times enroute to climbs of nearby 14teeners, but never actually stoped for a visit. We were going to rectify that omission on this trip.  You can hike on the dunes themselves – a la Beau Geste – but there are other hiking trails in the park.  The most accessible of these – it starts almost at the visitor center – is the Mosca Pass Trail and that was the one we chose. It also tops out at around 9,800 feet and would thus be snowfree by now (unlike some of the surrounding peaks).

It had been nice and sunny as we drove up to Alamosa from Texas but, of course, when the day of our hike rolled around, the clouds were rolling in over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains which form the eastern boundary of the park.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Clouds over the Sangre de Cristos

The Mosca Pass Trail is very easy to follow as it climbs gently up along Mosca Creek toward the pass. This route was in use for thousands of years by Native Americans and was later used by noted non-idigenous explorers such as Zebulon M. Pike, John C. Fremont, and Kit Carson. At one time this trail was a toll road and evidence of a road prism is occassionally visible.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Starting up the Mosca Pass Trail

The hike up was under a cloudy, milky sky that wasn’t very supportive of photographs but there were a few points where the canyon and the clouds allowed for a view out west toward the San Luis Valley and the dunes.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

The San Luis Valley and the Great Sand Dunes from the Mosca Pass Trail

But by the time we’d reached the more level, more open areas higher up on the trail, the clouds had parted and we were once again in that bright Colorado sunshine we’d known when we lived in Denver.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Coming out of the aspens and into sunshine higher up the Mosca Pass Trail

The sun brought a greater vibrancy to the early wildflowers popping-up along the trail.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

American Pasqueflower (Anemone patens)

Jurisdictionally, this hike starts in the national park, traverses the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area, and ends in the San Isabel National Forest (where the pass is located).

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Fence and sign marking our departure from the wilderness area

We went up to the pass, gazed out to the east, and then started back down, under sunny and picturesquely cloudy skies.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Back down the trail

We soon reentered the wilderness area,

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Crossing the wilderness boundary

and strolled through meadows almost starting to show some wildlflowers.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Crossing a still mostly lush meadow

The lower half of the trail moves through a much narrower part of the canyon, hemmed in between the creek and towering rock walls,

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Through the narrower part of the canyon

but opening in a few places for a view out to the valley and the dunes.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

The dunes from lower on the Mosca Pass Trail

After the hike, we went over to see the dunes, first from the park road,

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

The dunes from the park road

and then from a viewing area right on Medano Creek. Even though this was a weekday, there were a lot of people visiting this park and climbing on the dunes – the little people specks looked like ants on a mound of sugar.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Looking across Medano Creek to the dunes

To get to the dunes from here, you have to wade across wide but very shallow Medano Creek. We’d had a good hike, so we lacked the requisite enthusiasm for wading through cold water and hiking across loose sand. Plus the weather, while sunny, was far from warm, so we opted to just appreciate the dune from afar.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Looking across Medano Creek to the dunes, with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance

A short (6.5 miles round-trip; 1,800 feet of elevation gain) but nice hike at altitude (8,200 to 9,800 feet) up into the aspens characteristic of Colorado’s high country. It sure brought back memories of our time in the Rockies.  One of the more out-of-the-way national parks but one well worth a visit.  If you fear salt water but like sand, this is the place for you!

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

The Mosca Pass Trail and surroundings

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