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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Great Sand Dunes National Park

After leaving Mesa Verde around noon, we drove east towards Durango. We thought we'd stop for lunch there since we had read about the really cool downtown area with old Victorian era houses and such. Didn't really do our homework though, as it seems the highways in Colorado are all built to circumvent the towns. We kept expecting to see Durango at any moment, finally looking at the GPS and realizing we had already passed it. The only thing visible from the highway were a few fast food restaurants, the very things we were trying to avoid. We like to stop at local diners when we travel--it really gives you a better feel for the area and you get to talk to the locals. Since we were on a pretty strict timeline we didn't want to backtrack, so we kept driving hoping to run into something along the way.
Notice how Highway 160 skirts downtown Durango (and the cafes within) yet, thoughtfully, Wildcat Canyon Liquors is located right on the road.
I looked ahead on Google maps and found the small town of Bayfield had a little diner that sounded perfect. This time I mapped the way, determined not to miss the exit, since this town also seemed to be located off the highway. We dutifully followed the "smart"phone's directions, turning off at the prescribed road, immediately hitting a detour. OK, we thought, this will go around the road work and circle back to the town. Nope. We kept driving through a little housing area, passed some small farms, through some larger ranches, onto a dirt road, finally hitting another highway and a completely different town. What the hell? Did we miss a turnoff? No, apparently Bayfield did not want to be found. We ended up backtracking after all to get back to Highway 160, wasting half an hour and STILL no food. By the time we got back on track we were so grumpy and disgusted we stopped at the first gas station we could find and I made some PBJs in the camper while Mark filled the tank. Take that, Bayfield!

If we had only known that Pagosa Springs was just ahead. What a cool town it was, and the highway went right up the main drag, just as a small highway should. According to the guide book, Pagosa Springs has some natural hot springs that come up from beneath the mountains and are supposed to be healing. There are a couple of nice resorts, one of which has the mineral water piped right into the rooms. Ahhhh, to have the time and money to stay...We wiped at the jelly on our mouths as we passed several perfect little restaurants that would have served a lovely meal. Oh well, at least we saved some cash.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at the entrance to Great Sand Dunes where we were greeted by a large handwritten sign that read: Campground Full.

This day was not going well.

It was beautiful though. The sun was setting over the dunes, and the mountains and sand were glowing in the warm light. We drove through the very full campground on the off chance there was an opening. It was a nice place, there was even a little camp store that sold firewood and a few supplies. But the sign didn't lie; it was full.

We drove back down the road to a private campground we had passed on the way in, the "Great Sand Dunes Oasis" billed (on their sign) as the "Gateway to Recreation".  What could possibly go wrong?

The office was closed, and the sign at the gate said not to enter unless you've checked in with the office. We decided to go on in, since our only alternative was over an hour's drive away and the sun was already starting to set. There was a sign further up the entrance road that said to check in with the office in the morning if arriving after hours. Well why didn't you say that on the first sign?

It turned out to be pretty nice, actually nicer than the campground in the park since this one was practically empty. There were free showers, which we were in desperate need of, and the sites were rustic, but who needs fancy? Found a nice spot with a great view of the plains below, and the sand dunes in the distance.

Great Sand Dunes at sunset, Sangre De Cristo Mountains in the background.
After dinner we did a little exploring. We checked out the showers and laundry room in the RV section of the resort and plotted out our second shower of the trip (two a week, that's all we ask.) Walked around the loops and waved to the few other campers that were there. We had seen an old rail car sitting on the slope above the camp and went up to check it out. Turned out it was the restroom. How cool was that?

Ladies to the left,  men to the right: Great Sand Dunes Oasis restrooms.
We were treated to a beautiful sunset that night.

It was a nice quiet night, a much needed pleasant surprise. Got up early, took our showers, paid for the night at the office and finally, headed into the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The park itself is pretty limited. There's a huge picnic area and a visitor's center and of course the campground, but that's it. The attractions are the dunes (they actually rent sand toys at the Visitor's Center), the many hiking trails and a four wheel drive route that snakes through the park and over the mountains. Since we only had the day, we stopped in at the Visitor's Center and looked over the maps to find the most bang for our buck.

The ranger on duty was the driest, most uninspired National Park employee we've ever talked to. I don't know if he was having an off day or if that was his natural demeanor, but he didn't inspire a lot of enthusiasm for the place. We decided to drive out the Medano Pass Primitive Road a little ways and explore the creek that runs in front of the dunes. We aired our tires down since the sand on the road is really deep in spots and getting stuck wasn't on our to-do list that day. (Letting air out of your tires increases traction on loose surfaces, spreading out the load and keeping the tires from digging in. Some of the lighter vehicles were running with full pressure, but we had to be extra cautious with our heavy truck with it's fully loaded camper.)

Medano Creek, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
What a strange juxtaposition it was: sand dunes, the creek, and huge snowy mountains beyond that. We sat and watched the water for a while as it slowed to a trickle, then suddenly surged through. The sand was rippling and shifting, blocking the flow momentarily before the force of the water broke free. It was mesmerizing.




Hiked along the creek for a while and took some pictures. We found what was left of a large animal (cow? horse?), the bones bleached in the sun. If we had had more time we would have taken the road up and over the pass, but it was getting late in the morning and we had to get to the other side of Colorado by the end of the day, so we headed back to the main road.

The park supplied an air station for the 4x4s that take the sandy road. It was great--for once we didn't have to dig out our little compressor that lives beneath a mound of hiking boots, camera equipment and other tools in our back seat. While we had been down the road, the picnic area had completely filled up with cars and school buses. It appeared there were a lot of end-of-the-year school trips going on down there, all the kids were in their bathing suits playing in the creek. It was probably the closest these land-locked kids got to a beach, with real sand to boot.


So once again, wished we had more time to explore, but we were very glad we stopped. Onward to Nebraska!