Great Sand Dunes National Park

I had heard about this park for years, but never seriously considered visiting.  I was not even clear exactly where it was located, except somewhere considerably south of Denver.  But we were looking for a new place, where neither of us had visited previously, and this looked like a candidate. 

First we looked at a map and found the park just north of Alamosa in the south central part of the state.  Then I got on the internet and read some about it.  Finally, I made a telephone call to ask what we should expect to see in the way of birds and wildlife.  The park people were kind enough to send some literature by mail.  We thought we were well prepared.  We were not!

Our trip began the day after Christmas, when we jumped in our rental car in Arvada and drove south on Interstate 25 past Colorado Springs to Walsenburg where we took a right on route 160.  This route took us over 9382 foot La Veta Pass to Blanca where we picked up route 150 that headed due north into the park.  The whole trip was about 250 miles.

Yes, in the park there were very few birds flying about.  Most of the birdlife had long since headed south.  This valley is a very cold place in the winter.  There were not even many mammals, unlike the Arsenal.  But scenery!  Wow, were we taken aback.  Before even crossing the border of the park, one drove close by Blanca Peak,BlancoMtDawnCR the fourth highest mountain in Colorado at 14, 345.  Much of the time its peak was covered with clouds.  As one arrives in the park, the dunes become obvious off to the west.  They are huddled against a huge mountain masiff, the Sangre de Christo mountain range,with the highest peak, Mount Herard.  This peak was apparently named after a hermit who lived there for many years.

We stopped at the entrance station, showed our pass, got some literature, had an interesting conversation with the ranger who manned the little booth and proceeded on into the park.  The wildlife drive is very short at this time of year, with the road blocked off in the middle of the Pinyon Flats campground due to snow and ice beyond.  We stopped every now and then for some nice scenic shots of the dunes and the sagebush flats, but wanted to check out the accessable part of the park during daylight. 

There is a side road that goes down to a parking lot with trails from there to the dunes, a short distance away.  We were amazed at the number of cars in this lot.  There were a lot of people in the park.  We had expected to have the place to ourselves due to the temperature and time of year.  After walking around there for twenty minutes or so, we backtracked to a modern and attractive visitors center where we looked over the exhibitions and chatted briefly with the ranger on duty.

Out in the car, I was about to drive off when I got an unexpected cell phone call from my friend Chandler Cox back in Maryland.  I chatted for a few minutes and then recognized that the sun was setting and the light perfect for photography, so abuptly cut off the call.  It was a wise decision as very shortly thereafter I made one of the best images of the trip, if not the year.SunsetSnagCR

I made four or five slightly different shots at this location over a few minutes and the light was gone.  It was sinking that fast!  Back in the car we drove south to look for a motel in Alamosa.  Fortunately, I looked in the rear view mirror and was amazed at the sunset on the mountains.  I had to stop to catch this scene.PinkSunsetCR

We headed in to Alamosa to look for a motel.  Alamosa is a pretty depressing town, at least what one sees along the main through streets.  We found a Best Western, got what we considered a reasonable rate and checked in.  Dinner was at Chili’s, one of the few national chains we found.  Sleep came early.

We awoke on December 27 to a temp of -4 degrees, the coldest either of us had experienced in a number of years.  But most importantly, there was a heavy coating of frost over every twig, every blade of grass and every leaf.  It was really impressive.  After a quick breakfast in the motel, we headed out to the park.

It was a pretty sunrise as we made our way towards the dunes.  The sun was blocked by the mountains to the south and east, but clouds were colored SunriseDec27

We didn’t find any birds or animals of note, so decided to leave the park and check elsewhere for photo ops.  Just outside the park, and adjacent to it, is the San Luis Lakes Stake Park and Wildlife Area.  We went in the entrance road to this park, as there was supposed to be a few lakes there.  They were frozen solid, so we made a U turn and headed back to the main road.  But the sage brush there was exceptionally pretty, covered with frost, so we stopped for a few minutes to make photos.  We were not disappointed with the results.FrostySageBushCR

At that point we decided to try the Blanca Wildlife Habitat Area, where the BLM supposedly kept open water for wildfowl throughout the winter.  Continuing along route 6N, we kept seeing stunning scenes of frost covered vegetation, including this tree, right by the road.FrostyTreeCRWe turned south on route 17 and found the cut off at route 2s for the Blanca area.  Heading due east we were surprised to find an adult Bald Eagle in a tree with some frost still present.  It had gotten very bright and the temp was now in the low thirties, so the frost was rapidly evaporating or falling to the ground.  The eagle paid no attention to us as we made shots from the car.  Twice we made U turns so that both of us could make shots.EagleCRjpgWe never did find the open water and because we were in a 2 wheel drive rental car and there was snow on the road, we decided after probably six or seven miles to get out of there before getting ourselves stuck!

After lunch we thought we might visit the two National Wildlife Refuges in the area.  The first, just outside Alamosa is named, of all things, Alamosa NWR.  The visitors center was supposed to be open every week day, but when we found it, it was locked up and closed.  We then headed out on the wildlife drive.  What a bust!  Our only sightings were a long distance Northern Harrier and a Porcupine!  A Porcupine out in the marsh!  Hard to believe, but there he was by the side of the wildlife drive.  Within a second he had scurried down the berm into the marsh grass and disappeared.  Chris never saw him. 

Off we went now on the other side of town to Monte Vista NWR.  Fortunately there were pretty good directions in our bird finding guide, because there were no signs in town or outside and Gertrude, our GPS, did not list this attraction!  There is no visitors center at this refuge.  The wildlife drive, which was easy to find, was only 2.5 miles long.  We saw absolutely no living thing on this drive!  Nothing.   I suspect that in breeding season, this can be a rewarding drive, but in the winter it is dead.

We cranked up Gertrude for a return to the National Park, which was 30 some miles away and had an interesting tour through the farm and ranch country to the north and west of Alamosa.  We were struck with how many run down houses were present, often with a large assortment of broken down and/or ancient vehicles and farm machinery in the yard.  Methinks this is a pretty depressed area for most folks living here.

By the time we got into the park, there was only about an hour of daylight left.  We drove past the visitors center and found a small group of Mule Deer along the road.  There was a smallish buck included, notwithstanding that it had eight points. BuckDoe The horns were nowhere near as robust as the deer we had seen a few days previously at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.  The light was very nice though, a warm orange.

 

 

 

 

 

Included in the group was one small fawn that was particularly cute.  It FawnCRposed nicely for us!  Look at the size of the ears on this baby!

We had been told by the ranger who staffed the entrance station that there were a large herd, estimated to be 4-500 elk there were out in the flats opposite the store and motel.  We scanned the prairie on our way out of the park and indeed this time we spotted them.  They were pretty much dark spots against the snow, but they were the elk.

The next morning we awoke to a nippy -10 degrees!  For whatever reason there was only a very light coating of frost this mornng, almost invisible.  we headed out once again to the national park.  This time, we came to the elk spot and there were two bulls on the road side of a fence, while the rest of the herd remained far out on the prairie.  RunningElkThese two bulls ran along the fence as we drove in.  We lost sight on one; the other stumbeld through the end of the fence on the north end and thundered out to the rest of the herd.

 

 

As soon as we got within sight of the dunes it became evident that there had been a light dusting of snow during the night.  The early morning light made for very unusual scenes.  The sun was broken up by a partial cloud cover, giving strange impressions.DawnDunes

We drove up to the end of the groad at the camp ground again, making photographs periodically.  Here is one made with a 400mm lens of one section of the dunes.SnowNSandCR

We soon decided that it was time to head north, so drove south on the entrance road towards route 160.  On the way out we encountered another small herd of Mule Deer, this time with the biggest buck we had seen in the south.LastBuckCR  The deer wanted to cross the road and even though we were parked in the road, made their way across.  There was a barbed wire fence about twenty yards in from the road and parallel.  We expected the deer to hop over this fence.  Instead, each one crawled through the strands!  It looked easy!

Soon we were traveling east on route 160, gaining elevation and then reaching the summit of La Veta Pass at 9382 feet elevation.  We stopped briefly at the top for a record shot of the lovely mountain surroundings and another of Chris.LaVetaPass

We retraced our steps, stopping atChrisLaVeta Max’s, a little local restaurant along the highway at Colorado City.  There we shared a table with three engaging fellows from Pueblo who are building a house nearby.  The food was outstanding and the price reasonable.  From there we headed north on I25, then to 225 and stopped for a motel in Aurora.  We flew out the next morning on Southwest for BWi.  Our very successful trip to Colorado had sadly come to an end.