Great Sand Dunes National Park is a park that features massive sand dunes at the base of a mountain range in Colorado. It is kind of a remote park in Colorado and the closest town that offers much of anything is Alamosa, which is more than 30 miles away. There is a lodge at the edge of the park that offers rooms, camping, and RV sites. This is where my daughter and I stayed. The room was nice and it had very close access to the park, but if you want anything you have to drive down to Alamosa.
The main feature of the park is access to the sand dunes and hundreds of people bring or rent a sled and go there to play on the dunes. From the parking lot there is a small occasional stream that you walk across to get to the dunes. This stream was very cold in the morning when I first crossed it. Below is a shot looking down from the dunes toward the parking lot showing lots of people on the dunes. There were many more behind me, out of shot.
My main goal was to get up on the dunes with my camera and try to take some unique photos. I was kind of looking for curves and lines that would look good against the mountains. I was there in the late morning and midday and there weren’t shadows to add contrast to the sand, but my plan was to return later in the afternoon when the sun would be lower and I could use the shadows. Below is an image with a nice curve in the dunes and the mountain in the background. I think it might look better with a little shadow to add some contrast.
One thing to consider about climbing in this park is that it starts at an elevation of about 7874 feet and some of the dunes are over 700 feet tall. So, if you are someone from a much lower elevation, like me, you will yourself out of breath much quicker as you climb around the dunes. The dunes didn’t look all that daunting from the bottom as I often hike and climb landscapes steeper and higher than this back home. But the altitude combined with trying to climb in the soft shifting sand, had me sitting down and resting at several points along the climb. But I was determined to get up near the top to take some photos. In the photo below, it looks so easy doesn’t it? But when going up the slope, every step sinks back down and you end up taking 3 times as many steps to climb as you would if it were a solid hill.
My plans to return later in the afternoon were spoiled by my own stupidity unfortunately, so I can tell you one important thing not to do when visiting the Great Sand Dunes. Do not go barefoot.
When we got there in the morning, we took off our shoes to cross the cold stream. Then we got to the sand on the other side and it was soft and cool so we just continued to walk bare-footed and this was fine. We got to a spot where my daughter wanted to hang out but I still wanted to climb, and here’s the important part, so I left my shoes and socks with her and climbed up the nice soft dunes with my bare feet. Notice the intelligent people in the photo above wearing shoes on their feet? One of them is even apparently from Texas, so I have no excuses here.
I climbed up the dunes, took photos, and had no problems other than the thin air. I worked around the many people on the dunes trying to take interesting shots and planned for what I might try later in the afternoon, when I was going to return. I took several photos and then began to hike back down.
The hike down was easy with gravity and the soft sand assisting my descent. As I got towards the bottom, I noticed that the sand was getting hotter and hotter as it has been baking in the clear sky sun with the thin atmosphere not removing much of the heat. At the bottom it began to really begin hurting my feet and there was a long plateau of sand that I had to cross to get to the stream. My daughter and shoes were back at the stream, so I had no choice but to plod forward and endure the stinging pain on my feet.
The next thing that I found was at the bottom of the dunes, mixed in the with sand are rather sharp tiny shards of rock to further attack my burning feet. There was really no avoiding this as I am a flightless mammal and had to walk through it. I took large fast steps, but there were many steps to take. I finally made it to the stream and walked around cooling my feet and generally feeling like a moron.
I cleaned off my feet to inspect the damage and to put my shoes back on and saw the several blisters that I had developed. One large blister had already opened and was full of sand. So, we got some first aid supplies and headed back to the lodge. Walking was quite painful, even with my shoes at this point. I cleaned and bandaged my feet, but I knew I my hiking and climbing was done for a while.
We spent most of the rest of the day going to Alamosa and I hobbled around so my daughter could look in the shops and we had pizza and drinks at a nice little restaurant. There were some hiking trails that had looked interesting to us, but I wasn’t hiking anywhere on these feet. My next couple of days were driving through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana to get to Yellowstone so at least that was easy on my feet. It has been a week now and I can walk comfortably with a bandage on the worst wound, but it is heeling.
The moral of the story is that if you go to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, bring shoes with you out to the dunes unless you want to be an idiot with blistered feet. Or you might be stuck taking photos from the back porch of the lodge like I was.