Upon arriving in Alamosa, Colorado, that fine summer day, we discovered that we were ahead of schedule. Our plan had been to arrive at 1:00 p.m. after driving up that morning from Santa Fe, New Mexico, have lunch, and then drive the approximately forty-five minutes to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Yet we arrived in Alamosa at noon. My mother and I were feeling fine and my two daughters were itching to get out of the car, so rather than prolong the wait any longer, we picked up Subway sandwiches in Alamosa and then drove straight on to the Sand Dunes. We could see them in the distance; large, beautiful dunes set against the dark green of the Colorado mountains. It was certainly a sight to behold. The largest dunes are 750 feet high and the entire park covers about 150,000 acres.
I had visited the Sand Dunes many times as a child, and I had even taken my husband back there to visit once when our youngest daughter was a baby. Now that my two girls were twelve and thirteen years old, they could climb on the dunes, enjoy splashing in the creek, and make memories they could keep with them always. When we arrived in the parking lot with our sandwiches, the sun was high and warm, and since it was mid-week, as well as early June, there were not many tourists visiting the dunes. We found a parking spot right up front near a short trail to the sand and we ate our lunch at a picnic table. The warm, dry breeze delighted us, as we realized we were still quite acclimated to the humidity of the East Coast.
After lunch, we all took off our shoes and started down the trail toward the dunes. I remembered, as a child, walking on the hot sand and then splashing in Medano Creek, the underground stream that is only about ten miles long. Medano Creek is fed my the annual Colorado mountain snowmelt. Most years, Medano Creek flows in a wide, shallow stream across the bottom of the dunes, delighting visitors as a cool way to refresh themselves after hiking and playing on the dunes. Yet, as we walked out onto the dunes that day, we were disappointed to find that this was one of the dry years. Apparently, even seven years or so, the drought is such that Medano Creek is entirely underground. On the day of our visit, there was not even a mud puddle in which to splash.
In addition to the lack of creek water, the normal breeze found on the sand dunes seemed to be harsher than usual. We were only there for about twenty minutes when the wind began whipping up and we had to turn our faces away to avoid being sand blasted. We tried to be good sports, but when we saw other visitors heading for their cars, we joined them and decided to pay a visit to the impressive visitor center.
The visitor center was only a short drive to another part of the park and we found it a wonderful respite from the winds outside. We took in the fifteen minute movie that shows how the Great Sand Dunes originally formed, and why they are still there and forming today. When we emerged from the movie, we could see out the windows that the wind outside had turned into a regular sand storm. We could hardly see the largest dunes, which were only about a half mile away. After purchasing a book and a few postcards in the gift shop, we decided it was time to move on to our next stop. The sand dunes were lovely, but not in the middle of a storm.
We ran through the blowing sand back out to the car and checked our map. If the back roads on the map were correct (and truly existed) we could head west on a farm road from the sand dunes and meet back up with highway 285 that would ultimately take us to our destination for that night: Salida, Colorado. We set out across a bleak landscape of yucca plants and a road that could stand a few repairs. It was apparent that the blowing sand was not only at the Sand Dunes Park; we encountered it for at least twenty miles as we found our highway and headed north. Finally, we began climbing into the mountains and left the sand storm behind us.