Southwest Adventures: Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park     Photo: courtesy of National Park Service

FIRST ENCOUNTER: Sun Spots

I can't tell you if we saw the sun set on the North Rim and rise on the South Rim or if the order was reversed. It doesn't matter. What I remember is that I was seven years old and we'd just watched the daylight disappear over the biggest thing I'd ever seen. Then Mom and Dad drove through the darkness, 215 miles from one side of the Grand Canyon to the other, while my sister and I slept, huddled in our sleeping bags, jockeying for position on the vinyl backseat of our Ford Fairmont station wagon. When my mother shook us awake, we were groggy and moody in the way all kids are when their slumber is interrupted. It was still dark. We sat on a rock ledge, the whole family enveloped in one blanket, and Dad pointed as the sun reappeared in the place we'd once stood. In that moment, I believed he was a magician.
—CHRISTOPHER KEYES

BEST: SEPTEMBER–OCTOBER, WHEN THE SAND IS COOL

The last thing you expect to see next to 14,000-foot peaks is a 30-square-mile chunk of Sahara-like desert. The unlikely juxtaposition makes Great Sand Dunes National Park and its surrounding 65-square-mile mountain preserve one of the most remarkable spots in the country. The dunes are the main draw—griddle hot in the summer, they're cool enough by fall to justify the four-hour drive from Denver or Albuquerque. But the best way to view them is from above. The 4x4-only Medano Pass road accesses the trailhead for the eight-hour round-trip hike to 13,353-foot Mount Herard, which offers an incredible high-alpine view of the dune field. And the easy Sand Ramp Trail, which skirts the eastern edge of the dunes, connects the only creekside backcountry campsites (permits are free but first-come-first-served; nps.gov/grsa). Afterwards, head 35 miles southwest to Alamosa, where you can rehydrate at the San Luis Valley Brewing Company (slvbrew­co.com).

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