Family travel: Southern Colorado and the Great Sand Dunes

Southern Colorado is a spectacular mix of mountain passes, arid plains, Great Sand Dunes, and 14,000-foot mountains, with fishing, hiking and camping, all within three hours of Alamosa.

Great Sand Dunes National Park / Image: Jim Picht for CommDigiNews
Great Sand Dunes National Park / Image: Jim Picht for CommDigiNews

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., July 29, 2017 — The Great Sand Dunes National Park, near Alamosa, Colorado, is one of our smaller and simpler national parks, 44,000 acres of sand dunes at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. These are the tallest sand dunes in North America, some towering 750 feet above the San Luis valley. You can look out across the vastness and see …

You can look out across the vastness and see …

“Harlan! Catherine! Lisa! RUN!”

Storms arise suddenly in Colorado at this time of year. One minute you see a few puffy clouds on the horizon, and the next, you see the face of a wrathful god.

Traveling with teens: Three hours in Albuquerque, then Durango

A National Geographic photographer would forget he has a wife and children as he sets up his tripod to capture the spectacle of lightning crashing down on the dunes. But the dad gene is strong in me, and all I could think of was to grab the kids and race to the car.

Okay, pause for a couple of quick photos.

Storm over Sand Dunes National Park | Image by James Picht for CommDigiNews

The national park lies about three or four hours east of Durango, on highway 160. It will take longer if you stop in Pagosa Springs, a pretty little resort town on the San Juan River. In the summer, the place is filled with golfers, tubers, and rafters.

The town itself reminds us of the village where Patrick McGoohan was imprisoned in the 1960s British series, “The Prisoner.” It’s pretty in a neat, somehow artificial way that feels slightly ominous. We tend to race through without stopping, for fear that we might not be allowed to leave. Friends who have stayed at resorts there report marvelous hot-tub parties.

Friends who have stayed at resorts there report marvelous hot-tub parties.

A bit east of Pagosa Springs, you cross the continental divide at Wolf Creek Pass at an altitude of almost 11,000 feet. There are pull-offs, waterfalls and hikes as you climb to the pass, and you can certainly spend some time there if you like.

You may have to, even if you don’t like; over the years, we’ve had to stop for construction more often than not, though this time the road was construction free.

Driving into the clouds / Image: Jim Picht for CommDIgiNews
Driving into the clouds / Image: Jim Picht for CommDIgiNews

Between Wolf Creek Pass and Alamosa there are a few towns, some offering lodgings and access to wilderness adventure. Alamosa is the largest town between Durango and Walsenburg, with a number of decent restaurants. We stopped there for lunch, and Harlan decreed the hamburgers at the local brew pub, the San Luis Valley Brewing Company, to be the best he’d had since Santa Fe.

See America: Family fun in and around Durango, CO

The place serves family fare, solid, satisfying and reasonably priced, with friendly service and clean restrooms.

From there, the drive to the sand dunes is under an hour. They’re worth the visit. If you’re traveling with youngsters or are feeling young yourself, there are places outside the park that will rent plastic boards designed for surfing/sliding down the sand dunes. My wife and I don’t enjoy getting sand in every orifice, but the sand sledders, young people from five to 50, all seemed to have a wonderful time.

From the parking lot, you have to cross a shallow stream to get to the dunes. You should wear water-proof footwear or plan to carry your shoes. It wasn’t a particularly hot day, so the sand felt pleasantly warm underfoot. On a hot day, the temperature of the sand can reach 150 degrees.

You’ll certainly want your footwear.

Most visitors stay for a relatively short time and don’t attempt to climb the larger dunes. If you want to stay longer and capture one of those National Geographic sunrise shots from atop the dunes, there are camping sites around the park, or you can stay in Alamosa.

Carry a lot of water; there’s none there, and if you run out on a hot day too far from the stream, plan to become a grim statistic. But what’s a really good set of desert sand dunes without a mummy or two?

We planned to spend only an hour or so on the dunes, since we wanted to be in Colorado Springs in time for dinner. The storm cut our time just a little short. As we drove away from the park, we were treated to some beautiful lightning strikes before the dunes vanished in darkness in our rearview mirror.

We continued east on Highway 160 to Walsenburg. The scenery on the way was both severe and majestic. Blanca Peak is the fourth highest peak in the Rocky Mountains and in Colorado. It is especially impressive as it rises 7,000 feet above the San Luis Valley. You can hike to the top without any technical mountain climbing skills, if you’re in good shape. If you’re not, admire it from the valley floor. The mountain is considered sacred by the Navajo, and it marks the eastern-most edge of the Dinetah, or Navajo homeland.

Walsenburg doesn’t offer much for our family, but if you enjoy fishing, nearby Lathrop State Park is a good place to find rainbow trout, bass, pike, and tiger muskie. And the home of Robert Ford, who killed Jesse James, still stands downtown.

From Walsenberg we headed north on I-25. Total driving time from Durango to Colorado Springs was 5 hours and 46 minutes, according to the car’s travel computer. That included the digression to the sand dunes. Total travel time was closer to nine hours, including stops for lunch and to play on the dunes.

Up next: Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs, Garden of the Gods / Image: Jim Picht for CommDigiNews
Colorado Springs, Garden of the Gods / Image: Jim Picht for CommDigiNews
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