Saturday, May 23, 2009
High Dune (8,691') & Star Dune (8,617')
We've made countless trips to the San Luis Valley over the past couple of years. Some of the state's most enjoyable 14ers are accessible from the foothills on the eastern side of the valley. However, in all of our trips to the area we've neglected one of Colorado's gems - Great Sand Dunes National Park. We knew that the park would probably be fairly crowded over Memorial Day weekend, but waiting until later this summer would mean scorching temperatures and 100+ degree sand. The weather looked iffy, but as Kevin likes to say "You miss a lot of great hikes if you trust the weatherman every time."
Michael, Angie, and Mark from our church were interested in a weekend of sightseeing and camping in the SLV, so we made plans to meet at the Dunes on Saturday for some bountiful car camping together and some time on the sand.
Exploring the Dunes
Last year around this time, we made a trip down to the Sangre de Cristo's for a 16.5-hr adventure on Little Bear Peak
- a trip that involved turning around south of Pueblo to head home because I forgot my boots and a flat tire later that day. Somehow, car and gear issues seem to be the norm when we head down that way and this trip was no exception. I heard some ca-clanks under the Jeep when we left Saturday morning and set about inspecting the undercarriage while we stopped to fuel up near the house. To my surprise, I was missing two bolts that attach the rear crossmember to the sill, and support the weight of the transmission...strike 1. Wonderful. Likely a side effect of my 4-wheeling adventure last weekend with Pete. Luckily, this time we were a mile from the house (rather than 100+ like last year) when the car issue showed up. So we returned home and swapped cars. Back on the road again we were about 5 miles south of the house when we realized that we had left our National Parks Pass at home. Seeing as how this is an important piece of "gear" if one wishes to not have to pay when entering the National Park, I stubbornly turned us around again to retrieve it...strike 2.
Weathermen reporting along the Front Range had done a good job as it was dark and gloomy all the way south to Walsenburg and dozens of miles west. I was feeling pretty discouraged until we descended the west side of La Veta pass and I caught a glimpse of the sun. As we entered the San Luis Valley we found mostly cloudy skies but big pockets of sunshine further west. It was going to be a good day!
Altogether it took us about 2 hrs and 30 minutes to get to the Park and flashing our pass saved us a solid $6 (but the principle is priceless). After a short stop at the Visitor's center we headed straight for the trailhead, hoping to at least get to High Dune before getting soaked.
I packed my trusty cardboard "sled" and we set off toward Medano Creek at 10:20am. There were plenty of people enjoying the wide and shallow creek, or heading across toward the dunes. We swapped boots for flip-flops and slapped our way across the cold water and its unusual surge flow
Beyond the creek ascending High Dune, which is the highpoint of the park (surprise surprise), is kind of like a choose-your-own adventure story. There is no defined trail and after a dry and windy night most of the footsteps from the previous day are gone. As you would imagine, it's also a two steps forward - two steps back kind of a hike. Fortunately, the recent rainfall left the sand wet and firm, making it much easier to hike up. Our plan was to head straight for the top, following the connecting ridges of the dunes where they didn't take us way out of our way. High Dune is only about .75 miles from the parking lot, but with shoe changes and photo ops it took us an hour to reach the top. The views from the summit were pretty impressive, despite the low cloud ceiling. High Dune is a 650' tall mound of sand, and when you consider that similar dunes fill up an area of 30 square miles it's quite impressive.
After watching somebody's dad go rocketing down the east side of High Dune on a plastic saucer, barely avoiding a frontal ejection and faceplant in the sand, I was pumped to tryout my cardboard sled. I assumed my disposable sled would probably perform equally as well, and I had saved $5 not buying a sled. Yeah, not so much. The videos speak for themselves (click on the two images below to watch).
10 minutes later, I convinced Karen we could beat the rain and we set off for Star Dune. Star Dune is the only other named dune in the park, and is actually the tallest dune in the park (750-ft) despite its summit being lower in elevation than High Dune. Star Dune is actually the tallest sand dune in North America - no way I'm passing up on this opportunity! A group of 3 had started toward Star a few minutes earlier and I secretly wanted to beat them there, boosting my route-finding ego. Karen figured that out within the first 30 seconds and laughed at me, and rightfully so.
The trip over to Star was a lot easier than it looked from the summit of High Dune, as we picked our way across the connecting ridges on a fairly direct line. Significantly fewer people make the journey over to Star and from the lack of footprints in the sand it looked like we were the first that day. The last pitch below the summit felt ridiculously steep, but only measured 30 degrees.
We trudged up and reached the top at 12:15pm. We enjoyed the surrounding views as we took a break for lunch. I, of course, had a turkey....wait for it.... "sand"wich (har har har) for lunch in honor of the dunes.
After another failed attempt to use our "sled" we resorted to plunge-stepping down the sand and set out for the parking lot. Supposedly there is another ranked dune (Dune 8860), so we targeted what we thought it might be on our route back to the parking lot. Turns out we weren't even close, but we did summit Miscellaneous Dune at 1:22pm.
A few hundred yards before Medano Creek the rain caught us and we picked up the pace, reaching the parking lot at the foot-wash station at 1:50pm. Back at the Visitor's Center the weather cleared enough for this token view off the back porch, after Karen indulged me so we could watch the 20 minute "How the Dunes Were Made" instructional video.
We met up with Michael, Angie, and Mark in the Visitor's Center and followed them to a campsite they had found off a random 4wd road stemming off of Hwy 150. It turned out to be a prime spot, free of noisy neighbors. After a fine dinner of brats, burgers, chips, corn-on-the-cob, smores, and some amazing strawberries (boy, does this beat canned chicken and ramen noodles on a backpacking stove), the rain started again in earnest.
Fortunately, we were prepared with a couple of tarps and set up a nice little shelter for 5 + food between the vehicles.
Sunday morning breakfast was equally as good as dinner as chef Michael made us pancakes, eggs, sausage, and english muffins in a rain-free setting. We set off for the trailhead to Zapata Falls around 10am, which was only a few miles from our campsite. The trail is an old 4wd road that winds .25-miles up from the parking lot. At its terminus is South Zapata Creek, which we then followed up to the falls. The falls are a popular destination, although to actually see the falls you have to wade a couple hundred feet up the bone-chilling snow-melt water of the creek and into a slot canyon that hides the falls. Wading up the creek was a bit treacherous as the melt-off is nearing its peak and the rocks were slippery.
By the time we reached the entrance to the slot canyon my feet were completely numb, and purple. I decided to go for it, and made my way into the canyon as quickly as possible to take a few pictures of the falls. The falls descends in two segments, with a total drop of about 30 feet.
After leaving the falls, Karen and I parted ways with Michael, Angie, and Mark as they were headed back to the Dunes. I had read about a nice 9-mile hike up from the falls to South Zapata Lake at 11,900 feet that supposedly offered stellar views of 14er Ellingwood Point. The first 1/4 mile of the trail offers great views of the Sand Dunes as well. There isn't much to say about this hike other than there was a sketchy creek crossing and a couple of old miner's cabins a little more than a mile up. Neither of us were feeling particularly strong that day and we could see big thunderheads forming behind us and creeping up the valley. We caught a couple of good views further up where the sunlight was really highlighting the freshly fallen snow above treeline, but soon the clouds moved in and covered any views of Ellingwood we might see at the lake.
Reluctantly we turned back around 10,300' deciding to head for the Hot Springs Pool in Hooper instead. While hiking to the lake I realized my camera was having focusing issues, so we made another stop at the falls for a few picture re-takes and some more frosty feet.
The pool had a kind of obscure, middle of nowhere type feel, but it was a popular spot and worth a visit to soak. We headed home, stopping to catch a couple of sunset pictures of the Dunes and an amazing view of Little Bear Peak as the storm clouds finally lifted. Aside from a close encounter with a State Trooper who stopped behind us when we pulled over to take pictures, the drive home was much more uneventful than the drive out. A great weekend in the SLV!