Great Sand Dunes National Park

Location: northeast of Alamosa, Colorado
Date: August 18, 2011

Great Sand Dunes

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is the most recent place to be designated a "national park" in the United States, having received the designation in 2004 when the Nature Conservancy donated 97,000 acres to expand the park and create the adjacent Baca National Wildlife Refuge.  The park was originally designated at national monument in 1932.

Great Sand Dunes from a distance

The main attraction of the park are the sand dunes, which at up to 750 feet high (Star Dune) are the highest in North America.  The sand dunes formed at the western base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as sand grains originally part of the San Juan Mountains to the west were blown across the the plains and accumulated at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  A small section of these mountains are contained within the park and reach to over 13,500 feet, creating a very diverse park.

Great Sand Dunes

There are a few hiking trails in the park, including one along the base of the mountains and two climbing high to alpine lakes in the mountains.  There are no trails on the dunes, although you are free to walk wherever you wish.  During the spring Mandano Creek spreads out across the valley between the dunes and the parking area, while in the summer the sand can get quite hot, reaching temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  Walking up the sand dunes can be very tiring at the elevation of over 8,200 feet.

Blanca Peak and Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the south of the park

Zapata Falls
Zapata Falls is not within Great Sand Dunes National Park, rather it is a few miles to the south of the park on Bureau of Land Management land.  This waterfall is about three miles up a fairly steep, but maintained gravel road.  From the end of the road it is about a quarter of a mile walk to the falls.  When you reach the stream you must walk through it to get to the falls, and the water was very chilly on a hot day in late August since it is flowing from Rio Grande National Forest high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains below Blanca Peak, the fourth highest in the Rocky Mountains.

Zapata Canyon

From where you enter the stream it is a very short distance to the falls.  You immediately enter the very narrow, steep, and winding Zapata Canyon.  The falls are hidden just around a couple bends in the canyon.

Zapata Falls

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