Great Sand Dunes National Park: Relaxing in the San Luis Valley

Prairie Sunflower

The San Luis Valley is a high (average elevation 7,600 feet), huge (eight thousand square miles), and gorgeous portion of south central Colorado and northern Arizona. Sean and I had entered it from the north at Poncha Pass and driven through about a third of the valley to arrive at Great Sand Dunes National Park two days earlier. Now on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 25, we wanted to relax from our hiking by visiting a hot spring and exploring some of the valley.

As we drove out of the Park and then turned west on Lane 6 N, we had to stop for some photos of the dunes and the Sangre de Cristos from across the immense sand sheet.

Then we headed north on State Route 17, which leads to Poncha Pass. To our right, the rugged wall of the Sangre de Cristos was striking despite the haze from wildfires in California hanging in the atmosphere. To our left, far distant, the San Juan Mountains rolled up from the valley floor.

Our after-brunch destination was Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa. Our friend Emy, who had worked for years in conservation in Colorado, had recommended that Sean and I try one of several soaking spas in the area. The San Luis Valley is part of the Rio Grande Rift, and lingering seismic and volcanic activity means natural occurring hot springs.

The nearest one with day soaks to the Park was Joyful Journeys, which has a decidedly latter-day hippy vibe, but we decided to check it out, see what the offerings were, and ask about COVID-19 precautions.

The low-slung complex has rooms, cottages (and teepees, yurts, a geodesic dome) for overnight stays. It also boasted an alarmingly green expanse of lawn for rural Colorado in August.

Image: Sean M. Santos


Image: Sean M. Santos

We went inside the main office and talked to the large, bearded fellow behind the counter. He explained that there were soaking pools, all outdoors, of varying temperatures. Masks were required in all indoor areas. Suits and towels were available to rent. He invited us to go have a look at the pools, which we did.

Early on this Wednesday afternoon, they weren’t too crowded. In the locker rooms and indoor facilities, people were respectful and masked, so we felt comfortable. We went ahead and got two day passes, rented bathing suits and towels, grabbed a couple books, and soon were soaking in the medium temperature pool.

We spent a couple hours soaking in the different pools and gazing at the magnificent view of the northern Sangre de Cristo Range. I’ll admit that I also did use the opportunity for WiFi to check email and make sure Patrick was ok in his new role at Bold Bison. While soaking I learned that a long-time Illinois conservation figure, in advance of an embarrassing story about taking advantage of a historically Black farming community in Kankakee County, had retired from The Nature Conservancy. The story would not actually run for six more weeks, but clearly TNC wanted to get out ahead of it.

There were some characters enjoying the pools with us. Probably the most amusing was a skinny stoner kid from Minnesota talking to a fifty-something transplant to the valley about the astral plane, fractals, and how trees are skeletons.

Other folks there that afternoon included local retirees enjoying a relaxing afternoon, 20-something straight couples on vacation, and a bit of everyone in between (except kids). Folks were friendly, and one guy asked me about the Terry Tempest Williams book I was reading.

Eventually, we decided we were pruny enough from soaking, so we showered off, got dressed in some fresh clothes, returned the bathing suits and towels, and said goodbye to the impressive view. Sean’s only disappointment with Joyful Journeys was that there weren’t any crystals for sale.

As we headed back south and approached Great Sand Dunes, I couldn’t resist pulling over for some photos of the distant dunefield across the valley.

Our trip had only just begun, and next day we would move on to our next National Park, but during this brief visit to the San Luis Valley, the valley and the Sangre de Cristos were really grabbing hold of me. I didn’t know it standing there on the side of State Route 17, but I would return to the valley once more before the end of 2021.

Our next stop was the town of Alamosa (population 9,800) southwest of Great Sand Dunes. Situated on the Rio Grande, the town is the commercial and population center of the San Luis Valley. We needed gas, a few foodstuffs, and most critically ice. Unfortunately, the Speedway and the Walgreens in town were both sold out of ice. The supply chain shortage of ice we’d experienced in Denver continued. We eventually tried a liquor store and were able to get a few bags to replenish the coolers.

After our supply run, we drove back to the Park, approaching it from a different direction, south, along the base of Blanca Peak.

Back in camp, we had a snack of chips and hummus and prosciutto-wrapped cheese before driving over to the pullouts on the road near the Park entrance to see the setting sun on the dunefield and mountains.

Star Dune

Image: Sean M. Santos

Rocky Mountain Juniper

To the east of the road, the transition zones into the foothills were obvious, with sandy grassland nearest the road, a band of Piñon-Juniper woodland at the base of the foothills, and then Douglas Fir and other conifers on the slopes leading to tree line and the alpine zone beyond.

Star Dune

In the other direction, the sand sheet led to the dunes.

Although grass and low brush anchor and in some ways mask it, the low, flat sand sheet is a vast part of the unique ecosystem of the dunes.

Far out in the western distance across the San Luis Valley were the San Juan Mountains.

Mount Herard

Cathedral Peak

Rocky Mountain Juniper

Rocky Mountain Juniper

As the sun dropped, we took our time at the pullouts, admiring the differently angled views and reading the interpretive signs.

Mount Herard

Rocky Mountain Juniper

Carbonate Mountain

For the final sunset moments, we drove down to the main dunes parking area, which we’d thus far avoided. It was emptying out for the evening, so we parked and walked over to walk out onto the sand sheet.

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Some college-aged guys arrived after us, threw off their shoes, and went running off barefoot toward the dunes before it got too dark.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Here we were on the low, broad bed of Medano Creek, completely dry on this late August afternoon.

Mount Herard

Carbonate Mountain

Good job, visitors.

Back in the campground, I went to the camp store for one final bundle of fire from Kimberly. She was chatting with a ranger as we walked in. Kimberly introduced me as her friend from Illinois. All three of us had ties to the Land of Lincoln, so we got chatting about Illinois’ woes for a few minutes.

In camp, it was time for a campfire, negronis, and a dinner of hot dogs and potato chips.

After dinner, we sat and wrote postcards, enjoyed the campfire, and chatted until it was time to climb into the tent.

I read about the myth of Yucca Man (the desert Sasquatch) in Desert Oracle. It made me dream of bears.

Next morning, Thursday, August 26, we stirred slowly from our slumbers.

I had some signal, so checked in on Elsa’s monitor camera back in Chicago.

It was time to break camp and continue on to the next part of our adventure.

We were in no particular rush, and took our time dismantling things and sorting them for the car and our impending three-night stay at a lodge.

Sean observed about himself: “Brush teeth. Pee. Eat. Poop. I’m a well-tempered clavier.”

Over at the restrooms and dish-washing sink, I got chatting with some folks from Jacksonville who had just hiked out to the Point of No Return and were headed in the afternoon to some hot springs and Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It wouldn’t be the last time that we’d talk to folks doing some version of the same Park cycle we were.

Mule Deer

On the way out of the Park, we made a last stop at the Visitor Center and bookshop to get, well, books. Lots of books. It was the beginning of a realization on the trip that since we’d driven and not flown like we usually do, we didn’t have to temper our acquisition of books on this trip.

As we were wrapping up, I noted the industrial fan in the shop. It was one of the ways—along with federally mandated masking and limited numbers of people admitted—that the Park was trying to mitigate the COVID risks.

Satisfied with our selections, we checked out and headed to the car, ready to cross the San Juan Mountains and reach Mesa Verde National Park.

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