Great Sand Dunes National Park on the Way Home

On Saturday, November 20 [2021], I departed Taos, headed ultimately home to Chicago. By the time I reached home the following Tuesday (two days before Thanksgiving), I had passed through Denver and Kansas City. But before that, I couldn’t resist stopping for a short hike at Great Sand Dunes National Park. After all, it was only an hour and forty-five minutes from Taos. And it was on the way. Sort of. It would be the first time I ever visited a National Park by myself.

I left the wonderful little AirBnB at 8am and drove north on New Mexico 522 as it skirted the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos and the edge of Carson National Forest. I listened to U2’s The Joshua Tree as I drove, because why not?

Ute Mountain

As I dropped off the Taos Plateau and into the San Luis Valley near the Colorado state line, I passed Ute Mountain, which I’d been looking at off in the distance for the past three days.

I entered Colorado and continued north on what was now Colorado 159. All the while the Sangre de Cristos were off to my right.

Up ahead I got my first look at the dramatic northern part of the range.

The road swung down and through the town of San Luis.

Blanca Peak and Mount Lindsey

Out of town it was a straight shot north toward Blanca Peak.

Blanca Peak

In Fort Garland, I turned left, then turned to head north again toward the Park. When I got close, I pulled over to get a few good shots of Blanca Peak.

Ute Mountain

Back to the south, Ute Mountain loomed as it had in the other direction from Taos.

Blanca Peak

Twin Peaks

Sean and I had driven this road in August [2021] when we’d been camping at Great Sand Dunes. Everything was familiar now.

Carbonate Mountain

It turned out that it was a fee-free day in the Park. So I rolled on through the entrance station and drove to a parking area as close as I could get to the closed campground.

As I was getting my pack ready, a family with kids and grandmother pulled into the parking lot. The dad asked me which hike I was doing and whether they should do a hike or go out into the dunes. I explained that I was doing the Dune Overlook Trail, first up into the campground and then just a mile from the trailhead proper to the overlook.

He was tempted, but the grandmother objected. She thanked me when I agreed with her to first do the dunes, then if they still had time and energy do the hike. After all, the dunes were what they were here for. They drove away to the main dune access parking area.

Left alone, I shouldered my pack and started out.

It was cold, but not unpleasant as I walked through the silent campground.

I said hello to the campsite Sean and I had had that summer as I walked by. It had been a grand campsite in a pleasant campground in a gem of a Park.

Five minutes after I’d started, I reached the trailhead.

Mount Herard

Dune Overlook Trail winds through the sloping, grassy foothills between the dunefield and the rise of the Sangre de Cristos.

I loved the warm color of the dunes against the autumn gold of the grasses and the Rubber Rabbitbrush.

Soon I reached the point where the trail drops into a little ravine and then begins rising in several switchbacks up to a ridge and the overlook.

American Robin

I was completely alone on the trail except for the Robins, Juncos, and “little brown birds.” It occurred to me that this was the very first time in my life I’d gone to a National Park Unit by myself.

Starvation Prickly Pear

Carbonate Mountain

The northerly slopes of the mountains already had snow on them. I didn’t realize that they were about to get a lot more snow later that afternoon.

The views from the overlook were just as nice as they’d been at the height of summer. Less green, more rich browns, reds, and golds.

Mount Herard

Cathedral Peak

Carbonate Mountain

Rocky Mountain Juniper

I started back down.

Carbonate Mountain

On the way back, I finally met a couple hiking up toward the overlook. Other than them, I saw no one.

An hour and change after I’d set out, I was back at the car. It was a good little hike.

Mule Deer

Black-Billed Magpie

I drove over to the picnic area near the dune access parking lot. I sat eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and chatted with a Magpie who clearly wanted me to share.

Black-Billed Magpie

Finally he flew off when I wasn’t forthcoming.

The Visitor Center was surprisingly crowded as I drove out, so I just refilled my water bottle and used the restroom before continuing on.

As I left, I stopped multiple times to get some very autumnal shots of the dunefield.

I headed west on Lane 6 N. When I reached San Luis Lake State Wildlife Area, just outside the National Park, I couldn’t resist pulling in to have a look and take a few more moody photos of the Sangre de Cristos with the dunes in the distance.

San Luis Lake

The intermittent lake was there that November day.

San Luis Lake

San Luis Lake

Crestone Peak

Mount Herard

San Luis Lake

I love this range. From Santa Fe all the way up here there is just something about the Sangre de Cristos.

The clouds were ominous as I headed north up the length of the San Luis Valley.

As I drove, I gave a listen to all the Lord Huron albums for the first time. They kept me company through the mountains.

Up I went over Poncha Pass and finally said goodbye (for now) to the Sangre de Cristos.

The weather was worsening over the Presidential Range as I continued north into the Rocky Mountain high country.

Up in Park County, at 10,000 feet, it started to snow and the highway got a little slippery.

But soon I was headed earnestly down and outran the snow.

Chased by the dark, it was deep twilight when I arrived in Denver and pulled up at Hotel Born.

My room key had Chicago on it. It was a sign to get on home.

I grabbed takeout from the great Italian place next to the hotel (just as Sean and I had done in September). Then I took a long bath and read Earth Keeper by N. Scott Momaday, which I’d picked up in Santa Fe.

Next morning, Sunday, November 21, I was on the road again by 7am.

I started with a little Beck Morning Phase to get me out of Denver. In my rearview mirror, I could see the fresh snow blanketing the Front Range. Then something got into me and I started in on the complete Tori Amos discography. It had been quite a while. I’d get through To Venus and Back by the time I got to Kansas City.

On I went through the plains of eastern Colorado and Kansas.

A sprig of sagebrush on the dash made the car fragrant.

Flint Hills

I arrived in Kansas City at dusk. I’d chosen to go through Kansas City because I had a day of meetings ahead of me on Monday and I needed to be stationary. I figured why not KC? I could get some burnt ends.

My burnt ends and beans

On Monday, November 22, despite lots of meetings, I did have a chance to walk around Kansas City a bit and check out some cool murals.

Tuesday morning, November 23, I was up and on the road hours before dawn. Strange Little Girls through American Doll Posse before Tori lost the plot and I judiciously sampled some of her more recent stuff.

I crossed northern Missouri and reached the Mississippi River at Hannibal. I figured I may as well go have a look at Mark Twain’s birthplace. As I gassed up, I stared at the mural above next to the anti-meth billboard. It was very American all around.

Mississippi River

I crossed the Mississippi and drove through Springfield, Illinois on my way northeast home to the Windy City.

Twenty-four days after Patrick and I set out on Halloween for Texas, I reached home.

And Elsa was pleased to see me. But not as pleased as Sean was.

Oh and Elsa liked her new sheepskin rug.

4 thoughts on “Great Sand Dunes National Park on the Way Home

Leave a Reply