Wednesday, 25-June – Molas Lake, CO to Great Sand Dunes National Park
Route taken: US-550 S → US-160 E → CO-150 N
Average Gas mileage: 28.2 mpg
Weather: cool (40F) in the morning, hot (80F) and sunny with light breezes in the afternoon
Elevation: From about 10,500 ft to 7500 ft, back up to 10,850 ft through Wolf Creek Pass and back down to 8500 ft.
- driving the San Juan Skyway from Molas Pass back down to Durango
- driving US-160 E through the Rio Grande National Forest and over the 10,850 ft. Continental Divide at Wolf Creek Pass
- visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park
We had a busy day today so tried to get an early start. Despite the cold morning temperature we were able to pack up the tent and be on the road by 7:00. In Durango it was bike-to-work day but there were also lots of other bicyclists riding along US-160 E. We found out later it was the annual 7-day Bicycle Loop Tour of Colorado and this highway was merciless. Besides having 65mph traffic passing them, the cyclists were climbing towards the 10,850 ft Western Continental Divide! Hopefully they enjoyed a little of the scenery through the lush Rio Grande National Forest and the river valley. Until now, west of the Divide, the water systems all drained into the Gulf of California. From the Divide east all water drains into the Gulf of Mexico.
Passing the Divide we felt like we were officially on our way home. We had three long drive days ahead of us and we would lose two hours due to time zone changes as we drove east. To compensate we decided to “camp” at KOA Kabins so we wouldn't need to arrive with enough daylight to set up a tent each night. Our first night would be at Alamosa, CO.
After checking in we drove to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. By then it was a hot and sunny noon – not the time to try trudging up the sand dunes. A 1.25 mile hike up the dune would take us about 2 hours. Instead we ate lunch, perused the displays in the cool Visitor Center and watched the informative video. The very existence of 750 ft sand dunes trapped against the Sangre de Cristo mountains here in Colorado is a unique and amazing phenomenon. Walking along the Medano Creek was a little cooler than being on the dry sand dunes, and the wet sand of the creek bed was not blasting us when the gusts blew. Already, the Medano Creek was only flowing about 1 cf/s, not even enough to cover bare feet. The kids didn't care though. They were having a great time playing in the wet sand.
The Mosca Pass Trail that I thought would be a shady hiking option looked unshaded, dry and uninviting. After the lovely cool hiking yesterday we couldn't get excited about another dry, hot hike through scrubby Junipers and Pinyon Pines. We drove back to the City Market in Alamosa, built a salad at their salad bar and bought a few deli sides to go with it for dinner. Our treat for dinner was fresh grapes. After dinner we spent an hour planning our drive east and making reservations at available KOA Kabins for the next two nights.
About the Alamosa KOA: This campground is 10.8 miles west of the turn onto CO-150 to the Great Sand Dunes. It is right on US-160. We were glad we would be sleeping in a Kabin towards the back of the property so we would not hear highway noise. If we had been in a tent, along the fence at the front of the property, the noise might have been disturbing. The owners made an attempt to keep a strip of grass growing where the tent sites are huddled very close together under some trees for a little afternoon shade. The Kabins are more basic than other standard ones, in that they don't have air-conditioning or a TV. We didn't need either so it was not a detraction for us. The wi-fi requires an access code, the bathrooms do not.
About the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: Located 19.4 miles on CO-150 from US-160, Great Sand Dunes was designated as a National Monument in 1932 and promoted to a National Park in 2000 and a National Preserve in 2004. The dunes began forming about 440,000 years ago. The sand is the sediment remaining from a large lake which was trapped in the San Luis Valley between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, formed by plate uplift, and the San Juan Mountains, formed by volcanic activity. Water running off the mountains carried silt with it to the lake. Once the lake dried up, prevailing winds blew sand from the valley floor towards the Sangre de Cristos and storm winds blew sand from the mountains toward the valley, causing the dunes to reach record heights of 750 feet. Meanwhile, the Sand and Medano Creeks continue to wash sand down from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and that side of the dune field back into the valley. You could say the sand is caught between a rock and a hard place. As vegetation creeps into the valley the sand is stabilizing, i.e. not blowing towards the dunefield as much now. Scientists are still studying these phenomena to uncover other mysteries. For example, they were able to get the dunes to 'sing' by creating a sand avalanche. Look for it on YouTube!
The Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center has an exterior patio to view the dunes. It also has displays about the other habitats within the boundaries of the park and preserve.