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Wyoming Wanderers; Great Sand Dunes NP

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Sarah Post
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs


Have you ever seen a photo or a scene in a movie of a stereotypical desert that has great rolling sand dunes as far as the eye can see?

I have always wanted to see something like this and my trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado, made it possible.

There are two sides of the park that are just about polar opposites. The preserve side of the park is mountainous, rocky and in some areas, has a dense forest. Then there is the dune side of the park, which is just dozens and dozens of massive sand dunes that seem to go on almost forever, or at least until they hit more of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. 

I started my day early to make the 5 hours-and-some-change drive from Cheyenne to the park. Overall, not a terrible drive if you are making a weekend of the trip like I did.

I stopped by the park’s visitor center after entering the park through the main gate on Rt. 150 to get my park souvenirs, collectibles and a map. Then I headed to my first destination, which was on the preserve side of the park.

The first hike I did was the Mosca Pass Trail at the Wellington Nature Trail parking lot. This hike was roughly six miles round trip with a 1,400-foot gain in elevation form the base to the top. It was a beautiful trail through the mountain’s fall foliage and it was not terribly difficult. But the most exciting part of the hike was when I saw a bobcat! He ran right in front of me and then sat at the edge of the trail and patiently waited for me to get a good photo of him before running off. There are also signs to look out for bighorn sheep, bears and elk, so keep a lookout for some wildlife.

After I finished this hike, I sat out the back of my car and enjoyed the views as I ate my lunch, hydrated and prepared for my next hike.

Instead of parking at the dune parking lot, I parked at the entrance to Medano Pass Primitive Road and took a longer hike to the dunes.

Now, do you recall how difficult it is to walk in the deep sand at the beach? This hike was like that, except uphill and four miles long. But don’t get me wrong, it was well worth it! I hiked from my car to the dunes by taking a narrow path through the brush that quickly widened and became sandy. Then I walked straight up the dunes and across the tops to get to High Dune, the second tallest one in the park. This route, the longer of the hiking options, was about 2 miles one way and just shy of 700 feet in elevation gain. The whole hike was just amazing and being able to see the mountain range surrounding the sand dunes and the dunes stretching for miles was worth the tough walk.  

The dunes are the tallest in North America and were created by sand and sediment carried into the area by creeks, streams and wind. The wind blew sand and sediment toward the mountains, where opposing winds turned the sand into the dunes there today. In the field, there are six different types of dunes: Reversing Dunes, Star Dunes, Parabolic Dunes, Barchan Dunes, Transverse Dunes, and Nebkha or Coppice Dunes. You’ll have to follow this guide and visit the park yourself if you want to learn about the dune types further. I learned a lot about them, and the park’s ecosystem while I was in the visitor center.

I finished my day by watching a gorgeous sun set over the dunes from the back of my car, then I drove to my hotel in Salida, Colorado to rest up for my second day of hiking.

Day 2

On the second day of my trip, I drove north from Salida up to State Highway 82 and Twin Lakes, Colorado. This road also turns into Independence Pass, which is one of the highest paved mountain passes in the U.S., at the Twin Lakes Village and goes all the way to Aspen, Colorado. I however did not go this way, and stopped for my hike in Twin Lakes.

I took a right and went up above the lakes to the South Mount Elbert Trailhead, but hiked the Lily Pond Lake trail instead. This was a little shy of 6 miles round trip, and easy to moderate in difficulty level.

The hike was amazing, and at every turn I found my breath being taken away by the beauty of the area. I visited in October, which I recommend you do as well, so I would catch the fall colors on the Aspen trees. They were orange and yellow, gold and brown and every shade in between. At one point, I was walking through such a thick section of aspen that everything was just tinted gold from the sun coming through the leaves and treetops. But the colors alone weren’t even the best part. The gold and yellow colors against the massive snowcapped mountains might be the prettiest thing I have seen in my life. The sky was blue and cloudless and I could have been looking at a photo, the way the leaves popped against the mountains.

On this trail I saw Colorado’s tallest peak, 14,433-foot Mount Elbert, and many of the other fourteeners like Mount Belford, Mount Harvard and Mount Yale.

After I finished my hike, I drove back down to the Twin Lakes and found a parking spot so I could eat my lunch while looking over the lakes and to the mountains. Then, I packed back up and headed to Leadville, Colorado, for some coffee and exploring.

Leadville has a lot of history, which was fun to read and hear about on my trip. It is the highest incorporated city in North America at 10,152 foot and it is the only incorporated municipality in Lake County, Colorado. The historic district of the town is also a National Historic Landmark, and it was designated as such in 1961 for its history and inclusion of 67 mines in the 20-square-mile mining district east of the city. 

I walked around the town, got a cup of coffee from a local café, visited some of the different shops and of course got my customary sticker, because without that my trip wouldn’t have counted.

This was another amazing trip and I was so happy I was able to check seeing the fall colors on the aspen trees off my F.E. Warren AFB bucket list. I hope this edition to Wyoming Wanderers interests you enough to take a weekend trip south, maybe even next fall, to see some of the amazing scenery and adventures being at this base has to offer.