There is a lot more here than just the dunes. There are several different ecosystems inside the park. There is an area of alternating salt0encrusted plains and wetlands called a "Sabkha"; a vast "Sand Sheet" that contains over half the sand in the park; "Riparian & Wetland" areas near the creeks and springs; a "Montane Forest" that stretches from 8000 to about 9500 feet in elevation; a "Sub-Alpine" area from 9500 to 11,000 feet in elevation; and an "Alpine" region on the mountaintops that are over 11,000 feet.
The park has picnic areas in a few different parts of the park should you wish to dine in the great outdoors. The easiest to access is the one just across the parking area from the dunes. Some of these sites are set aside for handicapped use.
If you get away a bit from the crowd, you should be able to see wildlife. Here you can see a deer grazing just below the dunes. There is also some wildlife in the dunes themselves. You just need to slow down, sit down, and observe.
Although Fort Garland is not a part of Great Sand Dunes National Park, I include this tip because it is just a few miles on I-160 East from the park. In a little town of population about 100 people you can Discover the fort once commanded by the legendary frontiersman Kit Carson. Established in 1858 in southern Colorado, Fort Garland, with its garrison of over 100 men, served to protect the earliest settlers in the San Luis Valley.
It is open daily 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. April 1 to October 31; from November 1 to March 31 it is open Thursday through Monday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Creek of Zapata Falls gives you a great opportunity for pictures.
But don’t have many hopes to take pictures of “an excellent view of the entire dunefield and San Luis Valley” as brochures promiss. Yes, the view is great, but trees are on the way and don’t give a chance to take a good landscape picture.
Look at picture "Entance into Zapata Falls' cave" in this tip. I think it looks really mysterious, it came up so because all my lens was in water from fall's splashes.
Zapata Falls were real fun. I would say this is the place must to see; however, there is a trick and brochure let you know about it in vague way saying that “the hike to the falls is not for anyone unsteady on their feet.” I was quite puzzled with this warning, and because I felt very steady on my feet I decided to try it. Let me to reveal this mystery. The falls are inside of a small cave, so you cannot see it from the creek. To reach waterfalls you have to climb very slippery stones and even get into cold mountain water and walk balancing on slippery rocks into the cave, then stay in cold water if you want to spend at least a minute to enjoy the view and take pictures (to my own proud I enjoyed, took pictures and even a movie). Now imagine how cold my feet were after a return to the beginning of this climb? They were VERY COLD. But believe me, it was worth it.
Before coming to Great Sand Dunes National Park I learnt about the beauty of San Luis Lake, so after sand dunes we took are right from County Lane 6, and followed the signs. Well, the lake is really beautiful, but on some reason this place turned from visitors’ attraction to abandoned place with old picnic tables, no grass and green water. It is sad that such a cute lake turned into forgotten place. Despite all this, I think I took very good pics, so if you are in nature/landscape photography, don’t miss this place.
I found funny an idea of sliding down the sand dunes on snow boards. I saw some people who took paper boards and tighten string to the front, which served them for similar plastic board from the store. So if you are a person of fun, don’t forget to grab a board with yourself.
Unfortunately, during our visit the sand was wet after 2-hour rain, so sliding was not that easy. -This is just for you to know and not to be disappointed.
The roads into and out of Great Sand Dunes offer beautiful panoramas and a typical western US experience. As you approach the sand dunes they grow from a small speck to a respectable size. Depending on the time of year and day, you could be driving with no cars in sight. As usual around here, curves are rare and when they do occur, you often wonder why they made the road curve here!!
As you can see from the picture, tent camping is a very good option here. These campers were set up a few hunded yards away from the stream in a relatively quiet area near the edge of the dunes. Just imagine the big sky at night in this dry air.
Notice the horses on the ridge.
A surprise to many is how many beautiful flowers you can see in desert areas. This is particularly true after a substantial rainfall in the spring, but as shown in this picture, even in the hot dry days of summer, the beauty of bloom can be witnessed.
Although we actually did not rent a horse here (we did closer to Mesa Verde), it did seem like a great way to explore the dunes and have a great time. This group passed by us, and were the only other visitors we saw for a while.
Horseback riding is permitted in the Monument, but riding is not permitted in the main public use area (off the dunes parking lot).
As you head to the Great Sand Dunes you can stop by a crocodile reservoir!
I was also surprise to find this in Colorado…
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