The rain caught up with us in late afternoon. The smell was electric: fresh, crisp, unexpected. A mixture of plant life and damp earth. A smell you'd never find in the city.
We had left Denver 3 1/2 hours earlier, bound for Great Sand Dunes, the nation's newest national park. A line of storms dogged us as we drove south; when we zigzagged through a Rocky Mountain pass into the scrubland of south-central Colorado, the glowering sky spread across the horizon and a misty rain began to fall. But in the distance, rays of sunlight broke through the clouds to illuminate a range of golden hills.
"Is that the park?" I asked my companion, Colorado photographer Hal Stoelzle. He nodded. "We're still at least 30 miles away. They say the dunes are so large that you can see them from space."
Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to the tallest dunes in North America, wind-sculpted mountains of sand that rise 750 feet in the shadow of some of the tallest peaks of the Rockies. (A July wildfire threatened a separate area of southern Colorado, more than 50 miles and two mountain ranges away.)
On my late May visit, snow still clung to the ridges of the range behind the dunes, but a cloudburst erased the view. As we passed through the park's entrance station, though, the rain gods smiled, and we drove to the base of the dunes under a clearing sky. Puddles were everywhere, but the afternoon sun was warm.
"We're lucky the rain stopped," I told Hal, reading aloud a sign that warned visitors to leave the dunes quickly if they saw lightning or heard thunder. He nodded. "Colorado has a lot of lightning strikes," he said. "People die all the time."
We walked through cottonwood trees and willows, emerging at the edge of a wide, shallow creek. On the other side were the dunes — nearly 50 square miles of sand, silt and clay carved into a shifting, soaring fantasy land of shadow and light. Nature's sandbox. And I wanted to play.
But first, there was the stream to cross. A sign said it was Medano Creek and that its source was in the mountains 13 miles away.
I stepped in and instantly recoiled.
"It's so cold," I yelped, half to myself.
A man with two golden retrievers and a child in tow grinned at me.
"How long do you think it's been since it was snow?" He pointed toward the nearest peak — 13,297-foot Mt. Herard — and answered his own question. "Probably less than a day."
I looked at him, the child and the two retrievers with new respect. They were fording the stream without flinching. In fact, the dogs seemed deliriously happy, a splashing chaos of wet fur, wagging tails and bouncing bodies.
I steeled myself and waded back into the calf-high water, trying to concentrate on my goal: the dunes. I wanted to climb to the top. It seemed an attainable goal. People have been doing it for eons, from ancient North Americans to Southern Ute, Jicarilla Apaches, Navajos, explorers, gold miners, ranchers and, finally, park visitors. The view, they say, is spectacular.
Great Sand Dunes' status changed in September; it graduated from national monument to national park, based partly on a 100,000-acre acquisition that added a large section of unusual star dunes — multi-armed dunes that merge to form a single point. I wanted to see those. Even if that goal was too lofty — they're in a remote section of the park — a hike to the top of 700-foot High Dune would satisfy.
A park guidebook said it was less than two miles but added, "Don't underestimate the effort or time it will take." From its 9,341-foot elevation, visitors can see a panorama of Rocky Mountain peaks. And with the sun now moving low in the west, I hoped to see the mountains behind the park at sunset, when they are said to glow red. That's why early Spanish settlers named the range Sangre de Cristo, or Blood of Christ.
The fresh rain made the sand easier to walk on, and I made good progress for about an hour. Hal and I had parted company at the stream, and I chugged uphill alone. There was no trail, but I did as other hikers were doing, following ridgelines toward the top, sliding back half a step for each step I took forward.
I've climbed California dunes in Death Valley, Kelso and Algodones in the Imperial Valley, but Colorado's dunes seemed different. Out of sync. The others were surrounded by arid desert; nearby mountains were barren. At Great Sand Dunes, creeks flow along each side of the dune field and the mountains are lush with vegetation.
Later I learned the mountains and creeks are two reasons these dunes exist. Geologists believe that sweeping winds carry sand from a dry lakebed toward the Sangre de Cristo mountains, where the winds slow and the sand drops to Earth, forming the dune field at the mountains' base. Creeks flowing along the sides of the field act as a barrier, keeping the dunes in place and causing them to grow vertically into mountains of silt and sand.
The sky had grown darker. I looked up and saw no hikers ahead; when I turned around, several were far below me, apparently all heading back to the parking lot. Low clouds on the horizon had swallowed the sun. There would be no colorful sunset tonight.
I wondered how long the light would hold. Then I remembered the frigid stream I'd have to recross to get back to the parking lot. I didn't want to do that in the dark. I hustled back down the dunes; I could try my assault on High Dune again the next day.
It would have been pleasant and convenient to spend the night in the park, but accommodations are limited: There's only one 10-room motel. The 88-space park campground is on a first-come, first-served basis and sometimes fills by 10 a.m. We weren't lucky enough to score either, and our penalty was to stay in the nearest town, Alamosa, a farming center 35 miles away.
I poked around the area the next morning, checking out accommodations, of which there were many, mostly pleasant-looking, recently built chain motels, and I watched the muddy Rio Grande — considered one of the nation's most endangered rivers because of pollution and agricultural diversion — as it sluggishly made its way through town.
Then we drove north on Colorado 17 to see some of the region's lesser-known sights. Great Sand Dunes National Park may be the nation's newest, but it already has a share of oddball nearby attractions. The largest of these is Colorado Gators, an alligator farm where you can have your picture taken sitting on an angry, 500-pound gator, if that's the kind of thing you like to do.
Many apparently do. Visitors stream in on weekends, drawn by billboards near the national park that advertise "Florida Gators: 2,000 miles. Colorado Gators: 20 miles north." Never mind that the muddy ponds where the farm's 100 alligators are kept reek ("Oh, how stinky," said one woman) or that flotsam, jetsam and assorted trash are heaped around the farm.
There are bonuses, of a sort. One of the workers handed me an alligator tooth — "they lose them all the time," he said — which made me popular with a couple of 8-year-old boys standing nearby.
And it was here I met Noah Mather, gator wrestler. "They're always grinning," Mather said of his reptilian opponents. He waded into the muddy water and tussled with some full-grown male alligators, then emerged looking at his fingers. "I still got all 10," he said.
After leaving the gator farm, we continued north on Colorado 17, driving about five miles farther. We knew we'd gone far enough when little green men began popping up at the side of the road. Seriously. We turned onto a dirt track and followed signs and metal sculptures of aliens to the UFO Watchtower.
Judy Messoline emerged from a dome-shaped concrete building and greeted us. She said she'd been having some problems with her cattle ranch, so she erected the UFO Watchtower, a 10-foot-tall metal platform that overlooks the scrubland of the San Luis Valley. "I opened it as a tourist trap," she said, laughing. "But then we had 20 sightings [of UFOs], and psychics told me there are two vortexes here."
It's all a bit tongue-in-cheek for Messoline, who has written an autobiography called "The Crazy Lady Down the Road." Even if visitors don't spot a saucer, they get a good view of the valley from the platform. And those who venture inside her gift shop can buy a $2 bumper sticker that reads: "Buckle up! It makes it harder for the aliens to suck you out of your car." If you happen to visit on Aug. 13 or 14, you can join the festivities for the annual UFO Olympics, where participants will compete in build-a-UFO and best-alien-hat contests.
Coming in out of the rain
The sky had been clear all morning; now clouds were beginning to build. We raced back to the national park, stopping briefly at the new visitors center, an attractive Southwestern-style facility that opened in October. It started to rain, and the building quickly filled with park visitors trying to avoid a drenching. Among the things we learned while waiting for the sun: Lightning is the No. 1 life-threatening weather hazard in Colorado. Hike early in the morning, when high winds and thunderstorms are less likely.
We also learned the park is much more than the dunes it's named for, with settings from desert sand to alpine tundra.
Backcountry visitors can hike forest or alpine trails, see lush meadows or timberline lakes, or four-wheel drive on a road at the edge of the dunes or into the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
"About 90% of our visitors never go beyond the paved roads," says park Supt. Steve Chaney. Those who don't venture into the backcountry miss some of his favorite things. "Visiting high-elevation streams and lakes and hiking in alpine tundra in summer," he says, listing his seasonal highs. "Watching Sand and Medano creeks in late spring when they're full of runoff. And seeing the dunes covered with snow in the winter. That's spectacular."
The sky cleared just as it had the day before, and Hal and I hurried to the dunes' parking lot, once again going separate ways at the stream.
I took a deep breath and plunged in. On the other side, I started climbing, watching others as I walked. In front of me, a teenager hot-dogged down a sandy hill on a snowboard; across the way, a couple sat quietly on the edge of a ridgeline.
Several people had brought dogs, which bounded up and down the hills while their owners tried to keep up. On a hill to my left, two groups of children were climbing to the top of a small mountain, flinging themselves off in a rolling heap of giggles, then repeating the process.
I was now about halfway to my goal, so I sat down for a few moments to rest and admire the view. Storms were again marching across the broad valley below. I felt a drop of water and looked up. A heavy black cloud had settled above the park. I glanced up at High Dune. It would probably take another hour. Perhaps the rain would stop.
I started upward again. The party atmosphere on the dunes had vanished as quickly as the clouds had rolled in. Everyone seemed to have disappeared. The rain was increasing. I looked into the distance at the clouds again. A streak of lightning crackled across the sky.
High Dune has been here for thousands of years. Maybe I'll conquer it another day.
Rosemary McClure can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Small slice of Sahara
From LAX, nonstop service to Denver is available on American, United and Frontier, and connecting service (change of plane) is offered on United, Delta, America West, Northwest and American. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $202.
From LAX to Albuquerque, nonstop service is offered on Southwest, and connecting service is available on America West, United, American, Frontier and Southwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $198.
To reach the park from Denver, go south on Interstate 25 to Walsenburg, west on U.S. 160, north on Colorado 150. From Albuquerque, drive north on Interstate 25 to Santa Fe, then north on U.S. 285 to Alamosa.
WHERE TO STAY
The most convenient place to stay is at Pinyon Flats Campground, which is in the park and open year-round with group camping and 88 individual campsites, or at Great Sand Dunes Lodge (listed below). Next best is Alamosa, the closest town to the park (35 miles).
Great Sand Dunes Lodge, 7900 Highway 150 N., Mosca, CO 81146; (719) 378-2900, http://www.gsdlodge.com . The 10-room lodge is just outside the entrance to the park — you'll have a sweeping view of the dunes from your room and be able to watch the sun set from your patio. Heated indoor pool. Closed mid-October to March. Doubles $89.
Inn of the Rio Grande, 333 Santa Fe Ave., Alamosa, CO 81101; (800) 669-1658 or (719) 589-5833, http://www.innoftherio.com . Has 125 newly renovated rooms. Restaurant, bar, indoor pool, rec room and small fitness center. Free high-speed Internet access and wireless hookup. Doubles $89.95 with full breakfast.
Best Western Alamosa Inn, 2005 Main St., Alamosa, CO 81101; (800) 459-5123 or (719) 589-2567, http://www.bestwestern.com . Indoor pool, fitness center, high-speed Internet access. Doubles $89 with continental breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
True Grits Steak House, 100 Santa Fe Ave., Alamosa, CO 81101; (719) 589-9954. John Wayne movie posters decorate this down-home restaurant. The food is reasonable and tasty. Entrees start at $9.99.
Taqueria Calvillo, 119 Broadway Ave., Alamosa, CO; (719) 587-5500. Excellent freshly made tortillas at this casual family cafe. Mexican buffet or order from the menu. Buffet $9, including beverages and dessert bar.
Plan dune hikes early in the day. Summer weather brings high midday temperatures that make the sand too hot for outings, and afternoon thunderstorms often mean lightning strikes.
Bring water, hats, sunscreen, shoes and food. Dogs are allowed on the dunes on a leash, but remember ground temperatures often get hot enough to burn paws. And never leave dogs or children in a hot car.
TO LEARN MORE:
Colorado Tourism Office, 1625 Broadway, Suite 1700, Denver, CO 80202; (800) COLORADO (265-6723), http://www.colorado.com .