Magazine article Sunset

Name That Dune

Magazine article Sunset

Name That Dune

Article excerpt

It's a great Colorado autumn escape and our newest national park- and you've probably never heard of it

GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE became America's latest national park in 2004, but it's still Colorado's best-kept secret for a fall fling. Here, we'll prove it.

It's one weirdly wonderful outdoor adventure It doesn't matter if you're a first-time or a repeat customer, the place always seems surreal-as if nature somehow misplaced billions of cubic feet of Saharan sand at the foot of the snow-dusted Sangre de Cristo Mountains. How the forces of wind and water have labored for eons to sculpt an immense 30-square-mile sandbox, with the tallest dunes in North America, makes logical sense. But viscerally, the dunes register as improbable and wild.

Daytime temperatures This month they hover in the 50s and 60s, a welcome reprieve from summer, when the mercury can rise to a searing 140o on the dune fields.

Crowds Gone, for the most part; now limited to browsing mule deer on winter hiatus from surrounding high mountain valleys.

Car camping Head for the improved sites of Pinyon Flats Campground, complete with a front-row vantage of the dunes (and equipped with modern restrooms); they're perfect for easy walkabouts.

Free license to be a kid again Wander the trailless expanse at will, and you'll be enveloped by a crazy maze of mammoth sand mountains and endlessly converging ridgelines flowing with the winds. Zigzagging from Pinyon Flats, you can trundle up the taller stationary sand dunes in about 1 ½ hours.

Challenges for the willing The able-bodied can set their sights on 750-foot Star Dune, the tallest in North America and one of the most challenging sand treks in the park. At 8 miles round-trip from Pinyon Flats, it's worth the trudge: The summit's 360° panorama takes in i4,ooo-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristos, the broad San Luis Valley, the snowy San Juan Mountains on the western horizon, and the volcanic plateaus of New Mexico to the south.

Nonsandy alternatives You don't even have to venture into the dune labyrinth to enjoy the park. Trails like Dunes Overlook and Sand Ramp ply the eastern mountain foothills and are more sure-footed than sand. From these high-ground trails, you can survey the dune complex in much the same way explorer Zebulon Pike did 200 years ago when he became the first to document the Great Sand Dunes, writing that "their appearance was exactly that of the sea in a storm. …

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