A couple hours South of Poncha Pass the valley widened and the mountains grew shorter with peaks more dispersed. We neared Great Sand Dunes National Park. 40 miles (roughly 65 km.) we spotted a beige cluster in the southeast distance. The fact it was visible from such a distance suggests the scale of it. We stopped for a quick bathroom break off the highway at a pit stop with no more than 2 of any item in stock, and less than a ¼ of the shelves with anything to catch the dust at all. There was a diner attached. If crickets paid they might make ends meet. How these communities and places survive is a mystery to me. The sandy, infertile, and incredibly inhospitable land was littered with mobile homes and trailers whose tin roofs were weighed down with old tires so not to fly away with the winds that whipped the land into it’s current condition. Living in Edmonton and Saskatoon I’ve been questioned by many as to how we survive seasons. The seemingly unfathomable cold is nothing compared to the un-growing, unproviding lands these are. With cold brings snow, brings melt and feeds growth. The native plants seem to barely survive here. It’s hard to imagine this land providing in the sense we are accustomed to in the fertile, frozen north.
We lucked out coming into the park. It seems those at the gate were on break. The typically manned pay window was closed tight with a sign saying “gone, will collect payment on re-entry”. Awesome! National Park entry fees are $30. Based on our cheap living budget that’s 3 days of meals for the two of us. The dunes were barely visible from about 1km before the park gates until almost 2km after. By that point they seem to quadruple in size. What looked once like a sandy first rise up a desert mountain was suddenly a deep mass of sun warmed wash. From the sandy, mostly frozen creek-bed below the dunes there is no camera lens that can capture the volume of what lies before you. Carefully we skipped across 100m (300 feet) of partially frozen, still running, wet sand wash to get to the dry warm beach that is the base of the dunes. And a beach it was! This is by far the cleanest, softest, purest sand I’ve ever seen or set foot in. It was dry 6” deep and I just can’t explain… think the “champagne powder” of sand.
With a quick preview and a plan of making the 750 foot vertical climb the following day, we left the park and headed up the next mountain south to a free campsite at the base of Zapata Falls.
I have a thing for waterfalls. I find them absolutely fascinating and am obsessed with seeing and participating in as many as possible. How exactly does one participate in a waterfall? Good question. I haven’t really given this much thought until this moment, the first time I’ve tried to explain or justify my obsession. There is such a power behind any waterfall. The only way they exist is because of thousands of years of water, something that seems so soft and gentle, forming rock; something so hard and un-formable. You can participate by hiking nearby, ascending the same landscape they have cut through with no regard to its previous shape. We swim and bath in the pools they form. We jump off cliffs with them, feeling for a brief second the same power plunging into the pools below. That’s all if you’re lucky. In most cases we participate simply by being there to observe and feel a power and force that cannot be measured by any man-made unit.
Zapata Falls was all of that, but frozen. Paused in time as for what you can see. Your ears and feet disagree though. Under thick, cracked ice, mostly clouded with air but for a few glimpses through a clear block. This flow was alive and well beneath a frozen cloak of cold trying its best to put you on your backside with every slippery step. I feel winter may be the best and possibly only real time to view these falls. From the end of well groomed trail leading to them, the frozen state allows you to climb back into the tight and tall canyon, around a bend where the giant falls stand. Without the solid water I’m not sure we would have witnessed this sight.
Half-way back to the main parking area, the trail forks and leads an alternate route back to one of the best laid out campsites we’ve stayed at yet. Two large loops, one for tenting and one for RV’s are lined alternately, either side with pull-through stalls, each complete with a bear-proof storage bin to keep food items in overnight, as well as picnic tables and steel fire-pits including removable grilling grates. It seemed there wasn’t a site that didn’t offer beautiful panoramic views of the valley below, with the city of Alamosa to the South, the distant peaks of the San Juan Mountains to the West, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park to the North, slightly dwarfed by the Sangre De Cristo Mountains behind. But just slightly. From this elevated viewpoint we were able to, for the first time, really view and comprehend the 31 square mile sprawl of the dunes.