August 30, 2013 – Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes and Zapata Falls

When I got up this morning, I walked outside to the sounds of silence to take some pictures of the sand dunes form our campground with the morning sunlight painting deep shadows on their western flanks.

We drove up to the Great Sand Dunes National Park.   From a distance the sand dunes did not look too overwhelming.  However, the closer we got the 750 foot high and 30 square mile dunes became more and more impressive.

The dunes were formed from sand and soil deposits of the Rio Grande and its tributaries, flowing through the San Luis Valley.  Over the ages, westerly winds picked up sand particles from the river flood plain.  As the wind lost power before crossing the Sangre de Cristo Range, the sand was deposited on the east edge of the valley.  This process continues, and the dunes are slowly growing.  The wind changes the shape of the dunes daily.

There are several streams flowing on the perimeter of the dunes.  The streams erode the edge of the dune field, and sand is carried downstream.  The water disappears into the ground, depositing sand on the surface. Winds pick up the deposits of sand, and blow them up onto the dune field once again.  Digging a couple inches into the dunes even at their peaks reveals wet sand.

Enroute to the Visitor’s Center,we stopped to watch some grazing

These sand dunes, North America’s tallest, are represent only 11% of a 330-square-mile deposit of sand which has been eroded from the mountains, shattered by freezing and thawing and tumbled by streams and winds. 

The parking lot access to the dunes is a half mile from the Visitor’s Center;

after which it is a half mile walk across a level stretch of sand to reach the first of the dunes rises from the plain.

While some of our group, Debbie included, took turns sand boarding (using a board similar to a snowboard to “glide” down the flops of the dunes … generally sitting on the board),


the rest of us hiked up to the top of one of the higher dunes, a mile or two up-and-down-and-up-again trek where for every 18” steps up you take, you only seem to gain about 12”.  But the further into the dune area we walked, the more spectacular the scenery became.


If you looked carefully, there were animal tracks everywhere, although none seem to lead to any daytime refuge.

Periodically, among the mono-colored landscape I’d spot a few tufts of grass and even some flowers seemingly defying the arid nature of the dunes.

However, an answer came when looking at our footprints where the sand displaced by our steps was frequently damp only a few inches below the surface.

 Four of us did “summit” our objective dune.

Dave and Debi Normington

Joe Warwick and I

Before leaving the dunes, I was told I was the only one who’d not tried the sand boarding.  So …

I’d like to take credit for such athleticism … but this was a truly staged photo.

Before heading back for our car I had to take part in a post dune hike ritual


After lunch, Debbie and I drove the five miles to Zapata Falls Park …

only to discover we were still facing a 4½ mile uphill drive on a very rocky dirt road … before the ¾ mile hike up an equally rocky trail to the stream

leading to the falls.  However, to reach the falls we had to walk up the stream which was incredibly cold 

to reach the slot canyon to actually see the falls.


After our 5:00 PM wine get-together we all went down to the campground restaurant for dinner and home-made  pies.  Somehow, I managed to eat my way through a piece of chocolate brownie with whipped cream à la mode AND half of Debbie’s apple pie à la mode!

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