New Mexico's Enchanted Circle and Colorado's Great Sand Dunes, page 2

Page 1: Bicycling the Enchanted Circle Highway
Page 2: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

It rained during the night and it was raining this morning, but that was no problem for us. Bill and Kit let us sleep inside their guesthouse last night, so we stayed warm and dry. Kathy cooked pancakes while I packed the car, and I was happy that I didn't need to pack up a wet tent.

It rained intermittently as we drove to Great Sand Dunes National Park, and when we arrived at the park a cold, steady rain made the outdoors feel miserable. Kathy and I began to ask each other, "Do we really want to camp here?" "We could drive home and skip the misery of cooking and camping in the rain, but Daniel would be terribly disappointed." "We could go camping next weekend to cheer him up, but it wouldn't be the same." We decided to at least tour the park's vistor center. After watching the 20-minute movie, we noticed that the rain had stopped and the clouds were not so dark anymore. I took pictures for a while and then saw a patch of blue sky, so we decided to camp. By the time we had claimed a campsite the sun was shining brightly, the air was warm, and Daniel was begging to hike down to the dunes.

On the east side of the dunefield, between the dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, flows the seasonal Medano Creek. It was flowing well today due to the recent rain, streaming through the sand in many braided paths. Families were playing in the water as though they were at the beach, and the "surge-flow" of Medano Creek only added to the beach ambiance by imitating ocean surf. The park staff say that little sand dams build up in the creek and then collapse, creating surges of water that seem like gentle waves. We loved playing in the creek. When we hiked down to the creek I'd been planning to cross it and hike up a sand dune, but I decided to put that hike off until tomorrow. Eventually we had to drag our children away from the sand and water so that we could cook our dinner and set up our tent.


Kit and our family outside the guesthouse.


The dunefield at Great Sand Dunes National Park. Daniel and I hiked this trail from our campsite down to the creek.


Looking south at the visitors' center from Medano Creek.


Playing in the "surge-flow" of Medano Creek.




Maggie was afraid of the water at first, but soon became comfortable in it.

Thursday, June 11

We all woke up excited to climb the sand dunes, so we ate snacks for breakfast and went down to the dunefield. The Park Service recommends hiking the dunes early, before the sand has a chance to get too hot. We set out for High Dune, a tall dune at 650 feet, but not the tallest in the dunefield. The tallest dune in both the dunefield and all of North America is Star Dune, at 750 feet. Star Dune was too far away for Daniel to hike.

We quickly figured out that we needed to hike the ridgelines of the dunes and zig-zag our way to High Dune. We hiked straight up the face of one dune but barely made it to the top because the loose sand slid out from under our hands and feet. One nice thing about hiking the dunefield was that we didn't worry about Daniel's safety. We let him run on ahead of us, and didn't worry about him tripping or falling - at worst, he would have tumbled down a steep hill of soft sand. In a few places the climb was so steep that Daniel couldn't hike it, so I had to carry both Daniel and Maggie, which made for very slow hiking.

At the top of High Dune we stayed a little while to snack and enjoy panoramic views of the park, and then we began the most fun part of the hike - racing down the steep dune faces. At Daniel's insistence, he and Kathy slid down all the steep hills on their bottoms. With Maggie on my back, I ran down the hills and had no trouble keeping my balance, even on slopes of almost 45°.


Maggie woke up early to play outside.


Kathy and Daniel run across the dunefield.


Maggie rode up on Michael's back.


A visitor flies a kite from the ridge of a dune.


Sitting on top of High Dune, 650 feet above the creek. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are in the background beyond the dunefield.


Star Dune, the tallest sand dune in North America (750 feet.) The San Luis valley and San Juan Mountains are in the background.




Daniel didn't like walking down the steep dunes, so he slid down them instead.


Daniel slides down a dune on Kathy's trail.


Maggie and Michael run down a dune.

In a short time we were back at Medano Creek where we ate lunch and let the kids play all afternoon. We had sand toys with us this time (shovel, bucket and rake,) so Daniel became obsessed with digging while Maggie played in the creek.

Medano Creek is a truly unique place to spend an afternoon. There's water and sand to play in, a strong breeze to keep you cool, and stunning views of both the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the tallest sand dunes in North America. There were families playing everywhere, in the water and on the dunes, and a few people flew kites in the breeze.

The park has several trails that go up into the Sangre de Cristos, including one that goes to the summit of Mt. Herard, the most prominent mountain in the park. I would love to hike those trails, but that wasn't practical for us on this trip. Daniel is getting too heavy for me to carry in a backpack, and he can only hike a few miles on his own. Also, several trailheads can only be accessed from rough, primitive dirt roads that our small car cannot navigate. We will need to explore those some other year. After a long afternoon at the creek, we packed up camp and began our drive home.

This vacation was the first genuine test of our new, "longest bike on the road" setup of a tandem bicycle plus a trailercycle plus a child trailer, and both Daniel and I handled it well. Daniel proved that he can enjoy riding for long distances, and I figured out how to safely control the bike. This is good news for our family bicycle trips over the next couple of years.


After lunch the clouds dispersed enough to reveal Mount Herard (13,297 feet.)


Maggie and Daniel spent the afternoon playing with sand.


Dozens of visitors hiked to the top of High Dune in the afternoon.


Maggie sped up the erosion process by grabbing handful after handful of sand and throwing it into the water.


Daniel adds a window to his railroad boxcar. Later on he asked Daddy to draw a locomotive and a caboose on either side.

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Page 1: Bicycling the Enchanted Circle Highway
Page 2: Great Sand Dunes National Park