Dunes Overlook Trailhead / Pinyon Flats Campground / Zapata Falls
The Paw Print
If you have lived in Alamosa for even a short period of time, you have likely visited the Great Sand Dunes. Operated by the National Park Service, this area represents Colorado in the America the Beautiful quarter series. The rift valley that formed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains also formed the sand dunes in this area, the tallest in all of North America (stay tuned for how this rift also created an abundance of hot springs in the valley). This unique geological formation with the dramatic contrast of the alpine peaks in the background is a fun place to explore. It’s a quick 40 minutes northeast from Alamosa.
I visited the area with my photographer friend so we decided to get a different perspective. Rather than hiking the typical routes on the dunes, we chose to hike behind the dunes on the Dunes Overlook Trail System. The trailhead here offers a variety of options; but, since the sun was close to setting during our visit, we chose the quick one mile Dunes Overlook Trail so we could get some great shots and enjoy the moment. The trail begins by winding through the flats with yellow Prairie Sunflowers and pink Rocky Mountain Bee plants in abundance. The views are melancholy in the sunset, with isolated Pinyon pines dotting the landscape. As the trail continues, we quickly gained elevation to get to the overlook, which was quite manageable and well worth the unique and impressive views. The overlook area is large and even has a bench to snuggle for optimum sunset viewing.
Camping options are abundant here. Pinyon Flats Campground offers the easiest solution, car camping, but there are several hike-in campgrounds that would be more suitable for a long weekend. Indian Grove, Little Medano, Aspen, Cold Creek, and Sand Creek campgrounds dot the way all the way up to 9,000 feet in elevation over the course of 11 miles. Restrooms and fire pits are available at the Pinyon Flats Campground but not at any of the others. Please check the Sand Dunes National Park website for more details before your trip. http://www.nps.gov/grsa/index.htm
If you are just looking for a quick after class hike, you can always rely on Zapata Falls just south of the Great Sand Dunes area. There is more here than one might expect. Though there are several more challenging and lengthy hikes from the trailhead, I wanted to see the falls. From the turnoff of Highway 150, it is a dirt road. The first mile is quite smooth, but the remaining 2.6 miles becomes progressively more rugged. Depending on which hike you plan to do here, you may decide to park your car at one of several pullouts along the way to extend your hike time. This may be a particularly good option as we head into fall and winter and the actual trails become slick with rain and snow. The road is wide and fully exposed so inclement weather could prove the driest trail. There was plenty of parking available during my visit, with three parking areas as well as a small campground. The hike to the falls is only half a mile and is rather nondescript. The fun begins when you tip toe your way through and around, to the base of the falls. Every visitor takes a different path, so find your own. The view of the falls is through a small crevice in the rocks so plan on getting sprinkled on as you snap a photo!
I was a bit disappointed about not having to wade through the water (it was low during my visit) so I decided to do a little exploring and found ponds with abundant plant and wildlife just below the falls. Since I had my heart set on an alpine pedicure, I took off my shoes and sat with my feet in the icy waters while I listened to my surroundings. Pure bliss! A refreshing way to push the reset button after a full day of classes.