Terra Galleria Photography

Sand Creek Valley, the remote corner of Great Sand Dunes NP&P

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Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is known for the tallest dunes in North America. However, they are just the centerpiece of a diverse environment which includes the entire natural geologic and hydrologic system of the dunes. If you interested in little-photographed and beautiful mountain terrain in Colorado, read about my foray in Sand Creek Valley, the remote corner of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, where I found scenery very different from what you’d expect from the park.

Many photographs of the Sand Dunes include as a background the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost subrange of the Rocky Mountains, which rises above 13,000 feet in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The sand dunes form only a quarter of the parkland (the national park part), while the mountains dominate the rest (the preserve part). Great Sand Dunes was established as a national Monument in 1932, protecting only the main dune field. National Monuments generally preserve a single resource. By contrast, National Parks generally preserve a variety of resources, up to an entire ecosystem. Great Sand Dunes was expanded into a national park and preserve four times the size of the national monument in 2004.

Despite their surface area, the mountains receive a tiny portion of the visitation in the park. It’s a difficult access. I had traveled to Great Sand Dunes four times before, but my only foray in the mountains was one drive along the Medano Pass road in June, which turned out to be so intimidating that I made only a few stops along the way.

As of September 2015, I thought that the lack of images of the mountains of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was one of the largest hole in my coverage of the 59 US national parks. I had also done quite a few warm-weather trip and was itching for the mountains. I hoped that the rented SUV in Denver would be more off-pavement worthy than our cars. It was disappointing to discover that all the mid-size vehicles on offer had only AWD with moderate clearance, not the high-clearance 4WD which the Park Service deems necessary to travel the more rugged roads in the park. Only the larger, full-size SUVs had 4WD.

My first objective was to check out the Music Pass and the Sand Creek Lakes, which are said by the NPS to have stunning alpine scenery. The pass was given this poetic name because musical sounds are supposedly heard when the wind blows over the surrounding mountains.

The distance as the crow flies from the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center to the Music Pass trailhead is only about 10 miles. However, if you avoid the Medano Pass Road, as I did, you have to make a huge detour. The recommended route by Google Maps, via US-160 and CO-69, which minimizes driving on unpaved roads, takes 143 miles! This can be shortened a bit using a shortcut through unpaved roads through Pass Creek Pass. Those unpaved roads are well-maintained. To my surprise, the navigation app “Here” (details) gave me accurate directions through them, although it was a bit disconcerting to be directed from one unpaved road into another for a while. If you don’t use the app, the easiest way to find that trailhead is to follow CO-69, 4.5 miles south of Westcliffe. Turn west on Custer County Road 119, also known as Colfax Lane, and head south for 6 miles to a T intersection, then turn left. After a short jog, the road makes a hard right and reaches a USFS campground located at the Grape Creek Trailhead.

The ranger had told me that because of the lack of clearance of my vehicle, I would have to park there. However, it was past mid-day, and I wasn’t keen on the additional 5 miles (RT) of hiking (1500 feet elevation gain), so I pressed on to the end of the road. The roughest section was right before the end of the road. Despite some steep terrain and rock ribs, my rented Ford Edge (ground clearance 8 inches) had no difficulties. Even though the parked vehicles were serious off-roaders, I noticed that a Subaru Forester had made it.

The Music Pass Trailhead, on USFS land, lacked trail signs and had several trails going in different directions. Since my destination was west, I started hiking that way, and quickly found a proper trailhead with a map and register. After starting in the forest, the trail enters Great Sand Dunes National Preserve at Music Pass, a mile from the trailhead. There are great views as the trail begins its descent to upper Sand Creek Valley. After you enter the NPS land, you’ll find adequate trail signs at all the intersections. 1.5 miles later (0.3 mile beyond the junction with lower Sand Creek trail), it splits. Continuing straight, the right branch leads to Upper Sand Creek Lake (1.7 miles from fork). I followed the left branch to Lower Sand Creek Lake (1 mile from fork).

As I got out of the dense forest, the sight of towering Tijeras Peak less than half mile from the lakeshore is quite impressive. However, I photographed mostly intimate scenes on the shore of the lake, enlivened by autumn foliage on the shrubs. In the late afternoon, the lake was entirely shaded by Tijeras Peak. Contrarily to what the ranger had told me, morning light would have been preferable.

However, not to worry, it was a full moon. What I like about full moon nights is that if I wait less than an hour after sunset, the rising moon will illuminate the landscape the way the rising sun does. I can photograph sunset and the equivalent of sunrise within an hour!

As a bonus, this was the night of the total moon eclipse. I had given up on trying to photograph it, as the terrestrial elements in the park do not align well for a composition that includes a rising moon. However, I enjoyed the fact that it provided me with the light of all the phases of the moon within the span of a couple of hours. When the moon was eclipsed, I was able to photograph a bright Milky Way above Lower Sand Creek Lake. As I hiked back to Music Pass, the full moon illuminated brightly the landscape of upper Sand Creek Basin, making it a pleasure to walk in the quiet night.

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One Comment

  1. One of your most enjoyably stories. Thanks for sharing it.
    Bill Mitchell

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