By: Mark Munson @markonthemove
In the midst of winter, it can be hard to find any hikes that are worth driving for. Luckily, tucked up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southwestern Colorado sits the largest sandbox in North America. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve encompasses 30 square miles of terrain and possesses dunes as tall as 750 feet. The park offers many different seasonal activities such as sledding, picnicking, sand boarding, astronomy programs, backpacking, horseback riding and more. If you're a Colorado local and have yet to check out this national park, put it at the top of your list!
Driving into the park, anticipations are high. The dunes are tucked back against the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range so they aren't visible until a couple miles out. Highway CO-150 is the last road until you hit the dunes, which offers some pull-offs for viewing the mountains to the right. As you drive further into the park the views only become more exceptional. You are greeted by the Sangre de Cristo's tremendous scale and a diverse landscape of grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, and tundra.
Not to long after entering the park you will approach the the park's Visitor Center. This is a good place to stop off if you have questions about the park and surrounding areas, or want to be educated on the park itself. After the Visitor Center is the road that offers access to the dunes. The parking lot is quite large so it accommodates a lot of visitors but depending on the season you are visiting, parking availability will vary.
To get into the dunes, a short trail takes you from the parking lot to the river that is dried up for the most part in winter, but in the summer is a spot to cool off or hang out for the day. Cross the river and you are officially in the dunes! Hiking in the dunes can be daunting because of the elevation gain and sandy terrain but exploring a little bit is definitely worth it. Keep in mind, Great Sand Dunes National Park doesn't have any trails so you can wander wherever you wish. Remember that however far you hike one way, you have to turn around and hike back the same distance, so make sure to conserve some energy and bring lots of water even in winter months.
As you climb further into the dunes in awe of the geological phenomena, the landscape unfolds before you. Each path in the dunes is unique in itself and offers one of a kind panoramic views. The 750 foot "High Dune" is the most trafficked dune, but offers scenic views of the entire park. Unless you are backpacking, hiking deep into the dunes is only suggested if you have proper gear and are an experienced hiker. About a mile into the dunes the winds begin to pick up on the dune ridges so bringing a bandana or facemark and sunglasses is extremely helpful. It will help shield your face from blowing sand and windburn. If you are looking for some additional experiences while your in the dunes, sand sledding and sand boarding are both perfect for the adventure enthusiast. There is a little bit of a learning curve that comes with sand boarding. Make sure to keep the majority of your weight on your back foot! No matter what anyone tells you, your snowboard or skis WONT work on the sand. If you are visiting during summer months (April through October), rental boards and sleds can be acquired outside the park entrance at the Oasis Store.
In the winter, a bit of a drive is required for rentals. Check out the two retailers below for winter rental options:
1) Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and Recreation is 30 miles west of the Visitor Center in Hooper and they offer rentals year round. For pricing and information click here
2) Kristi Mountain Sports offers sled and board rentals throughout the entire season as well. It is located 40 miles southwest of the Visitor Center in Alamosa. For pricing and information click here
Check out my sand boarding experience in 360 degrees below! If you enjoy subscribe to my Youtube channel!
Camping at the Sand Dunes
If you are planning an overnight stay consider camping at one of the nearby campsites for the full experience. Stargazing in the San Luis Valley is some of the best in Colorado and provides blanketing views of the Milky Way in the midst of summer. Although the Milky Way is not visible in the winter, the amount of stars make up for that. There are a number of different campsites around the national park area depending on what you are looking for.
1) Pinon Flats Campground
This campground is located inside the park and one mile north of the Visitor Center. It is open April through October each year and is the closest campsite to the dunes. This campground has amenities such as restrooms with sinks, flush toilets, dishwashing sink, and water spigots with each campsite having a fire grate and picnic table. Click here to make a reservation or for more information about the Pinon Flats Campground
2) Oasis Campground
Located just outside the park entrance, this campground offers 90 sites total and is open April through October and includes RV sites, tent sites, and cabins. Campsite amenities include showers, laundry, restaurant, and general store on site. Click here to make a reservation for more information on the Oasis Campground
3) Zapata Falls Campground
Personally, this is my favorite campsite. It's Located 11 miles south of the park Visitor Center and sits at 9,000 feet in elevation. This campsite is only accessible by dirt road, which isn't plowed in the winter but stays mainly packed. The sites are a few hundred feet from Zapata Falls Trailhead which takes you to the waterfall, frozen in winter and flowing during summertime. The campsites overlook the San Luis Valley and provide scenic views of the dune field and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Amenities include pit toilets, fire rings and picnic tables, as well as food storage units. This campsite runs on a first come first serve basis. Since I don't care too much about amenities, I enjoyed this campsite because the easy access to the waterfall and the valley views. It's also a prime sunset viewing location. I definitely recommend checking this campground out if you are interested in checking out the waterfall.
Whether you are a Colorado local or are traveling from another state, Great Sand Dunes National Park should be on your list. The park is unlike any other in the United States and provides a unique experience for any adventurer. Year round, this park is a great escape for any outdoor vagabond looking for the next thrill, so make sure to check it out!
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By: Mark Munson @markonthemove
Trail Length: 6-8 Miles Round Trip
Trail Type: Out & Back
Elevation Gain: 1,500 feet
Dog Friendly: Yes
Crater Lakes Trail is a scenic trail located about 8 miles west of Rollinsville, Colorado near the east portal of the Moffat train tunnel. It services a collection of five high alpine lakes, 3 that make up the lower Crater Lakes, and two lakes making the Upper Crater Lakes. The trail's elevation gain causes some hikers to shy away from this location, making it only moderately trafficked.
Just getting to the trailhead after a good snowfall seemed to be a feat in itself. To access the trailhead you have to take a dirt road out about 8 miles west of Rollinsville. Lots of early morning wind, whipping through the valley had caused snow drifts on the dirt road. I would definitely recommend having a 4x4 vehicle to get to the trailhead if it has recently snowed. If not, it shouldn't be too difficult get there, but keep it in mind. The parking lot is being enough to fit about 50 cars comfortably, but you can also park along the road if they parking lot is full.
The trail begins by ascending into the nearby valley keeping a steady elevation throughout. Being an ill-defined trail, I would recommend using navigational assistance via the All Trails app, or an alternative source. During the winter season, the beginning of the trail is packed down from hikers and cross country skiers. Starting my ascent at about 9AM, there were barely any other tracks on the trail. The snow from the previous day was still fresh, making snow shoes necessary almost immediately. With fresh snow and without snowshoes, this trail wouldn't be doable. A couple days after snowfall I would assume that the trail would be packed down from the backcountry skiers, making it doable with crampons. Up until a mile out from the lower Crater Lakes, the trail is basically flat. Once you hit the junction where you turn off the regular path the ascent truly starts. The elevation rises quickly after the sign so get your hiking legs ready! If you are an avid backcountry enthusiast, this spot is definitely worth checking out to earn some powdery turns. Having snowshoes for this hike saved my legs from complete misery, so I would definitely recommend bringing some. After making it basically all the way up, my group was a half mile out from the lakes and we noticed that we were off trail. Our options were either back tracking and trying to find the trail once again, or take our chances trekking through the deep powder to hope we find our destination. I'm not an advocate of wandering off trail, especially in a forest where I can't fully navigate. So unfortunately, we were forced to turn around a half mile out from the lakes. I do believe that if the snow hadn't fallen the day before we would have had a much better chance of actually making it to the lakes. Recent reviews for the hike had told me you could definitely make it to the lakes with snowshoes, but from the snow the previous day the trail wasn't defined enough to follow all the way up to the lakes.
Although we didn't make it to our end destination, the hike was still very rewarding. Being amongst snow covered pine trees the entire time was meditation in itself. For the conditioned hiker, this is a perfect length hike. The elevation gain can seem intimidating but once you realize you are halfway up the trail it becomes irrelevant. If you are a fitness fanatic, the hike definitely offers a good leg exercise. The views far outweigh the physical challenges on this hike and if you make it all the way up to the lakes that is even more true. If you are looking for a good winter hike to get the heart pumping a little bit, I highly recommend visiting Crater Lakes Trail!
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By: Mark Munson in partnership with Coloradotography
Dream Lake Trail
Trail Length: 2 Miles Round Trip
Trail Type: Out & Back
Elevation Gain: 410 feet
Dog Friendly: No
Click here for directions to the Dream Lake Trailhead
Alberta Falls Trail
Trail Length: 2 Miles Round Trip
Trail Type: Out & Back
Elevation Gain: 219 feet
Dog Friendly: No
Click here for directions to the Alberta Falls Trailhead
Finding a hike with good conditions in the winter can be a daunting task. You find yourself endlessly scrolling through All Trails, changing filter settings to maybe find a hike with a recent review. Or better yet, you do some Google searches for winter hikes in Colorado only to find the hikes you've already done. We are here to help and offer winter hiking trail suggestions for those of you looking to get out into nature. Rocky Mountain National Park is a good go to when looking for winter hikes, especially Dream Lake and Alberta Falls. These trailheads are located at the Bear Lake Trailhead which is extremely popular in Rocky Mountain National Park. Due to its year round popularity, it is recommended you get there early to secure yourself a parking spot. In the summer, there are shuttles running from the lower lots to the Bear Lake Trailhead, but those are unavailable in the winter.
Beginning with Dream Lake, this is an simple stroll for your average hiker. There isn't much elevation gain, the snow is packed the entire way up to the lake, and common winter gear like crampons, micro spikes, and trekking poles are not necessary. Regular hiking boots will suffice and getting to the lake won't require too much effort. If you want some extra traction micro spikes never hurt, especially when hiking in snowy conditions. If you have micro spikes or crampons and want to walk on the lakes, we recommended you bring them. There are a few good lookout points on the way up to Dream Lake if you are looking for photography spots. One of the lookouts offer a higher view of Nymph Lake as well as the valley, which offers great sunrise and sunset photographic opportunity Winter conditions usually cause high winds up at Dream Lake so keep that in mind. Once up to Dream Lake, you are greeted by Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain from the east side of the lake. These picturesque mountains offer outstanding views and great photo backdrops. Again, your micro spikes or crampons will give you extra traction if you want to walk on the lakes but be careful! When taking pictures on the east side of Dream Lake my foot fell all the way through into the water so just beware that the ice can be thin in spots!
Moving on to Alberta Falls, this feature offers serene beauty not only in the summer, but the winter too. The falls are frozen over completely for most of the winter, but water continues to run under the ice which makes for a unique sight.
The hike begins from the Bear Lake Trailhead like the Dream Lake Trail, make sure you get there early to secure yourself a paring spot. The trail is simple with some ups and downs but nothing major. Since Alberta Falls is so close to the trailhead the snowpack will be firm and winter hiking gear won't be necessary. The trail winds through pine forests and aspen groves until you reach Alberta Falls. In the summer, the falls are 30 feet tall, but are about half that heigh in winter due to the freezing. In the winter, the entire riverbed is frozen over, so you have the option of viewing the falls from there, or from above. If you are a fan of winter, the falls are just as picturesque in winter as they are in summer!