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Rocky Mountain Weekender: The Great Sand Dunes

Eric Peterson //September 3, 2010//

Rocky Mountain Weekender: The Great Sand Dunes

Eric Peterson //September 3, 2010//

Step after step, I work my way up the sand. Only I lose six inches of elevation on every foothold. The sun beats down until clouds slide down the slope of the incomparable Sangre de Cristo Mountains to thankfully blot it out.

I’m about halfway up High Dune, the constantly evolving alpha dune at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve north of Alamosa. It rises 650 feet above the floor of the San Luis Valley, and is still several imposing dune-tops away.

But I trudge upward and onward until I make it to the top. My persistence pays off in the form of an incredible view of the sprawling dunefield, one of the most beautiful and quizzical sights in the Rockies. Plus, I’ve got a sled in hand, and can let gravity do at least part of the work on my trip down. And I do, despite the fact that the sand is a little slow: Prime sand-sledding conditions are said to occur in early spring.

I race the sunset to my rental teepee at Joyful Journey Hot Springs – $35 a person gets you a canvas roof over your head and a pass to the hot pools. I soak away the hike’s aches and pains as the thunderheads put on a pyrotechnic display above the Sangres. The storm whips the teepees walls during the night, but I stay dry.

After breakfast and a morning soak, I make my way back south to Crestone, the dinky town on the foot of the mountains said to have more spiritual retreat centers per square mile than any other spot on the planet. I visit a pair of sites, the Tashi Gomang Stupa, a striking monument to a Buddhist teacher filled with 100,000 mini-stupas, and the Shumei Crestone Center, where I learn about the Shumei principles of sustainability and the positive life force called jyorei. I am even the beneficiary of a private jyorei ceremony. And I’m still not sure exactly what it is.

Crestone in my rear-view mirror, I pass the UFO Watchtower in Hooper but fill my bizarre kitsch quota at Colorado Gators, the state’s only alligator farm, in Mosca. After talking with the cashier about the latest difficulties in gator breeding – their 400 gators aren’t getting any younger, apparently – I do a lap around the spring-fed pools and say hi to the gators, then trade a copy of my book, Ramble Colorado (it spotlights the farm in great detail). Then my stomach starts to growl like an ornery old gator.

I rectify that situation with San Luis Valley Brewing Company in downtown Alamosa with a local Gosar Sausage, chili ‘n chive chicken variety with stone ground mustard and fries, washed down with a pint of Valle Especial, a superb Mexican-style lager. I toast my too-brief visit to the world’s largest, strangest alpine valley, and get the check.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve:
Joyful Journey Hot Springs:
Colorado Gators:
San Luis Valley Brewing Company:

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