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Adventure of the week: Finding solitude at the sand dunes

Scott Franz
The view of the sunset from the top of the dune field at Great Sand Dunes National Monument is often unforgettable.
Scott Franz

If you go

How to get there: Take Colorado Highway 131 south to Interstate 70, then head east toward Vail.

Take the Leadville/Minturn exit, then head south on U.S. Highway 24. Stop at the 10th Mountain Division Memorial on Tennessee Pass along the way. Continue to Buena Vista, and take Highway 285 south. Turn left onto Colo. 17, and take another left on County Six Mile Lane, which leads to the park.

Where to stay: The Pinyon Flats Campground in the park has 88 individual sites located along two loops. Individual sites are $20 per night.

Where to eat: Stock up on camping fare before the trip. There also are many restaurants in Alamosa, a 35-minute drive from the campgrounds. Stop at Gringo's in Leadville on the way to or from the park.

Also see: Hike into a cavern to view the cascading Zapata Falls, just a short drive from the visitor center at the park. An easy quarter-mile hike will get you to the waterfall. At night, the park often has rangers lead educational programs enjoyable for families.

Additional information: For more information or other lodging options, call a ranger at the Visitor Center at 719-378-6399.

— It’s getting harder and harder to find solitude, even here in Northwest Colorado.

Everyone and their mother is sending the newspaper photos of Gilpin Lake and the Zirkel Circle.

We’re spending more and more time stuck in traffic on Lincoln Avenue and awkwardly blocking the aisles of City Market, waiting for those self-checkout kiosks to free up.

I’ve even started avoiding McDonald’s on weekdays because of the crowds.

It’s getting serious people.

So I decided last Friday to pack up as quickly as I could and head south to the San Luis Valley in search of some solitude.

But even here, the crowds have taken over.

On my first night camping on Cottonwood Pass, I squeaked into what had to be the last dispersed camping spot in the area after driving past several miles of crowds.

After a quiet night at a very cool creekside campsite, I had to sit in a line of cars to get into the Pinyon Flats campground at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument just after sunrise.

The ranger at the gate said 17 campsites had opened up in the morning.

At 9:30 a.m. I snagged one of the last three that were open.

I took a quick hike to Zapata Falls, a magnificent waterfall in a cavern not too far from the dunes.

But at times, I felt as though I was walking in a single-file line at an amusement park.

I had only a minute or two to take in the sight of the cascading water before I turned around to see families, some of them armed with selfie sticks, giving me looks that implied it was their turn to step up to the falls for a photo.

No solitude here.

I headed back to the dunes and encountered more crowds.

Even my attempt to take an early afternoon nap in my tent was interrupted by crowds of surrounding campers, some of whom decided to keep their cars running to play Sirius XM Radio for all of us to enjoy.

Definitely no solitude here.

It wasn’t until 6:45 p.m., when the music at the campgrounds persisted, that I decided I’d had enough.

It was time to go and seek that solitude I had driven so far to find.

Exactly 4,447 steps later, at the end of a grueling, fast-paced hike to the top of the dune field, my frustration ended.

It was here, as the sun set in a brilliant red sky in front of me, that I found what I was looking for.

Besides the three other hikers who had made the trek to the top of the dune field, there were no other humans for miles and miles around me.

There was no noise except the occasional patter of sand blowing in the wind.

No lines to wait in.

No families with selfie sticks waiting to steal my perch.

Just a brilliant light washing over the massive sea of sand dunes.

I put on my headlamp and basked in this solitude on the long hike back to the campgrounds, stopping in the ankle deep waters of Medano Creek to take long exposure photographs.

No screaming children.

No barking dogs.

Just a few other headlamps descending the dunes in the distance, and the gurgling of the creek.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10


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