September 16-21, 2014
Fall comes early to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
From a distance, the mountain landscape looks bleak – greys, blacks, and browns.
But as you approach the mountains, colors begin to appear. Grays mark tree line and above. Darker greens mark the Pinon pines, Junipers, Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. Lighter greens and light browns show where mountain meadows flourish. Patches of gold-leafed quaking aspens grow day by day farther down the mountainside.
Life flourishes. We saw mule deer, squirrels, chipmunks, snakes (other than not being rattlesnakes, I don’t know what they were), Magpies, Mountain bluebirds, and Stellar’s jays.
At Pinon Flats, the campground at Great Sand Dunes National Park, the towering dunes – some as high as 750 feet above the ground – stretch before you. Between the dunes and the campground lies wide, shallow Little Medano Creek – dry at this time of year except when it rains in the mountains. Then it can take a day or more for the water to flow down the mountainsides and trickle into the creek.
The dunes look out of place as though transported from the Arabian Desert. You half expect to see Lawrence of Arabia come galloping over the crest.
It’s cold in the mornings before the sun rises over the mountains. Once the sun appears, the air warms from the mid-40s to the mid- to upper-70s. A bright sun makes it feel even hotter. As the sun peaks and angles toward the San Juan Mountains, the breeze picks up and the temperature starts to drop. By late afternoon you’re hunting for a warm shirt or jacket and long pants.
Clouds ring the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) and San Juan Mountains but the San Juan Valley is mostly cloud free. The sun is strong at this altitude, over 8200 feet. In late summer, the valley is parched except where fields are irrigated. Spring snow melt feeds the Rio Grande. Its water is siphoned off into ditches which are used to irrigate the fields and wetlands. As incongruous as it sounds, there are wetlands in the valley. While most of the ponds and lakes have dried up, a few watery patches remain.
At this time of year the Pinon Flats Campground is first-come, first-served. We were lucky to have found a site with shade, although it appears to us that most campers want sites that are in full sun. We prefer shade for two reasons: first, we don’t want to fry our 18-1/2 year old cat, the “Camper House Queen”; second, we like shade.
Considering the arid surroundings, there are lots of trees throughout the campground. Loop 1 and Loop 2 can accommodate RVs, but larger RVs can be very difficult to maneuver into a site. They have pull-in and back-in sites. The sites were nice, close but not too close together, and reasonably level. There are no hookups (water, electric, or sewer). There is a dump station.
Each loop has bathrooms and dish washing stations but no shower facilities. There is a spigot outside each restroom where you can get drinking water. Most of the spigots are not threaded so you can’t attach a water hose to it to fill up your fresh water tank. You can get fresh water at the dump station.
The camp hosts were excellent. They drove up in their golf cart as we were setting up and chatted with us for about 10 minutes, answering as many of our questions as they could.
Amazingly, we had an excellent Verizon signal. Our Verizon JetPack MiFi pulled in a strong 4G signal. During our stay we even Skyped with our son and granddaughter.
Warnings about bears being in the area were prominently displayed although we didn’t see any.
Read on for information about our adventures while we were here.