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Thursday, October 14,2010

Great Sand Dunes and the Spanish Peaks

By James Dziezynski



As the first snows dust the Front Range with the promise of winter, we bid farewell to the summer hiking season. Trekking in the chilly air has its own charm to be certain, but if you still hanker for one more summer-style weekend, head south to the impressive Spanish Peaks and Great Sand Dunes National Park. Besides jaw-dropping scenery courtesy of the Sangre De Cristo peaks, the unique geography is accented by the soaring dunes. Bring your cameras get ready to roam — starting with the Spanish Peaks.


West Spanish Peak

The twin Spanish Peaks cut an impressive profile over the farmland below. Unlike the Front Range where mountains slowly rise from glaciated foothills to massive domed summits, the Spanish Peaks rise like a enormous fortress, giving the illusion they are considerably higher than their mid-13,000foot elevations. Far enough away from the metro area to feel remote but close enough for a modest drive (2.5 to 3 hours from the Boulder area), the Spanish Peaks are something of a local secret. This micro-range consists of two main peaks, the lower East Spanish Peak at 12,683 feet and big brother West Spanish Peak, which tops out at 13,626 feet. What makes this duo so unique is their volcanic heritage in a region that is mostly shaped by plate tectonics.

Of the two, West Spanish is the more popular hike, particularly because of the stunning 360-degree views from the summit. The standard trailhead begins from Cordova Pass, which splits off of Colorado Route 12. CO 12 begins roughly seven miles from Walsenburg and travels 22 miles past the small town of La Veta and the dormant Cucharas ski area before intersecting with Cordova Pass. From here, it is six miles up a well-maintained dirt road to the top of the pass where the trail starts. A small campground with a half-dozen car camping sites is available for $6 a night, but there are no water sources, so be sure to bring enough for your camping and the hike. A modest $4 fee gets you into the Spanish Peaks wilderness area. While the road is not plowed, the pass is typically open until November due to the warmer southern Colorado climate.

The hike to the top of West Spanish is a modest 3.3 climb on a class 2 trail, though there are a few steep sections near the summit. The hard granite walls of the Spanish dykes were formed deep within the earth and pushed to surface when tectonic plates shifted. Their symmetry is incredible to behold from the lofty perch of West Spanish Peak. If you’re considering a traverse over to East Spanish Peak, be prepared for a long day. It’s five miles summit to summit, so round trip out and back is 16.6 miles — certainly doable for strong hikers, but still an all-day effort. It’s only 6.6 miles round trip if you only ascend West Spanish Peak.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

A bit more low-key but no less incredible is Great Sand Dunes National Park. Enormous dunes, some more than 700 feet high, sit at the foot of the Sangre De Cristo’s flagship massif, the Blanca formation (which includes three of the states famous 14ers — Mount Blanca, Ellingwood Point and Little Bear Peak). Roaming the undulating hills offers a snapshot of desert terrain, minus the expansive, barren stretches of larger deserts. These dunes were formed from strong winds blowing across the flat lands to the west and depositing the soil at the bottom of the mountains. Unlike so many other natural formations, the dunes are actually growing with each year rather than eroding.

The main park entrance is located 35 miles from Alamosa, and there is camping available in the area. A $3-per-person fee gets you into the park, and if you’d like to camp, call ahead for reservations and availability (www.nps.gov/grsa, or call 1-888- 448-1474). When combined with the hiking adventure of West Spanish Peak (which is roughly an hour’s drive away), the Great Sand Dunes provide a wonderful contrast in eco-systems from the high peaks. This pocket of unique geography makes for a great adventure anytime of the year but is especially good for those hoping to squeeze in one more ice-free outing.

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