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  • Sarah

Great Sand Dunes and Taos in 3 Days

Southern Colorado and northern New Mexico constitute one of the most mesmerizing areas I've experienced. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Great Sand Dunes, the Rio Grande gorge, countless volcanoes and high desert peaks, and a chill vibe all make this region irresistible. Taos has amazing skiing in the winter, epic hikes in the summer, and green chile that'll remind you what it feels like to be alive. I love this part of the southwest, and I was so pumped when my friends Kryspin and Alan wanted to join me on a trip out there.

So we piled into my '05 Accord on Friday afternoon and started the 9-hour drive to one of the best areas of all time. The Sangre de Cristo range running through southern Colorado and northern New Mexico is incredibly beautiful. There is a cluster of gnarly 14'ers in this strip of rock, and the Great Sand Dunes are nestled quietly at the base at some of the biggest mountains around.

Our plan was to start at the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, followed by some hiking in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area near Questa, NM. Afterward we would summit Wheeler Peak in the Taos Ski Area and then take quick rafting run down the Rio Grande river's Racecourse section. We only had a long weekend, so we were ready to hustle to get everything checked off of our list.

We made it near Walsenburg, CO late Friday night. We knew there was BLM land near the Dunes (we consulted this), so we just pulled off the road once we were on public land and set up camp. Situated in the San Luis Valley, the Great Sand Dunes are the tallest you'll find in the US - they're over 750' in height! Here's what geologists think right now about the dunes' formation.

I've annotated a Google Earth screenshot to show the highlights of our trip. We moved from north to south to hit some pretty amazing spots!


When we woke up Saturday morning, we were surrounded! Waking up to this kind of light makes me melt - you can see the Sangres continue up north in the background.

Here's the view eastward. If you look really closely you'll see a dead cow that we somehow missed on the drive in the night before...To the left you can see just the southern part of a 14'er cluster, including beautiful Blanca Peak.

We woke up with the sun, had breakfast, and headed to the dunes. We took a look at the visitor center, where we got the brief overview of the dune field's formation. Lots of wind, water and erosion are responsible for these bad boys!

The visitor center has some good intel on the creation of the Great Sand Dunes.

Kryspin and Alan start on the "bunny slopes," but it wasn't long before they were screaming down some of the steepest dunes in the park!

These dunes don't lie - it's an amazing hike to the top of each of the dune peaks. At ~8,300' elevation, your legs and lungs will definitely feel the burn!

As we left the dunes and headed southward, we passed this beauty. What a dreamy rig!

Even though we weren't in New Mexico yet, we were juuuust close enough to get our burritos smothered in green chile.


Made it to New Mexico!


Our next stop is another of my favorite places - the Wild Rivers Recreation Area (I'll call it WRRA from now on) in Cerro, New Mexico. Just west of Questa, NM and about an hour north of Taos, this gem is off of the beaten path and incredibly beautiful. I drag as many people as I can to this spot to get them in on the (not so secret) secret. Not only is the Rio Grande gorge spectacular in this area, but also the horizon is peppered with rounded volcanoes that look like big, beautiful mushroom caps.

I learned about this area from my intern days with the USGS. We came here a couple of summers in a row to try to figure out how old the gorge was and when it started forming. The basalt (nearly all of the rock you can see in this canyon) is dated to around 3 million years old, so the gorge has to be younger than that! But how much younger, we wondered...?

Anyway, we arrived at the WRRA the afternoon following the Dunes and camped out there that night. We found my favorite camping spot at La Junta Point, which overlooks the confluence of the Red River (just downstream of a fish hatchery) and the Rio Grande rivers. La Junta Point Trail is a spectacular, well-maintained trail that takes you right down from the La Junta Point campsite to the confluence. There are tons of options for camping along either river, too, so if you want even more privacy, just hike on down with your gear! There are even bathrooms (pit toilets) and covered picnic areas down there.

I love this place! This is a south-facing view of the confluence of the Red River (left) and the Rio Grande River (right). You can just make out the La Junta Point Trail leading directly to the river confluence. Also, check out the vista point at the top left corner of the picture - bad-a!

To the north, the view is just as inspiring. Cerro Chiflo is in the foreground, and the unbelievably stunning Ute Mountain is the mushroom cap (a shield volcano, in geology talk) in the distance.

The next morning we hike the La Junta Point Trail down to the rivers. The morning light takes its time filling up the canyon; we were fortunate enough to watch it move on in.

The confluence! You can see water levels had been higher not too long ago from the lighter-colored rocks on the banks. Not far downstream from here you can get outfitted for some amazing river rafting.


A trip to the Taos area might just not be complete without a hike up to Wheeler Peak. Multiple access points give you options for ascending based on how much time you have on your hands. We were short on time, so we chose the fastest route up - the Wheeler Peak Summit Trail #67. This hike is 8 miles round trip. The first two miles lead you along the Williams Lake Trail up to Williams Lake. Once you can spot the lake, you're close to the Wheeler Peak Summit Trail #67 (it will be a clearly marked trail to your left), which takes you 2 additional miles up to Wheeler Peak. This hike isn't for the faint of heart, but if you're prepared for some steep climbing and pack some water, snacks, and a jacket (and maybe a summit beer), you can do it!

Here we go! As you climb the trail, you make your way through some really fragrant, beautiful pine trees. The view opens up not too long after you leave Williams Lake.

You eventually pop out above treeline as you gain elevation. The clouds on this hike were pretty unforgettable.

We made it! What better way to enjoy a great hike than to have a cold brew while you soak up the view? Remember to ALWAYS pack out what you pack in!

Kryspin, in satisfied mountain man posture, soaks up the beautiful view.

Wheeler Peak is stunning, from below and above. The 360 degree views will remind you why you enjoy doing this to begin with.

This quick trip packed in some QUALITY - this won't be the last time I visit these spots. June-August is a killer time to visit northern NM and all throughout Colorado. The snow has melted just enough, the elevation keeps you cool, and the flora are awake and blooming. Magical is a word I realize I'm throwing around quite a bit, but I feel that way about so many of the places I visit; I fall in love easily with inspiring places, and all I want to do is share that feeling with other people.

So with that in mind, take a weekend and venture out into some public lands! If you're anywhere near the spots I've talked about, please do yourself a favor and check them out. I wouldn't lead you astray!

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