We arrived at Lathrop State Park in time to make dinner. Campsite #50 is a pull-through spot on the outside circle of Loop B. The site has sparse trees, but backs to open space and has a view of the ridge that marks the north edge of the park. Wildflowers from the abundance of water this year were blooming throughout the park, and had rooted themselves in the weeds of our campsite.
After setting up, we made a quick dinner and headed to the lake on our bikes. The sun was slowly beginning to set, illuminating the Spanish Peaks and bringing a slight evening breeze. We rode our bikes around the entire Martin Lake, stopping to look at the views and admiring the now lush weeds around the paved bike path.
We have been to Lathrop several times before. It offers a variety of activities at the park which we have done in the past; hike, bike, sandcastle building at the beach, and play golf at the nine-hole golf course. On this trip, we decided to bring our bikes, kayak, and basic fishing equipment. We were spending a longer weekend at the park and wanted to try some new activities.
In the morning, we drove more than one hour to Great Sand Dunes National Park. My son just finished 4th grade and he was excited to visit the park using his Every Kid in a Park national parks pass. The program allows all 4th graders in the United States to visit the national parks for free for an entire year. We had wanted to visit this park, and Memorial Day weekend seemed like a perfect time. Apparently, thousands of other people thought the same.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in Mosca, Colorado and is one of the least visited parks in the nation, except for the month of May. A seasonal creek cuts across the edge of the sand dunes and brings visitors to wade, play, and enjoy the cool water that flows over the incredibly soft sand. The dunes raise high above the creek, with the highest Star Dune, reaching over 775 feet. While this is impressive, the dunes are dwarfed by the much taller, 14,000 ft. mountains that tower behind them. It was not until we waded across the creek that I realized their immense size.
We stopped just outside of the park at The Oasis, an aptly named store that housed a restaurant, souvenirs, ice cream bars, and the coveted sand sled. I had heard that regular snow sleds did not work on the sand, so I was determined to try the sand sled instead. They have two versions, though when we arrived at 10:30 a.m., they had only one style remaining. A short line greeted us, but the staff was incredibly efficient. Later, we were told by the staff that they have 3,000 sleds for rent. They were down to their final eight when we arrived. They warned us that the lines would be long to get into the park and parking would be difficult.
We were prepared with a picnic lunch and ready to sit in the car. We admired the view as we weaved the short, flat four miles to the main entry gate. The last two miles, the cars were creeping down the road, taking us about 45 minutes to get to the entrance gate and obtain our map. We had already decided to park anywhere we possibly found a spot and hopefully go to the visitor’s center before heading to the dunes. Luckily, we found a spot in the parking lot of the visitor’s center. Cars were parking along the two-lane road, looping through the parking lots, and sitting in no-parking zones waiting for people to leave. I’m not sure how we managed to immediately find this spot.
The visitor’s center is an adobe-style building that was bustling with people. Several hands-on displays were available to explain how the dunes formed (and continue to shift) and we enjoyed the 20 minute movie describing the history of the dunes. After finding a shaded bench, we devoured our picnic before hiking the half-mile trail from the visitor’s center to the creek. There is a road that brings visitors directly to the dunes and provides numerous picnic areas with tables and grills. But on this, the park’s busiest weekend of the year, we did not want to lose our parking spot. We brought the sand sleds with us and began our journey. People were playing in the sand, setting up beach tents, blankets, and acting like they were at the ocean. We waded across the creek and started walking up the ever-shifting dunes. It was partly cloudy, but the wind was whipping around us. We went barefoot for the afternoon, sledding down the dune, then hiking up. There were gusts of wind that were so strong we closed our eyes and turned our heads the opposite direction, waiting for them to blow another pound of sand in our hair.
We rolled down the dunes, the sand so soft that it snuggled into my toes and around my rings. After two hours of sledding, rolling, and getting blasted by the sand, we decided to hike back to our car. There is a changing room with showers, both indoor and outdoor, that was handy. But the hike back to the car was again in the sand. Vegetation lines the trail, but the soil is all sand. Once we reached the car, there was more sand caked between our toes.
Returning the sleds at The Oasis, we had to enjoy an ice cream bar. It felt like we had been in a different world at the Great Sand Dunes. Sand was glued to our bodies and our clothes. It was now sifting into our car seats. I was sure we would find it for the next decade. Everywhere.
We arrived at Lathrop in time to make dinner (again). We sprayed off our feet (again), but the sand was still gritty. Showering was the necessary step to remove at least a large portion of sand, but it still persisted to invade our lives on our return home.
The following day, with the weather looking beautiful, we decided to take the kayak and fishing equipment to the non-motorized Horseshoe Lake at Lathrop. We drove down the dirt road that circles the lake and found a beautiful spot without any people. We parked in the turn-out, which also had a bathroom and trash can, and walked down the short dirt path to a clearing with easy entry for the kayak and a spot for fishing. The fish were everywhere, jumping out of the lake just out of our grasp. We took turns in the kayak, then enjoyed fishing. We didn’t catch anything, though we tried. The wind was picking up, blowing in an afternoon storm. But the spot was ideal and shaded by large cottonwood trees. A variety of birds flew around us as we spent the afternoon at this spot. We only left because the storm seemed imminent.
After returning to our campsite, we hiked for a short time on Hogback Trail, but seeing the storm in the distance, we returned safely to our site and waited out the storm in the camper. It seemed to be peaceful enough to make dinner and eat outside. Other campers in our loop were doing the same when a strong wind began blowing and bringing the storm to our sites. We gathered all the food, ran inside, and finished eating while watching the dust and wind envelope the area. Our plan was to attend the ranger program that night, but the wind was so bad that we did not go. Only in the evening did it finally subside.
Our travels to Lathrop and Great Sand Dunes National Park were beautiful. The abundance of wildflowers and green hillsides from the wet winter were a great beginning to the summer.