Summer Hike #6 – Chillin’ in the San Luis Valley, Colorado

In the town of Crestone, CO you might see more new age crystal shops, long gray beards, and man-buns per capita than any place in Colorado (okay, you’re right…there’s Boulder – but let’s face it, Boulder is not what it used to be). With that going for it, the drum circles, and the ‘hey dude chill out’ attitude, I could almost be back in Santa Cruz.

Instead of sitting on the edge of an ocean, this town sits on the edge of the San Luis Valley – a wide-open, sandy plain dotted with sage and grasses. The town is nestled right up against the dramatic flank of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. It’s well known for being a new age spiritual center – thus, all the hippies. The permanent population numbers at about 150, but summer can bring in thousands of people a day, visiting Buddhist shrines, attending yoga or meditation workshops, or just browsing the local art.


Looking across the ‘ocean’ of the San Luis Valley.

I spent two nights there on my way down to Albuquerque for the annual Earth Educator Rendezvous. Despite the fact that I’ve lived in Colorado for more than 12 years, I’ve never seen the San Luis Valley. The big draw here is The Great Sand Dunes National Park, which I’ve only ever seen those from the window of an airplane.


The Sangre de Cristo mountains, capped in clouds.

But I was motivated to go there by more than sightseeing. I wanted to break up my drive with some down-time to think, rest, go for long walks. I used AirBnB for the first time to find a place to stay – and ended up in an artfully constructed straw-bale house in the woods – a cozy but spacious place with no wifi and a very poor cell connection. So I got a bit of a digital holiday as well.


The Liberty Road trailhead, on the far south end of Crestone, offers hikers an opportunity to approach the Great Sand Dune National Park from the north.

I did a short hike recommended by my AirBnB hostess – from a trailhead on the south end of Crestone, on national forest land bordering the northern edge of The Great Sand Dunes. It was a bit of a challenge to find – and my phone was not powerful enough to download a map of the area. It also involved 3-4 miles on a dirt road, so it was a bit out in the boonies.

Did I mention I was traveling alone? If you’ve ever been a solo woman traveler, you know about the spidey-sense. That tingling feeling in your stomach when you’re wondering if you’re doing something that might not make too much sense from a safety perspective. I first discovered my spidey-sense when I traveled solo through Australia and New Zealand in my 20’s. I chalked it up then to my youth, lack of confidence, and inexperience. But the thing is, that moment of self-doubt, when you’re boldly venturing into new territory, never really goes away. That’s the self-preservation instinct. In my case, it’s often overpowered by my curiosity and sense of wonder: “Wow, I’m getting really far from the car, and there’s no one around, there might be a thunderstorm brewing over the mountain, but, wow, I really want to see what’s around the next bend.”

Sometimes the spidey sense is more powerful, and I make sure to listen to it: “Don’t turn down this street – look how dark it is, lots of hiding places. Go out of your way to stay in the light.” The sense is most often activated when I travel solo. It followed me through France a few years ago, then Ecuador in 2015.


Along the edge of the San Luis Valley.

Having been raised in a small town, and having spent so much time in the outdoors, I’m always much braver in the wilderness than I am in a city. I’m not all that afraid of the wilderness, the weather (ok, an active lightning storm will send me running), or even bears or mountain lions. (Note: Crestone definitely has it’s share of bears! My hostess told me that bears had broken into every house on the street at some point. But on a trail? I don’t worry too much. Yes, I was cautious enough to carry bear spray in Canada, but haven’t felt compelled to do that in Colorado. I’ve only had one encounter with a bear in all these years in Colorado.)

My greatest fear in very remote places as a solo woman traveler is usually other people. I know other woman travelers know what I mean. So I felt a bit uncomfortable as I started my hike – not because I was the only person in sight, but because there were a few other cars at the trailhead.

But it didn’t take long to fall into the rhythm of a hike that wound first along the border between the valley and the mountains, with views of both, and then followed a spur up to a small canyon. It ended in a grove of aspens along a bubbling creek dotted with wildflowers.


In the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Speaking of water, the San Luis Valley sits above a massive aquifer that has been the focus of a huge community conservation effort over the past 15 years. When the drought in the early 2000’s threatened to deplete the aquifer beyond recovery, farmers came together with the local conservation district and developed a plan. Today, the aquifer is rebounding. I love this one example of the power of local communities in leading environmental conservation efforts.

All told, it was a 90-minute round trip hike over fairly flat ground on a cloudy, but warm day. I saw no one else. My car didn’t leave me stranded, and I made it safely back to town. Would I do something like this again, despite those trepidations of traveling solo? I can pretty much guarantee it.


My first good view of the great dune field in the San Luis Valley.

The next day, as I set out for Albuquerque, I made a short detour to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. I was far from the only one wanting to play in the dunes on a warm summer day. The dunes are formed by prevailing southwesterly winds that blow sand from the San Luis Valley floor toward a curve in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. As the sand moves eastward into the mountains, there are a couple of creeks that carry it back out to the valley floor, where it’s picked up and deposited again by the wind onto the dunes.

On the day I stopped by, the dunes were swarming with hundreds and hundreds of people. Many people hung out near the parking lot and settled in along Mendano Creek that divides the parking area from the dune field. It’s about the closest you can get to a beach in Colorado.


People wading in Mendano Creek on the border of the dune field.

With recent rain, the hills and grasses around the dunes were a light shade of green (not always the case in Colorado!). I hiked about halfway up to one of the higher dunes to get a view and soak in the experience of sand between my toes. However, my time was limited, and the highway was calling me to Albuquerque. Someday, I’ll get a chance to enjoy it more thoroughly.


Sand surfing and sledding is the most popular activity out in the dune field.

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