A Day at the Dunes
One of the most popular outings from the AppleLodge is a day trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The dunes are about an hour away from the AppleLodge’s front door, but there are some really unique places to see along the way that are worth stopping at. From the AppleLodge you can go east to the only traffic light in town and turn left onto Hwy 112. If you stay on Highway 112 it will take you all the way across the San Luis Valley almost to the park entrance. As you travel you’ll be crossing an 8,000 square mile alpine valley, the world’s largest. The average altitude is 7,500 feet and everywhere you look you’ll see majestic mountains, many of which go above 14,000 feet. The valley floor is covered with irrigated farmland. Be on the lookout for pronghorn antelope in the farmers fields and bald eagles soaring above. If you look straight ahead toward the east you can see the 700 foot high sand dunes in the distance at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range.
When you reach the east end of Hwy 112 at the intersection of Hwy 17 turn right (south). A few miles down the road at Lane 9 North you will see the Colorado Gator Farm. This is a one of a kind attraction in Colorado. If you are so inclined, the gator farm will take 30 minutes to an hour to visit, depending on how fast you walk and how long you look. The tour includes getting your picture taken with a baby alligator, and a close up view of many other reptiles and other interesting animals and fish. Hours from Memorial Day through Labor Day (through the summer) are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day. Hours from Labor Day to Memorial Day (through the winter) are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. They’re open seven days a week except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Admission is $12.50 for adults, $6.25 for children (6 to 15) and seniors (65 to 80), 5 and under and 80 and over are free. 719-378-2612 A discount coupon is available at this link .
After you get your fill of gators, snakes, etc. keep on going south on Hwy 17 a few more miles and turn left (east) on Lane 6 East. This road will go straight toward the Sangre de Cristos again and then curve into Colorado 150 which goes right to the park entrance. Entrance fees are $3 per adult (age 16 and older). Entrance fees are valid for one week from date of purchase. Children are free at all times. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is open 24 hours a day. You won’t want to miss the excellent Visitor Center. Hours vary from summer to winter so you might call ahead at (719)378-6399 for specific hours on the days you plan to visit. When leaving the Visitor Center turn left (north) and continue down the park road to the sign for the Dunes Parking Area and turn left again. At the parking area you will find restrooms with showers and trails that will take you to the dune field. In late May thru June Medano Creek runs and crosses these trails so you will either want to take off your shoes or wear water proof ones. Once you are across the creek the whole dune field is your playground. Some people like to hike up the creek bed. Some like to try to climb to the top of the dunes. Some just like to explore the lower dunes, and others will want to bring a folding chair to just relax. The views are spectacular and the environment is unbelievable. There are many trails that lead up into the mountains but you might want to leave time to go to two more stops.
Before you leave you’ll want to empty the sand out of your shoes. Next stop Zapata Falls. As you leave the park keep going south down Hwy 150 a few miles past the park entrance. You will see a sign on the left and you turn onto a dirt road with four miles of switch backs that ends at a parking lot with restrooms and some outstanding views. From the parking area it is about a 1/2 mile walk uphill to the falls. When you get to the creek walk upstream. It’s a short hike that involves walking on slippery rocks and maybe getting a little wet.You will begin to hear the falls way before you can see them. Then step into the big hole in the rock. All of a sudden when you feel like you are in a cave you will see the water crashing down from above. Depending on the time of year the water might be flowing behind a wall of ice. The area surrounding the creek is covered with beautiful trees and is a great place for a picnic.
Next you might want to end the day with a dip in a swimming pool fed by hot springs. Go back north on Hwy 150, turn left on 6 east and backtrack to Hwy 17. Go back north past Hwy 112 a few miles and follow signs to the Sand Dunes Pool. This is a naturally hot artesian very large swimming pool kept between 98-100 degrees and a 25 person therapy pool kept between 105-107 degrees. The water is amazingly clear with no odors and no added chlorine. Great for family fun, relaxation and rejuvenation and the Channel 7 News in Denver voted their concession stand “The Best Concession Stand in Colorado”. Hours are 10 to 10 March through November and 1 to 8 PM in winter. Admission is $10.00 for adults 13 & over ($8.00 winter hours), children (ages 3-12)$6.00 year-round, seniors (ages 65+), college students (with ID), & military (with ID)$8.00 regular hours $6.00 winter hours, children 2 & under free.
To return to the AppleLodge just backtrack again to Hwy 112, turn west and this will bring you right back to Del Norte. If you are crossing the valley near sunset be sure to look back toward the Sangre de Cristos. You might get to see them lit up in a beautiful collor of pinkish red which it how they got their name–“Blood of Christ”. Then turn right on US 160 and go about a mile west to the AppleLodge. This will be a full day of activities so you will want to plan for meals and plan to sleep well upon your return.