Adventure from Alamosa - Dunes to Ruins
Looking for a "base" to explore parts of Southern Colorado, we landed in Alamosa for a fun few days of exploring the Great National Sand Dunes and the historic mining district of Creede.
The San Luis Valley Sandbox - Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Alamosa is located in the San Luis Valley, one of the largest high desert valleys in the world. On the East side of the valley, about a half-hour drive from Alamosa, you'll find the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The dunes are the tallest in North America, with evidence of humans here dating back 11,000 years.
In more recent times, the Ute, Jicarilla Apache and Navajo all visited and lived in the area of the dunes. The Ute called it So-wop-a-wat translated to "where the sand is".
Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO - WaterA surprising place to get wet -- but also a handy place to then get dry (except when it's raining) -- is Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Alamosa and Saguache counties in Colorado. One finds the obligatory dunes of sand here -- in fact, the tallest in North America, rising in one spot 750 feet above the floor of the San Luis Valley. But to get to a large swath of them, one must wade across one of several (usually shallow) streams flowing along the sand mounds' edge. Most visitors actually relish that opportunity. The streams erode the edge of the dune field, and sand is carried downstream. The water disappears into the ground, depositing sand on the surface. Winds pick up the deposits of sand, and blow them up onto the dune field once again. Photo by Carol Highsmith.
The Spanish were known to have been here around the turn of the 17th Century. Today, the Old Spanish National Historic Trail passes through the Dunes area in which Spanish traders brought their mule pack trains across the southwest.
Exploration for the United States during Westward Expansion would bring the US Topographical Survey crew through here in 1853. Captain John Gunnison wrote at the time:
"Turning the southern base of the sand-hills, over the lowest of which we rode for a short distance, our horses half burying their hoofs only on the windward slopes, but sinking to their knees on the opposite, we for some distance followed the bed of the stream from the pass, now sunk in the sand, and then struck off across the sandy plain…The sand was so heavy that we were six hours and a half in making ten miles…"
About the same time, Fort Massachusetts was established on the west bank of Ute Creek at the base of nearby Mount Blanca, but the swampy area led the government to relocate six miles south, renaming it to Fort Garland, which is about 20 miles southeast of the Great Sand Dunes.
The troops, including Buffalo Soldiers, patrolled this region until 1883 protecting both settlers and American Indian tribes. In fact, the 9th Calvalry black regiment once ran out white settlers who had encroached on Ute trible lands. Fort Garland is 27 miles east of Alamosa, and 26 miles south of the dunes. It is worth exploring while you are near.
There is a lot to do at the Dunes, including Hiking trails, sandboarding, horseback riding, nature watching, and much more. We would recommend a full day, if not two, to explore this area. Alamosa, 30 miles to the Southwest, was an excellent place to park for this visit. Although there are closer areas to the dunes to camp, Alamosa had the amenities we were looking for as RVers.
For more information see: Great Sand Dunes National Park via National Park Service
Creede & the Colorado Historic Mining District - Rio Grande Adventure
Near the headwaters of the Rio Grande, west of the San Luis Valley, Creede is the town that just wouldn't give up.
The Upper Rio Grande Valley had long played a part in the lives of indigenous peoples, including the Ute tribe, who transversed the San Juan Mountains based on the season, moving to the valleys in the winter and the high country in the Summer.
Another attraction for the Natives of Southwest Colorado was the hot springs at what is now known as Wagon Wheel Gap, less than ten miles downriver from where Creede would be established. It was there that settlers began farming as early as 1840. By the 1870s, stage stations connecting mining camps over the Divide with the East further increased settlement.
Tourism was also on the grow. Books about the American West helped lure Easterners and European immigrants to the region, and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad was transporting tourists to Wagon Wheel Gap by 1883 with the opening of a depot.
The discovery of a high-grade silver vein by Nicholas C. Creede in 1889 started a great rush that would bring thousands to the area seeking their fortune. By 1891, the population in the area of Creede would swell to over 10,000.
The Silver Panic of 1893 shuttered most of the mines, but Creede survived to see a small resurgence in the early 1900s, and through 1966 total production included 58 million troy ounces of silver, plus copper, gold, lead and zinc.
Mining continued until 1985 when the last mine, the Homestake, closed permanently.
Today, Creede has gone back to its tourism roots. City and County leaders began leading efforts to preserve historic buildings and promote the area’s mining history and scenic views. In 1976, the Creede Historical Society was founded, and during the 1980s, the town developed into a vibrant arts community with galleries, theatres, and cultural events.
For history buffs, a journey on the Bachelor Loop Historic Driving Tour tops off your Creede Adventure. Seventeen miles through the historic mining district above Creede, you will experience mining remnants and abandoned camps, tour the Last Chance Mine, and take in the Creede Underground Mining Museum & Community Center adjacent to the loop at the north end of town.
The loop’s route includes 14 interpretive pullouts telling the history of the mining operations and abandoned camps, including Bachelor. The East part of the loop is specified for four-wheel drive vehicles as you go up the steep terrain. However, the Western part of the loop is much easier, and traveling this way allows you to go down the mountains on the rough parts if you can’t make the steep climbs.
For more on the history, see our article Creede Colorado - Silver & Gold on the Rio Grande
While here we stayed at Cool Sunshine RV Park in Alamosa. Its location between the Great Sand Dunes and the Historic Mining District of Creede made this a great place to stay, with plenty of amenities in town. This is a fairly new RV Park, with good wifi, laundry, an outdoor seating area, and more.
The word is that there are seven wagonloads of silver buried by the sand dunes; Don't get your metal detector out though. The dunes are a federal park. Also, a /creek/river flows under the dunes. if you dig down a few feet, you will hit water and you can watch it flow through the hole. Last, there are friendly deer in the camping areas. They have been fed to the point that they are tame.
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