The San Luis Valley, where Alamosa is located, is about 75 miles from the headwaters of the Rio Grande River in the San Juan Mountains. I was drawn to Alamosa in part because several folks from Colorado had mentioned that the valley is a very special place. Granted, they said, everyone thinks his or her place is special, but they assured me that it is really true of the San Luis Valley. Fair enough.
The Rio Grande winds its way through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas before crossing over into New Mexico. Like most of Colorado’s rivers, the water may all come from inside the state, but extensive interstate water compacts prevent Colorado from using its natural water wealth. Through my policy work, I had learned that the residents of the San Luis Valley are unusually active with managing their environment to ensure that the agreed-upon amount flows downstream. Unlike the Colorado River, which is allocated by a certain amount of water specified for each state regardless of how much water is actually available, the Rio Grande flows are based on tables which take into account the precipitation and snow pack to determine each state’s share. Having learned so much about the Rio Grande, I wanted to see it for myself.
The Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge was on my radar because of a pair of constituents who came to DC to talk about the value and importance of the National Wildlife Refuge system. When I learned that I could see the Rio Grande from the Alamosa NWR, that clinched my plans. (When I got here, I realized that since the Rio Grande flows through Alamosa, I could have just stayed in town to see the river, but that hardly would have made a good story.)
After all my complaints yesterday about the heat, it was quite cold when I got up this morning. I told myself to take it easy since this is technically a vacation, but I headed out toward the Alamosa NWR around 9 AM. I smiled when I crossed from pavement onto the gravel road of the Reserve since driving on unpaved roads seems to be typical of my Western vacations. There was an excellent driving loop that I had to myself so I could see the ways in which the Reserve managed water to provide pools, mud flats, and vegetation for different species of birds. When I stopped the car and turned off the engine, what struck me most was the absolute silence. I couldn’t even hear traffic in the background of the vast emptiness. Then I would hear the birds chattering or what I assumed were frogs chittering away, and there was a point to the stillness.
My plan for a short nature hike was stymied by the complete absence of other people; I am too well trained to go off on my own, but I was able to get a few photos of the river. It may be called the Rio Grande at that point, but it is more grand in potential than in manifestation. Indeed, the irrigation canal adjacent to the river looked more impressive for water content, although its rigidly boxed-in channel had nothing on the graceful sweep of the river.
From one of the signs on the tour, I learned that the San Luis valley is actually a high elevation desert with less than 7” of rain annually. Its human, animal, and bird residents get their water from the runoff of the surrounding mountains. Farmers also tap the underground water reservoirs called aquifers when the surface water runs low, but over-pumping is threatening the water supply from the aquifers as well.
After I thoroughly photographed the golden desert vegetation and the distant mountains, I proceeded on to the second stop of the day, Great Sand Dunes National Park. I confess that no one had told me about this park in particular, but having spent months staring at a beautifully colored map of Colorado with all the National Parks highlighted in purple, I was well aware of its presence in the valley. Besides, it’s been far too long since I’ve added any stamps in the Rocky Mountain region to my National Parks passport.
The dunes are quite fascinating since they are made of sand, but the sand is pulverized rock instead of pulverized shell as you would find on a beach. The dunes are built from a combination of the prevailing winds, which sweep the sand toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and storm winds, which blow down from the mountains and push the sand back, creating the huge piles. The dunes themselves are amazingly stable. In the visitor’s center, they compare photos of the dunes taken 138 years apart, and the peaks have not shifted position at all.
When I am vacationing, especially alone, one of my daily goals is to ask someone to take my picture. Today’s picture is conveniently by the sign at the park entrance, and I did the same service for the family who pulled up behind me. I actually saw the family later- well most of them. The older boy was buried up to his neck in sand at the time, so all I saw was his head.
Without a four wheel drive vehicle, I was somewhat constrained for what I could do in the park, but the Ranger’s recommendation to just go climbing around the dunes turned out to be perfect.
Well, almost perfect. There was a sign at the visitor’s center that the park is at 8100 ft elevation. Having just arrived in Colorado yesterday, my body has had limited time to adjust, so I blame all of my shortness of breath on the steep climb on the altitude, rather than a lack of time at the gym. I did my best to think encouraging thoughts in the direction of my spleen that it might be a bit more efficient at dumping out its extra red blood cells into my system. Some extra oxygen-carrying capacity would be a big help during the next week! I managed to climb to one of the highest peaks I could see from the parking lot, but just like mountain climbing, it turned out to be an illusion that I had reached a summit. When I got there, all I could see was the next row of taller yet dunes, but I still felt I had done well.
The dunes seemed to attract an odd combination of summer and winter sports. Some folks treated the sand like beach sand, whereas others treated it like snow. Sand-boarding was a popular past-time, for example, and judging from the efforts I saw, it was far more efficient to sled down the sand on a saucer rather than trying to slide down on your bottom. One young lass was undeterred about filling her britches with sand, but she announced that all the sliding made her butt hot. I skipped the sliding part, but I still managed to get a fair amount of sand in my shoes by the time I was down again.
On my return to Colorado Springs rather than repeat yesterday’s drive, I chose a longer but more scenic route that started going north in one of those roads that is so straight that it seemed that I could tie down the steering wheel, take a nap, and still be on the road when I woke up. No, I didn’t try that experiment. The highlight of the plan was driving along the Arkansas River as it wound through the mountains, which was quite delightful.
When I checked into my hotel, I got a room with a view of Pike’s Peak, so I can enjoy the beauty of Colorado while I type. I like this plan.