The 8,000-square-mile San Luis Valley sits at super-high elevation, as desert climates go—the average elevation is more than 7,600 feet above sea level. It’s bordered on all sides by mountains, none more majestic than the rugged Sangre de Cristo Range, the farther south subrange of the Rockies. The Sangres contain a number of so-called Fourteeners, the nickname for Colorado peaks over 14,000 feet, including Blanca (14,351 feet), Crestone (14,300 feet), and Culebra (14,053 feet) peaks.
The range’s name—which literally translates to “blood of Christ”—is likely drawn from the reddish color they give off during the valley’s gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, not to mention the beautiful alpenglow you’ll see there at dusk, especially during the winter months, when the peaks are dusted with snow. In Colorado, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are administered by a number of different land managers, including the US Forest Service (Rio Grande and San Isabel National Forests) and the National Park Service (Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve). It also encompasses the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness area, which covers nearly 221,000 acres.
The best intro to Sangre de Cristo backpacking is a tour of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve’s Sand Ramp Trail. The trail begins at the end of Loop 2 in the park’s Piñon Flats Campground and runs alongside the park’s namesake dunefield—at the base of the Sangres. The Sand Ramp Trail features seven backcountry campsites, ranging in distance from half a mile to 10.5 miles from the trailhead. The farthest campsite, Sand Creek, is the most secluded and features a bear-proof box and a fire ring. The trail isn’t super strenuous in terms of elevation gain and loss, but beyond Little Medano Creek, some navigational skills are required. Also, the trail holds true to its name: it’s super sandy, so plan on hiking in leather boots or hiking sandals, rather than trail runners.
For backpacking trips in the park and preserve, pay your $15 entrance fee as you enter the park and head to the visitor center, where you’ll check in with a ranger. Backcountry permits at Great Sand Dunes are free and are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis. Dogs aren’t allowed at the backcountry sites here. Stock up on supplies in Alamosa, as there’s only a small general store right outside the park.
There’s plenty of great camping and backpacking outside the national park, too. The small town of Crestone offers access to the Cottonwood Creek Trail, which covers 12 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain each way. This strenuous trail is best hiked between July and September, when the last season’s snow has mostly melted and winter hasn’t yet arrived. You can camp at Cottonwood Lake (wilderness regulations apply), which also makes a great base camp for bagging Crestone Peak (14,295 feet) and Crestone Needle (14,203 feet), if that’s your thing. If you’re out for a day hike, camp at nearby North Crestone Creek Campground, which costs just $7 per night.
The Wild Cherry Creek Trail is a slightly less arduous journey than Cottonwood Creek; it covers a similar distance but with less change in elevation. Access this trail, which runs through stunning aspen groves (visit in the fall for some of the best golden hues you’ll find in Colorado), from the hamlet of Villa Grove, about 55 miles north of Alamosa. You’ll also find gorgeous wildflowers here during the summer, including columbines and sky pilots, which are only found at fairly high elevation.
It’s all dispersed camping here, meaning you can set up camp anywhere you like, as long as you’re more than 200 feet from a trail or water source—and Leave No Trace ethics dictate that your campsite shouldn’t be visible from the trail. There are several excellent campsites along the trail, including Cherry Lake, which sits in a high alpine cirque below Cotton King Peak (13,490 feet) and Wild Cherry Peak (13,122). Both peaks feature the kind of picturesque striation you expect from the Sangres, and their nontechnical routes are accessible from your campsite at Cherry Lake. Like many of its neighbors, the Wild Cherry Creek Trail is best backpacked between May and October.
Featured image provided by Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve