Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
Mention Colorado, and the last thing most people think of are sand dunes—most of us picture the lofty peaks and crystal clear streams of the Rocky Mountains, but located in the southeast corner of the state is a desert oasis called Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Within this rugged 39 square mile park stand the tallest sand dunes in North America, including High Dune and Star Dune, rising 650 feet and 750 feet, respectively, above the 7500 foot elevation of the valley floor. The massive dunes loom on the eastern side of the remote San Luis Valley, which is surrounded by the alpine peaks of the Sangre de Cristo and the San Juan Mountain Ranges. These beautiful mountains provide a stunning backdrop for the wind-shaped dunes—all the elements needed for an exciting hiking adventure.
We began our hike at the Dunes Parking Lot, hoping to summit both High Dune and Star Dune. Earlier that morning we awoke in Colorado Springs to gray skies, cold weather, and rain showers, so we were pleasantly surprised by the fair weather we were now encountering. The sun was shining nicely, peaking out occasionally from the puffy white clouds that were a welcome sun shade while hiking amid the dunes. The temperature was a pleasant 75 degrees, and the sand, which can reach 140 degrees, was comfortably warm to the touch. We set out towards the dune field, stopping to take our shoes off in order to cross Medano Creek.
Medano Creek flows for ten miles, starting its journey in the mountains when the snow melts—passing the eastern edge of the dunes, and then disappearing below ground in the valley. The creek actually flows directly over the sand, providing a soft walking environment for bare feet, and a great place to cool down and rest post hike.
The dunes themselves are an amazing sight, having been sculpted into pieces of art by the endless wind. The ripples and other designs in the sand are ever changing, as is the color of the sand under different light conditions. As mentioned before, the light when we hiked was of a muted, rather diffused variety, so the ripples lacked the harsh shadows needed to create a really dramatic landscape, but nonetheless the colors and designs were gorgeous.
If you have not ever hiked in the sand before you are in for a real treat your first time—hiking in sand is a lesson in choosing the path of least resistance, or rather the path that offers the most resistance—in other words the hardest packed sand. A good rule of thumb is to hike mainly on the ridges if possible, as ridgelines offer the best footing in sand. The most difficult routes are found on the loose slopes of the towering dunes—climbing up the slope of a dune can turn futile very quickly, as you usually end up sliding back down two steps for every step you take upward. It is definitely a tiring endeavor, but your reward awaits you atop some of the tallest dunes in North America.
Following our own advice, we made our way along the sand ridges until we were standing on the top of High Dune, for a 2-mile roundtrip hike with 650 feet of elevation gain, in just over 30 minutes. As we made the summit of the second highest dune in the park the clouds had pretty much taken over the sky, and thunder could be heard in the distance. Therefore, we didn’t want to risk venturing further into the dune field towards Star Dune—the highest dune in North America—and getting caught in a downpour or worse yet an electrical storm. For that reason, we simply enjoyed the views from High Dune and then headed back for the parking lot—taking every opportunity to run like kids down the steep dunes. It had been a beautiful day among the dunes and we were happy to have had the opportunity to climb High Dune, even if we didn’t get to stand on the summit of Star Dune—maybe next time!
Climbing dunes is always a wonderful way to get a closer look at a unique environment, and Great Sand Dunes National Park was no exception. So don’t be afraid to head for the highest dune that you can manage—just pick a route and go for it!