When I say sand dunes, you probably think of a beach somewhere with mounds of sand in one direction and the vastness of the ocean in the other. But what if I said the sand dunes were in Colorado?
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is located northeast of Alamosa, CO in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There’s no ocean to be found. Instead, the dunes are the result of opposing forces: erosion of the mountains due to water and weather, and the prevailing winds that blow back towards the mountains, keeping the 30-square-mile (77 sq km) field of dunes in place. In fact, these forces are so strong that Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to the tallest dunes in North America!
Early in the season the dunes are surrounded by Medano Creek, but by late June the water is usually dried up. This was the case when we were there in mid-August. The dunes themselves are huge and numerous, and all are open for climbing. The most popular are High Dune and Star Dune. High Dune is a frustrating 699 feet (213 m) high (which I imagine is the topographic equivalent of being 5’11 3/4″ tall) and is about a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) walk from the parking area. There isn’t an exact trail since it’s sand, but there were enough people there that we could see an approximate path.
Hiking on sand was an experience of its own. It’s recommended to hike in the morning since the sand can rise to temperatures of 150°F (65°C) during the heat of the day!
My mom and I began our hike with our shoes on just in case but only made it a few steps before our socks were filled with sand and we realized this was a fairly ill-conceived plan. We also had our sandals with us but the sand was still cool so we opted to hike barefoot, and it was rather enjoyable to feel the sand between our toes as we walked.
What was less enjoyable, however, was climbing giant mounds of sand. It’s the kind of hike where you take one step up and sink back down nearly the same distance. We felt like we were going nowhere. I’m not sure how long it took us to walk the 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to High Dune, but it was much longer than we expected. Probably about an hour.
Contrary to its name, High Dune is not actually the highest dune in the park. That honor is bestowed upon Star Dune which, at 750 feet (229 m), is not only the tallest dune in the park, but also in North America! Star Dune is another 1.5 miles (2.4 km) beyond High Dune and the trail – which is little more than the occasional set of footprints in the sand since most people don’t venture out this far – traverses up and over the dunes in between.
Though by no means a long hike, Star Dune holds the distinction of being the most difficult hike I’ve ever done. It may have only been 3 miles (4.8 km) to get there, but the sand made it seem like it was twice as far, and the final ascent to the top of the dune was so steep. The angle of repose of sand is about 35º – which didn’t seem that steep until we were trying to climb it.
We actually got down on our hands and knees and crawled the last 50 vertical feet (15 m). We didn’t think we were going to make it, but there was no way we were turning back when we were so close.
And you know what? We made it. We huffed and puffed and clawed and crawled our way to the top of the highest sand dune in North America!
It was a very odd feeling, being surrounded by sand for at least 3 miles (4.8 km) in every direction. It made me feel small. It was also very disorienting; everything looked the same. I could see how it would be very easy to get lost. Thankfully we could see people off in the distance so though we forged our own path back, we could see where we needed to end up. With about 1 mile (1.6 km) to go, the sand finally became too hot and we had to stop and put on our sandals.
There is unfortunately a large section of the park that’s accessible only with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, which we lack, so other than exploring the dunes there wasn’t a lot we could do inside the park.
Outside the park, however, is a 1.25 mile (2 km) round-trip hike to Zapata Falls. The falls is about 30 feet (9 m) tall and requires a bit of navigation over slippery rocks and through a crevasse to get there. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, the view of the dunes from the trailhead still makes it worth the drive.
It would probably also be a great place to go for an evening drive, as sunsets over the dunes are pretty incredible.
So next time you’re looking for a unique place to visit, head on over to southern Colorado and prepare to feel the sun on your face and the sand beneath your feet!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: located at the end of CO Route 150, approximately 35 miles (56km) northeast of the town of Alamosa; a 4WD vehicle is necessary to go beyond the campground/visitor center area
- Fees & passes: $25 per car for a 7-day pass; Interagency Annual Pass accepted
- Camping: Piñon Flats campground, 88 sites, $20 per night, reservations accepted and necessary in the summer; you can also backpack out onto the dunes for the night (update: we’ve now done this, read about it here!)
- Hiking: There are quite a few trails up into the mountains, though some require a 4WD vehicle to get to. The entire dune field is also open for hiking. We went to High Dune (3 miles/4.8 km round-trip) and continued to Star Dune (adds an additional 3 miles/4.8 km round-trip from High Dune)
- Other: Beware of extremely high temperatures on the dunes… the sand can reach a temperature of 150ºF (65°C) during the day!