Great Sand Dunes National Park: An Undeniable Sense of Wonder
I visited Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado last month on somewhat of a whim. I was in originally in Colorado with my boyfriend, Alex, solely to explore Rocky Mountain National Park. We had a great first day of exploring before the weather turned sour. Almost in an instant the sunny, clear skies transformed into a tumultuous winter storm which was forecast to carry on through the weekend. Not wanting to cut our trip short, I looked for other options within driving distance. While the entire region was pretty stormy, the weather to the South looked mild. I noticed Great Sand Dunes National Park on the map, situated 300 miles south of Estes Park. It would be a long drive but it seemed like the best option, so I set an alarm for 4am and we were on the road long before daybreak.
After five hours of driving we finally turned onto the final stretch of road that led straight to Great Sand Dunes. When the dunes finally came into view there was a brief moment I experienced a sinking "that's it?" feeling. The dunes looked insignificant as they were dwarfed by the 13,345' peak of Herard Mountain in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. As we neared the dunes I could see tiny specks moving around on them... people! This was the first time I realized the massive scale of the dunes. Any fleeting disappointment I felt when I first laid eyes on the dune field was gone and replaced with giddy excitement.
We stopped at the Visitor Center to acquire a backcountry permit to camp in the dune field and learned about the history of Great Sand Dunes National Park. This park is home to North America's tallest sand dunes; the tallest in the park is Star Dune, which stands at a towering 755'. The dunes formed after the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges shot up from the earth and formed the San Luis Valley. Sediment from both ranges flowed into a lake that once covered the valley floor, and over time the lake dried up but the sediment that had flowed into it remained. This sand was funneled through the valley by wind and pushed to the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains forming the massive dunes we see today.
With a backcountry permit secured we drove to the Amphitheater Parking Lot, geared up for an evening in the dunes and set out. The hike starts along a horse trail that meanders through Indian Ricegrass until it reaches the shores of Medano Creek. Across Medano Creek is where the real fun begins. The trail disappears and is replaced by towering dunes and hikers are forced to find their way over the tallest dunes and into the backcountry area where camping is allowed. It takes the average hiker an hour to crest these dunes and while the hike may look like a walk in the park from the Visitor Center, it proved to be challenging.
The sand dunes are almost an illusion. It was so difficult to grasp their magnitude, even while standing right in front of them. Dunes in the far distance seemed so much closer and smaller than they actually were. When planning the route over the tallest one we thought we could simply "take the gradual ridge line" over to the other side. It looked like the shortest option of all the routes that lay before us. We set off towards the ridge line only to be deterred by an incredibly large and steep dune that looked so small from a distance.
We tried to traverse up the face of it but fell 10 feet short of reaching the top. We were sinking up to our mid-calves and causing tiny sand-avalanches. Reluctantly, we doubled back the way we came and took the longer route. The second way had a steep section, too, and I was unsure if we were going to make it. It took a lot of effort and a few curse words but we were finally over the tallest ridge! What lay before us was astonishing. Expansive, sinuous dunes that looked like undulating waves reached for the towering mountains of the Sangre de Cristo range. The best part? We had it entirely to ourselves.
Since we left the trailhead parking lot we did not see one other person in the dune field and we wouldn't until we returned to our car the next morning. The dune field was like a giant sandbox that was ours alone to play in. Our early start to the day granted us the entire afternoon to explore the landscape. We laid our packs down and climbed the ridges unweighted. We ran down the faces of the dunes only to turn around and watch the wind erase the footprints we just left.
Finally, it was time to set up camp. As we began assembling our tent we noticed a growing rain cloud over the mountains to the North. There weren't any storms in the forecast but we kept a close watch on the clouds. Setting up a tent in sand with strong winds is tough. We've set up a tent in snowstorms before, but that was relatively easy compared to the combination of ever-shifting sand and strong winds. The wind wasn't forecast to die down until early evening. The stakes didn't do a good job keeping the tent down, so we decided to bury the edges of the tent, which was surprisingly effective at keeping it in place. Ideally, we would have had sandbags but the impromptu nature of the trip eliminated that as an option.
By the time the sun was beginning to set, the clouds over the mountains had cumulated into a full-blown rainstorm (safely to the Northwest) and in the golden hour glow the scene was breathtaking. The beauty continued to grow as the sun sank below the horizon and reflected off the rain creating what looked like pink rain. It was unlike anything I've ever seen before and something I definitely won't forget.
After darkness set in, the warmth of the sun during the day had quickly faded so we hurried back to the tent to warm up in our sleeping bags. I was hoping to take night photos so we planned to take a nap and set an alarm for 9pm (camping midnight in full effect) and check the conditions then.
When the alarm went off I peeked outside and to my dismay the entire sky was covered in clouds. So we decided to take another nap with our alarm now set for 1am to check if any of the clouds had cleared. In what seemed like no time the alarm was going off again! Reluctantly I crawled out of my sleeping bag and peered out of the tent. The sky was twinkling with the most stars that I had ever seen... I practically jumped out of the tent.
The combination of high elevation, little light pollution, and dry air creates the perfect conditions for Great Sand Dunes' dark night sky. It's the ideal place to try your hand at night photography or to just stargaze. I spent an hour in the subfreezing temperature taking photos but barely noticed the chill as I was too captivated by the night sky.
Finally the sun rose and it was time to hike out. We packed up our gear, relishing in the sweeping vistas of sand and mountain surrounding us. The trek back took much less time than the hike in since it was almost entirely downhill. Once back at the car we changed into fresh clothes, packed, and just like that we were leaving the park with another wonderful and incredibly unique adventure under our belts!
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About The Author
Sonja Saxe is the adventurer behind The National Parks Girl based out of Madison, WI. Using every vacation hour possible and squeezing trips out of long holiday weekends she sets off to explore the country’s greatest gift, the national park system, with her equally adventurous boyfriend. Her passion for photography grew out of a hope that sharing the scenery around her might inspire others to get out, explore, and appreciate the great outdoors as well. You can follow along with Sonja as she embarks on new adventures by visiting her Instagram.