Spring Hike to High Dune
Great Sand Dunes National Park
In early May of 2008 my husband, Greg, and I took a day trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. We intended to reach the top of High Dune, the second tallest dune in North America - second only to Star Dune 1 1/2 miles away, which stands one hundred feet higher at 750 ft. above the San Luis Valley floor. The park's elevation is around 8200 feet, so add thin air to shifting sand beneath one's feet with ferocious spring winds kicking up the sand, and a hike up one of the dunes becomes a bit of a challenge. I asked a park ranger if it was always so windy there. He replied that the winds are stronger in the spring because of the low temperatures around the snowy mountain peaks mixing with the valley's warm air.
The dunes were created by opposing winds that blow sediment down from the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which border the valley. Sediment is also brought down from the mountains by Medano and Sand Creeks. Medano Creek runs along one side of the dunes from late spring through early summer, peaking late May. An unusual effect to watch are the "surge flows", which are small waves that appear every so often in the creek.
When we were there, the creek was very cool and reached just below our knees, making for an easy crossing to the dunes. After spending years hiking miles of pristine beaches and being tossed about by waves of the Great Lakes in Michigan, I gazed in disbelief at all the poor souls sloshing in the pitifully shallow creek and sitting along the narrow strip of sand at the water's edge with their picnic lunches. Only in a high desert region could this be a beach destination. We came for the dunes.
Shortly after crossing the river we saw people sledding down a dune. The only person who looked like he was doing anything fun was a guy sliding down while standing on what looked to be a snowboard (not pictured here). I read that some people go to the dunes to ski in the winter, but that would be so much work without ski lifts.
It was about a three hour drive from Colorado Springs, so we had arrived close to noon and left around 5 pm in search of pizza, missing the warm glows and dramatic shadows photographers travel to the park for. Nevertheless, I was still happy with my pictures as clouds accentuated the dunes' curves.
If you want to stay overnight to catch the rich tones of a sunrise or sunset, there is a motel behind the Oasis restaurant near the park or you can stay at the park's Pinyon Flats Campground. From September through Memorial Day, you have to find lodging and food in Alamosa, 35 miles SW of the park. The visitor center has restrooms and is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day from 9 am - 6 pm. I love their huge photo of a cougar crossing the dunes.
Directions From Denver or Colorado Springs take I-25 south to Walsenburg, then go west on US 160, then north on state hwy 150. From Albuquerque go north on I-25 to Santa Fe, then north on US 285 to Alamosa.
Below is the view to the east as you approach the park.
While hiking up the dunes, it is best to stick to the ridge lines, even though they aren't the most direct route to the top, because at these points the sand is packed the hardest and you don't slide backwards as much. The fierce winds forced me to hold my hat beside my face to protect it from flying sand that hit like thousands of sharp needles. I was so glad I had worn long pants. I kept my jacket on even though I got quite warm. A long sleeve white shirt would have been ideal. I carried my camera inside my jacket in a feeble attempt to keep the sand out, but a plastic bag would have been better. I ended up finding grit in various places and it took awhile to clean.
At one point I was so miserable from the blowing sand, heat and arduous climb that I wanted to quit. I was walking as fast as I could just to get the hike over with and was hit with exhaustion. Then Greg reminded me of the tortoise and the hare and said if I walked slower, I could conserve my energy and make it to the top. My constant curiosity about views I've never seen before, especially from summits, kept me going.
As we neared the top of High Dune, the views became very rewarding and I was glad I had persevered. In the photo below you can see Medano Creek and the surrounding mountains.
I was so taken with the view from High Dune's summit that I used it for the top of my web pages. I found the combination of expansive dunes beneath majestic mountains quite rare and fascinating. In fact, the view on every side was beautiful from the valley to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
On the way down Greg ran ahead because he wanted me to photograph him as a speck going down one of the steepest dunes. From the top of the dune, the slope looks too steep to run down, so Greg slid. But the second time he decided to run down and made it without tripping. I stayed at the top and was thankful simply to not be blown over the edge by the winds which, at times, forced me to lean into them to keep my balance.
After our trek through the dunes we headed 12 miles south to the Zapata Falls Recreation Area where there are four loop trails for mountain biking. Greg didn't have his bike, so he just wanted to do the half mile hike to the falls. I was too tired to join him and I didn't care to get my tennis shoes soaked by the shallow river you have to walk through, so I was content to just look at the photos he took.
To the right is the river leading to Zapata Falls. Overhead is a narrow chasm with an overhang, so the space appears like a short cave.
At the end of the day we were definitely ready for a very large pizza and a gallon of water. If we went to the dunes again, we'd try to catch the sunrise or sunset on the sand and go in July or August in hopes of enjoying a less windy day.