Great Sand Dunes National Park: Sahara in America

What happens when blown sand has nowhere to go?  It forms a big sand dune.  The Great Sand Dunes National Park is at the base of the 13,000-foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains, on the eastern side of San Luis Valley.  On the western side of the valley is the San Juan Mountains.  Erosion washed sediments from the mountains into the valley.  Over the millennia, through various lake formations that once dotted the valley, erosion produced the fine sand.  The consistent southwest wind blew the sand eastward until it is blocked by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  The result is the tallest sand dune in America.

Unique

Imagine a big pile of sand that is 755 feet tall, about half the height of the Empire State Building and a quarter bigger than Manhattan at 30 square miles, .  The backdrop to this big pile of sand is the often snow capped, craggy mountain peak a mile taller than the dunes.  The scene is fascinating and unique.

Huge Sandbox

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Huge Sand Box

The Dunefield portion of the park is a huge sandbox  that is the highlight of the park.  You can explore this anyway you want to.  There are no trails.  You can climb, jump, slide, sit, or build sand castles by the creek.  During spring and early summer, the snow melt fills the Medano Creek at the base of the dune to create a natural water park to play and build sand castles.  Check here for current condition of the creek.  The creek slows to a trickle and dry up completely in the fall.

Tough Climb

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Steep Hill

The tallest visible dune from the creek is the 650-foot High Dune.  To climb the sand dune is much harder than it looks.  For each step up, the soft sand pulls you back half a step as your feet sinks into the sand.  Your muscles have to work extra hard to push you up the hill.  To compound the problem, the air is thin because you are 8000 feet above sea level.  You quickly get winded as your heart and lungs work hard to extract oxygen from the thinner air.  While from a distance, High Dune peak looks like a straight climb up but that is not the case.  There are several intermediate peaks followed by valleys.  You have to descend before you can resume your climb up the next ridge, each higher than the last, before reaching the final peak.  Star Dune, the tallest peak at 755 feet, is not visible until you get close to High Dune.  It is a mile further with a couple of valleys in between.  Many hikers like me who intend to climb Star Dune stop at High Dune after they realize how difficult it is to climb in soft sand.

Sliding and Jumping


A popular activity is sand sledding and sandboarding.  Take a sand sled or sandboard, wax it, and point the nose down a steep sand hill for a nice ride.  You don’t get anywhere near the speed of a snow sled but it is still fun.  What goes down, however, must come back up.  You have to drag the sled or the board back up the steep hill.  This is exhausting work.  There are no chair lifts to help you.  Check here for sled rental information.  You can also stand on a ridge and jump into the soft sand, or simply roll down the hill.  You will have sand in your shoes, hair, and even underwear.  Loads of fun!

Sitting on a Ridge

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Mountain Backdrop to the Sand

My favorite activity is to sit on a ridge and take in the sweeping view of the dunes, the jagged mountain peaks in the background, and watch.  The undulating sand stretches for miles west down the valley, for almost as far as the eye can see.  The tall and imposing mountain provides a perfect backdrop to the east.  People of all ages and places explore and frolic in the sand along with some dogs.  With the wind blowing gently, sitting there is super relaxing.

Into the Mountain

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View of Sand Dune from Nature Trail

If you have a high clearance, four wheel drive vehicle, and the skills to navigate stretches of sand, you can take the Medano Pass Primitive Road to the 9,982 foot high Medano Pass and hike to Medano Lake at nearly 12,000 feet.  There are hikes into the mountain for the more hardy, all the way up to the peak of Mount Herard at 13,297 feet with a sweeping view of the sand dunes and the valley to the west.  For those of us who are less adventurous, the half mile Montville Nature Trail is absolutely tranquil and beautiful.  This is a loop trail that follows the Mosca Creek, through thick groves of Douglas fir, juniper, and pinon pine.  You can hear the constant babbling of the creek as you wind your way through the woods.  You emerge from the forest to a vista of sandy color of the dune below you.  The viewpoint from this trail is well worth the short easy hike.

Thought for Great Sand Dunes National Park

Life can be hard, just like climbing up a steep sand dune.  Each step sinks in and slides a half step back.  To reach the goal, take one step at a time, persevere and be patient.  Soon, you will stand on the peak and enjoy the reward.  

Impressions of Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park is an unique natural wonder.  The dunes are super-sized.  You can not get the true appreciation of how unforgiving sand is unless you’ve tried to hike it while getting sandblasted by the wind.  The sun reflected off of the sand made the dunes hotter than normal.  In the summer,  sand can get too hot for barefoot.  You can have a lot of fun playing in the sand.  The scenery is unique.  While this is one of the smaller parks with few visitors, it is an uncommon experience that is well worth the trip.

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Great Sand Dunes National Park Rating:

(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings.  All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)

Element Rating (out of 5 Stars)
Scenery ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Variety ⭐️
Accessibility ⭐️⭐️
Touring ⭐️⭐️
Hiking ⭐️⭐️
Wildlife ⭐️
Overall ⭐️⭐️

Practical Info for Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park

  • If you skip the backcountry hikes and primitive roads, one day is enough to visit this park.
  • Go play in the sand in the morning, when it’s cooler and the colors more vivid.
  • Take a hike in the afternoon.  The Montville Nature Trail is a good bet for a short easy hike.
  •  The Visitor Center has a nice video that describes the history of the dune and the park.
  • Bring water.  The air is dry.  The sun is hotter than you would expect.  Put on sunscreen.
  • Expect the hike in the dune to be twice as difficult as normal.  You will get winded quicker than normal.
  • Alamosa is the nearest town, about 30 miles away.  You can get good services there.
  • Special shout out to May-Wa Chinese restaurant in Alamosa.  The food is delicious and the service is excellent in this family run restaurant

Great Sand Dunes National Park Facts:

  • Size: 42,983 acres, ranked 49th
  • Visitors: 388,308 in 2016, ranked 41st.  2016 had record visitors.
  • Peak Month in 2016: July with 79,425 visitors
  • Low Month in 2016: January with 1,503 visitors
  • Entrance Fee: $15 per vehicle, $7 per person outside of a vehicle

Date Visited: October 23, 2016

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