A mirage in the mountains, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is one of those places that makes you wonder “how did this get here?”. The nearly 300 square-mile park is the result of the perfect (sand) storm of wind and water continually moving sand from nearby mountain ranges. Originally this sand and sediment washed into a lake that once covered the valley floor but as the lake dried up the winds pushed around the remaining sand grains, piling them up to forma Sahara-like landscape. It’s certainly a sight to be seen.
Visiting the park was one of the highlights of my socially-distant outdoor adventure to southern Colorado in early. The weather had just started turning cooler, which made for great conditions to explore the park and surrounding area. On the morning of our visit we drove about 1.5 hours from our middle-of-nowhere cabin near South Fork down county roads to reach Great Sand Dunes. It was a surreal approach as a sea of sand seems to appear out of thin air at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
There are a few points of interest in the park but the main draw for many people is the sand dunes. The dunefield stretches 30 square-miles and one of the most popular dunes is High Dune, which at 699 feet is the second tallest in the park. It’s Star Dune that has the honor of being not only the tallest dune in the park at 750 feet but also the tallest dune in North America. To put this into context, Star Dune is as tall as a 50-story building (by comparison the tallest dune at White Sands National Park is only 60 feet tall).
In addition to the dunes, during the late spring and early summer months the Medano Creek flows through the park, creating a beach like area to play in with waves reaching up to 20 inches. Another popular activity in the park is sandboarding and sand sledding. Great Sand Dunes is also great for stargazing at night as the park is open 24 hours and has been designated as an International Dark Sky Park.
We set out from the parking lot across the flat beachy area and had our sights set on Star Dune (reach for the stars, right?). We read that it was about 2+ miles of zig zagging to reach High Dune and then an additional 1.5 miles of ups and downs to reach the summit of Star Dune. The dunes are always changing and there’s no set path or trails so may the odds be ever in your favor. And like many people, our first thought was that the dunes didn’t seem very far away, but if you’ve ever visited the Strip in Las Vegas, NV you’ll know what I mean when I say “objects are larger (and further) than they appear”.
In fact, climbing the dunes is tough. Every step feels like a mile of straight vertical incline. Small steps are the only way to make any real progress, yet each feels more challenging and smaller than the one before. We were constantly sinking down into the hot sand, trying not to let our shoes fill with too much as it would only weigh us down more before eventually having to stop to empty them out. Then when we finally reached the top of High Dune (marked by a worn wooden stick that’s driven into the sand) – victory! Not to be confused with the small victories we felt as we scaled some of the other dunes along the way. It took us about 1.25 hours and we were pretty exhausted so we decided to call it good and eat our lunch on the top of High Dune with a view of the entire dunefield around us including Star Dune in the distance.
Afterwards we made our way back to the parking lot, which is a much easier experience of gliding and sliding down the dunes with the occasional break to stop and dump the sand out of our shoes. This took us about 45 minutes. We had originally planned to hit the Mosca Pass Trail, which spans 7 miles through a forest with aspens, evergreens, meadows and views along the Mosca Creek, but instead left the park and headed towards Zapata Falls. This 25-foot waterfall is sheltered in a rocky crevasse and is about a 30 minute drive from Great Sand Dunes on a VERY rough gravel road. You can read more about that adventure and other hikes in the South Fork area here and feel free to click through the gallery of images below.
Also Good to Know
As you might expect, then sand dunes are HOT even during cooler times of the year. Walking barefoot in the sand although might sound easier is not recommended, and often impossible in warmer weather when surface temperatures of the sand can soar as high as 150 degrees Fahrenheit. I tried this in the early fall and my feet were uncomfortable within minutes. Instead visitors should wear lightweight close-toed shoes and bring plenty of water, sunscreen and read up on other important safety tips here. Temperatures vary greatly from season to season and even between day and night when it can drop from warm to cool pretty quickly so check the weather and layer accordingly.
GREAT SAND DUNES BY THE NUMBERS
- Established as a National Monument in 1932 by Herbert Hoover and later a National Park in 2000
- The 30 square-mile dunefield makes up only 11% of the park’s nearly 300 square-miles
- 5 dunes are over 500 feet tall
- Star Dune is the tallest dune in the park and in North America at 750 feet
- There are 7 life zones within the park, from alpine tundra to mountain forests, dunefields, grasslands and wetlands
- The dunes are likely to be 440,000 years old