National Parks: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
Apr 21, 2019
The landscape of Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve seems baffling at first. The tallest sand dunes anywhere in North America, with no major body of water anywhere close by. In fact, they sit at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that rise to elevations over 14,000 feet. Aren't sand dunes only supposed to be by the ocean, or big lakes, or in the middle of vast desert? Instead, these great dunes sit on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado.
This isn't exactly a place you stop at because you drove by it on the highway, it's a bit off the beaten path. The valley is a large high mountain valley, with an average elevation over 7600 feet, covering 8000 square miles, nearly the size of Connecticut. The base of the dunes themselves is at about 8000 feet, with the tallest dune rising 750 feet above that. As you drive through the valley approaching the dunes set against the high mountain peaks rising above, they still don't seem that impressive. Your perspective changes once you're standing at the base and preparing to climb them however. The ever changing conditions mean there are no trails in the dunefield, this quickly becomes a choose your own path adventure. Generally a climb to the top of the first ridge of the dunes covers a little over a mile, which combined with the propensity to slide back down with nearly every step in the sand and the 700 feet of elevation gain, puts the strenuousness of the adventure into clearer terms. The ants marching up those hills of sand really are people, and this really is more impressive than it seemed when you were driving in. Once you reach the top though, all that effort really does seem worthwhile. Just look at the photo at the top of the page again, that will be your view when you crest that ridge above Medano Creek and the entirety of the dunefield and the Sangre de Cristo mountains comes into view. Take a moment, catch your breath from the hike, and let the views take it away again. Then encourage everyone on your way down that the view from the top really is worth it. Camping in the dunefield is also allowed with a free permit, giving you the opportunity to take advantage of the dark night skies. Carrying your gear up that hill will add to the challenge, but the payoff will be lots of peace and quiet under a wide-open sky filled with stars.
Speaking of Medano Creek, this is the other main highlight of the park, for a few weeks each year at least. Medano Creek flows down out of the mountains northeast of the dunes, and powered in the spring by snow melt flows across the eastern base of the dunes before disappearing into the sands. It is a shallow creek, popular for wading and splashing in water that even at peak flow is usually just a few inches deep, with waves that might rise to a height of 18 inches pulsing through. This peak flow usually lasts only a few weeks in late May and early June. This is by far the busiest time in the park as locals come out and join park visitors to play in the waters. With above average snowfall in the mountains above this year, the projected peak flow is expected to be above average in the next few weeks. This will be a great time to visit the park, just expect to share the creek with many, many other people. Visiting on a weekday instead of a weekend will help.
While the main attractions of the park are the dunes and creek, there are other options as well. Hiking trails lead up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, climbing up to high passes and mountain lakes. If you have a high-clearance 4x4, you can also travel the Medano Pass Primitive Road, with backcountry campsites and trailheads along the way. Eventually the road travels through the pass and down the eastern side of the mountains into the valley on the other side. There are other public lands in the valley as well, and it hosts the Monte Vista Crane Festival each year in March.
A visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is definitely worth your time, and it is a unique experience as well. This post is part of a series I'm doing on National Parks and some of my favorite spots in each one, in honor of National Parks Week. I hope you'll take a peek at my National Parks Gallery as well while you're here! If you're enjoying following my posts here on my blog, don't forget to follow me on Facebook & Instagram as well. You'll often see my latest photos there first! If you'd like to order a print of these photos, just click on them and you'll be taken to my art store where you can place your order. Thanks for following along!