Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado is one of those places that doesn’t seem to get any respect. I suppose that people have an image of a few big piles of sand in the middle of nowhere, while in reality it is one of the most diverse and interesting parks in the system.
I will admit that it takes some doing to get there. For travellers who are not familiar with this part of the country, it is 200 miles from just about anywhere they have ever heard of no matter what direction you are coming from. The closest towns are at least a half hour away and are modestly sized at best. Entrance fees the last time I visited were $3.00 per adult 16+ and free for younger rug rats. Being as this is the biggest and best sandbox on the continent, definitely bring the kids! Even the most committed wilderness complainers will find fun here.
As you might have guessed by the name, the sand dunes are the defining feature here. Everyone expects to see some big dunes, but most people are surprised by how huge they really are. They are not only big, but extensive, covering many square miles. Add a backdrop of 13,000′ and 14,000′ peaks, scenic forests, lakes and creeks and you quickly come to the conclusion that this is a very special place indeed.
The parking area and visitors facilities are located on the east side of the very scenic Medano Creek. Therefore, it doesn’t take long to realize that a wade through the creek is required to actually experience the dunes. Even though the water can be frigid, it is usually only a few inches deep so it’s no big deal. The creek sort of pulses with little waves of water at times but they are just an oddity rather than a hazard.
We had come here with the intention of camping in the campground and skiing the dunes, but when we realized that it was possible to camp on the dunes themselves our path was clear. We picked up a free permit from the visitor’s center, packed up our gear and waded into a great time.
Once across the creek, we followed one of the obvious paths and paid a visit to Star Dune. At 750′ high, it is the highest dune in the park according to the visitor’s guide. While it was certainly big, it didn’t really stand out in the ocean of sand waves surrounding us. From there, we hiked north and enjoyed the afternoon skiing whatever face appealed to us. We were told that in warmer months, the sand can get really hot but we were treated to partly sunny skies and cool temperatures so travel was comfortable all day.
After some really comical falls, we figured out that skiing sand is somewhat different from skiing snow (duh!). Once we got the hang of it, it was a lot of fun. A few tips – make sure that you seal up the top of your boots, wear goggles and only go down faces that have a convenient ridge to walk back up. It would be an exercise in futility to walk back up the steeper faces. We were on tele gear go sand in the bindings was not a problem. For alpine folks, I imagine the sand would trash your bindings to plan accordingly. Even though I am a two planker, I must admit that a snowboard would be much a better tool here.
After exhausting the fun of skiing the dunes and ourselves, we walked a bit more and found a nice campsite. From the top of the surrounding dunes you could see the visitors area, but down in the valley we might as well been in the middle of the Sahara. Knowing that we only had the water on our backs and that everything needed to come back out with us, the camp was spartan but totally enjoyable. A dinner of assorted candy bars, some cheese and raw veggies gave way to a great night of stargazing. It got surprisingly cold that night but we had just enough clothing to spend the night just on the comfortable side of chilly.
After a totally inadequate breakfast, we made for the parking area with a few stops for some ski runs. It came to our attention that we might have camped in an area that is not actively encouraged, but if so it was an honest mistake. And besides, other than our footprints, no one would ever have known we were there.
Unfortunately we did not have time to explore the backcountry outside of the dunes but we hear it is exceptional. With only two days and one night to spare, we chose to do the dunes right and save the rest for another visit.
Great Sand Dunes is a true hidden gem of a park. It is highly recommended for hiking, camping and some really weird skiing.