Exploring America’s Big Sandbox: Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes
By Michael Lanza
We walk along the crest of giant sand dunes as narrow as the peak of a roof, watching sand cascade down either side under our boots, and listening to it “singing” with squeaks and booms. Mouse-size kangaroo rats roam the dunes, leaping five feet into the air. At night, shooting stars arc like flaming arrows through a pitch-black sky.
It’s late November—a time of year that most backpackers keep their gear stowed away for the winter while they dream of next year’s big trips. But several of us are backpacking across a 30-square-mile sea of dunes rising several hundred feet into the air in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. In the distance, the 13,000-foot-high Sangre de Cristo Mountains scrape at the deeply blue sky. At times, we walk toe-to-heel along the inch-wide crests of dunes so steep on each side that it seems the mountain of sand should just collapse beneath our feet. We pause and listen, transfixed, to the eerie song of that sand when it avalanches—a phenomenon that scientists are still trying to explain.
Hiking dunes—nature’s treadmill—is exponentially more strenuous than walking on a firm dirt-and-rock path. The tediousness is only exacerbated by having to carry all of your water—there’s none available in the dunes. And throughout our two days out here on this overnight trip, we find sand in our boots, sleeping bags, hair, and every meal and drink.
But Great Sand Dunes will enchant you with its mysteries. And the beauty of coming here in November—especially for photographers—is that mornings often deliver a scrim of frost that transforms the colorful dunes into an abstract work of art, as the low-angle sun throws deep shadows across this severe topography, warming and quickly melting the east sides of dunes as frost lingers, sparkling like jewels, on the shady sides.
So there’s the first rule of backpacking in the Great Sand Dunes: Get up early to enjoy the finest time of the day here.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR backpackers with good navigational skills and fitness. Slogging up steep sand dunes is strenuous, and with no water in the dunes, you’ll have to lug all you need (see Concerns below). In clear weather, navigating in this wide-open terrain is generally easy, though distances are deceptive. With limited visibility in bad weather, you’ll need the ability to find your way using map, compass, and perhaps GPS.
Make It Happen
Season Because the sand dunes are above 8,000 feet, summer high temperatures are moderate, generally in the 70s and 80s; but the sand surface temperature can reach 140° F on a sunny afternoon. Summer nights can drop into the 40s. July and August are also the wettest months, with afternoon thunderstorms common. Mid-September through October days are usually mild and dry, with cool nights. November is dry, with average highs in the 40s and nights frequently below freezing; but those nights also coat the dunes in the frost that can make them so photogenic. Winter is very cold but often sunny, with occasional snowstorms. March and April are the snowiest months. May and June are dry, with comfortable daytime temps for hiking and cool nights, but frequently very windy.
The Itinerary There are no designated campsites in the dunes. Hike and camp wherever you like; the only restriction is you must camp at least 1.5 miles from the closest perimeter of the sand dunes, to get beyond the day-use area. You could cross the dunes from the Visitor Center north to Cold Creek campsite in a day; it’s six straight-line miles, though the circuitous nature of hiking over the dunes turns that into seven or eight miles. That would reduce the amount of water you have to carry, but also deprive you of the most unique experience this place offers: camping on the dunes, to see them in moonlight or under a sky dense with stars, and in the transformative light of evening and early morning. Plus, hiking a mile on sand feels like three. My advice: Plan no more than three or four miles a day over the dunes. The scenery doesn’t change much with miles traveled; the dunes change around you with shifts in the day’s light and temperature, an experience you can enjoy in and around camp.
Best plan: From the Visitor Center, walk north across Medano Creek, which is usually shallow and often dries up in mid-summer and fall. Head up High Dune, at 650 feet tall not the highest in elevation or tallest in the park. But from atop High Dune, you can see the tallest dune in North America, 750-foot Star Dune, 1.5 miles to the west. Summit it, and then hike north until you find a lonely spot in the middle of the dunes to pitch camp. The next day, continue north to camp beneath tall cottonwood trees at either Cold Creek or, 1.6 miles farther, Sand Creek; both lie beyond the north edge of the dunes, so you’ll find water at both places. You’ll only need to carry 1.5 to two days’ water supply for your time in the dunes. From Cold Creek on your third day, follow the aptly named Sand Ramp Trail 5.5 miles southeast, through pinon-juniper forest, to Sand Ramp trailhead (reached only by high-clearance, 4WD vehicle), or from there, hike the jeep road south 3.4 miles farther to Point of No Return trailhead.
Getting There Great Sand Dunes National Park is 35 miles northeast of Alamosa, Colorado. From CO 17 in Mosca, take CR 6N 15.9 miles to CO 150. Follow CO 150 north 6.2 miles to the visitor center. Continue another mile to the parking lot on the left, where the hike begins. To leave a vehicle at Point of No Return trailhead, continue up the road another mile or so, to where it becomes a rough 4WD road.
Permit A permit is required for backcountry camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. It’s available free and first-come at the Visitor Center, and cannot be reserved in advance.
Map Trails Illustrated Sangre de Cristo Mountains/Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve map no. 138, $11.95; (800) 962-1643,
• There’s no water available in the sand dunes, though there are creeks on the perimeter of the dunes. Carry all the water you need for drinking and cooking while on the dunes, at least four liters per person per day.
• Strong winds can suddenly create severe sandstorms.
• Summer thunderstorms bring a hazard of lightning; get off the dunes if a thunderstorm threatens.
Contact Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, 719-378-6300, nps.gov/grsa.