Climbing America’s tallest sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park

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A split-second after bending over to tie my shoe, I realize I’ve made a horrible mistake, as the relentless wind sends a rush of sand against my back and down my pants.

Don’t worry, it’s not always this windy here, I later learn from a ranger. I just happen to be here in mid-April on a chilly and extremely windy day. One of the windiest of the year, in fact. Lucky me!

I knew that exploring the highest sand dunes in America at Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park would be a challenge, but I didn’t quite realize the sacrifices I’d have to make. Walking around with sand puddles in your underwear is a small price to pay for this unique experience.

hikers-great-sand-dunes

The wind from the west is brutal, so I have to face east during the whole hour I’m up here to avoid being blinded with sand. Occasionally, I climb to the top of a dune and then take a few steps down the east side of the ridge to get out of the fiercest winds. But I’m never truly safe, because even when I descend into a valley between dunes, somehow the wind swirls and finds its way down there.

A few other tourists are here, including several families with kids. Some are jumping and sliding down the dunes as if they’re sledding. Even though weather conditions aren’t ideal, I am loving being out in this massive sea of sand that feels more like the Sahara Desert than anywhere within the continental United States.

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Great Sand Dunes: How come no one told me about the creek?

The sand dunes are situated on the western side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, part of the Rockies in southern Colorado. The dunes are believed to have been formed less than 440,000 years ago. They cover a whopping 19,000 acres and the highest ones are over 700 feet tall.

It doesn’t take long to climb the dunes, but getting there requires some effort. The dunes are clearly viewable from the Visitor Center, and the walk is less than a mile from there to the base of the sand. The elevation here is about 8200 feet above sea level.

sangre-cristo-ridge-dunes

The tricky part? There’s a small waterway, Medano Creek, flowing between the Visitor Center and the Dunes, and there are no bridges or paths to avoid it. The creek varies in size depending on the season, but there’s no way around it: If you want to explore the Dunes, you’ve got to get wet. Take off your shoes and scramble across the water.

medano-creek-crossing

I’m confused about why the rangers at the Visitor Center hadn’t bothered telling me that I’d be required to partially disrobe and ford freezing creek waters several inches deep. Especially since I specifically asked them, “Is there anything I should know before heading over there?” That little detail might have been worth passing along.

medano-creek

In any event, once I make it across, I’m free to begin climbing. Go forth!

go-forth-sand-dunes

I choose to keep my shoes on since I don’t want to carry them, and I know they’ll become full of sand either way. But I do have the option of going barefoot. That is not the case during hot summer days, when the National Park Service says that sand temperatures can reach 140° F and guests are urged to wear closed-toe shoes.

shoes-great-sand-dunes

I head out to the dunefield, choosing a medium-height dune to ascend. I only need a minute or two to reach the top, which provides some cool views of the Visitor Center, the nearby mountains, and the other guests who also chose to spend this chilly spring day here.

wind-park-dunes

The scope of the dunes can only truly be conveyed by photos that show people walking in the distance. They look like tiny specks against the sand hills.

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Due to the wind, this is not a great day for me to try to take selfies. Or maybe it is?

great sand dunes selfie

The dunes seem remote and devoid of life, but evidently there is some life here: a few scattered plants, some insects and one mammal, the kangaroo rat, that somehow lives in the sand. I see no evidence of any of this during my visit. The only variance I observe in the sandy landscape are a couple of pockets of snow that haven’t yet melted and an occasional patch of dead vegetation blowing atop the surface.

snow-sand-dunes

dead-vegetation

Despite the wind and the chill, Great Sand Dunes National Park is a great time. I feel refreshed running around on the sand mountains and breathing in the crisp air. The dunes are a 4-hour drive from either Denver or Albuquerque, so they’re easily accessible for anyone visiting the area.

As I wander around, my shoes dig into the hills and get filled with sand, as expected. You might think that with all these people walking around on the dunes, they would eventually change their size and shape, but on a windy day like this, it’s obvious why that isn’t the case.

Whenever I stop to look back at my footprints, they are already being covered over by the fresh sand being blown across them. My footprints last maybe 20 seconds tops before they’re completely hidden. It takes no time to completely hide any trace of my presence.

inside-the-dunes

And that means the dunes will be here for many more years to come, for other visitors to enjoy just as I have.

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

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