Venturing out into the Largest Sand Dunes in North America
The dunefield in Great Sand Dunes National Park rises in the distance as you approach the park gates – seemingling dwarfed by the surrounding mountain ranges. Their true size is almost incomprehensible until you actually get out and play; stopping to look across their expansive range.
The dunes can reach nearly 800 feet tall, and sprawling for miles, with the 13 000 foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the backdrop. The dunes are located between the San Juan Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The mountain streams and creeks carried sand down into the San Luis Valley, where the shallow lakes dried up during times of drought. Sand particles were carried by the wind to the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, forming 30 square miles of dunes.
It is amazing to see so much diversity in one area – dunes, forests, mountains, and grasslands. And there is plenty of activities to do to embrace the diversity. Hikers can venture out into the dunes, going as far as they desire and climb to the tallest peaks. Anyone who has hiked in sand knows that taking one step forward is like two steps back! But Medano Creek, which surrounds the dunes, is a great reprieve from the heat after a long day of exploration. Aside from the dunes, hikers can venture out East into the surrounding ranges including Mosca Pass. Here creeks are lined with cottonwoods, aspens, and ponderosa pines, transitioning to spruce and fir at higher altitudes. The Medano Lake Trail leads to a subalpine lake in a cirque under Mount Herard (which can be pretty ominous as thunderstorms form over this range in the later afternoons!)
There are also opportunities to backcountry camp, either out in the dunes or in the perimeter between the dunes and the mountains. Overnighters definitely have better access to the dunes and are away from the crowds that hike out to Star Dune and High Dune. The North side of the dunefield provides more opportunities to explore in solitude.
Sandboarding is also a possibility with boards available for rent at the Oasis just a few miles outside of the park gates. You can get going at mega speeds, especially on the steepest dunes with a freshly waxed surface. Great Sand Dunes National Park is an extraordinary terrain to explore