- Dune Field Hike (hike onto the dunes)
- Montville Nature Trail & Wellington Ditch Trail
- Night hike along the Dune Trail! (to view the stars!)
Words to describe the Great Sand Dunes National Park… Otherworldly. Ever changing. Alien. Just absolutely incredible! We felt completely transported. The Great Sand Dunes are North America’s tallest dunes. The park covers about 33,550 acres and reaches almost 9,000 feet at its highest point. Elevation can climb to a staggering 14,000 ft in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east.
We used Alamosa, CO as our home base to explore the Great Sand Dunes. It’s a small town about 40 minutes south of the park. There’s also BLM land about 10 miles from the park entrance and the Pinon campground located within the park. The drive into the park was through some pretty neat landscape. It’s a vast expanse of brown, tan, and green shrubs with seemingly random homes, sheds, and old RVs dotted along the valley floor. The valley is created by the San Juan Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east.
For our first day in Alamosa was spent setting up camp, getting groceries and taking a drive down to Alamosa National Animal Refuge where we took a car tour of the wetlands. There are beautiful birds, grasses, and wildflowers to see.
The next day we ventured into the park and went straight for the dunes. Our original plan was to take a look around to kind of get our bearings. What we ended up doing was hiking to the top of the sand dunes! They called to us and we answered 🙂 We were already geared up for a hike because apparently that’s how we roll now. Side note- If you are planning to hike the dunes you may want the following:
- Something to cover your face (bandana, scarf, baklava)
- Goggles or wrap-around sunglasses to protect your eyes
- Long sleeves and pants
- Hiking boots
- Sunblock, plenty of water, snacks
- Sand board to slide down the dunes!
- Decent cardio 🙂
The Dunes parking area is essentially the gateway to the dunes. (There’s also another parking area farther into the park that’s right before the road to the ‘Point of No Return’. It has permit overnight parking, general day parking, and a trail leading to the east side of the dune field.)
The Dunes start as a compacted, flat beach-like area that people use to picnic and lay out. The closer you get to the dunes, the looser the sand becomes. The scale of the dunes is out of this world. The tallest dune is Star Dune at 755 ft, followed by High Dune at 700 ft. We started our climb with a loose route in mind. There’s no ‘trail’ on the dunes because the landscape is always changing and there are multiple ways to reach the top. Some are steep and shorter, while others give you a more gradual climb to the top. We used the AllTrails app map feature to track our progress. Star Dune, while officially the highest dune, is in the western part of the dune field, a ways away from the dune parking area. We were closer to High Dune, so that’s the peak we aimed for.
Hiking in sand is NEXT LEVEL. Every step you take sinks you back a couple of inches. It’s a workout for your body and your mind. Climbing up sand can feel like you’re literally not moving! It takes some grit to keep moving forward on the steep portions. The day we hiked was particularly windy, which made the hike more challenging. Every ridge line we passed flicked sand up in a violent swirl with each gust, like an ocean wave! Honestly, we thought about turning around a couple of times but we persevered!! Our technique was a simple one. Head down, one step at a time until we were at the top of the dune. Then we’d look up, map out our next leg, and tackle the next dune. We did this over and over until we reached the top. The view back down the dunes is beautiful. Depending on the time of day, the sun or shade, and the weather the color of the sand changes. The dune field is snuggled up right under the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which make a beautiful backdrop.
Coming back down had its own challenges. The sand is loose, so your steps can send you forward. Take it slow and try to pick a route with more a more gradual decent versus a steeper (albeit quicker) route. Because of the wind whipping sand everywhere, there were times I had to walk backwards to take a break from the constant lashings. We were amazed at the difference in weather around the dunes. There were times our weather app would be 20 degrees off! It was cooler and more windy than we expected, so it’s something to keep in mind. Despite the challenging hike, it was hands down one of the coolest things we’ve done.
The next day we were spent! We decided to take it easy and did the Montville Nature Trail and Wellington Ditch Trial, which was an easy hike about 2-2.5 miles long. Traffic was crazy since it was a Saturday in June but we didn’t mind since we weren’t in a hurry to be anywhere. It was on the Wellington trail that I discovered a new love. Cactus flowers. Oh my word. They were so beautiful. Dewey, sugary, yellow petals emerging from a thorny base. Each was unique and I stopped to photograph them all. I was enchanted.
For our last day in the park, we hiked the dune trail along the base of the dune field. There’s a creek that flows past the base of the dunes called Medano Creek. Stream runoff from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains flows down the mountainside down to the dunes, where it creates a shallow, flowing creek. People enjoy the current the stream creates with boogie boards and inner tubes during the early summer. As we walked east along the dunes we began to see more vegetation along the base of the dunes, toward the mountains.
We left the park for dinner and returned later that night because… Great Sand Dunes National Park is designated an International Dark Sky Park! It’s a great place to view the night sky. We walked out to the dunes and walked along the creek. Be sure you bring a flashlight with a red light capability to avoid blinding nocturnal animals that are out. We had a great night for stargazing. It was in the upper 40’s F, clear skies, and very close to a new moon. The stars were great! We could see the Milky Way pretty clearly and enjoyed viewing the night sky without the light pollution we’ve grown accustomed to on the east coast. We heard coyote barking and bickering while we were out walking and saw kangaroo rat (which can jump up to 5 feet to avoid a predator!).
Between the night sky, towering dunes, and forever changing landscape, our visit to the Great Sand Dunes was pretty epic. We’re so glad we made this stop on our National Parks tour!