Article by Stefanie Payne. First published on The Greatest Road Trip
One of America’s Most Unique (and Fun to Explore) National Parks: Great Sand Dunes in Colorado
One of those one-of-a-kind places where you can be alone and you wouldn’t want it any other way…
It is easy to forget while in the throes of a busy life that there are accessible places in the United States where you can find yourself and lose yourself at the same time in a world of wild beauty. Just a little over four hours driving from Denver, you can experience exactly that. Enter one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets—Great Sand Dunes National Park—home to the highest sand dunes in North America and one of the few places in this part of the world where you can wander into a scene that might as well be plucked from a day in the life of the Sahara or the Gobi. Visitors come from far and wide to experience the dunes, then are thrust into the larger context of an ecosystem that extends across alpine desert, grassland, and forest environments; all kissed by the wind, sun, and the bewitching effects of peaceful solitude. There, you can slice adventures that are entirely unique to one another from the same epic wilderness pie… we wanted to outline some of them here; and also describe the general park layout that is as unexpectedly diverse as it is vast.
Sprawling Sand Dunes
The dunes are situated between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains, sprawling out onto the floor of the San Luis Valley covering 30-square miles. Scientists believe that the sand is 35 million years old – the result of a volcanic eruption that scattered tuff and ash across the valley floor in the area where the Sangre de Cristo Mountains now stand. As the mountains formed, particles were pushed off to one side and are now protected by the massive 13,000-foot mountain range. The sand is constantly reshaped and migrated by powerful winds that move them back and forth as they continuously grow a more stable foundation and crawl higher into the sky. It is suspected that these dunes will only grow in size and scale as time marches on.
Great Sand Dunes National Park in October 2016, just before sunset.
As mentioned in the intro, this park is not a one trick pony. Beyond the dune fields exists 150,000 acres of forests where cottonwood, aspen, and piñon pine cover the foothills while dense spruce-fir forests and tundra blankets the alpine regions at higher elevations (up to 13,604 feet.) The broad range of elevation pretty well ensures that you will see a diverse environment no matter what you are doing; and the high altitude makes it a natural orb attracting technical climbers and mountaineers from around the world. Backing down from the clouds, and in the same mountain range, there are many excellent trails for day hiking that also serve as jumping off points to backpacking areas in the Sangre de Cristo wilderness.
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost subrange of the Rocky Mountains.
For those wanting to stay closer to the lower elevations (8,000 feet isn’t exactly low, but in Colorado it is) there are plenty of ways to stay happily occupied. During the spring and summer, the shores of Medano Creek burst with activity as kids of all ages splash and play in the water, build sand castles, and skimboard across the shallow creek beneath the Colorado sun. Nature trails are a great way to get off of the sand and beat the heat during the scorching summer months; and beautiful views of the dunes can be seen from the campsites at the Piñon Flats campground.
The grasslands leading up to the dunes are a wonderful place to take photographs and to see wildlife (pronghorn, deer, and elk are common,) as well as more than 200 bird species that have been documented in the area. During mid-August, the lowland fields explode in colors of yellow and green during the annual sunflower bloom. Eight miles south of the park is family-favorite Zapata Falls, a short .5-mile hike to a small waterfall where you can catch some shade in an otherwise exposed wilderness.
Aerial shot from Highway 150, just outside of the national park.
Ways To Play
Playing on sand dunes pretty easily turns anyone into a kid again, igniting the soul of the dreamer, while providing an excellent place for outdoor sport. Hikers blaze their own trail onto the soft sand dunes, sand boarders fly down with stand-up or sit-down boards on paths of their own making, and backpackers disappear into the rolling hills to set up camp away from all signs of humanity other than those with whom they are camping with. Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the quietest national parks, and virtually no light pollution obstructs skygazing opportunities, two features that cast a spell on backpackers who want to connect more deeply with the natural world. In the far reaches of the dunes—alone with your gear, the sunset, the stars, the moon and the sky—it is impossible not to be profoundly moved by the absence of sound and human activity… all you can see, hear, and feel is the land. That kind of presence is fleeting and fantastic.
Runners often hit the high dunes for endurance training. This is a terrific park to get your sweat on!
In case you can’t tell….this is what winning looks like.
Catching the sunset atop the Great Sand Dunes.
Recognizing Sand Dune Formations
One very cool thing that we learned while exploring this park is the differentiation between dune formations…
“Reversing dunes” are the largest dunes, designed by winds moving the sands in opposite directions.
“Transverse dunes” are a series of aligned dunes leading up to the crest.
“Barchan dunes” create what is considered a perfect half moon, and appear flattened on the surface.
“Parabolic dunes” have vegetation growing from the sand inhibiting movement of sand in certain areas.
“Star dunes” are formations made up of three or more “arms” shaped by multidirectional winds.
Their appearance was exactly that of a sea in a storm (except as to color), not the least sign of vegetation existing thereon. — Zebulon Pike, 1807
149,137 acres | Site of the tallest dunes in North America
Official name: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Date established: September 13, 2004
Location: South central Colorado, near the small town of Alamosa
How the park got its name: The park was named for a 30-square mile area of sand dunes located at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the San Luis Valley.
Iconic site in the park: While there are deserts, fields, forests, and alpine zones all located in Great Sand Dunes, the star of this national park is the massive sand dunes that sit at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The tallest of them all (and the tallest dune in North America) is the 755-foot “Star Dune,” from where you can get panoramic views of the Medano Creek that winds at the base of the dune field, the Rocky Mountain Range, and patterned slopes of sand that change shape with every breath of wind and shift of the sun. It’ll take you about five hours to make a roundtrip trek to-and-from the parking area.
Accessible adventure: Because there are no established trails on the dunes, visitors can easily blaze a path of their own that suits their own ability level. The best starting off point is the day use area near the Dunes Parking Lot where you can leave the world behind you and make way into a dreamscape, traveling as far and fast as you wish. The higher you venture, textural shapes of sand crafted by the wind and gorgeous views continue to reveal themselves. Dune-accessible wheel chairs are available at the park Visitor Center.
Big adventure: Camping on the dunes and sand boarding along the way is a sure-fire way to have an amazing, one-of-a-kind adventure that is totally unique to this national park. To equip yourself with a board, simply head to the Great Sand Dunes Oasis Campground located just outside of the park entrance, exchange 20 bucks for gear and some easy instruction, and scoot onward to the dunes. With your camping gear in tow, you will set out on foot to make the trek over mountains of sand and away from view (that is where backcountry begins) where there are endless places to set up camp atop untrammeled sandscapes. Hiking at high-altitude (base elevation is 7,500 feet) is no easy feat, but the reward is everything when you are kicking back under dark starry skies in peaceful solitude.
Did you know…
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to the highest sand dunes in North America.
There are five dunes surpassing 700 hundred feet. The highest is the “Star Dune” standing at approximately 755 feet.
The dunes stretch six miles at their widest point; eight miles at their longest.
One tip we have for dune walking (that we actually learned while exploring dunes in Namibia) is to step in the footprints of the hiker in front of you, helping you gain traction. Walking in a zig-zag line helps ease the shlep too.
Need some peace and quiet? Research projects conducted by the National Park Service find that Great Sand Dunes has the lowest level of noise pollution in all of the national parks in the contagious 48. This kind of study is ongoing and there are some really great articles out there describing the purpose and scope. Here are two gems, one from Outside Magazine and another from the Smithsonian Institution.
Stargazing is a popular activity in the park as there is very little light pollution.
Other national parks where you can explore sand dunes include Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, Death Valley National Park in California/Nevada, and Kobuk National Park and Preserve in Alaska (home to rare arctic sand dunes!)
The highest point in the park is 13,604 feet above sea level. The elevation at the Visitor Center is 8,170 feet.
ATV and dirt-biking use isn’t allowed within the national park, but if that is your thing, you can go nuts at the nearby North Sand Hills.
Evidence of human life in the park dates back 11,000 years – among the oldest recorded human history in North America.
Mountains, forests, and dunes in the park are sacred to the Apache, Navajo, Ute, and Pueblo Indians.
A research expedition by the Smithsonian Institution uncovered artifacts dating back to 5,000 B.C.; as well as petroglyphs and rock art dating between 3,000 B.C. and the late 19th century.
There’s a lot of really cool stuff lined up at any given time in this park. Check out their event calendar to get a sense of the types of events that are put on in the area.
Being photography nerds, we were stoked to find that Great Sand Dunes provides a photographer’s guide discussing seasonality, time considerations, and other factors that might inform and improve your shots in the park.
Ready to camp, ready to play!
Textured ripples of sand lay still here, yet are constantly changing shape with every breath of wind that blows in from the nearby Rocky Mountain Range.
What a great place to camp, right?
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve as seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
Planetary scientists and geologists with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies are researching the effects of the geologic forces at Great Sand Dunes in an effort to better understand how dunes are formed in on other planets (the Mars Curiosity Rover is currently studying dune formations on Mars.)
According to the National Park Service, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve has a globally significant, water- and wind-driven system that protects creeks that demonstrate a rare hydrologic phenomenon called “surge flow” (rhythmic waves produced by water, steep grade, and a smooth surface.) This is the only place on the continent where this phenomena occurs.
The Sangre de Cristo mountains are the southernmost subrange of the Rocky Mountains.
There are 58 14ers (peaks topping 14,000-feet) in Colorado, the most of any state, five of which can be found in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
This is one of the few national parks that allows hunting during season.
Eight miles south of the park is the Zapata Falls, a popular stop in the area and just a short half-mile hike from the parking lot to the falls. You must make a water crossing to get there, and when you do, it is beautiful!
The Medano Pass Primitive Road is one of the most popular places in Colorado to see colorful fall foliage during September and October; the rest of the year it brings you closer to wildlife and provides a different look at the landscape. 4-wheel-drive is required (we couldn’t make it in Buck our Ford Explorer); if you don’t have a capable vehicle, Jeep rentals are available nearby with Pathfinders4x4.com.
Fido the family dog is more than welcome in this national park!
Sand dunes get incredibly hot to the touch during summer months, often reaching 150° Fahrenheit. It is recommended to explore the dunes early in the morning or late in the day during that time of year; and wearing close-toe shoes is mandatory (don’t forget to bring booties for Fido too!)
Zapata Falls is located just eight miles from the park entrance.
There are three major hazards to be aware of when planning a trip to this park: heat exhaustion and burnt skin from warm weather and hot sand; thunderstorms and lightening which have led to fatalities; and altitude sickness (elevation ranges are from 7,515 feet to 13,604 feet.) Paying attention to seasonality, hiking in the morning, planning for weather, carrying adequate water supply, and acclimatizing slowly before braving high peaks are all smart ways to safeguard your health and well being. And of course, the park rangers at the Visitor Center are there during business hours offering guidance specific to this park. (We learned quickly last year that a chat with a ranger is a must before heading out into any of the national parks.)
Thunderstorms on the dunes often occur during the hot summer months; when lightening hits sand, it fuses together particles creating what is called a fulgurite, Latin for “lightning rock.”
You can drive north to Denver or south to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in just a couple of hours each.
Fewer than 400,000 people traveled to the Great Sand Dunes in 2016 during the centennial year, a relatively low number when you compare visitation to a park like Glacier National Park in Montana, for example, which had nearly three million visitors the same year.
Wally on the road. #LiveRiveted