Hiking to the top of the highest Dune in North America
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Monument is located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range in southern Colorado. Over the long weekend, Josh and I visited the park and climbed to the tallest dune in North America, High Dune.
Behind the dunes are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains which tower over the 8500+ foot dunes, making them look tiny in comparison. The entire Rocky Mountain Range was under a high wind warning that whole weekend, making hiking on mounds of sand pretty painful, but we had come all the way down here to the dunes and we were reaching the top!
From the Denver metro area you can choose one of two routes; driving south down I-25 to Walsenburg Colorado (south of Pueblo) and then head west on highway 160 for approximately 57 miles to a well marked intersection with a sign pointing you north on highway 150 to the dunes.
The other route from Denver is to take 285 south and travel through the mountains to the Dunes. This is the route we chose, it adds less than 20 minutes and the scenery is amazing. Drive 101 miles to the town of Fairplay and follow the signs carefully bearing left in Fariplay to continue south on 285/24. After 21 miles the road dead ends at an intersection; turn left and continue south on 285 toward Salida. Continue on 285/24 for twenty six miles until you reach a very small town of Villa Grove; here continue straight onto highway 17 south to the town of Mosca 36 miles away. Continue following the well marked signs to the Dunes and turn left or east in the town of Mosca onto Lane 6 North (this is well marked) toward the dunes. This park is unique in that it allows dogs into the park on a leash; and the admittance fee is just $3 per person. The campground is currently closed due to water problems at the park, but after speaking to the rangers; they are allowing camping in other areas of the park, namely the group sites. Check here
for more info.
The dunes are visible for miles and miles before you reach them, and they look small until you park in the lot and really look up at them. The dunes reach over 8500 feet in height and are the tallest in North America. It was very cold and windy when Josh and I arrived, we decided to hike to High Dune, the tallest dune in the park and North America. When we stepped out of the car, the wind was whipping and it was about 40 degrees and chilly, but the sun was out. The map had said to follow the ridgeline of the dunes to the peak 1.9 miles away. There are no trails on the dunes and visitors can hike anywhere on the dunes without restriction.
We walked across the sand and then started up the first dune; it's almost like taking 1 step forward and a half step back each time you put one foot in front of the other. It reminded me of hiking the dunes to lake Michigan as a kid; it took so long to get there, but it was rewarding.
The dunes have so many ridges, peaks and valleys; much more than the eye can see from a distance or in the photos. I also understand why people can see mirages in the sand; the sand swirls around so much it looks like the mountain is moving. At one point, I thought I had vertigo, but then realized it wasn't me that was moving, it was the mountain. After climbing up a particurly steep dune, the peak seemed far off in the distance, then as I kept walking, I realized it wasn't far at all, and the end was right in front of me! Josh had the same experience as well; the dunes and moving sand play tricks on the eyes! When we made it to the top the views were amazing and the sea of dunes continues to the huge Sangre's behind us. The wind was so strong that it was practically holding me up in the photo above.
After spending a few minutes on the top, the wind became too much and we were ready to run down the dunes. I started running and jumping down; I love that feeling of nearly flying as you jump and bound down the steepest dunes. Josh and I held hands and ran down, which was some of the most fun we have had in a while! It took us an hour and a half to reach the top, and just about 20 minutes to get back to the parking lot. What fun!
In the summer months at the dunes Merdan Creek flows through the valley and you can find visitors swimming and playing in the creek which has a pulsating flow causing natural waves every twenty seconds.
The Sand Dunes is biologically diverse; there are at least 6 insects that live in the dunes and no where else on the planet. We saw one of these dune beetles, but it burrowed into the sand before I could catch it with my camera.
I can't wait to come back this summer and visit the dunes again while Merdano Creek is flowing. This diverse, beautiful park should be on anyone's "to visit" list.
Click here for more info on the park; and click on the map below to input your address and get printable directions.