Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to quite a bit of sand – more sand than I could have imagined, really.
I had seen pictures, read an article or two, and checked out guidebooks and the National Park’s website. Nothing could have prepared me for this much sand.
I had seen Pacific Coast beaches with small, rolling dunes. Just a few weeks ago I was at Saugatuck State Park in Michigan, where the dunes reach 200 feet. Reaching the highest point required nothing more than ascending that one, tall dune.
That really did not prepare me for hiking at Great Sand Dunes. Jon said hiking in sand never really gets easier, but I countered that continual hiking like what he does would help no matter what, even if it was on a well pounded trail and not on sand.
My practice for hiking in Ohio involves nothing more than walks on flat pavement. There aren’t many other close options for me, seeing as there are no hills of any size nearby, and I had thought that climb at Saugatuck would have been helpful.
We approached the dunes from the east, exiting Interstate 25 at Walsenburg and heading west on U.S. 160 through Blanca and Fort Garland before turning north onto Colorado 150, which becomes the road through the park.
The dunes are not visible immediately at the turn to the north, although the towering Fourteeners bordering the park to the north are.
After a few miles, you can distinguish the yellowish-brown color of the sand from the desert floor. From far away it does not look like all that much, until you realize that yes, you are still many miles away from the dunes, and that yes, they are quite expansive and tall (the tallest is Star Dune at 750 feet, which is taller than the Washington Monument).
Our goals here were pretty simple: hike the dunes and spend a night on them. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon on a hot and sunny late June day. We got our permit for the free camping and heading to the day-use area where most people go to access the dunes.
From the parking lot, I did not realize how far it was to the first dune, which I could not distinguish too well until we were actually upon it. The sand in the bright sunshine was a bit deceptive.
The dunes start our low, the first at maybe 10 feet. Each one is progressively taller and bigger. I had not considered this when climbing all the way to High Dune (closer than Star and is 650 feet tall) first crossed my mind. It’s not like you just hike up a 650-foot-tall mound of sand – you have to climb and somewhat descend all the dunes leading up to it, too.
Factor in the hot sun, blowing sand, wind (and the wind is what keeps the sand in this area, rather than dispersing), hot sand, thirst, and hunger, and my desire to get to High Dune evaporated as quickly as my sweat.
I had had enough by the time we had traversed maybe half the distance, although I would not be surprised if the final destination was even farther away than expected and the distance was deceptively shorter than its actual length.
Along the way we did get to hike across a dune ridge, which was particularly exciting to me. Most of the hiking involved going up the leeward side and down the windward side to the next dune’s leeward side.
After not making it as far as expected, Jon was not sure whether or not I still would want to hike over more dunes to camp that evening. In order to camp on the dunes, you have to drive to the Point of No Return a few miles north of the main day-use area and hike out of the day-use area, which ends at the first ridge along the dunes, a two- to three-mile hike.
Did I think I could make it through another hike on the dunes? Check back Sunday for part two of my adventures at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.