This past spring we camped overnight at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Mosca, Colorado. On the first morning we woke up early to climb the tallest sand dune in all of North America. It’s called the Star Dune and it’s about 750 feet tall. From the campground we followed a sign that led us to the start of the Dunes Trail. The trail took us through an area covered in shrubs and cacti which brought us down to the creek.
Scientists say there are a couple of reasons why these dunes are so tall. The first is because of Medano Creek which flows at the base of the dunes. It carries massive quantities of sand downstream and the sand is then blown upward by the southwesterly winds on the eastern edge of the dunes where it is redeposited. The second cause is the northeasterly winds blasting through the mountain passes, piling the dunes back up onto themselves. These winds are also what causes the very pronounced ridges. It is because of these forces of nature that I was compelled to trek up these huge piles of sand.
It was about 9 o’clock in the morning when we headed out and the sun was still rising so the temperature was cool. I started off wearing long pants and a sweater. When we got down to the creek there was no way to get to the sand dunes without crossing the water first. We had to take off our shoes and walk through the creek to get to the other side. It was late spring so the water wasn’t very deep yet. I just rolled up my pants a bit and walked across the bitterly cold water. For the past day I had been wondering what it was going to be like walking up the dunes. I’ve had my fair share of walking on sand but never on piles like these before. Would I just sink into the sand the whole way up or had it been compacted enough to walk on? We dried off our feet, put our socks and shoes back on, and went to find out.
As it turned out the sand was actually very firm in many spots because of moisture buildup. However, we did not get so lucky to find these spots all the way up. It was a challenge to navigate ourselves on the many paths available once we had gone up a ways. There are no points of reference to determine scale or distance–all you see is light colored sand like this:
We had to decide which dunes and ridges to scale to find the path of least resistance. As our heart rates increased and the sun rose higher in the sky, our body temperatures went up. I had already taken off my sweater and rolled my pants up higher to keep cool. With no shade for cover we wanted to exert the least amount of energy possible so we could make it all the way. After about an hour and half we had made it to the High Dune. This is the other named dune in the park and it’s 650 feet tall. Many people will hike up to this dune and then head back down instead of continuing on to the Star Dune. We choose to take a short break here, fill up on water, and eat some granola bars for energy. While we were sitting there on the soft sand, this was our view:
And then we turned around and saw this:
Dark shadow in the middle from a cloud overhead.
After resting for a few minutes and enjoying all the spectacular scenery, we looked over at the Star Dune and felt intimidated by how far away it appeared to be. We wondered if we had enough energy and determination left to actually reach it. The visitor’s guide to the park said that is takes an average of about 45 minutes of additional hiking to get to the top from High Dune. But once again, it was tricky to conclude just how far away and how much farther up it really was. At this point we were hot and tired but so close we had to keep going. We stood there for a few minutes to observe the different paths we could take to climb to the top. It was not an easy decision. Each route was very steep and we soon realized that it was going to be a struggle either way. About fifteen minutes later I was doing this:
Scambling to the top
There were a few moments when I was so out of breath and tired of walking sideways on very steep sinking sand that I thought I wouldn’t make it. Persistence paid off because it wasn’t long after that that we finally got to the Star Dune. Walking on this steep narrow ridge was awkward. We had to place one foot on either side of it to get across. Once we got to the middle we stopped and it felt good to reach our destination and sit down to relax. The panoramic view was well worth the effort. From this point of view we were able to look down on the sea of sand we had just climbed. Unlike many other viewpoints there were no trees blocking this scene.
The crest of the Star Dune
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was definitely a unique and fun place to visit. I enjoyed every aspect of it and getting to sit on top of the tallest sand dune in the country was a major highlight. Looking down at the people and seeing how small they appeared made me realize how high we had climbed. It was a great adventure and going down ended up being pretty fun too. There were some spots where we could run really fast and get down pretty quickly. On the really steep slopes we just sat down and pushed with our hands to slide. For anyone who wants to have a new and exciting experience, this is surely a great place to do it.
The people looked like ants from the top of the Star Dune