On Wednesday, August 25, the 105th birthday of the National Park Service, Sean and I ventured into the dunefield of Great Sand Dunes National Park. We’d gazed on it from varying distances for two days, but now it was time to experience it closely. On this second full day in the Park, we wanted to prioritize the dunes, but we also wanted to hike in them first thing while it was still cool and before the day heated up and made the experience less pleasant.
At 7am, I opened my eyes and sat up in the tent. Time to explore the dunes!
Sean stirred and asked if it was time to get up. I confirmed that it was, rolled out of my sleeping bag, and exited the tent. The morning was cool and cloudless, but the sun was already lighting up Mount Herard to the north. As we dressed and put in our contacts, the sun began lighting the tops of the dunes as it broke over the Sangre de Cristos.
Our plan was to get onto the dunes immediately, before breakfast even, and then come back and eat. We had plenty of water and snacks in our backpacks, which we’d prepped the night before. But overall, we were traveling light. I didn’t even bring my hiking poles.
Our campsite was in the upper loop of the campground. From just down the way, a trail led through the campground and then across the transition zone to the dunes. We took this trail route instead of driving over to the main dune access parking area along Medano Creek since it would be less busy and even more because we love walking out of our camp, seeing something beautiful, and then walking back.
Sean led at a brisk pace. My legs were still feeling the effects of yesterday afternoon’s hike up to Mosca Pass, which capped a robust first day of hiking for the trip. We dropped out of the campground and crossed Medano Pass Primitive Road, which runs north-south between the mountains and the dunefield.
Between the foothills and the dunes is a broad swath of sage and grass punctuated by piñon pine and juniper (and cottonwood where the ephemeral creeks run). Although it looks like other parts of the San Luis Valley, or really any grassy expanse in the West, it is part of the immense sand sheet underlying the dunes.
The plants here grow in sand, although their roots are able to reach moist soil below the sand sheet.
The trail ends at the edge of the dunefield. There are no established trails in the dunefield, although from the main parking area, a steady stream of visitors takes a fairly direct route up to the summit of High Dune. We weren’t interested in High Dune, preferring instead to explore this slightly less explored part of the dunes.
Our rough aim was an elegant sweep of ridge north of the High Dune area.
We crossed the flats and started up a ridge where the walking was easier.
Prevailing winds slowly push the dunes northeast, while gusts sweeping down from the Sangre de Cristos blow the dune tops back to the southwest, creating a surprisingly stable system. In the north-facing photo above, the lowest ridge is created by gusty winds blowing sand up from the flats, creating a gentle slope to the east (right) and dramatic drop-offs at the slope’s western edge (sharply shadowed in the morning light). Protected low-lying areas boast Blowout Grass and Prairie Sunflower.
Even some of the preliminary ridges of this tallest dunefield in North America were quite high.
Even more surprising than the vegetation near the base of the dunefield was the grass higher up in the dunes, particularly where shallow depressions hold more moisture.
We could see early hikers up on High Dune.
It took us a bit to figure out the best way to approach the dunes, finding the firmest ridges and lines to ascend without slogging in slipping sand.
Amid human footprints, we also saw those of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects.
It was still early enough in the day that the sand was quite cool to the touch. But within the hour, it would begin to heat up substantially.
I tried to find a reasonable route up to the elegant ridge we were aiming for. It was higher than it appeared from the sand flats.
The ridges leading in the direction we wanted to go also had steeper drop offs than I’d been expecting.
The immensity of the dunes was only apparent once we were in them. And we were just at the edge of the massive dunefield.
To our left as we ascended a ridge was what appeared to be a sink hole in the dunes. Cracks with seeping moisture on the other side appeared to be evidence that that whole part of the slope would eventually slide into the steep depression. We decided to avoid it.
We had made it quite high, but now the ridges extending up to the elegant ridge we aimed for were razor narrow with steep slopes on either side. We weren’t sure that there was a reasonable way up from where we were.
We decided to linger in the area we were, taking in the views.
I went just a bit further up a steep ridge for a view over a saddle and a glimpse of some of the dunefield extending north.
Then we noticed a skier, just in time to witness his descent into a bowl in the dunes. Neat!
It was getting hot, so we began our own descent.
Two-thirds of the way back down, we came upon a lone Giant Sand Treader Camel Cricket hurrying along across the sand. We were delighted to see this usually nocturnal insect. Although not endemic to the Great Sand Dunes, Giant Sand Treader Camel Crickets are only found in sandy areas of southern Colorado and Utah and northern New Mexico. This one appeared to be a male.
Once the Giant Sand Treader Camel Cricket had continued on his way, we continued on ours.
Up ahead we saw the skier hiking out also.
The sun was bright as we crossed the sand flats and began ascending the trail back to camp. We felt badly for those who were just beginning their dune adventures. It was going to be hot.
We arrived back in camp at 10:15am, ready for coffee and breakfast. We’d spent about two and a half hours exploring the dunes with a round trip hike of 3.3 miles.
While we were prepping our morning meal, a female Mule Deer suddenly appeared and walked nonchalantly right past us.
She crossed the road and started eating something out of a fire pit in an empty campsite.
It was actually a lively morning in camp. We spotted a Clark’s Nutcracker. And then a Broad-Tailed Hummingbird kept flying right up in our faces, checking us out. This helped seal the decision to make the Broad-Tailed Hummingbird our choice of stuffed animal to represent this Park in our menagerie.
We were starving by the time we sat down to our breakfast of freeze dried breakfast hash dressed up with avocado and corn chips.
After eating, we tidied up in camp and rearranged the car for a different sort of adventure. After lots of hiking over the previous couple days, we were going to head down into the San Luis Valley to go for a soak in a hot spring.