Great Sand Dunes

Round Trip Distance: 0.25 miles or longer
Difficulty: Easy - Strenuous
Elevation: 8062 - ~8115 feet
Cellphone: 0-3 bars
Time: 30 mins. or longer
Trailhead: Dunes Parking Area
Fee: $15/vehicle
Attractions: Sand dunes, surge flows

The Great Sand Dunes National Park is located about 23 miles east of the town of Mosca in south central Colorado. The park is home to the largest sand dunes in North America. There are no trails marked out on the massive sand dunes but visitors are allowed to hike, sandboard or sand sled anywhere on them that they choose. Whatever tracks are made in the sand will only last for a short period of time before the wind or breeze has wiped them clean. For this post we waded across Medano Creek and hiked a short loop around the lower dunes before returning to the trailhead.

The park recommends using the maps and directions on their website to get to the park rather than using any computer mapping program. Some programs and devices have led visitors to obscure roads where they have become stranded and had to be rescued. Basically, if you are traveling on Highway 17 turn east on County Road 6 and if you are coming from the south take Highway 150 to get to the park. The road signs leading to Great Sand Dunes are good using either route. If you do use mapping software make sure it leads you along either County Road 6 or Highway 150. Once inside the park you will first come to the Visitor Center and then to the Dunes parking area which is where we begin for this post.

From the parking area follow one of the several trails that lead towards the dunes.

The seasonally flowing Medano Creek must be crossed to get to the dunes. Visitors will have to judge the creeks level for themselves to decide whether they need to remove their shoes before crossing. The depth may vary from no more than an inch to over your boots.

Due to a phenomena called 'surge flow' it can be a real blast crossing the creek. What happens is the water will build up behind a ridge of sand. When the water has enough head the ridge of sand will collapse releasing a small tidal flow carrying the sand with it. Once the flow slows down enough the sand will drop out and commence building another ridge of sand and the process will repeat over and over again. While we were crossing the creek we experienced 2 or 3 different tides before reaching the other side. The slideshow at the end of this post shows a couple of the flows that we experienced.

Once across the creek the route is up to the hiker and will depend on what your goal is.

We picked out an interesting ridge which we hiked to the end of before circling back down to the creek.

If your goal is to hike all the way to the summit of High Dune it can be done from the Dunes Parking Area but many people find it preferable to drive a little further and park just before the Pinyon Flats Campground and hike up the ridge from there. That route gives more of a direct approach.

The ease with which you can hike up the dunes will depend on the moisture content of the sand and what part of the ridge you are on. In some places the sand is firm and you barely sink any at all and in other places the sand is looser and you will sink several inches.

Besides hiking or sledding on the dunes a fun time can be had walking along Medano Creek and playing in the water.

The area around the parking and picnic areas is wheelchair accessible. This area includes several observation decks from which to view the creek and the dunes.

Between the Dunes parking area and the picnic area there are restrooms with flush toilets, a drinking fountain and an outdoor shower where visitors can rinse the sand off. There is also a marked trail that leads from here to the Visitor Center which is about a half mile away. When you plan your trip consider bringing a saucer or plastic type of sled for playing on the dunes or maybe a bucket and scoop for making a sand castle. They say the temperature can reach 150 F during the summer months in some places on the dunes so bring plenty of drinking water. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.