Great Sand Dunes National Park is located 27 miles (~ 1 hour) northeast of Alamosa, Colorado and off of US-160. Primary activities at the sand dunes including hiking, hiking with leash dogs, and beach water play but horses, cars, and mountain bikes are not allowed at this trail head. A week long pass is required for entry into the park. The trail head parking lot for the sand dunes is large and includes restrooms, water, a changing room, and mini-showers for cleaning sand off of your legs. Cell phone service was weak while in the park.
Medano Creek is within a 100 feet of the parking lot and is a popular destination because it has the characteristics of an ocean beach. Specifically, people play in the sand and water and set up beach-style picnics including lawn chairs, picnic blankets, and other beach gear.
What’s more, Medano Creek experiences surge flow in the spring and summer which is similar to ocean tides on a beach. Winds from the southwest and water (i.e., Medano Creek) bring sand to the base of the valley floor on the west side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The fine grained sand comes via wind from the San Juan Mountains, which are 65 miles west of the dune field. Coarse grained sand comes via Medano Creek from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains adjacent to the dune field. The wind and water work in concert to create stunningly tall dunes. Specifically, Medano Creek carries sand to southwest corner of the dune fields where winds from the southwest blow the sand back into the dune field and atop existing dune summits.
The entire 30 square miles of dune field is open to hiking but there are two dunes that the park recommends summiting: High Dune and Star Dune. We attempted to summit High Dune which is 650 feet tall and 8,650 feet in elevation. The first part of the hike is easy because it travels across flat, thick sand. Shoes must be worn at all times because the sand can reach temperatures upwards of 140 degrees on summer afternoons. Early morning and late evenings are the recommended dune hiking times. In addition, the sand dunes should be avoided during thunderstorms because of the chance of lightning strikes.
The hike quickly transitions from an easy beach walk to a vertically challenging dune climb. Hiking up the sand dunes was fun because it was totally different than any other hiking we have done and you can choose your path up the dunes. However, hiking up the sand dunes with a our 2 year old in a child carrier is the most challenging hiking I have ever done because maintaining balance was difficult with the soft sand, strong wind, and steep angles. Further, the hike was significantly more fatiguing than other hikes of comparable distance and elevation gain.
We stopped just short of the high dune but high enough to enjoy a view of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains to the east and south. The following picture faces south and looks back towards the park entrance and sand dunes parking lot.
In addition to the scorching sun, the wind can be really strong and be blowing sand everywhere making for a very unpleasant experience and, thus, sunglasses and something to protect your face (e.g., large hiking hat, hooded sweatshirt/jacket) are recommended. The following video aptly illustrates the views from atop the sand dunes but does not convey the intensity of the wind and the sand being blown with it. We did not do this but Star Dune can be summited by hiking an additional 1.5 miles past High Dune. Star Dune is the tallest dune in North America and stands at 750 feet tall.
In sum, the sand dunes are incredibly intriguing and fun to hike but the strong winds and blowing sand can deter kids and unprepared adults from this adventure. For a completely different experience, check out the Montville Nature Trail which is an easy, family friendly hike across the street from the dune field.