Trip Reports: Great Sand Dunes Megaloop, Colorado - March 2009

In mid-March I was desperate for some wilderness action, so I headed out on a backpacking trip in the Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado. My initial plan was to do a simple three day hike up and back the Sand Ramp Trail along the eastern side of the dunes. But on the first night I was feeling ambitious and decided to hike all the way around the dunes!

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My counter-clockwise route around and through the Great Sand Dunes in March, camping one night on the hills above the dunes, and two nights in the dunes themselves.

I started at the Point of No Return, and basically did a counter-clockwise loop around and through the dunes, camping one night on the hills above the dunes, and two nights in the dunes themselves. On day 2 I took a big gamble, hoping that Sand Creek would be flowing, at the north end of the dunes. Fortunately it was, and stocked up on water there, which I would have to haul for the rest of the trip through the dunes.

Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, Sand Ramp Trail, photo

Dunes Tree

As you hike up the Sand Ramp Trail along the eastern side of the dunes at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, it's amazing to see how the pine forest meets the desolate expanse of sand dunes.

Colorado, Great Sand Dunes, panorama, March, Sand Ramp Trail, photo

Sand Ramp Dawn Panorama

Sunrise along the Sand Ramp Trail.

The weather was very cold at night, but the days were nice and sunny and not too hot - perfect weather for trekking through the dunes. I had all my winter camping gear with me, including my -30º synthetic sleeping bag, down jacket, balaclava, winter gloves, long underwear, and down booties, which were great for hanging around in the dunes at night. An MSR dromedary bag was great for hauling the water, as a busted plastic jug would have been disastrous. The cold nights were no problem since I was all bundled up, and the days were perfect weather for crossing the dunes – sunny with a brisk chill to the air.

Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, sunset, photo

Dunes Western Sunset

Sunset light illuminates the dunes along the remote western portion of the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Star Dune, Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, sunset, photo

Star Dune Sunset

Warm sunset light shines on Star Dune, the tallest dune in the national park.  Star Dune rises 750 feet above the San Luis Valley, making it the tallest dune in all of North America. 

Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, sunset, San Luis Valley, photo

Dunes Sunset

Sunset over the San Luis Valley, as seen from in the dunes.

My last night there was incredible – a perfectly calm night with the stars blazing and my mind all wrapped up in the strange dunes magic. I almost expected a UFO to come down and pluck me out of there.

Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, twilight, photo

Blue Dunes

Looking west at the twilight sky over the San Luis Valley, as seen from the western part of the Great Sand Dunes. 

dusk, Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, photo

Dunes Dusk

A calm evening deep in the Great Sand Dunes, looking north at the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the San Luis Valley.

Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, Sangre de Cristos, Mount Herard, photo

Ocean of Sand

Mount Herard and the Sangre de Cristos rise above the Great Sand Dunes.