Through and Around the Great Sand Dunes

June 2019  |  Colorado

Eager to go backpacking while the mountains are still filled with snow, in early June we returned to the Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado to trek for three days all the way through the dunefield then back around them. This was a variation of the same trek I've done twice before, but this time we went clockwise and camped in the dunes the first night and in the foothills above the dunes the second night.

We made the mistake of arriving at Great Sand Dunes National Park on a Saturday morning on one of the busiest weekends of the year at the park. When we arrived at the visitor center at 9:00am to obtain our backcountry camping permit the permit line stretched out of the visitor center and around the corner into the lobby! Although in retrospect I should have expected this, I was totally shocked since I've always just strolled in and got my permit no problem. We waited in the line for 1.5 hours with serious doubts that we'd reach the office before the allotment of 20 dunes camping permits were taken, but to our surprise and relief we managed to score one of the last available permits. Mental note: avoid national parks on weekends!!!

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Hiking down Medano Creek at the foot of the Great Sand Dunes - June.

With our precious permit in hand, we loaded up our packs with 9 liters of water and headed down Medano Creek, soon all alone after leaving behind the hundreds of visitors playing and picnicking in the water and sand. 

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Hiking north through the Great Sand Dunes, with the Sangre de Cristo mountains rising above.

After hiking a couple miles west down Medano Creek we headed into the dunes, walking north following ridgelines of least resistance until we were about 2/3 of the way through the entire dunefield.

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Wind ripples

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Blowing sand on a high dune.

The wind was blowing all day long, but really started ripping in the late afternoon! Though the weather forecast was for 5-15 MPH winds, it was probably more like 20-30 MPH, especially brutal atop the huge dunes in the northwestern part of the dunefield.

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Sunset over the San Luis Valley as seen from the northern Great Sand Dunes.

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Sunset over large dunes on the north end of the Great Sand Dunes.

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Twilight at camp deep in the Great Sand Dunes.

We randomly found a little nook basin high in the dunes that provided a natural windbreak from the strong westerly winds. Fortunately in the evening the winds died down for about 5 hours of calm relief before picking up again in the middle of the night.

After a fitful night sleep with sand blowing into the tent and our eyes, we awoke to strong winds from the east swirling around our tent. Making coffee in the blowing sand was an ordeal, and by the time we packed up our backpacks I was pretty grumpy and generally over being in the dunes! Sometimes the dunes are a pleasant and wonderful place to spent a night -- but not this time!

We finished hiking through the dunes directly to Cold Creek on the north side of the dunes, where we filled up our water bladders and bottles with another 9 liters of water for the next day and night of our trek. 

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Camping in aspens.

For our second night we camped in the foothills above and to the east of the dunes, sheltered from the strong easterly winds. After a day and night in the windy dunes, the calm air, green aspens, towering ponderosas, and birdsong felt like absolute paradise! With our spirits much higher we savored the day lounging and wandering around enjoying the pleasant scenery.

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A stately ponderosa pine stands tall over the Great Sand Dunes.

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A gnarled and windblown ponderosa pine overlooks the Great Sand Dunes.

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Ponderosa pine and sunset light on the Sangre de Cristo mountains above the Great Sand Dunes.

Sleep deprived after our windy night in the dunes, we slept for 11 hours in our quiet foothill campsite that night. In the morning we completed the hike back along the Sand Ramp Trail to where we started.