The Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado are perhaps the most unique landscape in the Rockies, with 700-foot tall sand dunes nestled at the foot of 13,000-foot mountains. Winds that blow across the vast San Luis Valley carry sand grains which become trapped by the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the streams that flow out of the mountains keep the sand in one place, resulting in the tallest dunes of North America.
Last week we spent 3 days trekking around and through the Great Sand Dunes. Similar to a trek I did back in March 2009, in which I circumnavigated the entire dunefield, we hiked up the Sand Ramp Trail along the east side of the dunes, then this time instead of circling around the entire dunes we cut directly through the dunes from north to south back to our starting point.
We started hiking from the “Point of No Return” trailhead. Shortly after crossing Little Medano Creek, ominous thunderclouds and whipping winds forced us to retreat and take shelter in the forest. Just when we got back to the nearest trees, cracks of lightning erupted, confirming our decision not to continue out in the open! With our rain jackets on we sat under a tree for about an hour while the lightning and thunder pounded all around.
Eventually the lightning and crazy winds subsided, and we continued on our way up and around to the north side of the dunes. One of the most fascinating characteristics of the Great Sand Dunes is the unusual contrast of pine trees and sand dunes along this eastern zone where the dunes meet the mountains.
The clouds cleared off during most of our hike up the Sand Ramp Trail, but then another wave of storm came through making for some dramatic skies and wind. We were definitely glad we weren’t out in the exposed dunes today!
I was pleased when the sun dropped down into a gap of clear sky near the horizon at sunset, illuminating the dunes with lovely warm light. This view of the Great Sand Dunes from the north side is quite rare, since the vast majority of visitors climb up the dunes from the more-accessible south side near the visitor center and campground.
With crystal clear skies the next morning, we filled up our dromedary bags and extra water jugs in Cold Creek, then set off directly into the dunes with our heavy backpacks. The dunes mostly form long, prominently north-to-south ridges, so we were able to follow a dune “valley” directly south which provided a nice path of least resistance through the sea of sand.
After making our way about 2/3 of the way through the length of the dunes, we found a nice flat spot on a high dune saddle to set up camp for the evening. With hours to kill before sunset and nowhere to hide from the sun, Claudia set up this genius sun shade using the footprint of our tent!
A leisurely hike the rest of the way out of the dunes brought us directly back to our truck at Point of No Return. Then, what better way to wrap up the trip than an evening soaking in some nearby hot springs!