Dune Hiking at Great Sand Dunes National Park 7-22-15

As we were planning for our family trip to Colorado, we came across a YouTube video for sand sledding.  It was an immediate “we’ve got to try this!” We arrived at Great Sand Dunes National Park around 9:00 pm on July 21st after a 26 hour drive from Indiana.  We cooked up a quick dinner and got to bed fairly early in anticipation of our day on the dunes.

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The next morning we opted for a quick breakfast and headed to the Oasis store just outside the park entrance to rent our boards.  We rented two sand sleds and two sand boards.  We were given wax for the boards and a quick tutorial.  Of course, we also signed waivers stating we wouldn’t sue if we did something stupid and broke our necks. Our herd for the day started with 5; myself, my husband Patrick, my daughter Casie, my son Ryan and his girlfriend Danielle.  We parked at the dunes parking area and quickly came to Medano Creek.  Medano Creek is a seasonal creek that produces waves in peak flow times due to some quirk in the topography.  It usually dries up at the end of July, so we were pretty excited that it was still flowing during our visit.  We even got to see an occasonal mini-wave!  The water ranged from about 1/2 inch to just over ankle deep but was flowing surprisingly fast.

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We crossed the creek and looked for a spot on the dunes without a lot of people.  This was very easy to do with over 30 square miles of dunes!  There are no trails on the dunes but you can hike anywhere you want.  We started on some small dunes but quickly realized the real fun was zipping down the big dunes.  Climbing the big dunes, however, was hard!  Loose sand and steep hills make for some serious calf burn!  The trip down on the sleds and boards were definitely worth it though.  Most everyone preferred the sleds over the boards but that’s likely because none of us quite mastered the sand boards.

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As we were enjoying our morning of fun, one dune in particular kept drawing my attention.  “High Dune” which, not surprisingly, is the highest dune.  As someone who has made a hobby out of climbing to the highest point of each state, climbing “High Dune” was proving to be irresistible.  I shared my intentions with the rest of the group and most were, well, less enthusiastic than I.  Patrick has some rather bad memories from another of my “highpoint” ventures and has opted out of most hiking adventures ever since.  He decided to hike back to camp while the rest of us headed even higher.  The plan was to start on one side of the dune field and hike across the ridges until we reached “High Dune”.   By the time we started up, the sand was getting very hot.  The first dune had soft sand that made hiking very difficult.  There are signs advising you to wear shoes on the dunes and to not wear flip flops, but we aren’t always the best at following directions.  Flip flops it was although Danielle had the foresight to bring socks.  They looked a little funny but were definitely easier to walk in and protected her feet from the hot sand.  Maybe this will be the start of a new trend, Dune Socks!

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The four of us ventured on with the two sand sleds and one of the sand boards.  The plan was for 3 of them to slide down one of the highest spots in the park and I would venture on to High Dune.  We followed in the footsteps of another group which made the climbing a little easier.  In addition to the steepness of the climb and soft footing, we were also dealing with elevation.  Despite looking like something you’d find near sea level, Great Sand Dunes National Park is over 7,000 feet in elevation!
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Once over the peak of one of the highest dunes, the scope of dune field came into view.  It was an amazing sight!

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It turned out to be incredibly windy on top of the higher dunes.  It was actually painful at times with the sand stinging our bare skin and blowing into our eyes.  Casie had a little fun with the wind, using it for some hands-free board carrying!

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Once at the top, Ryan decided he wanted to keep hiking with me.  I always like company so I was happy to have him join me.  Casie and Danielle wanted to sled on down and play in the creek.  We divided up our remaining water and parted ways.  Casie helped us out by taking the extra sand board  on her lap as she zipped down the dune.  They had several dunes to get down and were going to try to keep out of a “bowl” at the bottom of the first big slope.  Going into the bowl meant climbing back out.  Apparently you pick up a LOT of speed on the really big dunes.  Ryan and I watched as first Danielle, then Casie, ended up cresting a small rise at the bottom of the slope and went right on over into the bowl.  We laughed a bit and watched as they started their climb back out.  They still had several big dunes to work their way down before getting back to the creek.  We commented on how much fun it looked going down the dunes on the sleds but were also looking forward to some dune hiking and great views.  We planned our route to High Dune, hoping to mostly walk across the ridges.  There would be a few spots where we’d have to drop down into a saddle and climb back up but we tried to keep the hike as level as possible.  Ridge walking turned out to be surprisingly difficult!  The sand was soft, and hot, and some of the ridges were quite narrow along the top!

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The dunes looked to be about the same height from our perspective on the far end of the dune field.  As were neared High Dune, it became obvious that we still had more up to do.

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We made it!  High Dune!  We have traditionally taken feet pictures at our state highpoints.  This is the first “highpoint” feet picture where we are barefoot!  The sand sticking to our legs made for some interesting tan lines.

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After reaching our goal, we decided to keep working our way across the ridge tops to the far side of the dune field.  By this time, the afternoon sun was really heating up the sand.  The sand can reach 150 degrees!  We wore flip flops most of the time, went barefoot in the shaded areas and occasionally, just ran barefoot down the dunes.  Not surprisingly, we saw very few plants or animals.  We did come across an occasional bug, including the Great Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle which only exists in Great Sand Dunes National Park.

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After covering several miles of dunes, we finally made our way back to Medano Creek.  We hiked back in the creek to our starting point.  The water was warmer than it had been that morning but still felt wonderful on our sand-scorched feet.

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Hike Summary

There is no set trail in the dunes to follow.  All together, we hiked about 6 miles.  We took the better part of a day because we also took time to play in the creek, go sand boarding and sand sledding.  I would definitely recommend these activities!  There are also earthcaches in the park for any geocachers out there.  Follow the advice of the park and wear shoes (or socks if you want to start a new trend!).  Not flip flops, sandals and definitely not barefoot!  Dogs are allowed in the creek and on the dunes but remember to protect their feet as well.  This is a fun, family and dog friendly park to visit and worth a day or two of your vacation time.  For those with the ability, there is a high-clearance 4-wheel drive road with places to camp along the road.  This would also give you access to other places to hike.  If I make it back to Colorado, I will definitely visit here again!

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