Treadmill Rating (out of 10):
Distance: 3 miles round trip
Max Elevation: 9,000 ft.
Elevation Gain: 650 ft.
If you enjoyed playing in a sandbox or building sandcastles by the ocean as a child, you will have a great time hiking North America’s highest sand dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Monument and Preserve. Located in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, this roughly thirty-square-mile patch of sand was blown into place at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains by winds that coursed over the dried beds of ancient lakes. We started our trip by driving a few hours from Manitou Springs, Colorado, a scenic, fun town at the base of Pikes Peak, where the Rockies meet the Great Plains. The Dunes can be reached by US 160 and Colorado 150 when coming from the south, or from the west by Colorado 17 and County Lane 6. A relatively short distance from the parking lot and tourist center is the 650′ High Dune, which has the highest peak in nation. About a mile & a half further into the park is Star Dune, which is 750′ tall but at a lower altitude above sea level than High Dune. It was mid-afternoon in late August when we arrived, and we made our destination High Dune. It was windy and hot, as are summer afternoons in the Dunes, as we made our way up the yielding slopes to the peak in about an hour. This hike defines the expression “one step forward, two steps back” in that the sand gives way under each step. The peak brought us beautiful views of the mountains, valley, and field of dunes. Blasted by wind-driven sand, my camera jammed permanantly after a few moments(hence, these photos are courtesy the NPS). But reaching the peak was not the end of the fun. When you want to descend, just find a nice, steep slope and…jump! You’ll fly through the air and land softly in yielding sand. Camping is permitted in certain areas of the Dunes, as well as the greater preserve which includes the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with altitudes higher than 13,500′. Aside from hiking and camping, you can sandboard the dunes or wade in nearby Medano Creek. While the Park and Preserve are biologically and geographically diverse, you won’t have to worry about some southwestern threats while in the Dunes, such as rattlesnakes, gila monsters and scorpions — they can’t live in this high-altitude desert.
HOW TECHNICAL IS THE HIKE?
This is a non-technical hike.
WHO CAN DO THIS HIKE?
Just about anyone would enjoy this hike, but they should be in reasonably good shape and be acquainted with the symptoms of altitude-related problems, dehydration and hypothermia.
WHEN SHOULD I GO?
We enjoyed our late-summer hike, with a cloudless blue sky against the golden dunes. But summer afternoons are windy and thunderstorms are common. Also, in summer the sand temperature can reach 140 degrees. Spring and fall hikers can experience a relatively warm day quickly degenerate into blizzard conditions. You can actually snow ski the Dunes in winter, without the worry of colliding with a tree.
Walking uphill and at the beach would be excellent training, as would running or jogging at the beach.
Water (one or two bottles)…lunch/snack…camera…day pack. Bring good hiking shoes or sneakers (no sandles — remember, the sand can reach 140 degrees). Keep in mind the sand temperature if you plan to bring your dog.