Written by Chelsea Martin : @chels_elizabeth_
One step forward, two drifting slides backwards. Again, and again, am I getting anywhere? I’m stripping the layers from my once perceived “freezing” body, now feeling a much different climate and my core feels a rush of heat- desert heat- thus I’m now dripping in sweat. Not to mention, my Adidas are full of sand (maybe not the best shoe choice), making my feet weigh an extra 5 pounds each. Eyes alive with intrigue, I made it to the peak of the Star Dune. Greetings, from the highest dune in North America- 750 ft doesn’t sound all that tall… to someone who has
never hiked in sand. Who would have guessed that a 30 mile stretch of a sand box would be pressed against the 225 mile stretch of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in southern Colorado? I had no idea this phenomenon existed, that’s for sure.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is just one of four National Parks in Colorado- the others being Rocky Mountain NP, Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, and Mesa Verde NP; however, the Great Sand Dunes is so incredibly vast and unusual that you won’t believe its beauty until you see it with your own eyes. From Denver GSDNP it’s about 4 hours- we opted for the more scenic route and took 285 south, catching an Airbnb in Crestone- a small (very small) town close to the dunes. When I visit the park again, I definitely plan on backpacking and camping out in the dunes (you need a permit for this) as gazing at the stars, and hiking the Star Dune in
the pitch black would be surreal and prime for viewing the Milky Way.
So how is this crazy piece of earth actually formed? The processes of wind and water erosion are in perfect concert- as water brings in sand, wind blows it back out. The water erodes the sand back to the southern portion of the dune field by Sand Creek (western edge of the dune field) and Medano Creek (eastern edge of the dune field). But, the sand is again blown back to the northeast by predominate southwesterly winds, and the cycle of erosion continues.
This back-and-forth action of the wind piles the dunes vertically, and contributes to the stability of the dunefield. This process rebuilds the dunes every day. So when you’re walking around, you may leave temporary footprints, but the continuous process of erosion will make sure you leave no foot prints for tomorrow. Which brings me to encourage following the ethical principles of Leave No Trace, meaning only bring in (footprints included!) what you will bring out. Preserve
and converse this unique part of Colorado!
Although we spent the whole day exploring the park, we didn’t venture much further out into the dune field than the Star Dune, and to be honest, you don’t really need to! Once you get to the top, you pretty much have the best view there is (unless of course your camping out under the stars, then you might get a better one). Take note there are no specified ‘trails’ in the dunes to follow, you just climb as high and as far as you would like. Climbing along the ridge line on the east side of the dunes, allows for jaw-dropping sights of the Sangre de Cristo mountains,
which have towering 14,000 ft peaks that absolutely dwarf you.
Spring and Fall seem to be the ideal time to visit, unless getting scorched under the blazing heat of the Colorado sun in the desert sounds appealing to you! If you travel on the dunes extensively, my adventurers tip is to pack LOTS water, hiking shoes (while the sand is nice on bare feet in the morning, I promise you won’t want to walk barefoot when the sun is out), and be wary of high winds which can pelt you with sand so a hat or face mask would be smart to wear for protection. Another tip is to stop at “Great Sand Dunes Oasis” right before you enter the park to grab a sand board so you can shred some sandy peaks. Feel free to ask me any other questions you might have! Adventure on!