Sand Dunes, Great Sand Dunes National Monument
Well, you drove this far... park the car, get out and climb up. Take your shoes off.. Try a small dune first as you will quickly see when you get to the top, that the dunes go on for a lot further than you can first see when you cross the stream.
It's what I said. It's what I think a lot of people say.
That's the highest dune! I will climb that one.
They get to the top and look around at the sea of sand. It's not the tallest, and in fact it's hard to tell which one is the tallest.
When you go for that dune remember that the quickest way is probably not the most direct path. If you follow ridges up, crisscrossing the way you won't end up with a horribly steep ascent.
If it's not too hot (or too cold) take your shoes off on the dunes - you can save yourself from having to shake sand out.
Of the four types of sand dunes three are found in the park. There are Reversing Dunes, Star Dunes, and Barchan Dunes. They are formed in different ways. Barchan Dunes are formed when the wind comes from only one direction. Reversing Dunes are formed when the wind comes from two opposing directions. Star Dunes are formed when winds come from multiple directions. The higher dunes that dominate the landscape here are Reversing Dunes. The sand originated from erosion in the mountains and as sediment washed into the flats by streams and creeks. Winds from the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains and across the San Luis Valley competed to keep the sand in the same location and build it into these Reversing Dunes. Most of the dunes are no longer growing because the sand sheet has stabilized and there is a limited supply of sand. The dunes closest to the creeks continue to grow, however, from the sand sediment in the waters.
We had a beautiful long weekend of cool nights and the days were warm enough for shorts but not so hot that the sand was unbearable. We hiked to the top of High Dune and had brought sandwiches and of course, lots of water to drink. It was very special, but even more so was the night hike with a Park Guide and the full moon to see by.
Best time to go is in fall or in spring - there's snow-melt in spring so you may get to frolick in a small stream in April/May. But in mid-September, the wind isn't as nasty, so hiking the dunes is more comfortable. The campsites are nice but cramped and a bit pricey ($20/nite). No hotel or lodge in the park.
The area leading up to Medano Creek and the dune field is called a "Sand Sheet". This is where over half the sand in the park is located. Because this area is lower and flatter than the dune field it is not subject to the same intense winds. This gives plants a chance to set roots and grow here, allowing the sand sheet to support a wide variety of plant and animal life.
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains border the dune filed on the East and North. These mountain contain peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation. Much of the sand for the dunes came from these mountains. There are several hiking trails into the mountains.
This should be number one on anyone's list of things to do here. Access to the dunes is easy, as one must simply park the car, cross a shallow creek (if it is flowing), and proceed onto the sand. No matter how good the sand feels, bring shoes with you. It may be nice and cool in the morning, but by late morning it could be searing hot, and it will burn unprotected feet. Some fo the dunes rise 700 feet above the valley floor. I some places, the sand was very soft, while it was more firm in other places. You can generally follow ridgelines to keep going higher up. In some places, there is actually vegetation on the dunes.
This is a fun place to bring children. Many people ride down the dunes on cardboard or they write things in the sand. Photographers climb the dunefields in order to capture the landscape. Besides bringing good shoes, you really need some sunblock here. Also, take your time climbing as this is at an elevation above 7,000 feet. Those who come from lower altitudes might just feel the effect if they exert themselves too quickly.
The dunes were created from sand originally at the bottom of the Rio Grande. Some rise to a height of 700 feet. The park is open year round. After paying a small entrance fee, you can walk right up to the sand dunes to see them for yourself. Its about a one mile walk to the top of the tallest dune.
When you plan walk on Great Sand Dunes, please, try to schedule your arrival for early morning or late evening, especially if it is summer. The temperature of sand can reach 140F degrees on summer afternoons. Actually we felt this on ourselves. Despite 2 hour rain at night before our arrival and wet sand in some places, sand began heating up in minutes, and in the places where I walked up barefoot an hour before, I had to run not to burn my feet an hour after.
Also don’t forget to bring a bottle or more of water. High altitude and dryness of the air, sun’s reflections from the sand makes you thirsty very fast.
Climbing the sand is not an easy thing to do, and I understood this at once I saw how tall they are. Moreover, there is no trails, you can climb wherever you wish, which is great but makes it difficult because sand slid down under steps. As a result, I had to make twice more steps. I saw one lady who climbed on her fourth, and when we already scrambled on one of the sand peaks, she was still struggling a half way. Of course, the way down is much-much easier and faster.
When we came to the parking lot I saw many people with kids. My first thought was that those parents are crazy to bring those little ones to this hot place. Later on I figured out my judgment was wrong, because there were plenty things for kids to do. Please, read my list:
-playing in muddy creek
-climbing sand dunes
-rolling down from sand dunes
-sliding down the sand on boards
-digging into sand
-looking for any alive creatures around
-learn about nature.
Another popular thing to do in dunes is just sitting and looking at the beauty of this place. It sounds funny isn’t it, but after I climbed all those dunes and got to the top, I understood that this was one of the most pleasant things to do: sit and watch. I had a rest, watched the mountains and dunes, and those funny people down who looked like ants.
When you climb dunes, forget about a map. Although the map given at the point of entrance shows two of the tallest peaks in dunes: Star Dune (750 ft/229 m) and High Dune (650 ft/ 198 m), it is hard to figure out which one is which. At least it can be helpful with directions. While I was climbing to the tallest, as I thought dune, it seemed to me that there were many others that were taller when I had reached the top. As brochure explains, “
Anyway, when I show my pictures to friends, I am happily saying that this one was taken on the tallest dune, Star Dune, without knowing precisely whether it was the one.
The main attraction of the park, of course, are the sand dunes. Dunes here reach up to 750 feet in height making them the tallest in North America.
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