I knew I needed a break, so I took one. My friend Justin was on his way into town, and offered to swing through Denver to pick me up for an adventure in the Dunes.
GEOLOGY NERDS START HERE.
Lying at the base of the San Luis Valley, The Great Sand Dunes are supposedly 400,000 years old, and were formed by evaporated glacial lakes and sediment deposits from the Rio Grande River. Storm winds from the Sangre de Cristo range and prevailing winds from the southwest help create a circular wind patterns, which is how the towering dunes were formed and how they are able to keep their shape today. The tallest dune, Star Dune, is 750 feet.
If you go into the visitor center at the park, you can see photos from the 1980s compared to the 2000s, and not much has changed – which is crazy to me. The dunes keep their overall shape year over year, due to the consistency of the winds that created them.
HIKING IN AND AROUND THE DUNES
There is a great little trail you can hike during the day, in case the sand is too hot (it can reach up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit during summer days!).
The Mosca Pass Trail is a 7 mile trail that takes you up to Mosca Pass. The views you get of the dunes are beautiful and you really get to see their magnitude!
You can also hike to the top of the High Dune and Star Dune which will set you above the dunes with an excellent view of the Sangre de Cristo range.If you’re feeling even more adventurous, Blanca Peak, one of Colorado’s 14ers is also nearby with a free dispersed camping site.
CAMPING IN THE DUNES
Camping in the dunes is a must! You must first obtain a backcountry camping permit, which is free from the visitor center. Line up early, because they are limited.
Get ready to hike in sand, where one normal step takes about two steps in the sand. You will get tired fast. I chose to hike barefoot, which forced me to use muscles in my feet and lower legs that normally lie dormant while hiking in shoes. Yes, I was sore.
When you get your backcountry permit, the Park Ranger will tell you to “hike until you can’t see the river.”
“Why’s that?” asked Justin
“Well, so you don’t piss off the photographers.”
“Oh – makes total sense.”
One thing I would for sure suggest is to check the weather forecast, and specifically pay attention to the wind speeds and direction. Chances are, if there is any wind at all, you’re going to get pelted by shards of sand, and it will hurt.
Another thing to consider is that you will be camping in sand so your tent stakes may not hold things down if it’s too windy. When Justin and I were setting up our tents, we almost thought about going back because we simply couldn’t get our tents secure, but then the wind finally died down after sunset.
Sunset in the dunes is epic, so don’t forget your camera! I took some of my best photos during this trip, because the light was great and also because I was shooting in full manual mode – more on that later.
In the morning, it’s a great idea to wake up with the sunrise to catch more of the beauty, then pack up and head out before the sun begins to heat up the sand. It gets hot fast.
The hike out of the dunes is much easier than the hike inward. We probably went in about a mile and a half, but many campers go further – the dune-field covers 30 square miles of the San Luis Valley.
This little micro-adventure was truly what I needed to reset my body and mind – I also hope that if you find yourself in need of a break, you take it.
If you want to check out Justin’s vlogs from our trip, you can check out his YouTube channel or watch the following videos: