“Wait, they’re no trails we need to stay on?” The Younger Fives were in utter disbelief as we parked the car at Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and informed them they could hike anywhere they wanted. Being used to narrow, set trails that minimize the impact on fragile ecosystems, they thought maybe we were trying to trick them. However, Great Sand Dunes National Park is a wonderful anomaly in many ways, from allowing the freedom to blaze your own path to being able to leave your name (or any other design) behind in the ever-shifting sand.
The fun begins with a crossing of Medano Creek, a seasonal stream fed by melting snow on the Sangre de Cristo Range. We noticed immediately the stream was quite shallow, so we expected an uneventful fording. As we got about a quarter of the way across, we looked upstream to notice a small wave surge heading toward our sand bank. In a moment’s time we were ankle deep in water, scrambling to reach the next island of sand. After some observation we realized the water regularly dams behind small sand bars only to burst through, sending small waves to collect at the next sand obstruction. Trying to predict where the next patch of dry sand would be while outrunning the waves was absolutely delightful, and we had huge smiles on our faces as we reached the other side (albeit with soggy boots).
The sand dunes themselves are a giant sandbox where just about anything goes. We all branched off to find our own paths up the dunes, and we soon realized climbing up the sand can be a bit of a workout. The highest dune, Star Dune, is 755 feet tall, but we contented ourselves with scaling some of the smaller peaks just a few hundred feet tall. Of course, coming down is the real treat, and we tried running, rolling, and sledding down on our bottoms (and there are even real sleds and sand boards to rent as well). After a few times up and down, we could really appreciate how the journey is never the same twice.
On a final note, we really enjoyed camping at the park that evening. The campground is very close to the dunes, and a recent survey found Great Sand Dunes is the quietest national park in the contiguous 48 states. After an action-packed day of exploring the dunes, there’s nothing like unwinding over dinner, watching a sunset framed by sand 🙂