Last Saturday I “dropped by” Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado to do a little hiking. By the time I flew, rented and drove, it was 3:30 or so when I reached the GSDNP visitors center. I quickly stamped my national parks passport and headed off to a trailhead. I completed two hikes in the same area only thirteen hours apart, yet it seemed like I was on two different planets.
According to a reliable source (the t-shirt I bought), GSDNP was established in 1932. I’ve hiked in sand dunes numerous times around the Great Lakes. And a sand dune in Colorado is the same as in Indiana or Michigan. Except when it isn’t.
Both are made of, you guessed it, sand. The sand dunes of Indiana Dunes National Park reach at altitude of 900′ and have a lovely backdrop of a great body of water, while the dunes of GSDNP are the tallest in North America and reach 8,171′. Their backdrop is snow covered mountains.
Also, the dunes around the Great Lakes tend to be a thin band that stretch along the shore of the lake, while the dune field of GSDNP is a seemingly misplaced half-moon covering 30 square miles.
I hiked to the end of Sand Pit Trail and found a spot to cross the seasonal Medano Creek. This time of year it was very narrow is spots and I didn’t have to get my boots wet. The crossing starts the hike up into the large dunes. Whether in Indiana or Colorado, hiking up sand dunes sucks. With the evolution change of several thousand feet, I was quickly panting.
I hiked up, changing the view below me, until it started to get dark. As I made my way back I passed a couple coming out with a disc sled and a snowboard. I passed another larger group, perhaps coming out to stargaze in the absence of light pollution.
After a delicious Slipper Burger at The Ruby Slipper in Alamosa, I spent the night at a beautiful AirBnB log lodge just outside of town. The two hour time difference woke me early so I started back the 30 miles to the park at first light.
At least four inches of snow had covered the area over night. I arrived just as the picnic area parking lot was being plowed and headed out in the direction of the Tallest Dunes Out-and-Back Trail, clearly the first person out that morning. The first 1/2 mile is flat and I scraped the snow with my boot on occasion, making sure it was sand and not a lake that I was walking across.
As I closed in on the dune field and my field of vision narrowed, I could not see mountains or fields in the distance, only the snow covered dunes before me. At this point, the hike became challenging. I could not tell where the dune dropped or rose, where one began and another ended. Though it was no longer snowing, all blended together in a field of white. There were no tracks to follow and the only way I could tell if I was going up or down was the pressure in my legs.
At one point three dark dots appeared over a white crest. Coyotes. They moved closer until spotting me, and stared only briefly before altering their direction slightly and trotting off through the snow.
I would start to slide down to the left, and move over. Then I would start sliding down to right. This gave me the impression that I was walking the ridge of a dune but I could not tell how high of how steep it was. On another day I might have enjoyed tumbling down a frozen dune, but that day was many years in my past.
Eventually, I decided not being able to tell where I was going was bad. I turned around and followed my tracks back to the trailhead. A few miles outside the park entrance I drove up to the Zapata Falls. 4WD is recommended, and required if there is snow. It is a short hike to the falls which were beautifully frozen.