A Hike Along Colorado's Great Sand Dunes
The first time we saw the dunes was from almost twenty miles out as we turned onto CO-150. Bouncing along the road across the Colorado high plane, the dunes appeared as little more than a shimmering golden ridge against the sheer enormity of the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo wilderness behind it. As we bumped and sped down the road, the size of the mountain peaks seemed to stay static while the dunes only grew in enormity.
Once inside the national park, the enormity of the dunes boggles the mind. Once across a mountain snow melt river (that is foot numbingly cold), there is nothing with which to judge scale or distance except sand and toy-sized hikers wavering in the distance. While the first sand peaks—more like foothills—rise like dunes at a beach, they are in the looming shadow of the sand peaks behind them. With these monsters rising to over 650 feet high, the dunes appear as if they would be insurmountable.
The easiest way to reach the park is to drive south from Denver/Boulder/Colorado Springs on Interstate 25 South. When you reach the exist for US-60, take it west towards Fort Garland and Alamosa. After passing Fort Garland, take CO-150 north until you reach the park entrance.
Beyond this first ridge lies Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America soaring to 750 feet high. Crunched for time, we never made the five hour roundtrip hike to Star Dune. Scaling the first ridge though is an exploration in and of itself as the wind causes isolated sand storms that sandblast your skin and leave you perfectly smooth. Soft and sinkable, the smaller ridges also offer opportunities for you to body surf down—alternatively, you can ski or sandboard if you’re more prepared and less of an idiot than me. Just be warned that rolling down fifty feet of sand will leave your sinuses and eyes sandlogged for at least twenty-four hours … Still, worth it.
With over thirty square miles of dunes, created over a millennia from erosion of the neighboring mountains and plains, the dunes offer an Empty Quarter in which you can play your desert fantasies. Stumbling over one ridge and seeing another rise immediately in front, I was left dreaming of a forgotten city and castles made of sand hidden in the very center of the dunes.
With no trails and an open land to explore, who knows what you will find there?