Sludging Up and Up and Up… And Sliiiiiding Down

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Tucked away between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo  Mountains is the San Luis Valley, home to huge sand dunes, among them the largest one in North America.

So, where did they come from? Most of the sand here comes from the San Juan Mountains, over 65 miles to the west.  Larger, rougher grains and pebbles are deposited from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Once upon a time, some 440,000 years ago, sand and sediments from both mountain ranges washed into a huge lake that covered the floor of San Luis Valley. As the lake evaporated, southwesterly winds pushed the sand grains into piles beneath the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and then washed them back toward the valley floor. As northeasterly storm winds continued to blast through the mountain passes, the sand dunes kept piling back on themselves creating the tallest dunes in North America. (National Park brochure)

Today wind and water keep the sand moving, continually forming dunes.

  park brochure 

Not far from the Visitor Center, the road into the Park ends and takes you to the Dunes Parking Area or the Park Campground which is tent camping only.

Since we intend to hike and explore the sand dunes, we opt for the Dunes Parking Area and are lucky to find a place to park.

Here’s a view from the parking area… the Sangre de Cristo Mountain peaks are covered with snow, the sand dunes loom into view, and the Medano Creek separates us from the beginning of our adventure.

We follow the hikers and cross the creek.

Once across Medano Creek there is no actual trail to follow. Some people rent sleds and sand boards and opt to just play in the dunes.


We take off our wet hiking boots and enjoy the cool grains of sand massaging our feet as we continue hiking.

Right before I snapped this photo, 3 young guys, using centrifugal force, ran as fast as they could along the edge of this sand slope. One of the trio, however, ran down and, before he could catch his momentum, he somersaulted to the bottom! (That’s Jeff in the red shirt witnessing the gymnastics.)

Yay! The tumbler is okay! He only had to climb back up the steep side of a sand dune. Jeff, thank goodness, has enough sense not to try this for himself, but you know he wishes he could!

The sand starts burning our feet and we stop to put on our socks and hiking boots. (And what a great opportunity to catch our breaths!)

Meanwhile, we keep sludging, not realizing that we are heading towards Star Dune, the tallest at 755 feet. (At one point we had a choice to go right or left and we decided to go west, to the left.)

We are just about to turn around and head back. We’re getting tired of climbing through sand, only to slide back again. Another vertical rise looms ahead. We rest and discuss our options, not knowing where or how far it is to the top of Star Dune.

Jeff is ready to turn back but he knows me too well. I consider my options: I’m tired from climbing up through sand; But, we’ve hiked so far; Will I be disappointed if we don’t continue?; What lies beyond this last painful sludge? How much farther?

So, we sludge up yet again and… there it is! The ridge to the top of Star Dune!

WE DID IT! And so did 2 nuns in full habit!

I take a few pics…

…and my Aunt Lynne from San Diego calls me to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day!

We head back.

So many sand dunes. So many choices. No trails.

Thank goodness we are sliding down and not scrambling up!

Jeff and I take a shortcut back to Medano Creek and skip down a sand dune. These are our tracks on the left.

We finally slide our way down to Medano Creek.

Not all visitors come to hike. Some just hang out on the creek beach for the day.

There’s even a tarp-lined path through the sand from the parking are to the creek for wheelchair access.

Wow! It took us about 3 hours, but we did it! And I’m so glad we did!

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