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Backpacker Magazine – April 2008

North America's Highest Sandbox: Great Sand Dunes National Park

The most exotic hike in the United States is smack in the middle of the country: Welcome to Great Sand Dunes National Park.

by: Evelyn Spence, Photos by Steve Howe

The author and pal Tracy track the evening temps (mid 40s)
The author and pal Tracy track the evening temps (mid 40s)
Climbing the tallest dune in the park (750 ft.)
Climbing the tallest dune in the park (750 ft.)
Weaving through rabbitbush
Weaving through rabbitbush
A frosty morning on
A frosty morning on "the beach"
Trekking to 11,466-foot Music Pass
Trekking to 11,466-foot Music Pass

video icon GREAT SAND DUNES VIDEO EXCLUSIVE
Join the Backpacker editors on their 2008 Editors' Choice trip through Great Sand Dunes National Park where they tested the latest gear for the magazine.

"Guys! Did you feel that?" Dennis is ahead of us, tiptoeing across a sandy knife-edge that drops away 200 feet on either side. He looks like he's just seen some sort of ghost. "This is nuts!"

Our trudging line, concerned, bumps to a stop like a halted mule train.

"Someone come up here. Someone needs to go first and hear this."

I step around Dennis–doing a do-se-do on the crumbling ridge–and continue walking. The sand spills down the faces on either side of my feet, cascading slowly, almost like syrup. It takes a few steps, but then it happens: When enough grains move, the whole ridge starts to vibrate, bark, and sing underfoot. It's like my steps are alive.

Good thing the ground didn't shake like this when we awoke this morning: We were camped amid 4.8 billion cubic meters of sand. I was sure at least a cup of it was in my oatmeal. And a pint in each of my boots. After a sip of coarse coffee, I wasn't exactly enamored of the stuff. But gritty oatmeal and grainy socks were a small price to pay for the rest of the scene: The November sun peered over 12,380-foot Carbonate Mountain to the east, melting the frost that crystallized over yesterday's footprints. Spiky shadows stretched across tawny slopes–our tents were pitched in the middle of a sea of dunes that extended to the base of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The night before, we caught alpenglow on those same peaks and counted a dozen shooting stars in an onyx-black sky.

Colorado may be better known for its soaring fourteeners, but here in Great Sand Dunes National Park, in the south-central region of the state, the landscape looks like a Google mash-up of the Rockies and the Sahara, almost like you're standing on the bleakness of Mars and looking at Earth's deep blues and greens. Tent stakes don't work. I'm wearing a down jacket–despite the seaside vibe of sand and sun, the dunes sit at an elevation of 8,200 feet. And the terra is definitely not firma: You better bring gaiters. You better do calf raises to prepare. And on ascents, you should expect to take at least two steps backward for every step forward.




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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
stevo
May 13, 2013

We go every May. Sometimes we stay at the new Zapata campsite and hike Ellingwood/Blanca. Other times we set up base camp by the car at Pinon Campground then we hike into the dunes, or up the Sand Ramp trail to backpack/camp in the wild. The area is one of the most biodiverse in the US with desert, alpine, tundra and everything in between. WE LOVE GSDNP!

Star Star Star Star Star
Sierra
Apr 30, 2013

I think the Great Sand Dunes is a outstanding place to visit. My family and I climbed all the way to the top of the Dunes and were exausted after. The sand was blazing hot when we were climbing down the sand. After all the sand can reach as high as 100 degrees farenhight. OUCH! I would definatly recomend going there to have an incredable time hiking, camping,flying kites and much more!

Star Star Star Star Star
Sierra
Apr 30, 2013

I think the Great Sand Dunes is a outstanding place to visit. My family and I climbed all the way to the top of the Dunes and were exausted after. The sand was blazing hot when we were climbing down the sand. After all the sand can reach as high as 100 degrees farenhight. OUCH! I would definatly recomend going there to have an incredable time hiking, camping,flying kites and much more!

Travis Brown
Apr 21, 2011

I have to say I love this area. I have been to Great Sand Dunes 2 times and plan on going again this June. I would like to know a good way to get up into the mountains and see the lakes, but I am still amature and don't want to get lost out in the middle of no where. Can anyone give me some good directions. Maybe email me the_babster@yahoo.com

ken
May 22, 2009

Doug, I am thinking of going to Deadman, nice big fish in there?

DOUG
Aug 03, 2008

I've hicked across the Dunes at least 6 times,but not by the route the Dunes but straight across from the ranger station to Cold Creek. Then up Cold Creek and over the Peaks to a small lake called Smith Creek lake. 5 days to get there. I was going to go fishing but the lake was only about 3 feet deep, not very good fishing to say the least. Then we hicked dowm Smith Creek to where it intersects with Sand Creek. From there we hicked up to the Little Sand Creek lakes. Then went over a 13 thousand foot ridge to Deadman Lakes both had great fishing. To complete our trip we walked down to the valley and on to Crestone. What a trip didn't see another soul. Any one out there thats done this trip or at least the part to Smith Creek Lakes.

Sam
May 21, 2008

We visit the Dunes regularly. A great resource for people looking for a variety of hikes and backpacks is the guidebook "The Essential Guide to Great Sand Dunes" by Winger. The website www.GreatSandDunes.info has some good info too.

Chris
May 14, 2008

We were there 3 years ago, a stunning place and we hope to go again in September

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