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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.

We continue meandering until the sun starts dipping toward Utah. We find the perfect place to camp–a ridge that flattens out into a bench with commanding views of dunes and mountains. That's when my calves begin to wail: A 1998 Belgian study showed that walking on sand requires 2.7 times more energy expenditure and 2.5 times more mechanical work than does walking on hard ground. Australian exercise physiologist (and sand-walking guru) Anthony Leicht later tells me that walking on sand is "like lifting weights at a gym–only this time you're 'working out' without working out." Translation: I'm wiped.

I slip into my sleeping bag and start to drift off, but not before realizing sand-camping's sweetest perk: Find a deep soft spot, and the bazillion grains hugging your spine are like nature's memory foam. I fall into a cradled, customized dream.

Great Sand Dunes sits on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley, drifting against the 13,000-foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains like waves against a seawall. Some 5 million years ago, an enormous lake covered the valley floor; when it dried up–or, according to other theories, gushed through the Rio Grande Gorge–it left behind huge, flat deposits of sand. As prevailing winds out of the southwest funneled toward three nearby mountain passes (Mosca, Medano, and Music), the sand from the valley piled up against the steep slopes of the Sangres, some drifting to heights of more than 750 feet. Not only that, Medano Creek and Sand Creek carry sediment back down to the valley floor, which gets blown on top of existing sand.

Dunes look quiet and static, but they're not. They squeak and fart. They whoosh and swish. On our second day, we wobble along the top of a so-called Chinese wall–a feature formed from constantly reversing winds that pile a dune into knife-edge crests. That's when I feel that astonishing hum under my soles. The explanation, say scientists who study sand, is this: Avalanches of round specks rub against each other and form standing waves of grains, which make certain dunes vibrate like subwoofers. In fact, a few years ago, French physicists hauled home some Moroccan sand and recorded the music it produced–foghorns, galloping hooves, airplane roars. (Don't exhaust yourself trying to find it on iTunes. It's, umm, academic.) As I step aside to let Mike go past, we all forget our tired calves. Suddenly, walking on sand is like magic.




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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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