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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.

After another half a day of hiking on the dunes, we connect with the northern end of the Sand Ramp Trail, a marked path that traces the edge of the transition zone where piñon-juniper foothills meet sand. We head north toward a designated tent site at Sand Creek. That night, we camp under narrow-leaf cottonwoods, filter ice-cold water, and stick tent stakes into solid ground.

The next morning, we break into two groups so we can manage our car shuttle. Those going on will climb 3,700 feet and 13 miles along Upper Sand Creek Trail to Upper Sand Creek Lakes, which sit in a cliff-lined basin at 11,000 feet in the heart of the Sangre de Cristos. Along the way, they'll explore some old mining cabins, then wind through aspens that give way to spruce and grass-covered meadows turned a late-fall brown. They'll see an ermine and gray jays, and sunsets that flush the flaky schist and banded gneiss peach and gold. Finally, they'll climb over 11,380-foot Music Pass to reach the trailhead.

Meanwhile, my group hikes the 11 miles back to our vehicles via the Sand Ramp Trail, staying low and looping around and through the massive sandbox. On the aptly named trail, there's no relief for sore calves. We walk forward, we slide back, we slog on.

Four hours later, I realize that I've been staging a mental smackdown of sand-hiking pros and cons. Pro: The exotic landscape and extreme solitude (we see zero other campers on our trip) combine for a life-list experience. Con: My legs are screaming. Pro: You can walk around barefoot. Con: There's sand in my toothpaste. Pro: Because of strong ultraviolet light and lack of organic material in the sand, park officials say you shouldn't dig cat holes. Con: Rare but surprising turd encounters. Pro: Fine patterns left in the sand by wind-blown Indian rice grass and skittering kangaroo rats. Con: There's sand in my ears, armpits, and underwear. Pro: Shadows that look dark as spilled paint. Pro: Dune sledding. Pro: Dune Frisbee. Pro: Insane stars.

But the biggest pro doesn't hit me until I'm back home: The dunes stick with you. Maybe it's the memories of an alien, dynamic landscape. Maybe it's the grit I find on my Chapstick five weeks after the trip, or the grains I still feel in my jacket pockets. Either way, I'm transported, if just for a moment, straight back to the sands.




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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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