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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.

Our group of nine BACKPACKER editors have come to the park to test gear and explore a route from the sand to the top of the Sangre de Cristos, which hunker over the western and northern edges of the dunes. More specifically: We hoped to wend a few miles through the sand on the first day, camp, then continue all the way to the northern end of the park. There, the barren slopes give way to narrow-leaf cottonwoods and piñon pines, and the Tatooine-like drifts transition to solid ground.

But, as with all the best adventures, ours is easier said than done. The dune terrain is oddly featureless–which makes distances deceptive and navigation tricky. On the first day, our hike starts with a mile-long walk along Medano Creek, which pours out of the mountains but is eventually swallowed by the sand. Since there are no trails in the dunes, you just strike off when the slope seems right. We leave the streambed, and the first 10 steps are so steep, the sand so sugary, that I'm forced to crawl on hands and knees. The faster I push off, the more sand I drive out from under me. My 50-plus-pound pack, heavy with gallon-jugs of water, digs me in deeper still. I strain not to slide down all the way to the bottom. I try not to think of Sisyphus–or the skier I'd seen earlier skinning uphill as easily as he would on snow.

After the slowest 13-foot vertical gain of my life, the incline mellows and we make easier progress. We set our sights on the highest dune on the horizon and weave toward it. After another short climb, we take a break to pour sand from our boots–and hold a quick jib session, leaping from a perfect isosceles ridgeline onto a 30-degree slope.

Steve kneels into the pitch and hoists his Nikon. Tracy pushes off, jumps, and gains about 6 inches of air. "You can't get much of a running start!" she calls, executing a stunted spread eagle and a stop-drop-and-roll landing.

"I give it a 7. Next!" Steve signals to Elisabeth, who does her best airborne interpretation of Baryshnikov.

"9.5!"

I run off the end of the ridge, attempt a mute grab, land square on my hip, and learn an important dune fact: In some places, the sand is so inviting it feels Tempur-pedic; in others, it's so compact it feels like cement. My landing zone is more asphalt than mattress.




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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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