Great Sand Dunes NP is probably the most unique and intriguing place I have ever been. Picture a dessert with huge rolling dunes- kind of like you would see in the middle east or northern Africa. Then, picture right behind it, some giant white-capped rocky mountains. This is exactly what the park looks like, and when you see it in person it’s just jaw-dropping amazing. Even more awe-inducing, hiking the tallest sand dune in North America and the views achieved from the top (spoiler alert: that is exactly what we did!).
GSDNP was our destination when leaving Boulder on my cousin and I’s third day in Colorado. This was about a 4 hour drive, and was hands-down the most beautiful and scenic stretch of driving I have ever done. We would turn a corner around the side of a big mountain and come out on the other side to a huge vista of snowy mountains and valleys. Words really cannot describe how pretty it was, but here is one picture for example.
When we finally arrived at the park, it was around noon time. Driving up to the entrance is an experience in itself because you can just see this massive dune field with the huge mountains behind it. It also happened to be a gorgeous day weather-wise, totally clear skies, sunny, and about 50 degrees.
Our first stop was at the main entrance building to figure out a plan for the day. The ranger there said the most popular thing to do is hike to the top of High Dune or Star Dune, 2 of the tallest dunes on the continent (there are 5 here that are over 700 feet tall). We decided to start with that, and then if we had more time we could do other things. One popular activity in the non-winter months is sand-boarding, which is the only thing we wish we could have done while there! Another unique thing about this park that sets it apart from others, is that you really cannot drive very far into it. It is a huge park, but most of it is only accessible by foot. There is one additional road that basically only Jeeps with 4W drive can access at certain times of the year, but other than that you have to get hiking!
We started out on our hike into the dunes and it really looks intimidating from the flat start point. You have nothing else but these massive sand mountains staring you in the face. With our bodies and souls ready to take them on, we moved forward right into it. once you hit the first piece of steep elevation, the legs just start to burn. Think about what it feels like to hike up a mountain, and then what it feels like to walk on the beach, and just put that together. It took us what seemed like forever to go not a very far distance. We took frequent breaks and drank a ton of water. One funny detail that made us laugh was this german shepherd who was initially scared to go down this steep piece of dune, then he just fully sent it and charged down towards his family calling him at the bottom. After that, he was running up and down it like it was nothing and made us feel even slower than before! Another weird thing about hiking up a giant sand dune is that there are no trails, so you have to figure out the best path to take on your own.
After about 45-60 minutes, we finally made it to the top. Oh man, it was so worth it! We were rewarded with 360 degree views of the rest of the dune field, grasslands, and the big rocky mountains. We decided to have a little picnic up there and enjoy our rewarded hard work for a while. We took a lot of pictures too, but none of them live up to how amazing the view really was.
We thought that view was going to be the highlight, but what we did not realize was how fun the descent would be. Timid at first, we slowly started making our way down. Once we got comfortable with it, we started really going for it and ran down a lot of it. The sand was so soft and forgiving, it felt like I was flying down these dunes. We were dying laughing too just having way too much fun with it. Definitely cannot beat this descent!
After frolicking down the dunes, we regrouped back at the car and decided to take a quick walk in the forest part of the park across from the dune field. It was only about a mile or so of hiking, but we got another cool view of the park that was totally different.
After our second mini-hike, we finally called it a day and got on our way to the next stop on our road trip. I highly recommend checking out this awesome park. You will not regret it!