“Driving all that far for a giant sandbox? Meh,” we thought at first.
On the other hand…
It would be pretty cool to see so much sand in the mountains of Colorado…?
Besides, the main attraction of Great Sand Dunes was going to be at full force just when we were close by in the north region of New Mexico, and we don’t believe in coincidences.
And boy, were we glad to have made this trip!!!
Boasting the tallest dunes in North America, Great Sand Dunes National Park is nestled in the San Luis Valley at the very base of the picturesque Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado.
If you just want to see the majestic dunes towering up to an impressive 750 feet and extending for miles, you can stop by at any time. The setting is unique, the dunes are simply stunning, and the contrast between the tall dunes and snowcapped mountain peaks guarantees some pretty amazing views.
– Medano Creek –
Medano Creek is a refreshing treat at the base of the dunes, created by melting snow cascading down from the peaks of the tall mountains above. The creek flows in the spring and early summer only, with PEAK FLOW during LATE MAY and EARLY JUNE.
Sand-bottomed and shallow (only about a foot deep), it’s perfect for kids to play in!
This is not your ordinary steady-flow meltwater creek though. Medano Creek is sometimes called mysterious because it flows in waves which can occur as frequently as every 20 seconds and can be up to a foot high! Crazy, huh?
You can crack the mystery of this rare natural phenomenon by watching a short video at the park’s visitor center.
But you probably don’t want to wait, right?
Here goes: besides water, the creek also carries sand back to the base, creating sand ridges and dams on the creek bed. When the water pressure builds up, it washes the ridge out and sends down a wave. Voila!
The sand brought down to the base of the dunes is then blown back up toward the mountains or dune fields, and the opposing wind directions are what’s sculpting the dunes. The circle of life… Isn’t nature amazing?
Expect the water to be cold in the morning and pleasantly refreshing (given that it’s sunny and warm) as the day progresses. The sand heats up pretty quickly even in the spring months which balances the cold water out quite nicely.
What else to do in Great Sand Dunes besides cooling off in Medano Creek?
Climb the Great Sand Dunes
There are no trails here and no restrictions on how far/high up you can go, but when you’re told at the visitor center to bring closed-toe shoes out on the dunes, do listen – they’re not kidding! We started our hike barefoot before 10 am and the sand was just fine, but it quickly got painfully hot and we were glad to have shoes to put on.
The hike up the dunes was a doozy – steep climb in soft sand, blowing sand (the dunes can get pretty windy), it feels like you’ve walked half a mile when in reality you’ve covered a few feet. Our kids started to whine, our water bottles were emptying up fast.
We decided not go all the way to the top because of the blowing sand, but let me tell you – it is worth it to huff and puff your way up – as far up as you’re willing to go. The dunes are beautiful, peaceful, completely silent, and the views are amazing!
There is no bridge, so you’ll need to cross the creek to get to the dunes. You’ll want to start early in the morning when the sand is cooler. Expect the water to be unbearably cold early in the morning. Bring proper shoes, hats, plenty of water, apply sunscreen beforehand or cover up. Have fun!
Hiking in Great Sand Dunes National Park
The trails here are low-traffic hikes since most people choose to stay around the dunes.
You can also drive to nearby Zapata Falls, but expect this trail to be crowded even though the drive up is a few miles of a bumpy dirt road. The water there was freezing in the spring, deep, raging, and it was quite a distance of creek wading to get to the falls. The footage of the falls is only available thanks to my husband who dared to go all the way out there. Kudos to him!
Camping at the park’s Pinyon Flats Campground
If you can, try to go for the sites higher up in the upper loops that have more tree coverage down below – it seemed to be less windy there when the wind picked up. We stayed down low and the gusts were blowing sand into our tent constantly. Not fun.
Also, the creek is much less crowded where the campground is (as opposed to the visitor center/main parking area) though it’s a bit of a walk from the campground to get there.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is kind of a detour from any major route but well worth the drive – especially when Medano Creek is flowing! Don’t skip this one!