Sand Dunes National Park is a surprising place. First of all, many people don’t even know it exists. It’s a very small park and was given national park status in the early 2000s. Most people don’t think of Colorado when they think of sand dunes, but tucked just south of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are towering waves of sand that shift with the wind and left me in awe. I had been to the park once before several years ago, so I had an idea what to expect. Even so, this park deserves more than one visit. You get a great view of the dunes on the drive in, but to truly experience them you have to get out there and feel the sand.
Just beyond the visitor center is the turnoff to a parking lot that leads directly to the dunes. As you pass Medano Creek the great expanse of sand lies before you. It is flat for some time as you approach the imposing formations ahead, and the wind has probably already shown you it means business. If I can offer one piece of advice before you visit this park: be prepared for the wind. Wear long sleeves and pants, bring a hat, sunglasses or safety glasses, and a buff or bandana to put over your face. You will thank me. I learned the hard way with a grain of sand in my eye for several days worrying it would never come out. Plus you’ll look cool like I did.
You will soon realize that there are no proper trails here as the shifting sands cover up footprints almost as quickly as they are made. It is tempting to follow the herd to the closer dune peak, but I say it’s better to wander off on your own. Follow the lines in the sand that call to you. There is so much to explore. Just take a look behind you at the hills to find a nice landmark to follow back. I found the highest point I could and set my sights on that. Consequently I was led away from any other people which was just fine with me!
Climbing sand is exactly what it sounds like. It’s not easy, but you will figure out the best methods quickly. First, you should follow the crests of the dunes as these areas are somewhat flatter and hold your weight better. Look for the flatter areas in general to keep from sinking in too much. Place your feet flat on the ground as your walk instead of digging your heels or toes in. More surface area means less sinking. When you have to climb steeper sections, don’t be afraid to use your hands and walk like an animal! It helps! Sometimes stepping quickly really makes a difference too. As you step on steep areas you sink in and start to slide back. Moving quickly can slightly mitigate that issue. Lastly, don’t be afraid to take a break! Don’t wear yourself out too quickly. Stop and enjoy the incredible scenery!
Once cresting one of the bigger hills the wind was whipping like nothing I’d ever experienced. It felt like I could lean in and not fall down. Here I was happy I brought a windbreaker because it got chilly fast. The views from the top of the ridge were unbelievable. The sunlight danced on the blowing sand as it blew forcefully off the tip of the ridge, floating over the shadow on the opposite side. I followed the crest of this massive dune to the highest point and let the wind hold me while I marveled at the Sangre de Cristo mountains rising out of the rolling landscape. I watched another man taking in the majesty as well as he lay and rolled shirtless in the sand, enjoying every moment to the fullest.
Coming down the dunes is much easier as you can let gravity do the work for you. If you fall down it will be soft! Just follow that landmark back to the parking lot and dump the sand out of your shoes! There are other trails to explore leading into the mountains where you can get totally different views of the dunes. I’m already excited about visiting again to experience sunrise and sunset as well as seeing how the landscape has changed. National parks always preserve unique places, but I think this one will surprise you more than most!