Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Hike to top of continent’s tallest sand dunes

Great Sand Dunes National Park. 
Map of the Great Sand Dunes.
Families can day hike to the top of a sand dune that would reach half-way up the Empire State Building at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado.

The national park boasts North America’s tallest sand dunes. Star Dune reaches 750 feet when measured from base to crest while High Dune is 650 feet high.

Perhaps most amazing is that the entire national park sits at least a full 7500 feet above sea level. That’s taller that five Empire State Buildings stacked on top of one another.

Because of the high elevations, summer marks the best time to visit the park. However, the sand can reach temperatures of 140 F beneath the sun, so plan to hike the trail in early morning or evening.

If with children, go for High Dune, which is a 2.5 mile round trip. If older teens are with you, set out for Star Dune, which is 6 miles round trip.

To reach the national park, from Alamosa drive east on U.S. Hwy. 160 then turn left/north on Colo. Hwy. 150 into the park. Pass the visitor center and turn at the first left, parking at the Dunes Parking Lot on the shores of seasonal Medano Creek. Look for the trailhead sign to High and Star dunes.

Follow ridgelines
Because of the shifting sands, technically no trail exists. You can’t miss your destination, however: Star Dune is the highest, pointed sand dune on the horizon with High Dune the second highest and right in front of it.

The trail begins by crossing Medano Creek, which always is very low and cold. Take your shoes and socks off for the crossing and bring a towel to dry your feet; at worse, your ankles will get wet.

From there, the trail enters the dune field. To help you keep your bearings, the highest dune looming before you is High Dune. The alpine Sangre de Cristo Mountains are to your back.

The best way to walk in any sand dune is to following the ridge lines. Reaching the top of the first ridge will be time consuming, but you’ll have better footing and will experience less resistance once at the top. Zig-zag on the ridgelines, aiming for High Dune regardless of your destination; Star Dune is just behind it.

The sand dunes geologically are quite young, forming about 12,000 years when the sand of dried lake beds began blowing eastward.

Despite the foreboding environment, the dunefield supports a number of animals, such as the Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle, jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, and short-horned lizards. Watch for sandhill cranes and white-faced ibis flying overhead, as they inhabit wetlands to the dunes’ west.

Flying Saucer Central
Definitely keep your eyes to sky if you’ve always wanted to see a UFO. For more than 60 years, numerous flying saucer reports have been made in the San Luis Valley where the sand dunes are located. Among the UFOs reported over the dunes are black triangles, cigar-shaped red orbs, and hovering multicolored lights.

Because of the high elevation – the sand dunes are more than 8000 feet above sea level – altitude sickness is a distinct possibility for those who aren’t acclimated to it. To avoid altitude sickness, move slowly when hiking, drink plenty of water, and avoid caffeine.

Speaking of water, you’ll need it in the sands, which are akin to a desert. You’ll also want to don suntan lotion and a brimmed hat. Boots or shoes are a must; feet will burn in the sand if sandals are worn.

Finally, if a storm approaches, get off the sand dunes. Lightning typically strikes the dunefield.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.