Saturday, July 19, 2014

Best trails to Great Sand Dunes' wonders

Sand dunes cover more than 30 square miles at Great Sand Dunes National
Park. Photo courtesy of Great Sand Dunes NPS.
Among the best ways to see Great Sand Dunes National Park’s top sights is via a day hike. Just four short trails will allow you to enjoy each of the park’s highlights – sand dunes, large prairie wildlife, autumn colors, and even a beach with ocean-like waves.

Sand dunes
North America’s highest sand dunes rise out of a dune field covering nearly 30 square miles. Hiking to the top of the first sand ridge offers of a view of the entire dunefield or take the 2.5-mile round trip High Dune Trail to High Dune, which rises 650 feet.

Elk, bison and pronghorns
The grass and shrublands surrounding the sand dunes are home to several herds of large prairie fauna. The 0.25-mile Sand Sheet Loop Trail offers a chance to spot a herd with sand dunes and mountains as a backdrop. Mid-August is the peak time to see pronghorns in a meadow alit with prairie sunflowers.

Autumn colors
The golden canopy of cottonwood and aspen trees feels like you’re in a wonderland on the Montville Trail. The 0.5-mile loop partially runs alongside a creek.

During spring as snowmelt flows out of the surrounding mountains, Medano Creek swells, allowing for swimming with the flat edge of the sand dunes serving as a beach. In summer, surge flows create waves, as if at an ocean beach. The creek is a 0.6-miles round trip hike from the parking lot.

Bonus Wonder: Waterfall
Though not inside the national park, nearby Zapata Falls is worth the stop. A mildly steep 0.5-mile walk from Colo. Hwy. 150, the Zapata Falls Trail heads through a small cave to the 30-foot falls on Bureau of Land Management property.

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