Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Hiking the BIG DUNE

Saturday September 13, 2014
Piñon Flats Campground
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Mosca, Colorado




There is nothing quite like the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado. Seeming totally out of place at the edge of the snow-covered Rocky Mountains, these dunes of pure golden sand cover an area about 7 by 5 miles and reach heights of 700 feet above the floor of the flat San Luis Valley, making them the tallest dunes in the USA. The valley, the floor of which is over 7,500 feet in elevation at this point, extends for over 100 miles south into New Mexico and is bordered by the San Juan Mountains to the west and the lower Sangre de Cristo range to the east, hills which mark the edge of the Rockies and continue southwards towards Santa Fe.

We set out to hike these dunes just as the sun was rising to get a jump on the heat.  Though it isn’t that bad this time of year, the sand here can get to 140 degrees in the summer.   We head down the same trail as yesterday from the campground. 





Almost looks like a creek, rather than a wet spot,  from here doesn’t it.




Rather than the sun burning off the fog, it starts rolling in over the Sangre de Cristo mountains. 




We leave the scrub area and there in the middle of nothing but sand is this guy.  Wonder what’s in this sand that he wants?  His color grabs the eye against the neutral sand.





We cross the damp Medano Creek area.  We’ve started out early but not heavily dressed since we expected the sun to be blazing like yesterday.   With the fog, it’s actually cold out.  If we weren’t leaving tomorrow, uncharacteristically rushing, I’d just go back and have some oatmeal and wait for a nicer morning.  I hate not being able to take my time.  I feel like somebody who has to get back to work.




I look back and see that for all our effort, we haven’t terribly far.  It seems to be a case of one step up, half a step down. It is easier to walk along sand ridges, rather than up the side of the dunes.





We do seem to be the first footprints today, at least in this area.   Each night it appears the winds sweep the dunes clean.










The next ridge is up there but where is that sun?



The black in the sand is caused by deposits of magnetite, a crystalline black oxide of iron.  If we had a magnet we could wave it over the sand and the magnetite would jump up and cling to it.





I look over and see something small moving in the sand.  It’s hell bent for leather.  Look at the tracks.





He’s going a mile a minute, and is a blur as I take his picture.  His folks are coming down too.  We didn’t see their tracks coming up.  They must have been out in the dark.  We chat for a minute hopefully they got to see the dunefield before the fog closed the curtains.  I sure wish I had 4 legs for this.  He makes it look easy.  Of course he is coming down.  I am looking forward to that.





After the 3 go on their way down, we look back and see the mountains are nearly completely fogged in.   It’s pea soup up ahead.








Everything around us becomes more and more  socked in fog.





We’ve got no views.






I’m so busy looking back at the disappearing views that David gets pretty far out in front.




We hiked up all this way to see the 30 square miles of the dunefield and the surrounding mountains. 

This is what we see.




No better over here.



And then there looks to be a small patch of Sunlight in the distance – ALL RIGHT!




More sunlight  Now if it would just come over here.  We’re freezing.  We dressed for the warmer sunshine we were expecting to come shortly after the sun came up. 





The sun is playing with us.  After a fleeting expansion, it retreats.   But, isn’t that a little sliver of blue sky?    Hope springs eternal. 





The fog keeps rolling in.  The sand starts to blow.  After trying to get one shot of the blowing sand, I quickly put my camera away.  It stings.  We finally make it up to the top where we can’t see anything.  Now what?  









After a few minutes of cold windy sand, David says time to go back and get warm and make a big breakfast. But I just worked my butt off climbing up this huge dune and I want to see what I came for. I walk down into a trench between dunes to get out of the wind, dig myself a hole and sit down.   I’m going to wait.  I tell him I’ll meet him back at Winnona.   Pretty soon I lay down to try to get some of the warmth of the sand.








He considers it and lays down beside me.  We wait. After taking this selfie, I think he naps.  He’s really good at that.  Me not so much.




It’s actually wonderful to lie here and listen to the quiet other than the wind.   After about 45 to an hour, I get restless and walk up to the dune ridge to see how things are.   EUREKA!  At least in one direction the clouds are lifting and sun is on the dunes.




The mountains behind us aren’t quite out of the clouds but David is coming up to join me to see.




The sun keeps coming over the dunes in the far distance.




A little closer.



The sun is over there but over here.  This man is cold, that’s some look.






FINALLY, here we are in the sunshine with blue though cloudy skies over our view of miles and miles of dunes. 
Thirty square miles of dunes in fact.  Our waiting paid off.  





It’s here and then it’s not, we’re in and we’re out of the sun but things have happily warmed up.











The clouds are trying to life off of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.






We’ve had the dunes entirely to ourselves for hours now but as the fog lifts and it becomes late morning, folks start climbing up. This pair decides to do some yoga moves on top of the dunes. 





But that’s our signal to head back down.








I decide to take an easier way down.  This actually is not easy.  My feet keep piling up the sand and stopping me.  I need a sled!   David does not join me in this.  LOL





Walking down the ridge is WAY easier than walking up.





Things have totally cleared up looking back toward the campground.



We’re still pretty high up.  Those black dots are people climbing up toward us.





And here are the people moving back up to where we just came from.   They are really far away too.  The distance up this dune is deceptive.




Almost down.





Back at the creek.  Love those patterns.  Patterns in the water, patterns in the dunes.  Nature’s patterns are fantastic.






It’s about noon and folks are streaming down toward us going to the dunes from the campground. 








After lunch we head out in Ruby to go see Zapata Falls.  Several people have recommended it.  It is described as a “20 foot high waterfall cascades within a narrow crevasse.”  Not sure how much water will be there but I’m always up for a waterfall.

We get to the dirt road which we are to take 3 miles to the trailhead for the half mile trail.  The road is in the worst shape of anything we’ve driven on in ages.  We can’t go 10 mph.  Without a 4 wheel drive or big truck I don’t see how anyone can get down this road.  It isn’t worth it to me.  Too rough on Ruby.  We give it up and go back to start our packing up for leaving tomorrow for two long days of driving.

On the way back we stop at several roadside pullouts including one in the Sabkha that describes the areas we’ve seen from on top the dunes.



Out across the Sabkha we see rain pouring down on someone.   It never reaches us.





From this vantage point, and at this time of the day,  we get some very different pictures of the dunes   The light has turned their look gray. 







Several people commented yesterday that the close up pictures of the dunes looked more like paintings and I couldn’t agree more.  Their beauty is just stunning.  For those who love these shapes and shadows as much as I do, I’ll close with several pictures from different areas of the dunes.    The sharp lines on the crests both straight and curved.  The soft mounds and rolls.

The more you stare at them the more amazing they are.
What a glorious glorious planet.

















It was a long walk up but I am so glad we did it.  I would actually do it again.  I’m also actually glad that the fog blocked our views.  We got to watch the many  changes.   I wonder if we would have stayed as long and experienced as much if there had not been such cloud cover.  Things you think are “too bad” can turn out to be “great”.   Hope that’s true of the next two days of uncharacteristically long mileage.


  1. You guys are my heroes! We would have never climbed those dunes, but we sure loved looking at them :)

    Sorry you missed Zapata Falls. I had (almost) forgotten how rough that road was going in...and we have 4-wheel drive!

  2. Another fantastic scenery and hikes! Both of you are the posters of the hikingst couple (is there such a word?). Wish we can follow your trails. Those sand dunes reminded me of the ones in Death Valley NP. Not an easy hike but Wow!

  3. Only you two would take a nap on the top of The Great Sand Dunes!!! I couldn't stop smiling while reading this blog...you two are a hoot:o)) So glad that "too bad" turned out to be "GREAT!!"

  4. love your comment about things that seem so bad that you look at bad turn out to be so great.

  5. Oops forgot to mention, love that picture of you and David taking a break or nap on the sand dunes.

  6. Great job! Not sure we would have made it in that cool fog. We went in the evening just before sunset so it was not so hot. Such a beautiful, constantly changing place.

  7. Beautiful shots. The sand dunes have the look of another world to them.

  8. Gosh, those dune pics are gorgeous (even with the fog, but better without)! Yes, a glorious, glorious planet! What fun it would have been to have a magnet. And, that sweet dog - so cute. I was wondering if you could slide down, but maybe rolling on your sides over and over with all your stuff tucked inside though :)

  9. I sure enjoyed looking at those dunes and maybe sticking my fee in them a bit, but since I really dislike walking in sand, it never crossed my mind to think about a hike:)

  10. Very cool hike! I love the dunes and especially that you got to see so much of them WITHOUT TRACKS! And making the first tracks in the morning. You guys are pretty funny laying low in the dunes until the sun burnt off, how fun!

  11. I liked the dunes with the fog ... very moody, but they are beautiful with the contrasting blue of the sky.

  12. I think I liked those ending photos of the dunes best. Very geometric! (I was a geometry teacher many many years ago, don't you know. :))

  13. I've seen a lot of selfies, but never one of a couple laying in the sand waiting for the fog to lift!! I love it. and I agree with Judith. I love the last pictures of the sand dunes. I could have one of those blown up to a huge poster, frame it and put it in my living room back in Oregon. Beautiful!! Just Beautiful!!! Safe Journeys and your two days of travel coming up.

  14. What a fun hike -- another example of you two making the best of a situation and transforming it into a memorable experience. The photo of you both lying in the sand is just priceless. :-)

  15. Best choice after the long haul up those dunes that really paid off for the quiet and opportunity to become one with the place. Your photos are awesome, just love the patterns of shadow and light.

  16. It was worth the wait for the views! Patience is a virtue indeed! How pretty millions upon millions of sand particals can be. Impressive...as are the mountains. So glad you got what you came for after the exercise of that chilly trek. Sorry Ruby couldn't make it to the falls. Still-a great day!

  17. Glad you stuck it out and got rewarded by the sun and amazing views. A truly memorable experience!

    How long did it take to get all the sand out of your shoes? ;c)

  18. Haven't made it to the top of the dunes yet, hopefully someday. Our son sometimes takes an old snowboard there and comes down on it. Didn't remember the bad road to Zapata Falls, beautiful shots of the dunes.

  19. Oh how I dislike hiking (walking) in sand! Yet these dunes are so beautiful - especially in the changing light of the clouds and sun. What a hoot to take a nap up there - was there much sand to wash out of your ears??

  20. You did a month of exercise in that hike! The pictures of the dunes look like velvet. Great selfie!


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