Post #113: Rocky mountain dunes

August 30, 2021

The campground was very quiet and everyone abided by the rules that no generators be run after 10:00 pm or before 8:00 am – except, inexplicably, the campground host who woke people around 6:30 am with his generator. It wasn’t an issue for us since we were already awake. 

On the way to the park. The dunes start at about 9,000 feet—the mountains beyond are much higher

We broke camp early and headed to the park. When we arrived, the visitors center wasn’t open so we weren’t able to pick up a park map. It turned out a map wasn’t needed since there’s just one road in the park and one main hiking area.

It was chilly early in the morning, so we opted for a sunny table

We followed the road until we reached the picnic area and stopped for breakfast. Afterwards, we found hiking information posted at the nearby main parking area, applied sunscreen, filled our water bottles and set off.

The picnic area was massive but we were the only ones there

We were at about 9,000 feet elevation and it was a bit chilly when we started out on the trail up the dunes—the word “trail” being loosely used as there was nothing marked. In front of us were the tallest sand dunes in the U.S., stretching a mile into the distance, a couple of miles wide, and nearly 700 feet high.

Medano Creek was a massive dry creek bed between the parking lot and the dunes
But often it's a large creek and sometimes even has rapids. Photo credit:

To reach the dunes, hikes typically must first ford seasonal Medano Creek, formed from snowmelt high in the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains. But with the drought there was instead a mile of warm sand and a few grasses between the parking lot and the dunes. 

Two steps up, one step back

After crossing the large flat swath of sand, we began to plow up the first dune, struggling two steps up and one step back in the soft sand. Only a few others were already climbing the dune, some carrying wooden sand boards used to slide down the giant dunes.

When we started out we had the dunes mostly to ourselves
Yes, it was this steep. Those are other hikers at the top

Even with the cool morning temperatures, the steep hike, direct sun and high elevation made us sweat. As we climbed, we’d reach what seemed to be the top only to find it a false summit and have to trudge up another dune. At one point, a much younger couple passed us, seriously huffing and puffing. We were glad to be able to climb as well as we did, though our calves might complain later. 

It took several hours to hike just a few miles but we made it to the top

After a couple more false summits, we reached the top of the dunes. It consisted of a long dune ridge with steep 2-300-foot drop offs on either side. Falling wouldn’t be painful, and might even be fun in the soft sand, but the climb back up would be tough.

As we trudged across the summit, we looked out at endless dunes that stretched out for miles. Beyond the dunes in multiple directions there were mountain peaks nearly 14,000 feet high. 

From the ridge we had 360-degree views of the dunes and the Rockies
The sand shifted continually in the wind, eventually deleting any of the day's footprints
Victory selfie at the top

We sat on the ridge to rest while we watched two people slide down the tallest part of the dune, going much faster than I would have expected. A refreshing breeze blew at the top and we cooled off in the 60-degree temperature while we guzzled more water.

More people had arrived by the time we descended but this place was so vast that even dozens of visitors were just specks in the distance

The trip down was much easier, though we had to stop twice to empty our light hiking boots of sand – so packed were they that it felt like we were wearing two sizes too small. Some twenty-somethings hiking up the dunes asked us how much farther it was to the top. When we said another hour, their faces fell and they decided not to continue. 

Back at the parking lot, we dumped more sand out of our boots and used the foot showers to clean our feet before we headed out of the park. It was a good thing we were heading to a hotel tonight as we were sweaty and still sandy.


We left the park and drove for about an hour and a half to the small town of Salida, CO, looking for a place to stay. One place was outrageously expensive and one never answered the phone so we left for Gunnison, another hour or so away. 

The motel clerk directed us to his favorite local saloon for dinner
A cold local brew hit the spot after our day climbing the dunes
The locals enjoying happy hour

We’d stayed in Gunnison back in March when we were heading home from an abbreviated trip to New Mexico and were keen to explore the area. We found a small inexpensive hotel to clean up, crash and plan for the next few days. Gunnison, we found, was a stopover for many campers, van-lifers, motorcyclists and other adventurous people like us and we liked the little college town. We enjoyed dinner out at a popular local restaurant/saloon before turning in for the night.

One Response

  1. The dunes were one area that we never visited. Too bad because I grew up in sand, and loved the feel of soft sand on my legs and body. But not sure dad and I could have navigated such delightful sand.

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