Located on the west side of the Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range in the San Luis Valley, Central Colorado, sits one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen. A massive sand dune semi surrounded by 14000ft snow capped peaks. Literally, it appears that the Sahara Desert has been dropped right into the middle of the Rocky Mountains.
I have to say, whenever my hiking buddy Jeff and I venture out, we usually end up with some entertaining and unusual adventures. This time, by Jeffs suggestion, we were heading out on the busiest weekend of the year (Memorial Day weekend), to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. No plans, no permits and no idea where the heck we were going. My adventures with him are never dull.
Preparing for our adventure
We met at my house Sunday morning. Transferred his gear to my vehicle, since there was no place for me to sit in his truck. His front seat looks like an REI return bin. He keeps all his gear in his truck. I guess, you never know when you’re going to need it.
Since I live on the east side of the Sangres, we had two options to get to the Dunes other than the long drive around the south on Hwy 160 or the north Hwy 50. We could try Medano Pass and drive all the way over to the park or Mosca Pass and park about 4 miles from the park and hike down a canyon.
Snow levels on the east side of the mountains the past week were down a few hundred feet below the upper level of Medano Pass, so we chose to drive to Mosca Pass. We were fortunate and made it to the parking area with a perfectly clear road. For anyone heading that way, a two wheel drive with low clearance can make it all the way to the parking area. We never found out for sure if Medano Pass was open or not.
And we're off!
View of the drive
Just before arriving at Gardner, the sign to Mosca Pass and the berg of Redwing points to the west. We turned there. As we headed down the county road, paved for about the first 5 miles or so, we are amused by many of the collections that the local residents have on their properties. We continue to drive. Beautiful views of Blanca and its surrounding mountains appear. We can’t believe how much snow remains in the final week of May.
We arrive at the parking area and prepare for the hike from the pass to the dunes. The hike starts around 9700ft and ends just below 8200ft at the visitor center. The visitor center is slightly under 4 miles from the Mosca Pass parking area/trailhead. Not a difficult hike either way. However, most elevation gain and loss is on the bottom half of the hike.
Blanca Peak and surrounding mountains
We start off by passing a few meadows. We see an occasional patch of snow in the shade, but that quickly disappears. Shortly, the canyon walls begin to close in on us and we are walking along Mosca Creek. We’re among aspen, ponderosa, cactus and juniper trees. A forest and desert environment combined. The trail continually winds downward through the canyon. Rock outcroppings where you would expect to see bighorn sheep or mountain lion perched are all along the hike. According to a passerby, we just missed a couple of bighorn sheep.
I don’t know how far down the canyon we got before I got my first view of the dunes, but until I actually left the canyon, I had no concept of the enormity of the dune.
First glimpse of the dune from Mosca Pass Exiting Mosca Pass
Will we have to turn back.
After about 75 minutes, we made it out of the canyon and headed to the visitors center to get a little information on where we might be able to stay. We went to the counter asking the park ranger what was available. They told us that all sites were already reserved and no permits were available. I began to wonder if we would have to turn around and head back up where we had started. The ranger informed us that permits are issued on the basis of parked vehicles within the park boundary. They issued the permits to keep track of those individuals and their vehicles. When I informed the ranger that we had parked in Mosca pass, the ranger gladly informed us that there were different rules for us, what she called, “hardcore” hikers, who hike into the park, instead of driving in. We puffed out our chests and beamed with pride. We were buff, "hardcore hikers" now. It was official, the U.S government had recognized us as such.
The ranger continued on and explained that we didn’t need a permit, we just needed to find a place to camp other than any of the designated sites and preferably just outside the park boundary, but within the preserve boundary. Jeff was off the hook. He wasn’t going to have to carry me and my pack back up the canyon.
Since there were no large arrows or fences to mark the park boundaries, it was laid upon us to use our best judgement where we would camp. So, we looked at a map and decided to hike over to near the Sand Ramp trail and Medano Creek. According to the ranger, there, we would find water. Another 6 miles to go.
We hit the desert and know, We're all duned!
Trek across the desert The desert
Now, after about seven months of winter, I have to say; hiking at a place with no snow on the ground was something I highly looked forward to. However, when we began to walk on the sand, I started to wonder if I might prefer snow over a desert hike. At least when there’s snow on the ground, if you’re second in line, the trail gets broke and you have it a little easier. Not the case in sand. It didn’t matter where I walked. I still felt like I was lifting 500 pounds each time I lifted my feet. Now, that I’ve done this hike, I can clearly say that I don’t think I’d do it other than May, early June, October and possibly November, depending on weather conditions. This is one hot, dry place.
After leaving the visitor center, we walked up the paved road to the 4x4 road that leads to the north end of the dunes and over Medano Pass. Since we had left the actual hiking trail near the canyon and headed directly to the visitor center, we didn’t have any idea where the hiking trail was, so we took the simplest route, the road.
After about 2 miles, we hit “The Point Of No Return.” A place where the 4x4 road becomes very soft sand and the park restricts travel to some vehicles. This is where we found the hiking trail (aka The Point of no return trail) that headed towards Medano Creek. This is where our “beach” hike and desert death march began. There were no trees. The sun beat down on us. Wind constantly blowing sand in our faces. Small dunes began to arise in our paths. We were looking for water along the way. My map showed several creeks that ended up being seasonal and currently, non-existent. We did find and cross one running creek near a camping site called “Dune Escape”, however it was substantially mudded from all the sand. I hadn’t brought a filter along, so the search for refreshment would linger on.
Point of no return
We continued north, skirting the east side of the dune. We were always a mile or two away from it. After about 3 more miles into the hike, trees started to appear. We would get an occasional reprieve from the hot sun. We could see aspen in the distance and knew that we were nearing water. The trail went from due north to due east and began to head towards the canyon that lead through Medano Pass. A few minutes later, we came across a gorgeous Medano Creek.
Near Dune Escape camp Medano Creek
After searching upstream for a short distance, we found a nice grassy area next to a meandering Medano Creek, where we set up our camp. Made dinner and kicked back for a relaxing evening. As the sun set behind the hill and things began to cool down a little, the stream and its surroundings began to come alive with birds and deer. After several hours of travel on the desolate landscape of the desert that we had just crossed, this new life around us was a much appreciated experience that continued well after dark.
Our camp at Medano Creek
Our return trek.
The night was peaceful and uneventful. We awoke the next morning around 6am and made for a quick breakfast and a quick tear down of the camp. We wanted to beat the afternoon heat on our return trip.
As we left the trees and headed into the sand, we both noticed thousands of tiny tracks all over the dunes. Cats, mice, rabbits and insects we presumed had been busy travelling throughout the night. Such a difference between day and night in the desert. If you were to travel the desert only during the day, you would see nothing but desolation and never know, just how much life it actually holds.
We arrived near the entrance of Mosca Pass and filled up our water bottles. We were past the sand and gladly welcomed a hardened path, even though it was all going to be uphill.
We passed a few hikers on their way down. Jeff decided to stop for a quick boulder climb. I snapped a couple of pictures as he did. It appears that he was about 1 inch of changing careers. Possibly, a plumber?
A little rock climb
We continued up the canyon. Jeff motioned me to walk quietly up to where he was. He pointed into the trees where I saw this beautifully colorful bird. I snapped a few photos. Later, as we were hiking up the trail, we came across a group of hikers. I showed the picture to one of them who had shown an interest in birds. He informed us that it was a western tanager.
We passed one more person coming down. A park ranger. She asked us where we were camping. We explained that we were on our way home. We said our hellos and goodbye and continued up the trail arriving at our parking area just a few minutes later. No broken windows. No stolen items. Fuel in the car and a charged battery. What more could you ask for? We had made it back unscathed and able to drive home.
If you’d like more information on the park, as well as a little history of its formation, visit the link below.
Click here for park information
Click below for slideshow.
Mosca Pass to Great Sand Dunes-Memorial Wknd 2008