The National Park and Preserve offers plenty of both developed and primitive camping. In addition to the dunes themselves there are myriad other recreational adventure opportunities including mountain pass and mountain front hiking trails as well as ORV paths. A 4-wheel drive path along the eastern front of the dunes at the base of the Sangre Cristo mountains, leads to several remote picnicing and camping sites, and offers numerous adventures in the dunes, along the dune's margins and in the mountains.
Nestled into the base of the Sangre to Cristo Mountains these massive sand dunes experience constant changes in light and weather which can dramatically morph the mood of the dunes, sometimes from moment to moment. One moment the dunes standout in high contrast and relief against the sky and mountains, and a few minutes later the atmosphere and light shift and the dunes dissolve into the surrounding luminance and clouds. The following three images show mood changes that occurred during just one hour of one afternoon. So, haul out your camp chair, park it beside your cooler with a couple sandwiches and watch the show!
As beautiful as they are from afar, these giant dunes are also dramatic up close, and particularly when viewed and experienced from the inside out. Don your sneakers or hiking boots, dress in layers (the weather can change dramatically in a short period of time and the interior of the dunes are usually windier than the surrounding areas) and bring some water and a few snacks, and then head out across the flats to the base of the dunes. Plan to take your time, and take frequent breaks. Walking in the deep sand is very fun but also slow going, which is just fine, because you want to enjoy looking around and taking in the scenery. Hiking up and along the dude ridges is typically easier than trying to assault the faces, although sand skiing down the steep faces is a hoot. It can be quite windy, which is to be expected because, well, these are wind blown sand dunes ;-).
Pay attention to and enjoy the incredible geometric shapes that are present on many scales, from the constantly changing and migrating textures and patterns of the moving sand ripples to the long and gracefully arcing ridges that define the beautiful shapes of these amazing dunes. Be sure to also marvel at the visual contrast between the lovely smooth-surfaced dunes and the soaring, craggy ridgelines of the Sangre do Cristo mountains. Each dune top ridge you gain, offers new, different and thoroughly astounding views! Perhaps the most compelling feature of these dunes is the light and how it changes from moment to moment and throughout the day.
The reason why these Great Sand Dunes are here, are the location of three mountain passes, Music, Medano and Mosca, which are located just to the esst of the dunes, and offer the passage of air, and hikers, up and over in the high Sangre de Cristo mountains ridge line. Numerous 13,000-14,000 foot peaks define the Sangre de Cristo crest. The significantly lower, 7000-8,000 foot, passes provide of the prevailing west to east winds that blow across the arid, dry and sandy San Luis Valley a release valve and an escape route. These constantly flowing winds that funnel through the three passes move the sand across the San Luis valley, which is then deposited as the wind velocity is reduced as it approches the base of the mountains and begins to move up, over and through the low passes. Steam channels, such as Medano Creek, which flow down from the mountains, pick up the deposited sand and moves it back west toward the San Luis Valley, where the wind picks it back up and delivers it again to the dunes. This circular process that forms and maintains these giant and glorious dunes has been active for thousands of years.
Middle School Pirates Conquer The Highest Dune Ridge
No better way to learn how a dune ridge forms than hiking one of its ridgelines during the process ... besides, it's challenging fun!
Middle School Students Enjoy Windy Top of Dunes
These students frolick in the wind and blowing sand as they learn first-hand how these giant dunes are created and maintained.