Tag Archive | sand dunes

Colorado 2015: Hiking Great Sand Dunes NP

Day 5: August 5, 2015

Our visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve started out on the right foot.

The entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

The entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

With Pronghorn!  On the long country road on our way into the park, we saw a herd of Pronghorn! I have been thwarted in my many attempts to get photos of Pronghorn over the last couple of years – unfortunately they are tough to photograph at 60 mph from a car. But this time, we were able to pull over and see them from a standstill! They weren’t super-close, but they were watching us curiously while I took photos with my zoom.

There was a whole line of Pronghorn, watching us, watch them...

There was a whole line of Pronghorn, watching us, watch them…

We proceeded on to the Visitor’s Center to fill our water bottles and use the restroom, but didn’t look at the exhibits at that point because we wanted to get out hiking before it got too hot.

I finally got photos of Pronghorn!

I finally got photos of Pronghorn!

Jon and I decided to hike up Star Dune, which is the second-tallest dune in the park; Star Dune is 699 feet tall and the hike is about 3 miles round trip. We left at about 10:40 am – hiking though the flat section of the dune field, across Medano Creek, which was about an inch deep and meandered in a wide path across the sand. Jon’s parents joined us for this portion of the hike and some pictures, before breaking off and doing their own thing once it got more strenuous.

Jon and me at the beginning of our hike to the top of Star Dune - 699 feet tall and the second tallest dune in the park.

Jon and me at the beginning of our hike to the top of Star Dune – 699 feet tall and the second tallest dune in the park.

We began hiking up the dune, and it quickly turned tough in the soft sand. It was definitely a challenging hike; we had to stop multiple times and rest while climbing the steep dunes! I’ll be honest; I was driving the rest breaks much more frequently than Jon.  On the hike we saw several patches of prairie sunflowers growing in the sand – it was interesting to see them growing without any soil!

A Prairie Sunflower growing in the sand.

A Prairie Sunflower growing in the sand.

A whole field of Prairie Sunflowers

A whole field of Prairie Sunflowers

Once we reached the top of the dune, we posed for photos and sat in the sand, resting and admiring the view.

Partway through the hike - the view back towards Medano Creek and the

Partway through the hike – the view back towards Medano Creek and the “trail head.”

After resting, we made our way back down the dune. The hiking was way easier going down! We didn’t stick to the “trail” on the way down, instead sinking into the deep sand on the sides of the dunes. It was like being a little kid again! I understood why rangers tell you to wear closed shoes in the summer; when the sand hit my leg it was getting quite warm, and it wasn’t a super-hot day.

Someone wrote a message in the sand - We are not alone...

Someone wrote a message in the sand – We are not alone…

We checked out the Visitor’s Center and I got my passport stamp and postcards – plus I got a cute bumper sticker proclaiming that I hiked Star Dune! 699 feet! Jon just rolled his eyes.  We had a picnic lunch that day near the Visitor’ Center, at a nice picnic area with some shade. We did encounter a few little biting flies, and a relatively well-behaved church group of teenagers.

We tried to hike a little bit near Medano Creek, but at that point it was getting pretty hot and there were lots of little gnats flitting around, so we decided to quit while we were ahead.

And with that, it was time to say goodbye to Great Sand Dunes National Park…

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Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve History

What would your answer be if you were asked where are the highest sand dunes in North America? If you said Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, you would be right!

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve protects a total of 85,932 acres of sand dunes, grasslands, coniferous and deciduous forests, alpine lakes and tundra habitat. It was originally designated as a National Monument on March 17, 1932, and was upgraded to a National Park on September 13, 2004 by Congress and George W. Bush. Interesting, the fact that the sand contains consistent moisture, just a few inches below the surface, played a large role in the efforts to achieve National Park and Preserve status. The residents of this area of high desert Colorado have a vested interest in protecting available water sources.

The entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

The entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

The tallest dunes in the park are 750 feet tall, and were formed as a result of westerly winds picking up particles of dirt and sand, then dropping them on the eastern edge of the Sangre de Christo valley as the wind loses power before crossing the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Geologists believe the dunes began forming around 440,000 years ago.

From the top of Star Dune - dunes almost as far as the eye can see.

From the top of Star Dune – dunes almost as far as the eye can see.

Annual precipitation on the dunes averages 11 inches per year, which puts it just above a true desert habitat (10 inches or less), but it still qualifies due to the high rate at which water evaporates. Summer temperatures can exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and winter lows go down below zero. Snow is rare though, due to the dry climate.

The preserve designation is unique for National Parks in the lower 48; Great Sand Dunes does permit hunting in the preserve area of the park. Bow hunting is common, and hunters are permitted to use tracking dogs to hunt mountain lions, provided that the dogs are leashed until the animal is spotted and being pursued.  That seems pretty cruel to me, so I try not to think about it…

A wide variety of wildlife make their home in the park and preserve, including mountain lion, black bear, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, beavers, badgers, bison, snakes, lizards, several species of fish, eagles, falcons, owls and other birds. The park even has at least seven species of endemic insects.

I finally got photos of Pronghorn!

I finally got photos of Pronghorn!

There is also lots to do for visitors to the park, including camping, hiking, sandboarding (yep – you can slide down the dunes on a sandboard!), sand castle building and skimboarding on the shallow and ever changing Medano Creek.

The park also has one other unique feature – a distinction on something that is absent from the park – noise. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is the quietest National Park in the contiguous 48 states. What a fabulous place! And we were headed there on our trip!

Have you been to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve? I’ll tell you about our visit next!

MI Road Trip: The Dune Climb!

Have you ever hiked over 4 miles of sand dune?  We did, and I tell you, it was a really great workout!  After visiting historic Glen Haven and the Life Saving Station at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, we were itching to get more physical with nature.

The Dune Climb starts off with just that – a climb up a very large sand dune. It is huge – the people near the top look like little ants. We heard you could hike all the way to the lake – a round trip of 3.8 miles (we took a little detour, so we went more than 4), but we weren’t really sure what to expect. So we started climbing, in the soft, fine sand – perfect sand for a beach! It was tough to climb in – I started feeling it almost right away!

The beginning of The Dune Climb

The beginning of The Dune Climb

We stopped a couple of times on the way up the hill to look back at the view – a gorgeous view of the forest and a nearby lake – picture perfect. I could have stood there for hours just looking at that view (you will see this is a theme for this hike)…

The view of Glen Lake from the top of the first dune

The view of Glen Lake from the top of the first dune

When we got to the top of the hill, the dune flattened out and did a couple of gradual ups and downs. So we kept going.  Peaks and valleys of sand, one after another; we were only able to see the hill immediately coming up in our path. We started finding wooden markers with numbers; we hadn’t noticed them before. The crowd thinned out, and we found ourselves hiking through the loose sand with almost no one else around.

We had been hiking about 45 minutes and had just passed a marker with the number 11 on it when we came upon a group coming back from the other direction. A young lady explained that we just had to get to marker 27 and we’d be at the lake. My heart sank – we were less than halfway – which seemed to mean at least another hour to get there. I thought about turning back, but Jon really wanted to go all the way… What we didn’t know then is that I’m positive that the markers are NOT equidistant (do I get bonus points for using the word equidistant in this blog?).

Up one hill, down another… This is a very strenuous hike, due to the fact that you are always on a hill, and you are hiking in soft sand. But we made it to the lake, with the most fabulous pebble beach, and only 5 other souls… We sat on the beach for a little while, and I took some photos, and posed in some too.  I took the opportunity to pour the sand out of my shoes too!

I loved just listening to the waves lapping the shore, and seeing the gorgeous reflection of the sunshine on the water.  But before too long, we had to turn back, because the sun was already sinking lower in the sky, and we didn’t want to get caught after dark.

Me – Posing with splendid Lake Michigan

Me – Posing with splendid Lake Michigan

The sun over the water on Lake Michigan

The sun over the water on Lake Michigan

We hiked back – and of course it seemed like it went on forever, because now we knew we had to make it to marker 1.  Jon of course powers along, and I bring up the rear. It was peaceful – just me and my heavy breathing…

Me on the way back to the beginning…

Me on the way back to the beginning…

After we made it back from The Dune Climb – and poured the sand out of our shoes – again… we decided to do the scenic drive.  I’ll post about that next!

Have you hiked The Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes?