Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO

There is plenty of sandy desert in Arizona and California, but 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, 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. The Valley is also notable for having some of the longest stretches of straight road in the US, including a 35 mile section of CO 285 between Monte Vista and Saguache.

Great Sand Dunes Hiking: Just after the visitor center, a short spur road leads to the main access point to the park. There are no roads or official trails into the dunes and so because of the soft, ever-shifting sand, possibilities for exploration are limited. However, it is permitted to walk anywhere and one popular target is the top of the tallest dune, which conveniently is only half a mile from the edge. Still, the journey takes up to one hour and it is often 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. The surface temperature of the sand can rise to over 140 F, much too hot for barefoot walking. It is also advisable to carry water and watch out for lightning in the summer. The dunes are a great place for children and the park can get very crowded in summer but a more tranquil experience awaits those to willing to walk a little further into the sandy landscape.

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