The dunes against the Sangre de Cristos
Exploring the Dunes
Medano Creek Trail – In spring and summer there’s water in
Medano Creek at the base of the dunes. Everyone seems to enjoy playing in this beach-like
environment. As mounds of sand form and fall in the creek bed, a phenomenon called
“surge flow” happens, causing an action similar to waves on a sandy beach.
The tallest dunes – While it looks that way from the Visitor
Center parking lot, High Dune is not the tallest nor the highest in elevation. High
Dune is actually about 650 feet high. To reach it, zigzag up the ridgelines: the
360° view there is truly inspirational. Once you’re there, that skyscraping dune
to the west is Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America, rising 750 feet above
the valley floor. To reach it from High Dune, hike another mile and a half up and
down across the dunes to its summit.
Eastern dune ridge – With a high-clearance 4WD vehicle you
can drive to the Sand Pit or Castle Creek Picnic Areas. With a 2WD vehicle you’ll
only make it to Point of No Return and have to hike the next 1/2 mile to Sand Pit.
Both areas offer close access to Medano Creek while Castle Creek offers an impressively
tall, steep dune face.
Evidence of water saturation near the top of the dunes themselves, near High Dune
Montville Nature Trail – This is an excellent afternoon hike
when you need to escape the heat of the dunes. This is a shady mountain trail named
for a late 1800’s settlement comprising about 20 houses in its heydey. Near the
trail’s high point you’ll find outstanding views of Mt. Herard, the dunes and the
San Luis Valley.
Mosca Pass Trail – This trail winds through aspen and evergreen
forests along a small creek in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.The trail is 3.5 miles
one-way, allow 2-3 hours to reach the pass. This was one of the main routes into
the San Luis Valley from the east until a mudslide almost blocked it about 100 years
Dunes Overlook/Sand Ramp Trail – The Sand Ramp Trail starts
in Loop 2 of Pinon Flats Campground. This trail travels along the foothills of the
Sangre de Cristo’s and offers exceptional scenery. While it’s only a mile to the
Dunes Overlook, this trail continues for 10 more miles around the eastern and northern
perimeter of the dunes.
Medano Pass 4WD Road – This road requires a high-clearance
4WD vehicle (not recommended for small SUV’s). While gorgeous any time of year,
this is an especially spectacular drive in the fall. The road is closed when winter
conditions create hazards and the creek crossings can be hazardous during spring
The Sangre de Cristo’s between Mosca Pass and Medano Pass
Medano Lake/Mount Herard – This trailhead leaves the Medano
Pass 4WD Road at about 10,000′ and climbs another 2,000′ through lush meadows and
forests, ending at Medano Lake, just above timberline. Advanced hikers can continue
on to the summit of Mt. Herard (13,297′) for an incredible view of the dunes.
Music Pass/Sand Creek Lakes/other alpine peaks – The scenery
here is stunning but requires a long drive and/or a long hike. The Music Pass trailhead
is accessed from State Highway 69, 4.5 miles south of Westcliffe.Turn to the west
at the sign for Music Pass and South Colony Lakes. At the “T” junction, turn left
onto South Colony Road. At the end of the ranch fence on the right is another sign
for Music Pass. 2WD vehicles should park where the Rainbow Trail crosses the Music
Pass Road. It’s 3.5 miles from here to the pass. 4WD vehicles may drive another
2.5 rough miles to the end of the road and then hike the steep last mile to the
pass. Music Pass is at treeline with a great view of the Upper Sand Creek Basin.
From the pass you can access both Sand Creek Lakes and several 13ers rising above
the basin. “The Essential Guide to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve”,
available in the bookstore, has climbing info for all these peaks.
Getting close to sunset
More Great Sand Dunes Info:
Great Sand Dunes Index Page – Photo Gallery – Maps – Geology FAQ