Adventures summiting the highest dune in North America

Visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve has been on my bucket list but if I’m being honest, it’s closer to the bottom for two reasons.

1) It is located in the middle of nowhere 4 hours southwest of Denver.
2) If you will recall, I hate sand.

So, how exactly does a sand-adverse gal fall in love with a sandbox-on-steroids that is approximately 30 square miles while chaperoning 20 squirrelly fourth graders?

Simply stated: This delicate and complex dune system is breathtakingly wild, remote and awe-inspiring. The 150,000-acre dunes rise 750 feet from the floor of the San Luis Valley on the western base of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Range. I’ve never explored anything quite like it.

Hadley’s class spent the morning at the park’s Visitor Center watching a 20-minute movie about the formation of the dunes and then testing out the interactive exhibits like the video microscope, rock/mineral table and lightning tube.

Following lunch, we began our adventure with the intention to climb to the top of High Dune, the tallest in North America. Prior to reaching the dunes, we needed to cross Medano Creek. The length and time that Medano Creek flows depends on the amount of winter snowmelt.  Typically, the creek starts to flow in late March or April, with peak flow in late May but in drought years it dries up much earlier. The water was only a few inches at its deepest but judging from the beach party, I could have sworn we landed in California.

Our creek traverse to the dunes. My favorite picture of the trip

The kids had the time of their lives running, jumping, rolling and flipping in their sandy playground. I was exhausted just watching them (sounding like the old woman that I am).

Jump! (Hadley in blue)

I’ve hiked in numerous circumstances–paved, dirt, shale, boulder fields but never steep and deep sand.  For every two steps we took, we sank and slid back one.

That’s a nice way of saying some people thought they were going to die.

But not Hadley. She went barefoot (not recommended in the summer because the sand gets hot) and I’m telling you that girl of mine was a beast climbing those peaks. She completely blew the other girls (and me) away and after an hour, she was the second person to arrive at the first peak just after J.D., the class athlete.



Steeeeep Part 2

“She’s like a gazelle,” observed Hadley’s teacher Mrs. Price who, at 7 months pregnant, was quite impressive herself.

First kids to the first ridge–Hadley, J.D., Noel and Terran

Most of the kids from the class made it to that first ridge.

The wind was howling, sand was whipping and we were about to turn back when we had a momentary reprieve from the conditions–just long enough for a handful of the crazies to keep hiking another half-hour and summit High Dune, the tallest in North America.

High Dune Summit Group with Mrs. Price

Dunes for miles

My favorite part of the day was watching Hadley kick butt. My second favorite was going down. On our ascent, we never hiked straight up but instead took indirect zig-zag routes along the ridge lines. Our descent was a straight shot down steep slopes and I’ll be darned if it didn’t feel like I was a kid again as I barreled down a powder playground.

I got a kick out of how competitive the kids were. After we separated from the main group to climb High Dune I surged ahead, knowing full well the kids would be passing me up on the steeps. I overheard J.D. telling everyone, “OK, if Hadley’s mom is first, she won’t count. Does everyone agree?”


For the record, I came in fourth.

Not that I was counting.

Other Related Posts Readers Have Liked