Backpacking: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

 

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is tucked into the Sangre De Cristo mountain range in southern Colorado and features the tallest sand dunes in North America. 

The Plan:

Drive down to the Dunes from Denver in the early morning. Get an overnight permit at the Visitor Center, hike up to the summit of High Dune, hike to the summit of Star Dune, then head north until I either (1) get tired or sick of hiking, or (2) find a decent flat area to camp with amazing views of the dunes and mountains. Hike out in the morning either during or after sunrise. Take the long way home to stop and take a dip in Valley View Hot Springs to rinse and relax before the long drive home.

The Permit:

Overnight permits are free and only obtained from the Great Sand Dunes Visitors Center which is open every day year-round except winter holidays and the hours are 9:00a-4:30p Labor Day through Memorial Day Weekend and 8:30a-6:00p Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day.

The Route:

This is the easy part (sort of). There are no "trails" on the sand dunes. There are only dunes that have more footprints than others. You can go any which way that you like. From the parking lots, High Dune is literally just the highest dune you can see. And from the top of High Dune, the highest peak you can see continuing east is Star Dune. After that, I'm just going to follow the most interesting routes and ridges toward the most unique shapes and lines that I see.

The Trip:

After parking in the designated overnight lot, you'll make the short hike to the base of the dunes which requires crossing the Medano Creek flow. The depth and flow of the creek depends entirely on the melting snow runoff from the neighboring mountains. Both times I have crossed in the early spring months, I have been able to get about halfway across before opting to take off my boots and walk the rest of the way. Make sure you check the creek conditions before visiting, but you can expect to take your shoes off to avoid soaking your shoes and socks.

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I had only been to the Great Sand Dunes one other time previously and it happened to be my first hike after ACL/MCL reconstructive knee surgery, and I remember thinking: Wow, this isn't very difficult at all. Well, it turns out that was because it was a wet morning before sunrise and the sand was firm and easy to climb.

Getting started in the dunes mid-afternoon with a 35lbs pack is a totally different story. The trek up to the High Dune summit is short but taxing to say the least. Just follow everyone else and head toward the tallest dune you can spot from the parking lot. You are bound to run into at few steep sections that truly feel like you are hiking up a down-escalator. The sand can be brutal, especially in the hot summer months when it can reach 140-degrees.

Also keep in mind that you are fully exposed for your the entirety of your trip on the dunes. You'll want to cover up with clothes or sunscreen to avoid getting burnt to a crisp out there. I chose to wear high hiking boots, convertible hiking pants to go over my boots, a long sleeve shirt, and a hiking hat. This was both to avoid getting sunburnt as well as to keep the sand out of my boots.

After reaching the summit of High Dune, I headed north rather than making the hike out to Star Dune. From reviewing a topographical map, I knew Star Dune was particularly steep, and I wasn't particularly excited for more steeps. I saw some great untouched ridges and shapes that I wanted to explore and photograph, so I opted to continue my loop and find a cozy place to camp.

The late afternoon was extremely windy and made setting up the tent a real pain. Luckily I had some extra long stakes that I brought specifically for pitching in the sand. They proved invaluable, as they actually stuck pretty well after you pressed them in past about six inches of sand. Honestly, I don't know if I could have pitched my tent without them with the wind as bad as it was. 

Sunrise and sunset are the absolute best times in the dunes. The colors and more importantly the shadows are unrivaled. The views change by the minute so if you plan on photographing out there, make sure that you've scouted out your location, have the lens you need on the camera (you do NOT want to be changing lenses in the sand!), and you are ready to shoot!

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After some sunset shooting, I ate my dinner and took a nap while waiting for darkness. I knew the half-moon wouldn't rise till just after midnight, so I wanted to shoot in complete darkness, as the dunes are one of the darkest places in the entire country. Let me tell you, the stars did not disappoint. I'm treated to amazing night skies in the Rocky Mountains all the time, but when I woke up from my nap and opened my tent, I was absolutely blown away by how bright the stars were.

By 11:00p, the wind had disappeared completely. You could here a pin drop, and it remained that way all night. It was so quiet and peaceful for the first time all day. I was growing tired of my tent flapping in the wind and the rustling of the plastic bags I was using as sand bags. I just laid down on my back in the sand in amazement of the stars above and enjoyed my first slice of quiet time. This was probably my favorite part of the trip. I find that I rarely do this while camping in the mountains because the ground it muddy, wet, cold and I never have a towel or blanket to lay on. With the sand you can just lie down and quickly brush off the dry sand when you get up.

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Out of curiosity (and laziness), I decided I wouldn't bother blowing up my sleeping pad. I wondered if the sand would be cold and would suck the warmth out of me like the ground does when you're camping on land. I had my 0-degree down bag on me so I figured I would give it a shot and sleep directly on the floor of the tent. I gotta say, it was perfectly fine. The lows were in the 30's that night and I stayed plenty warm and comfortable. If I felt a small bump underneath me, I just reached down and patted it down.

I woke up at 5:00a to the brightness of the half-moon on my tent and decided to get up and shoot the dunes under illumination of the moon. It was almost quite literally night and day from when I was shooting earlier in the night. I could see all the dunes surrounding me perfectly and with there still no wind at all, I decided I would pack up and start my hike out as the sun rose. It was the perfect way to start the day and an amazing experience to say the least. 

I took the long route home so I could stop and check out the Valley View Hot Springs about an hour north of the sand dunes. Took a quick dip to rinse and relax before the long drive home. Great weekend solo trip all around!

The Love:

  • Sunrise and sunset shadows

  • Solitude. Complete and utter solitude

  • Form fitting sand to sleep on. No sleeping pad needed

  • Possibly the darkest sky and brightest stars in Colorado

  • No trails. Simply hike wherever you want and for however long

The Hate:

  • The wind

  • No water sources on the dunes

  • Easier to get lost/turned around

  • Moving extremely slow due to the sand

  • Sand get everywhere. I mean, EVERYWHERE

  • Taking your boots off at the beginning of the hike

The Takeaways:

Camping on sand is totally a love/hate situation. If it's even remotely windy, you're going to get filthy, you're going to be frustrated, and sand will get EVERYWHERE. Even without wind, sand manages to get absolutely everywhere. If you have any camping gear that you care about, LEAVE IT AT HOME! Sand will get in every button, zipper, switch, knob, toggle, and every crevice you can imagine. All that being said, it was an amazing and unique experience and one of the most remote and most comfortable places I have ever camped. If the dunes were closer and I could guarantee the absence of wind, I would do camp out there way more often. But I'll probably save the dunes for day hikes in the future and leave all the gear at home.

The Links

 

Backpacking: Ski Tour To Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park

 

The Itinerary:

  • Friday

    • Fly into San Francisco and arrive at 7:30p.

    • Drive to the nearest REI to buy stove fuel before they close.

    • Drive out to Merced and sleep at booked AirBnB.

  • Saturday

  • Sunday

    • Make breakfast and pack up.

    • Ski down 10.5 miles and promptly slam a beer.

    • Quick drive through Yosemite Valley, stop at Village Store to get food and clean up.

    • Drive 4 hours back to SFO airport and fly home.

Easy enough, right?!

The Trek:

10.5 miles out-and-back on skis up Glacier Point Road (groomed).
21 miles round trip.

Ascent Elevation Chart
Descent Elevation Chart
Glacier Point Road Winter Trail Maps

The Permit:

You must obtain an overnight permit if you are planning on camping up on Glacier Point. You can pick one up at the Badger Pass Ranger Station located at Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area. When you arrive, they have a few 15-minute parking spots out front that are perfect to run in and get permits. You must go to the ranger station located in the A-Frame building right of the chairlifts. Just walk out onto the snow toward the chairlifts, look to your right, and you can't miss it. The rangers can answer any questions you have, and will provide you with an overnight camping permit, a parking pass to leave on your dashboard, and they'll direct you to the overnight parking spaces around the corner.

The Gear:

We were backpacking and camping up to the top so we brought all of our typical camping gear, plus a shovel, some waterproof layers, and fuel to melt snow so we didn't have to carry too much water.

I'm an alpine skier and just getting into Alpine Touring (AT) and skinning, so I brought my new AT setup to use. I can imagine that skins would probably be helpful in the colder months but it was so warm when were were there March 11-12 that we were in shorts and short sleeves the entire trips up and down. Because of that, the snow was so soft that the skins weren't necessary and only slowed me down by prohibiting glide.

My friend Matt is a boarder and he had planned to snowshoe and either carry or tow his board, boots, and pack. After talking it over with the rangers though, he opted to rent a proper cross-country ski setup. There's a separate Nordic Center building across from the main lodge of the Yosemite Ski Area if you want to rent cross-country skis or snowshoes. His cross-country ski rental was between $40-50. He had never once cross-country skied and I was impressed at how well he did, especially while carrying a 35-40lbs backpack.

Word to the wise: Leave the AT setup at home and either snowshoe or cross-country ski. The AT setup with your standard AT ski boots is way too heavy and uncomfortable to justify lugging it all the way up and down. 

The Trail:

The trail itself isn't the most scenic but does travel through a heavily wooded area with enormous trees and a few open meadows. There are also cross-country ski tracks on both sides of the road for most of the 10.5 miles (pictured below).

Within the first half mile I knew my feet were in serious trouble. I had some new AT ski boots that I haven't had fitted yet and my feet had way too much room to move around within the boots. They got chewed up the entire way up and down, so for me this trip was more mentally exhausting in trying to manage the pain than anything else. It's been almost two weeks since this trip, and I'm still limping around trying to heal all the blisters.

The trail starts with a quick uphill and gradual downhill over the first 3.5 miles and 400 vertical feet. After that, you start the long trek uphill which covers every bit of the next 5 miles and 500 vertical feet. I feel like it is worth nothing again that all the slopes of this trek are moderate at worst. There are really no steep sections at all (basically climbing 100 vertical feet over every mile).

We also didn't carry much water because we had planned to melt snow and filter it. Big mistake, but only because we planned poorly and didn't bring enough fuel and ran out after making breakfast. I ended up chomping on snow and taking small sips of my water the entire trip.

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Mile 8 is where the trek plateaus around an elevation of 7,800ft. The next 1-2 miles is relatively flat and offers some slightly downhill relief. You'll have to go back uphill immediately following that, but the last mile is the steepest part of the hike dropping you 500 vertical feet downhill. It's the first time you'll actually gain enough speed to get some turns in.

I was absolutely giddy that I was finally skiing downhill after five hours of painful uphill skiing. As if the cool wind in my face wasn't enough to get me excited, I then turned a corner and was treated to this absolutely stunning view of Half Dome.

The elevation at the top is only about 50 feet higher than the trailhead elevation, but who cares?! We made it! We then picked out a proper camping area away from the lodge and RELAXED! By the time we caught our breath and got our tents set up, the sun was just setting in the west while the full moon was rising in the east (pictured below). This was an awe-inspiring view that I truly felt like we earned.

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The full moon provided enough light to make headlamps optional around the campsite and we made the short hike to the proper Glacier Point viewing area so we could see and take pictures on Yosemite Falls and the valley perfectly illuminated by the full moon.

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After a good night's sleep, we awoke for sunrise which was an hour later than the day before thanks to Daylight Savings. After a hardy scrambled eggs and bacon breakfast, we used the last of our fuel to melt some snow and we packed up and hit the trail. 

It took us roughly 6 hours up and 4 hours down, and then a 4.5 hour drive back to the San Fran airport. Oh, and even after getting to the bottom, quickly driving through Yosemite Valley and straight to the airport, we STILL missed our 9:00pm flight. So if you're doing a crazy quick trip like this, plan accordingly! Lucky for us, we were able to jump on the first flight out the next morning at no additional charge and we were back in Denver and at work by 11am Monday morning.

The Good:

  • Gradual slopes throughout

  • Free camping at Glacier Point

  • Four bathrooms along the way

  • Absolutely unbelievable views to wake up to

  • Not crowded. Even fewer people make it all the way to the top

  • Virtually unlimited spots to camp with wide open Half Dome views

  • Most people at the top are either day-hiking or staying in the lodge

The Bad:

  • A long trek (21 miles RT)

  • Not many accessible water sources

  • Ups and downs. Only about 50 feet net elevation gain

  • Coming back down, the last 3.5 miles uphill will wear you out

  • Long drive from San Fran. Took 4.5 hours to get back to SFO airport

  • Not as scenic (except the top) as you might expect from a Yosemite hike

The Outcome:

After our first few hours on the trail carrying our packs on skis for the first time ever, it was clear that we were overly ambitious about this adventure. I would absolutely recommend this trip, but only for those experienced in ski touring or backpacking on snowshoes over long distances. Day-hiking to Glacier Point can be easily handled by anyone as long as you get an early start. 

Physically, it's not all too strenuous of a trip, but it's a long ways to go with a full 30-40-pound pack on your shoulders. Whether as a day-hike or a backpacking trip, everyone should make it a point to trek up to Glacier Point during the winter months. This long gradual hike that will reward you with the iconic panoramic views of Yosemite Valley without the crowds you're accustomed to during the warmer seasons.