Hiking in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Visitors can walk just about anywhere on the sand dunes in the heart of the park. The best view of all the dunes is from the top of High Dune. There are no formal trails because the sand keeps shifting, but you don't really need them: There's no way you'd get lost out here.
Before taking any of the trails in the preserve, rangers recommend stopping at the visitor center and picking up the handout that lists the trails, including their degree of difficulty. The dunes can get very hot in the summer, reaching up to 140°F in the afternoon. If you're hiking, carry plenty of water; if you're going into the backcountry to camp overnight, carry even more water and a water filtration system. A free permit is needed to backpack in the park. Also, watch for weather changes. If there's a thunderstorm and lightning, get off the dunes or trail immediately, and seek shelter. Before hiking, leave word with someone indicating where you're to hike and when you expect to be back. Tell that contact to call 911 if you don't show up when expected.
Hike to High Dune. Get a panoramic view of all the surrounding dunes from the top of High Dune. Since there's no formal path, the smartest approach is to zigzag up the dune ridgelines. High Dune is 650 feet high, and to get there and back takes about 1½ to 2 hours. It's 1.2 miles each way, but it can feel like a lot longer if there's been no rain for some time and the sand is soft. If you add on the walk to Star Dune, which is another 1.5 miles there and back, plan on another two hours and a strenuous workout up and down the dunes. Easy. Start from main dune field, Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO, 81146.
Mosca Pass Trail. This moderately challenging trail follows the route laid out centuries ago by Native Americans, which became the Mosca Pass toll road used in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This is a good afternoon hike, because the trail rises through the trees and subalpine meadows, often following Mosca Creek. It is 3½ miles one way, with a 1,500-foot gain in elevation. Hiking time is two to three hours each way. Moderate. The lower end of the trail begins at the Montville Trailhead, just north of the visitor center, Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO, 81146.
Music Pass Trail. This steep trail offers superb views of the glacially carved Upper Sand Creek Basin, ringed by several 13,000-foot peaks and the Wet Mountain Valley to the east. At the top of the pass you are about 11,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by yet higher mountain peaks. It's 3½ miles and a 2,000-foot elevation gain one way from the lower parking lot on the east side of the preserve, off Forest Service Road 119, and 1 mile from the upper parking lot (reachable only by four-wheel-drive). Depending on how fit you are and how often you stop, it can take six hours round-trip from the lower lot. Difficult. Trail begins on eastern side of park, reached via Hwy. 69, 4½ miles south of Westcliffe. Turn off Hwy. 69 to the west at the sign for Music Pass and South Colony Lakes Trails. At the "T" junction, turn left onto South Colony Rd. At the end of the ranch fence on the right you'll see another sign for Music Pass., Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO, 81146.
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