Great Sand Dunes & High Peaks

Took to Colorado for the weekend to see a new National Park, my 35th and to train for the big mountain season ahead with some high altitude hiking. The plan was to spend three nights camping near/in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve before making a trek up the highest peak in Colorado, the Rocky Mountains and #2 in the lower 48. Although the Friday of the trip I was forced to audible and go for Mount Elbert (14,433ft) Saturday since the weather looked awful Sunday and Monday. I was atop Mount Saint Helens (8,333ft) the weekend before so I hoped I could acclimate even though I’d be starting the hike at a higher elevation than the peak of Saint Helens…

I arrived in Denver at 11pm Friday after a roller coaster of a flight that had my stomach twisted. Picked up a rental car and headed straight for the Mount Elbert trailhead. As I drove west the rain quickly turned into a full on blizzard. It felt like I was in space flying the Millennium Falcon. Once I turned off the highway towards Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the US at 10,522ft things got even wilder. There was a couple inches of snow on the ground and although I was now going slower it felt like warp speed seeing so much snow fly directly into the windshield. My body was tense and the only other car I saw was a snowplow going in the opposite direction. The sky waited to clear until after arriving at the trailhead around 2am.

I attempted to get at least 3 hours of sleep but when I closed my eyes I saw snow coming directly at me in warp speed again. When 5am rolled around my body and head were still baboozled sitting there at 9,600ft above sea level.


It was a nice morning on the CDT! My legs felt great as always in a snowy slog but my stomach wasn’t having it. I just couldn’t eat but wanted to at least get above the treeline before making any decisions.


I was well behind my normal pace, felt terrible and was about to turn back but then two 60 year old guys and their dog Vinny walked up. They both cracked some jokes at my expense but also applauded me for calling it before I felt worse. Somehow after chatting with them for awhile I was 1,000ft higher.


They were great company but with the wind starting to howl, my stomach all messed up and being far behind schedule I turned back. Felt better with every step down and a lesson was certainly learned. Now it was time to focus on enjoying the views of the surrounding Sawatch Mountains.


Mount Hope and Twin Peaks.


To cheer myself up I drove back into Leadville and got a Melanzana fleece I’ve always wanted (plus one for Ellie)! On top of that I had a really tasty sandwich and cookie from Cookies with Altitude. Another plus was getting a head start on the drive to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. That drive through the San Luis Valley is absolutely stunning!


Once the Sangre de Cristo Range starts you’ll see snow capped 14ers to the east and 1,000ft mounds of rock laced with small trees to the west. There’s also a llama farm! How is this drive not a National Scenic Byway? My eyes were mostly stuck on the Sangre de Cristo range which has an extremely long and high ridge line with every peak having a similar prominence.  My initial thought was someone has to have hiked the entire ridge line and what to do you know it’s a thing, the Sangre de Cristo Traverse.


The closer to the the Great Sand Dunes you get the bigger they become. At the park’s entrance you have to stop and take in the classic view of Star Dune with 14er’s Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle towering behind.


Next stop was the visitor center to get a free backcountry permit for 2 nights. Once in the backcountry lot I realized my one packing mistake, an non-freestanding tent. After a failed setup test in the dunes it looked like I’d be sleeping in the car since the campground was full. Luckily Ellie’s coworker happened to be camping there with some friends and they told me about an open site! I secured it and got to enjoy a fire and more great company. After a quick dinner we walked about to take in the sights before the sun set.


The layers of dunes are mesmerizing but the surrounding areas are great too!


The highest peak in the park is Mount Herard at 13,297ft. I’d come back for it!


After sunset I crashed and made sure to drink a lot of water beforehand so I’d be forced to check out the stars. The Great Sand Dunes were just designated as an International Dark Sky Park two days ago and for good reason! By 5am I was up and ready to get after it! Around 8pm last night and 4am this morning the coyotes or foxes were howling inviting me into the dunes! To get there you first have to cross Medano Creek which you’re guaranteed to get wet this early in the season. With wet socks and shoes I trudged up towards High Dune.


One other person beat me up there but he was good company to watch the sun rise with. The first light on the dunes was glorious!


I especially loved the view towards Antora Peak which looked like a smoking volcano.


I stayed up here for about 30 minutes having breakfast and enjoying the scenery! From there I began a traverse to Star Dune the tallest sand dune in North America at 750ft. The windswept textures and layers were some of the coolest and most unique I’d ever seen.


Past High Dune I didn’t see another person until back at the trailhead.


Route finding was really fun but I certainly did not choose the most efficient path. The only foot tracks out there were from foxes and they certainly don’t take the most efficient routes through the dunes either! I spotted one too!


It was always one step up followed by one slide down but on some of the steeper slopes you’d take one step up and slide back three steps, sometimes digging in the sand past your calf. It was all worth it because with each of those steps the view into the sea of sand was unique and incredible!


After an hour and a half of skating around sandy ridge lines I had one last big push to the top of Star Dune. Remembering how it looked from the park entrance made standing on top feel really satisfying!


Spent another 30 minutes relaxing and taking it all in before completing the loop. I walked as directly as I could towards Medano Creek hoping I could find a narrow section to cross without getting wet. I followed big sand dune ribs kind of like the worm flows on Mount Saint Helens but sandy of course.


So many sweet layers and a tiny bit of vegetation!


I did find a narrow spot to cross but when I arrived back near the trailhead I had to get my feet wet crossing another little side creek.


It was only 11am but the day already felt fulfilled! As I dumped sand out of my shoes the wind really started to pick up and dark clouds rolled in. I took to the visitor center to learn more about the park and figure out my next move. I learned these dunes were formed after the lake that took up San Luis Valley receded forming the Rio Grande Gorge while leaving behind a lot of sand from the San Juan Mountains. Mother Nature and her southwesterly breeze then pushed the sand to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where northeasterly storm winds and creeks piled the dunes back onto themselves.  With so many grains constantly moving around it’s hard to believe these dunes have been roughly the same size and shape for more than 100 years!

I was going to stay another night but the weather looked to only get worse so I reviewed the forecast and saw the best weather was down in New Mexico so that’s where I went! Not before one last park entrance view.


The new plan was to spend the night in the Taos Ski Valley before a morning hike up Wheeler Peak, the highest peak in New Mexico at 13,161ft! It was hard not to stare in the rear view mirror at Blanca Peak and the southernmost peaks of the northern Sangre de Cristo Range.


It was a short beautiful drive with an endless amount of clouds flying over a massive expanse of desert completely covered in small trees with a big peak in almost every direction! The Taos Ski Valley was closed for the ski season and hadn’t yet opened for the summer season so it was a quiet place. I relaxed out by the ski area until sunset since it was the only place with cell service. I slept at the Williams Lake trailhead at 10,200ft and was up by 5am for the third day in a row! Spending a full day and night at that altitude allowed me to properly acclimate.


Felt like I had my mojo back and was able to fly up the steep and icy slopes.


The few rocks that protruded from the snow were really colorful and vibrant!


I never saw another person but I did meet some Big Horn Sheep!


With a no stops till the top mind set I made the ascent of 4 miles and 3,000ft in 2 hours and 45 minutes! The sun didn’t hit me until atop the ridge which was nice but the wind up there was wicked. Luckily the true summit at 13,161ft has a small area to lie down in to avoid the wind.


I would pop up take a few pictures then dive back to the ground. I certainly felt alive up there and was really shocked by the beauty of the surrounding Wheeler Peak Wilderness and Carson National Forest!


You could even see the badass 14er’s that surround the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado! Most notably Blanca Peak and Mount Lindsey.


After 20 minutes I ran over and up to Mount Walter, New Mexico’s 2nd highest peak. You can see the summit marker below along with the stunning West and East Spanish Peaks in the distance. It was like running a suicide drill on a basketball court; I touched the marker then immediately turned around to start my descent.


With every step the insane wind calmed slightly and thanks to my new Scarpa mountaineering boots I was able to cruise down the ice and snow in an hour and a half!


Below the tree line my only companions were very playful squirrels. I really liked them but I don’t think they liked me. They were chirping at me like the marmots in Washington do.


Last time I was in New Mexico I was caving in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Quite a different experience standing on its highest peak and one I’d gladly do again!


Back at the trailhead it was 11am and again my day felt fulfilled! From there I drove back into Colorado towards Blanca and Lindsey which is what I could faintly see from Wheeler Peak!


After three nights of camping and 3 days of working up a sweat I finally took a shower at an Airbnb in Colorado Springs! Felt like a new man and was ready to feast. I had a giant calzone from Savelli’s followed by some delicious ice cream at the Colorado City Creamery. I was back to feeling like an old man so I went for a walk in the Garden of the Gods.


Really cool red sandstone rocks here at this National Natural Landmark! Immediately after returning to the car it started to rain so I saw the rest of the park from the road.


Soon it started to snow and that was my queue to go get some sleep. In the morning there were a couple inches of snow on the ground. I stayed there and worked before heading back to Denver. I have no idea what surrounds the highway between Colorado Springs and Denver as I was in a heavy fog the entire time. With an hour to spare before heading to the airport I drove by Coors Field and stopped for an amazing elk brat at Biker Jim’s. I’ll be back for Mount Elbert and much much more!


Now go check out Colorado’s pristine beach, everyone should!




1 thought on “Great Sand Dunes & High Peaks

  1. Carolyn Cappy May 15, 2019 — 4:05 pm

    Glorious pics! What a trip ☺️


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