I’d had a meaningful hiking season, but due to some self-inflicted personal challenges had fallen well short of my goals for the summer. The Great Sand Dunes provided a late season make-up to myself opportunity and a nice way to carry some hiking mojo into the next year. I planned the trip between early November rifle-hunting seasons, and in an advance call to the Visitor Center a ranger had let me know that hunter encounters here are unlikely. Backcountry campsites can be reserved at recreation.gov .
There was an option to reserve a primitive campsite alongside Little Medano Creek, with a caution from the park website that the creek might be very low-flowing and / or frozen over this time of year. I packed in 4 extra liters of water plus 2 for the hike, planning for the worst case. I also brought Aquamira drops in the event there was at least some silty water, plus my Sawyer filter for the best case of a flowing stream.
As I wound my way past drive-up campsites towards the Sand Ramp trailhead, some park staff working on shoulder-season projects looked surprised to see me with a backpack. I was happy to see that I was the only one on the trail. I missed the signpost about a mile in as I took the more travelled fork up the hill to the right to a nice overlook. Finally realizing the trail ended at the overlook, I backtracked back down to the worn signpost and made the correct left turn to follow Sand Ramp Trail. Once beyond that initial hill I found that sand blown into to trail and steady wind made my 4-mile hike to my campsite a bit more challenging than I had expected. Despite the slow-going this was a pretty spectacular hike with contrasting views of the massive sand dunes on the left and green forest leading to high, jagged, snow-capped peaks on the right.
The side trail to my campsite was well-marked, and led to really nice protected glen alongside the Little Medano Creek. I was happy to see a flowing creek thanks to the recent snow storm, and it was just warm enough that the creek was not iced over. The water filtered easily with my Sawyer.
The wind was constant, and I had thankfully brought along some oversized sand & snow stakes. Despite the clear skies, I set up my rain fly and staked it low to help keep the sand out. The forecast called for temperatures in the mid 30’s plus wind, but I was comfortable overnight wearing my puffy jacket inside my 20-degree quilt.
I spent the next day enjoying the solitude of my campsite and the views all around me. I couldn’t remember the last day I’d had all to myself, and with virtually nothing to do my day was simply wonderful. I Followed the creek a short distance back toward the mountains and found a big log crossing to access the sand dunes. It was pretty cool and kind of spooky to hike up into the dunes with the constant wind blowing sand over the top.
In my time alone I reflected that these experiences are awesome only as a realize my gratitude for my loved ones – my wife Maria at home, my son Erik & his family, plus a big handful of some pretty awesome friends. That night I forced myself out of the tent late at night to see the full moon and was surprised at the illuminated landscape around my campsite. I didn’t realize until got home that a lunar eclipse was also happening that night.
I packed up early the final morning and started my hike back, feeling grateful for the solitude and that I had made time to get away. I hiked back on the 4-wheel drive road that crossed the side trail to my campsite. I was pleasantly surprised to pass several paper-stocked pit toilet buildings along the road. Firmer footing on the more packed-down sand made for a much easier hike out and completed a nice loop back to the car.