Friday, November 11, 2011

Music Pass/Sand Dunes Hike

Where are we again?  Colorado?

Fall snuck up on me this year.  Before I knew it the water was drying up around the state, many of my friends were packing it up to follow the dream out East and the cold Fall air had replaced the warmth of Summer.  I was left contemplating the success of the past few months and planning for the next adventure coming up.   I decided to take an extended break from CKS to spend some time with my family and get ready for my winter trip to Chile.  With work out of the way, my sister and I made plans to go backpacking.  We were planning for 10 day trip on the San Juan section of the Colorado Trail.  Our excitement swelled with the thought of being in the backcountry for an extended time.  It was decided, we were in for a high elevation adventure!  Soon after we bragged to our friends about our sweet fall hiking trip it snowed above 10,000 ft.  We re-evaluated.  Did we want to spend 10 days hiking in snow?  Nope, we didn’t.  We both agreed, unless we could ski on it, we wanted nothing to do with snow.  We made a new plan:  Hike from the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains over Music Pass down into Sand Dunes National Park and through the Sand Dunes to the main gate.    

We left early in the morning of September 25th from our parents’ house and made the hour or so drive through Westcliffe to the foot of the Sangres.  We were able to drive to within a few miles of the summit of Music Pass and geared up for the hike.  Our parents came along for the first few miles, until we dropped over the other side of the mountains and started the descent into the San Luis Valley.  Although the trip didn’t cover many miles, only about 25, we were concerned about how the last leg of the trip through the Sand Dunes was going to be.  Neither of us had traveled any distance in sand so we made plans to push down trail as far as we could the first and second day of the trip so we could stage an early approach on the dunes on day 3.

Looking South from the top of Music Pass-Overlooking our route

After dropping over Music Pass we encountered amazing fall colors and a good size creek that would lead us down valley and out on to the flats north of the Sand Dunes.   The trail proved to be relatively easy with about 5 creek crossings the first day, none all that complicated.

Nice meandering trail through Aspens

We stopped and camped about 7 miles from the pass, meeting our mileage goal.

Camp 1:  Cheffin it up

The morning of day two we awoke to stiff legs and a chilly morning.  We broke camp and continued on our way with the goal of making it down out of the mountains and onto the San Luis Valley floor.     The well beaten path of the upper trail dissolved into a small winding trail making the going slower.  To make things even more interesting, the area we were hiking through had sustained a large flooding event that had literally washed the hillside down into the creek bed.  The last few miles out of the mountains the trail had been replaced with piles of the surrounding mountainside and we spent a good amount of time clamoring over and around the landslides.   We passed out of the high alpine, through the high desert and finally into a strange combination of sand dune and pine forest that neither of us had seen before.  We were both still stiff and sore from the extra weight we were carrying and as the day progressed we both struggled with the variable landscape.

Sand, Pinyon trees and Yucca.  Nice to look at, not so much to walk through
 As we dropped down out of the Mountains and into the flats the Sand Dunes finally came into view.  The impression you get from looking at maps of the area does not prepare you for the vastness of the dune field.  The massive dunes rose hundreds of feet off the valley floor.  When looking at them from the visitors’ center they look surreal, like they don’t belong there, but when looking at them from the North knowing that home is on the other side, they seem bigger and more imposing than ever. 

View of Dunes from Camp 2

We found our way along the creek finally passing into the park boundaries.  Evidence of the huge storm event could be seen everywhere.  All the side creeks had been blown out completely and where there was a trail or road a year ago there were only large ravines now.  The park designated camping area was located in the cottonwood trees on the edge of Sand Creek.  You could tell the Park Service had high hopes of a well established primitive campsite on the north side of the Sand Dunes, but the camp had obviously fallen out of priority.  The state of the art composting toilet was now just the home of some resourceful spiders; the bear box was askew from floodwaters.  All of the campsites were filled in with sand or washed away.   The broken land gave the night a sense of exposure that we hadn’t felt the previous days.   The creek had carved huge sand canyons in the landscape and the rising dunes in the background tricked our minds into being anywhere but Colorado.  We cooked dinner and planned the early approach to the dunes the next morning.

We woke in the pitch black of early morning, broke camp and made a quick breakfast of warm soup and energy bars.  Since the area between us and the dune field had been so broken by the storm we decided to forget the trail and walk due south for about 2 miles through scrub brush, oak and pinion trees to the edge of the dunes.  As we walked the sun began to rise to the east illuminating the highest dunes.  We discovered we weren’t the only creatures walking into the dunes that morning.  As we walked in the quiet morning we heard the voices of elk calling back and forth to one another, alerting each other to our presence.  We pushed the herd toward the dunes catching short glimpses of them as they jogged off over the shifting terrain.   The elk seemed to be leading us into the dunes, welcoming us to the new place. 

Sunrise on the outskirts of the Dunes
After pushing on for about 2 hours over the variable terrain on the northern outskirts of the dunes we finally were in the dunes.  By eight in the morning we were standing on one of the taller dunes we had seen from our camp the night before.  The view south, down into the heart of the Park was like none other.  The tan sand swept down valley like a rolling ocean frozen in time, the tips of the dunes curling in shadow like breaking waves.  In the background rose the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Looking South through the heart of the Dune Field

We hike south and east for the rest of the morning, sticking somewhat close to the border between sand and mountain.  We stopped and set up a day camp as the sun started to heat the sand.  Morning in the dunes was incredibly peaceful.  Nothing moved. The sand was cool and the landscape was soft.  By eleven o’clock the sun was beating down and the sand was beginning to radiate heat.  By noon the wind had picked up and the peacefulness of the morning was quickly forgotten.  We huddled in the little shade we had built and tried to stay out of the wind.  Through afternoon we cursed the sandy gusts of wind and made plans to move.  By 3 we had broken camp and continued the hike south.  The sky was darkening and the wind had pick up a little, it was time to find a place low to camp for the night.  We hike for another few hours and camped in a low, semi-vegetated area as much out the wind as possible.  We made dinner and sat back to watch the night sky.  We decided that we were going to shorten our trip by a day and hike out the next day.  This did not force us into another day of sitting through the afternoon and gave us a little more flexibility with our water.

Looking North - Dawn Patrol - Day 4
We woke early again the next day and started the final push out.   The darkness and the sand seemed to eat the light from our headlamps.  The ridges we walked on seemed to fall off into oblivion on both sides giving us the sense that we were very high up and exposed.  As the sun began to rise we walked faster to beat the heat of the afternoon.  We arrived at the edge of the dunes around 10 in the morning and ate breakfast on a flat overlooking the main park area.  After an hour or so more of hiking we found the car. 

A little morning hot chocolate and whiskey to celebrate

 Although it was short, this hike beat us down.  The variable terrain was hard on our legs and feet and if I ever go back I will pack way less food leave room for more water.  We ended the trip with a visit to very nice Joyful Journey Hot Springs and called it a success.

Here are a few more pictures of our trip:

Desktop Background material
Flood damage at Camp 2

Contrast on virgin sand

Aftermath of Coyote party the previous night

View of Camp 2 from the Dunes

Sand and Mountains


  1. What a great photo essay! We've followed many of the same paths you took, although we did them as a number of separate hikes and backpacking trips. The Dunes and the surrounding region are some of our favorite places to explore. So many people don't realize the variety and beauty of the area...thanks for sharing.

  2. It's great to hear that others are getting out and exploring that area! I'm glad you enjoyed the write up.