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Medano Creek: It’s time to enjoy Colorado’s elusive, disappearing creek

Colorado Medano Creek
Every spring, Great Sand Dunes National Park attracts hikers and beachgoers to Medano Creek (Image credit: Great Sand Dunes National Park)

As if venturing into a fairy-tale land of “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” hikers at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado can encounter a magical, disappearing creek every spring.

When Medano Creek flows robustly — as it is right now — it usually provides the best beachside frivolity in the entire state that’s otherwise landlocked from the ocean and major lakes.

Medano Creek is a seasonal stream that runs through the edge of Great Sand Dunes National Park near Mosca, Colorado, in the south-central part of the state. The creek begins in the melting snowfields high in the massive Sangre de Cristo Mountains and eventually flows into the Arkansas River.

As it flows through the park, it creates Colorado’s only natural beach and attracts kids, teens and adults alike who frolic in the cold water beach toys, floating tubes, skim boards and even kayaks. The annual phenomenon has become so popular, there is even a webcam to monitor the flow of the creek.

Park officials recommend planning a visit on a weekday and not a weekend, if possible, and recommend visitors to bring sunscreen, water (see: best hiking water bottle) and proper footwear (see: best hiking shoes and best hiking boots) that offers protection from hot sand and sharp rocks. The sand on the dunes can heat up to 150 degrees on a sunny day.

"Whenever I see it, it's always extraordinary," said Kathy Faz, the park's chief of interpretation and visitor services, in a story on OutThereColorado.com.

However, it doesn’t last very long, and is typically reduced to a trickle of water by late June and disappears for several months by late July.

Medano Creek runs wide and flat through the sandy flats below the dunes with rippling rapids that turn into small waves. The waves occur from what is known as “surge flow” created by a build-up and release of water behind ridges of sand.

As of early May, Colorado's statewide snowpack is a bit low at about 76 percent of the to-date median (80 percent in the Arkansas River Basin), the National Parks Service is still expecting Medano Creek flow to be average this year, according to an article from OutThereColorado.com.

The stream offers a refreshing respite from a hike on the dunes, which are unique, natural mountains of sand created by thousands of years of sand and sediment flowing in the southwestern winds. The dunes are the tallest in North America, reaching up to 750 feet (230 m) from the base of the park. The dunes cover an area of about 30 sq mi (78 km2) and are estimated to contain over 1.2 cubic miles (5 billion cubic meters) of sand.

The stream typically flows 10 to 20 feet wide (about 3 to 6 meters), but it’s usually only about 3 to 6 inches (about 8 to 15cm) deep at its peak from early May to early June. Because of the creek's popularity, weekends in late May and early June are extremely crowded, with long lines of traffic, overflowing parking lots, a crowded beach and full campgrounds.

The dunes are a fascinating place to hike. Although there are no trails on the dunes, there are numerous ever-changing ridgelines that make for fun, challenging hikes, no matter if you’re going 1 mile (1.5km), 20 miles (32 km) or longer. Additional marked routes can be found through the forested sections of the park.

Great Sand Dunes National Park has a standard entry fee of $25, but annual passes and military passes are also accepted.

Brian Metzler

Brian is an award-winning journalist, photographer and podcaster who has written for Runner’s World, The Times, Outside, Men’s Journal, Trail Runner, Triathlete and Red Bulletin. He's also the author of several books, including Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and loves to run, bike, hike, camp, ski and climb mountains. He has wear-tested more than 1,500 pairs of running shoes, completed four Ironman triathlons, as well as numerous marathons and ultra-distance running races.