Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

It is hard to get lost on the way to Great Sand Dunes National Park. The only two intersecting roadways affording access are stick straight for scores of miles. Grab some gas and a snack in Salida before you head that way if you come from the North via 17. There is not much available as the mountains give way to the wide and open expanse of the San Luis Valley. Not one thing for fifty miles, in fact. It felt alien cruising rig-free on the flat and narrow straightaway at 75 after hauling the homestead sluggishly up 10 percent grades back in the mountains. The ground was covered in Rabbitbrush, Prickly Pear and Yucca and in the far distance across the flat scrubs lay a portrait-worthy backdrop of the snow-capped Sangre De Cristo mountain chain. The human contribution to the landscape was generally deplorable. It appeared the local inhabitants might be wracked by poverty. Half built shacks, decrepit and broken down RVs attached to wood shanties and other odd or half-completed forms of do-it-yourself architecture peppered the landscape in helter-skelter fashion. Upon deeper contemplation, I began to consider that perhaps a complete lack of zoning and code requirements resulted in under-funded homesteaders making half-hearted attempts to establish some form of domicile. Instead of a free bohemian community of off-grid life, it looked more like a field of failed and broken dreams.

The dunes themselves, largest in North America, can be seen for miles and appear deceptively small in the foreground of the larger mountains lying just behind. After the last five miles of red-neck yard art, I thought Great Sand Dunes National Park might just be the litter box of the Rockies but as I inched closer, it revealed itself a gem. The Park boundaries cover thirty square miles of curving dunes set in the foothills and comprises only 11 percent of the 330-square mile area of total sand deposit. It is a deceptively expansive region of wind whittled sand dunes that proves difficult to navigate and a rather young National Park achieving status at the turn of the millennia. Crossing through a field of Pinon Pines and scrub, I encountered Medano Creek which spanned about 200 feet at my point of crossing. The water surged rhythmically as if someone upstream was opening and closing a sluiceway. The swells rolled downstream about once every twenty seconds and resembled the ebb and flow of a beach wave. I almost succeeded in getting across with dry feet in the three-inch shallows but missed the timing by a few seconds. I was hopping in between islands of packed wet sand and water surged up to my calves filling my boots with brisk fluid. I savored the sensation of the outdoors getting up-close and personal. Once across the waterway, I was immediately at the base of large sloping dunes rising upwards hundreds of feet. The wind shaped serpentine spines out of the ridgelines made for an endless array of designs in the sands. The wind was relentless and constant as it swept up sand that chipped at my face and skin with stinging grains. I seriously believe the area could be marketed as an all-natural exfoliation field. It would sell, I am sure of it. While there was a constant layer of dust and grit whipping along the ground, the sand surface itself was firm…ish. It did not have the same give that is characteristic of the sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast. Still, the calves burned like fire after a quarter mile. Even on firmer sand, one doesn’t find two hundred foot ridgelines along the Florida coast either. I wandered in just shy of a mile searching for the perfect spot to capture a shot with my fourth Anderson Design Group NP card. Once I found what I thought to be a good spot, it took less than a minute of fiddling with my gear for the wind to snatch the card from the clutch of my teeth and vanish over the edge of the dune I sat atop. I dropped the tripod and took off after it. You can imagine the scene. Man, franticly chasing a card through sand in a forty mile per hour gust of wind. It just kept going. I flashed back to the camera episode at Dexter Point just days before. Still it whipped along the surface out of reach. It seemed a lesson in futility and I just laughed at the irony but I hadn’t achieved a single shot yet. I had to have that card! A near quarter of a mile later, I retrieved it wedged into a berm of sand like a hatchet set in wood. I honestly did not think I would be able to catch up with it and considered it a great victory and found the whole moment quite humorous and I am certain I entertained any wildlife that may have been about to witness. I grabbed several hasty shots and constantly fought against the wind. I was certain my cam lenses and prescription shades were not enjoying the abrasive environment and for the second inconvenient occasion, the pits of my stomach drove me back to civilization. The sunset would have provided for some incredible photos but the clouds were off and on and dusk was still several hours out. Armed with two skinny four inch Slim Jims wasn’t going to cut it for dinner and having passed nothing but dirt for the near two-hour drive, I reluctantly left Colorado’s favorite sandbox behind.

I do think it would be neat to trek through the dunes and into the mountains via trails routing into the North, particularly at night under a full moon. After visiting a dozen National Parks, I think this one is more inviting of the family than any other I have experienced. I have seen miserable kids in the pan pots of Yellowstone and trudging begrudgingly up to vanilla Smoky Mountain overlooks and I wonder why parents think their 6-year-old will enjoy the odiferous aroma of Sulfur or walking up a steep hill to look at…trees and stuff. Great Sand Dunes, on the other hand, invites the young kid with grit. One giant sandbox and a creek full of pulsing waves. The surging waterway was relatively shallow and near the visitor’s center, kids were spastic and running about squealing in delight, splashing around and slinging dirt. Sand-sleds and Sand-boards were available just off-sight if you wanted to crawl up a dune and skitch down on a treated wooden board. The views and sunshine invite a nap if you could find a spot free of the blowing grit. Other than sunburn, scorched feet and some dirt in the eye, the place seemed pretty satisfying to the youth I encountered as National Parks go. If they didn’t have grit going in, you will be pulling it out of their ears for days after. Great Sand Dunes was a surreal and appreciated stop and worth a revisit for that starlight hike someday.

Ruck out…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.