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Great Sand Dunes

USA | Thursday, 11 June 2015 | Views [352]

Great Sand Dunes, CO

Great Sand Dunes, CO

“What are the symptoms of altitude sickness...?” I asked my sister, Julia, on the four hour drive from Boulder to the Great Sand Dunes National Park.  I had arrived in Colorado two days earlier, and the landscape was both literally and figuratively breathtaking.

As we slithered through the rockies, my breath became shallow, as if the towering mountains had given my lungs claustrophobia. “Someone I know knew someone whose head actually swelled up from the altitude,” Julia generously shared. “It’s unpredictable. You could be totally fine and then all of a sudden...” Great. I thought. So, it’s up to luck.

We rounded another corner and all of a sudden...the land on one side of the road was endlessly flat.  The plains stretched out for miles and eased my altitude paranoia, until a new paranoia set in. What if the car broke down?  What if someone had to go to the bathroom?  I sized up the few scattered shrubs nearby with minimal pee emergency coverage.

Despite the barren view for most of the trip, we did pass a few unique landmarks.  Hidden in the mountains was a hot dog shaped structure selling Coney Island dogs.  The sign read “Coney Island Boardwalk” despite it being surrounded by coniferous mountains.  (In its defense, the trees were pretty coney.)  New York had followed me to the middle of Colorado in hot dog form.

We also passed South Park, a UFO observatory and a “Gator Farm” for sale.  For a very brief second, I considered what life on a gator farm might consist of..

Eventually, we arrived at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, a huge expanse of sand nestled into a snow peaked mountain range.  Imagine a frosty green mountain looming behind a desert. The contrast was stunning.  

After renting a sand board,1 we set up our camp site and drove down to the dunes.  At the base runs a shallow, but icy cold river you must cross to get to the dunes themselves.2  I think it’s Mother Nature’s test to see how determined you really are to reach the Great Dunes.  Dipping my feet in, I found the river had an aching/numbing effect like that of the Atlantic Ocean.  My bare feet swiftly carried me through the liquid ice to the rough, dry sand of its parallel shore.

I must admit, my exposed paws were hurting, but the closer we walked to the dunes, the softer the sand became, and putting our socks back on made it instantly more comfortable.3

Hiking up the dunes was rough.  Each step I took was met with stubborn resistance as the sand dragged me back an inch or so per foot, and I had to stop often to catch my breath.

Standing atop a mountain of sand on a freshly waxed board, I stared below at the sandy mountain I was about to plummet down.  I had never snowboarded before, so I was at a disadvantage here, and I overconfidently decided that I was ready for the steep slope.  There was no instruction at the board rental facility, so in my best imitation of proper surfing form, I shuffled over the edge, and quickly picked up speed.  

To my astonishment, I went straight down and managed to stay up like a pro...until...I reached the very bottom, lost my balance, spun around and landed on my face.  I lifted my head up with what was described to me as a Harvey “Two-Face” Dent sand makeover.4 My companions laughed as I spit sand out of my mouth, picked it out of my nose and shook it out of my ears and hair.  Despite the sand-eating incident, I’m proud to say that I got back up and tried it several more times.  The exhilaration seemed to wake me up with an exciting energy I hadn’t felt in a long time.

Boarding left us exhausted that night.  It rained a bit, but cleared up quickly, and we walked back towards the sand after dinner.  We watched the sun slide behind the dunes and light the river on fire. It was incredibly quiet and peaceful, and I noticed we were being watched by three not-so-stealthy deer. 

On our climb back to the campsite, we witnessed a rainbow shooting out of the mountains. It was almost too picturesque.  We were told the stars were incredible on the dunes at night, and had hoped to walk back down once it was dark, but the cloud coverage ruined our stargazing opportunity. The rainbow was a nice trade-off though.

. . .

My alarm sounded at 5 A.M. Mountain Time the next day.  Julia and I had set a lofty goal for the morning: we were going to climb to the top of the highest dune and we had to be back before 10 A.M., when it was supposed to start lightning.  There was apparently an amazing view from High Dune, where you could see out over the entire stretch of sand and mountains.  Obstacle one was getting out of bed, which wasn’t hard for me because I had been sleeping on a rock all night and to me it was technically 7 A.M. Eastern Time.

Obstacle two was crossing the numbing river, which with no sun was now five times colder.  We stood at the shore holding our socks, gazing up at the tallest sandy peak.  Deciding we might never be back here, and that we had come too far, we proved our determination by sprinting across as fast as we could, middle fingers up to Mother Nature.

Obstacle three, four, five, six, etc....was each dune leading to the top, and we weren’t even entirely sure which one was the top.  Assuming we were the only people out there, we were surprised to see a man hiking alone on a distant dune.  He had hiking gear and looked like he was heading upwards, so we found his footprints and followed his path.

After hiking up a series of what seemed like small dunes from afar, we had reached the last one.  Each dune was its own battle, and 40 minutes of heavy panting, back pack trade-offs and water breaks left us with just enough energy for one more climb.5  However, as we neared the top, a new layer of EVEN BIGGER dunes rose above what we had assumed was the top.  We stopped, staring back at the miles we had already tackled. It was only about 6:45 A.M., but we were physically spent.  It was time to make a decision.  We hadn’t come this far to almost reach the top, and so we continued in the footsteps of our mystery guide. 

Several dunes later, we stumbled over the top of High Dune, landing clumsily upon the most gorgeous natural sight I have ever witnessed.  We were suddenly ants in a sand box.  The perfectly smooth sand piles rolled on for miles and miles to where the plains met the frosty mountains.

“I feel like we should hug or something...” Julia said once we were able to stand and breathe.  We didn’t know quite how to handle the epic-ness of the scene before us, but I was glad to have shared this moment with my big sister. 

We spotted our guide way ahead in the distance.  He had a different goal it seemed, and we no longer needed his help.  I thought back on my initial paranoia of altitude sickness and laughed.  If I hadn’t been distracted by the strenuous physicality of sand hiking, I would have been worried about the slim chance of getting help out there if altitude sickness did decide to inflate my head.  We looked back at our beautiful, sandy obstacles and smiled in triumph.  We were lucky.


1Sand board or sand sled rentals were each available for $21 a day at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis store on the way into the park.  I recommend renting one and sharing it if you’re tight on cash.

2We left our shoes in the car as recommended and carried only a pair of socks, the sand board, and a backpack with water, snacks, cameras, sunscreen and cell phones. I recommend keeping your cell phone in a Ziploc sandwich bag to protect it from the small grains of sand that can, and will, get into every possible crevice.

3On the upside, your feet get a free exfoliating treatment.

4Half of my face was completely covered in sand.

5Surprisingly, because of the dryness, we didn’t break a sweat, but the cloud coverage and cool weather also helped keep the sand cool.

Tags: boarding, camping, colorado, hiking, sand dunes

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