While Colorado is most often associated with her beautiful mountains, there is a small section in southern Colorado that has enormous sand dunes. Formed millions of years ago, Great Sand Dunes National Park sits at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range where blowing sand against the mountain has created the largest sand dunes in North America. The tallest, Star Dune rises 750 feet from the creek bed. Looking from the distance, Great Sand Dunes offers an amazing juxtaposition of sand dunes landscape next to the majestic Rocky Mountains.
While Alex and I had an adventure here some 10 years earlier when we took a first place ribbon at the annual sand building competition, our purpose for this adventure was much different. We were here to get in some vertical climbing in preparation for our June trip to Mt. Rainier. As such, we decide to go with full packs on. Our course was to climb the High Dune on the east side and then walk right through the middle of the dunes over to Star Dune. We could then easily descend down to the valley floor and follow the creek bed back to our starting point.
If you’ve ever walked through dry sand, you know how much it gives way underneath you. What makes this hike so challenging is that you are sinking in while doing some major vertical climbing. Many a time it felt like one step up and two steps back. To make matters more difficult, the wind howls constantly and the higher you get the more ferocious the sand storms become. After reaching the top of High Dune, and enjoying watching the many sand boarders who ride down the dune), we headed out across the middle. After descending the back side of High, we were treated to an awe inspiring scene of nothing but sand. Every direction we looked, nothing but sand and the blue sky above. To feel like you could get lost in here is an understatement. While hundreds of tourists were at play just a quarter-mile away, it felt like Alex and I were the only two people on earth.
The climb across the dunes was extremely enjoyable. The climb up Star Dune however was a huge challenge. Between the loose footing, the steep slope, and brutal wind gusts, I was down to counting 20 steps before needing to take a rest break. When getting to the top, you quickly get to the back side of the ridge to avoid being sand blasted by the wind. Inspired at the top, we decided to go back the same way rather than going to the creek bed. While a much more difficult traverse, we couldn’t resist the temptation to play in the sand again. For me, having trained in the pool for the past three months, I finally felt I had reached a level of fitness that made it fun to pack and I was encouraged about our upcoming climb up Mt. Rainier. This memorable hike stayed with us for days as we continued to wash sand out of our hair and ears!