August 11, 2016

Camping in Colorado’s Most Exotic Sandbox: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Backpacking in Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park is nothing like any other adventure in the Centennial State.

“Do you have any tips or recommendations for us?” my husband asked the park ranger before we exited her office.

“Make sure you’re out of the dunes by 10 a.m. and don’t bother hiking in until after 6 p.m. The sand can get as hot as 140 degrees during the day, and I don’t want to see you guys out there for that,” the park ranger calmly replied before calling in the next group applying for permits.

sand dunes in Colorado

It’s 9:30 on an early June morning and our ragtag trio just acquired a backpacking permit for Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Located in southern Colorado in the San Luis Valley, the national park bumps up against the western base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range. While the dunes and the Sangres may share a geographical location, the similarities end there: Great Sand Dune National Park is like nothing else in Colorado.

Instead of snowcapped skylines filled with towering 13,000-foot peaks, the park flaunts five dunes taller than 700 feet. The crown jewel of the 30-square-mile park is Star Dune, standing an impressive 750 feet tall from base to top. Not only is Star the tallest dune in the national park, but it is also the tallest sand dune in North America.

After waiting out the heat of the day by snoozing in our tent and splashing our feet in nearby Medano Creek, the three of us hoisted our backpacks onto our shoulders, laced our hiking boots, and set into the dunefield under a cloudy evening sky. Almost immediately, we’re faced with one of the intricacies of the park: there are no trails.

sunset at the sand dunes in Colorado

Of course, this makes perfect sense. The dunefield is constantly shifting as winds whip through the San Luis Valley and move the granules of sand. Any dedicated trail would be quickly eliminated thanks to Mother Nature. Instead, backpackers head into the park with a simple set of instructions: you can camp anywhere outside of the day use area, or at least 1.5 miles from the Visitor Center.

Because of this, trekking into the dunefield is a bit of a “choose your own adventure” story. We immediately find ourselves following a valley of sand, opting for the easier flat ground rather than braving the towering sand dunes on either side of us. Naturally, this could only last so long; the valley quickly narrowed, forcing us to choose a dune to climb.

At first, the dune is deceptively easy to ascend. Compacted sand forms the base, providing solid footing. But then, as the dune rises towards the sky, the granules of sand begin to slide out from under my feet. The climb grows steeper and it’s as if I’m clawing through a bag of loose sugar. Near the top, I submit to the combined forces of my heavy backpack and gravity; I find myself on all fours, crawling my way towards the sandy ridgeline above me, and far too exhausted to consider the absurdity of the situation.

backpackers camping on sand dunes in Colorado

After conquering the ridgeline, the group-designated trail grows easier and we simply follow the darkened line of sand as it snakes off into the distance. Eventually, the soul-saving cloud cover makes way for a wicked Colorado rainstorm, and our meandering pace is forced into something more urgent. I’ve never spent the night in a dunefield before, but I know this: pitching a tent in a rainstorm IN a sand dune is not near the top of my life list!

coloradosandune3

We eventually stumbled on the perfect place to camp: a flat bench of sand with outrageous 360-degree views. It takes three of us to pitch the tent with the wind gusts whipping: one assembles the poles, one drives the snow stakes into the sand (because regular stakes won’t hold), and the third simply holds onto the tent to prevent it from sailing into the sandy abyss. We dive inside our nylon shelter just in the nick of time; the tent may be filled with crunchy grains of sand, but it sure beats the fat raindrops outside.

images by Will Rochfort

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