Location Spotlight: Hiking Great Sand Dunes National Park
By: Josh Gonzalez
Photos courtesy of Josh Gonzalez
If you ever find yourself exploring the great state of Colorado, then here is a must stop location for you to hike. Great Sand Dunes National Park can be a simple day visit or a full multi-day backpacking adventure. When we decided to explore this great park, it was mid-march and there was still snow in the forecast for our visit. The temperature high was only 55 °F mid day. With that being said, I would plan a trip out here later in the springtime or during any of the summer months. The hiking options available during these months are much more accessible than late spring. Free backcountry permits are required for overnight backpacking trips originating in the national park: inquire at the Visitor Center Backcountry Office for site availability, current conditions, and your permit. Please note that permits must be obtained in person during Backcountry Office hours.
When we arrived, we quickly secured our permit at the Ranger Office. This process is swift and informative. The ranger was very friendly with our group and answered all our questions about the conditions for this time of year and what to expect/ prepare for. With her help, we decided to stay overnight at the backcountry site named “Escape Dunes”. It was situated by trail 1.4 miles north of Point of No Return, the last parking lot accessible by non-offroad vehicles. It was an open grove of ponderosa pines. The vast majority of the pines in this grove are tall, alive, and healthy, providing excellent shade and protection from the weather. We had just finished setting up camp and were waiting for Brendan and Andrew to get back. They forgot to bring the rain-fly for their tent. If it was summertime camping this would not have been an issue but we were expecting at least six inches of snow overnight. We spent the time vegging out in the open air tent. The current weather was moderate. The early morning rain clouds had dissipated and let room for the sun to dry us out. I brought out my sleeping pad from my tent and laid out gazing up in between the tall pines. The clouds were moving swiftly above us. Their wispy nature changing form by the second. Listening to the sounds of the wind moving through the trees was magical. We were miles from the nearest sizable town and could enjoy the true mountain sound, absent of noise pollution. The time was around 3 pm and I still wanted to get back inside the dunes. When we were approaching Great Sand Dunes National Park, my hopes, in terms of photography, were dim, literally. There seemed to be a thick gray blanket pulled over us in the sky. I was excited to finally get to the dunes but I knew it would be hard to capture any shots without the sun’s added contrast. But as the day went on, it started to pull away slowly pouring light over us. I sat there, staring at the dunes through the trees. Our campsite was set in the liminal space between the sandy dunes and the mountain pine forest. I was tracing lines with my eyes across the ridges of the dunes, searching for the best and easiest way to get atop these behemoths. My impatience was getting the best of me and decided to course the rest of us, Corey, Lexi, and Mihai to start making our way towards the dunes. I felt bad initially not waiting for Brendan and Andrew but I didn't think they would have wanted to go back up anyways. Climbing high dune in the morning was tough, inching up through the sand wasted half your energy trying to climb. This added with the two mile trek to our backcountry campsite can be a lot especially for someone’s first time in the outdoors.
In terms of leadership, I was also questioning if I was pushing my own agenda over that of the groups or pushing an experience for the better. I chose to reconcile with the latter. We put our sand filled boots back on our feet and headed out of camp. There was a small creek bed that led to the base of the closet dune. Mihai and I were leading, the small creek bed opened up to a sizable basin, scattered with river stone. This had to be a runoff stream in the late spring. Lexi and Corey were not too far behind, When they caught up to us they wondered if we could get in eye-sight of camp to see when Brendan and Andrew got back. We climbed up a section of the creek banks and still could not find our camp. Lexi and Corey decided to play it safe and head back and wait for Brendan and Andrew. Mihai and I continued forward and fastened our pace. It had to have been only a minute or two later when we stumbled across two deer bones. Two leg bones with a hoof still attached to one of them! Jokingly, Mihai picked it up and started making fake deer tracks. In the moment, it was quite comical. We decided to leave them there for when we came back so we could further the joke up at camp. We continued forward and eventually caught back up with the road that diverged from the initial trailhead. Mihia and I were thinking ahead and determined that it would be a good option in the morning to head back to the car instead of taking the more cumbersome trail back. We passed the road and came across a small flowing stream. This had to be Medano Creek. It was not the large flowing basin we saw back at the visitor center but a small trickle of a stream. Perfect in our case, because we could just hop over it to the connecting dune. I found a small log and crossed gracefully over while Mihai skipped over a small rock in the stream and just made it over without dipping his boots.
We both looked up and the immensity of the dune in front of us. We were laughing to each other about the physicality of the task but knew from our collective training we could do it, it was more a willpower issue. I pointed out the line I was scoping out earlier back at camp and Mihai agreed it would be our best bet to get over this wall of sand. The grade was almost vertical in spots. We tried using the firmness of the some of the sand plants to our steps advantage but these were sparsely scattered on our route. Mihai and I would switch out leading, stepping in already made footprints added extra rigidity to our steps in the sand. Mihai picked up a large stick to use as a trekking pole, with his scarf around his face he looked like a Mose’s figure. We continued our uphill battle resting only for 30 seconds at a time. I like hiking with Mihai because we’re both on the same wavelength when it comes to physical exertion. We would rather just get it done than prolong the process. So we kept this pace up, the dune got to a steepness were we had to use our hands and crawl up. After about 30 minutes we made it atop the initial dune to discover we still had more up if we wanted to see the true immensity of the park.
The way this terrain was shaped by nature is amazing. According to the all the infographics and models inside the park visitor center, the dunes are the deposit of a once mountain, millions of years ago. Which is remarkable due the sitting elevation of the dunes, enclosed in by the San Juan mountain range. With a little nudging to Mihai we continued forward. Past this point the relative steepness of the last grade subsided and made for a more gradual elevation gain. I was in a photographers heaven. I have had the amazing opportunity to shoot in many different dune locations. Death Valley mesquite Dunes to Utah’s Coral pink sand dunes. This was different though, in those you had to play the illusion you were Lawrence in Arabia but here you truly felt the immensity of these dunes as you walked through them. It could easily take more than a day to cross all of them.
If I were to go back in the summer, I would definitely obtain a dune backcountry permit to camp anywhere in the 30 square mile dunefield. There are no designated trails in the sand so you just make your own. The views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains fill the horizon. This accompanied by the incredible stars we witnessed would surely make a lifelong memory of this expanse of sand.