Like most people on this planet, I sometimes get overwhelmed when I’m traveling. This is a good thing as a person and an explorer, but it can be one hell of a sore toe as a writer. On my recent adventure into the Great Sand Dunes of Southern Colorado, I was flooded with emotions from all angles. Again – a great thing – but it creates a challenge when it comes to words on a page and describing those feelings.
When I have these moments, I go back to basics and give myself the same advice I always have: Just write the truth, you dipshit.
And so, eating my lunch perched upon a pile of sand overlooking the vast valley of dunes, I took out my notebook: I’ve got sand in my sandwich, and I don’t care. That’s the truest thing I know at the moment.
Indeed, more profound thoughts have been penned. But it sure as hell worked. The notes and thoughts go on, describing a world that existed way in the past, when I sat on the beach as a kid with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sand in my suit, my biggest worry the sly seagulls and whether or not it would rain. Flash forward to that moment and I’m sitting there trying to describe my feelings, and it all becomes clear: A trip to the Sand Dunes is more than a camping trip. In a way, it’s a journey back into the joys of childhood.
Part of that is because it’s a place where anything goes. Traditional hikes point you on a path, and even if you want to divert from that path, obstacles stand in your way. Cliffs. Rocks. Fallen trees. Bears. But at the Sand Dunes, any direction – literally any way you want to go – is up for grabs, all 360-degrees of space. That, and how could you not want to climb a giant pile of sand? Isn’t that childhood in a nutshell?
There are some places you take pictures of because you want to relay the beauty. There are other places you take pictures of because you need evidence – otherwise no one would believe you. In this case, I needed evidence. While the camera never seems to do large-scale natural wonders justice (i.e. the Grand Canyon), the imagery you see in the photos is pretty much on point. My only wish is that you could realize the size of these suckers, and hopefully the pictures of the valleys and our tent shed some light on that. The dunes cover about 19,000 acres, rise up about 750 feet, and were formed in part by sentiments from the Rio Grande river.
We had high hopes of hiking a few miles into the dunes for a full, immersive experience, but we were quickly humbled by the combination of the sand and the weight of our packs. You have to register with the visitor’s center, and from where you park your car, it’s a steep uphill climb to get over the first set of dunes. On one hand that is unfortunate – there’s just no other access point that I know of – but on the other, it’s what makes the journey special – not everyone is cut out for it. And it puts a sort of exclusivity upon the experience. We saw only one other set of campers way off in the distance.
Once you get over that first set of dunes, going deeper does not necessarily guarantee any further remoteness (there are rumors of “hidden gems” and water holes, but to the best of my knowledge they are just rumors). My advice would be to hike into the first valley and find a place to call home within the first hour or two. You have to carry in everything you need, including water (I carried in about two gallons), and you’re not going to enjoy the hike with the heavy pack.
The dunes can be very windy, so while I’d recommend finding a place to camp, my suggestion would be to hold off on setting up your tent until later in the day. Traditional stakes don’t hold so well in the sand, and twice we returned to camp to see our tent tumbling down the valley. We were very lucky in our timing – that we happened to see it blow off. The wind comes from all directions and constantly changes throughout the day, and our tent would have blown on for miles had we not seen it break loose. To give you an idea of the crazy winds, our tent blew in one direction the first time, and the complete opposite the next only a few hours later.
As the day went on, the changing of the light was extremely obvious due to the intense reflection of the sun on the sand. As you’ll see in the photos, a few hours makes a huge difference in not only the shadows, but the color of the sand. This also means drastic changes in temperature at night, as the sand does not hold in the heat of the sun. During our trip, the temperature easily dropped 30-40 degrees over the course of the sunset. In some cases, you could be in the shade on one side of the dune and have your feet in cold sand, and if you climbed up to the top into the sunlight, you could barely stand on the sand without shoes or socks.
Other than walking around in the sand, there are plenty of other things to do in the area. If you have a high-clearance vehicle, I’d recommend camping the night before on Medano Pass and entering the National Park that way (there’s no entry fee if you do). Zapata Falls is a nearby short hike, and did you know you can “sandboard” down the dunes? You can check out the somewhat-cheesy video below for some advice and to get a glimpse.
Last piece of advice: Accept the sand. There’s no point in fighting it – it will get everywhere – so you might as well embrace it. I recommend sliding down a dune head first as a way to break the ice.