August 29, 2016

Great Sand Dunes National Park

By Sjboatwright In On the Trail

The move to Colorado has opened more doors to explore the outdoors than I could ever have imagined. CO has nearly 60 mountains that scrape the sky at 14,000 feet or taller, making for the most iconic images of the state.

What sometimes gets overshadowed is the fact that the Mountain State has four national parks to offer the wanderlusting explorer. The most bizarre park, by far, is Great Sand Dunes. Haunting, eerie, almost unnerving if you’re unprepared, the park consists of 19,000 acres of sand dunes towering up to 750 tall.  Nestled in the middle of two mountain ranges is North America’s own Sahara.

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The dunes are a result of the most far-fetched coincidence.  The strong southwesterly winds blowing over the San Luis Mountains, blew millions of tons of sediment off of the peaks.  The sand, unable to escape yet another mountain range across the valley, became trapped at the base of the mountains and piled up over millions of years.

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Working often gets in the way of adventure, so I’ve gotten in the habit of leaving for trips immediately following my shifts…at midnight or later.  After five hours of caffeine and Fall Out Boy I arrived at the gates of GDNP.  The mounds were in view miles from the actual entrance to the park, glowing a brilliant orange in the early morning light.

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The downside (or maybe upside depending on your take) of a park made of sand is that trails are impossible to make and maintain.  Two sand dunes in particular give the park its claim to fame, High Dune, roughly 695 feet, and Star Dune, the tallest in North America, at 750 feet.  The height and location of the dunes is constantly shifting with the wind and rain, so all estimates are just that, educated guesses really.  Finding these bad boys is easy from the parking lot, trekking there is half workout, half torture.

Do you think running in the sand is tiring?  You won’t know what to do with hundreds of vertical feet above you and miniature sand avalanches crumbling the ground beneath your every step.  Luckily, I climbed these in a cool morning, but don’t think about making the journey barefoot, hippie style in the summer.  The Colorado sun can bake the sand to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, despite the fact there’s mountain runoff streaming through the park.  A few bad decisions and you may become one with the sand.

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My advice for conquering the dunes is only walk up the ridges (knife edges).  They’re a bit harder than the surrounding sand.  With a little sweat, I made it to Star Dune in just over an hour.  The views, needless to say, were sublime:

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I was fortunate enough to make this trip on the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.  It was a good chance to tip a hat in honor of the man who inspired both the NPS and this blog, John Muir.  Thank you John.  The struggle to protect our wild places continues.

One last suggestion.  Bring a sled, snowboard or skis.  What could be more fun than blasting down the tallest sand dunes on the continent on a disk sled?  Enough said.

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