Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO

If Hot Springs National Park was an unpleasant disappointment, Great Sand Dunes National Park was a pleasant surprise.  I had a decent idea of the offerings of the latter prior to my arrival, but the sheer size, scope, and majesty of the dunes and surrounding mountains blew me away.

Driving straight from Dallas, TX to Great Sand Dunes in southeastern Colorado (an 11.5-hour drive) I did not pull into Pinon Flats Campground at the Park until well after dark.  Being both a National Park and Dark Sky Preserve, the area was dark to the point where I could barely see the trees at the campsite next time mine, let alone the dunes in the background.  Upon waking up the next morning, I emerged from my long-awaited slumber to the sight of the eponymous towering dunes above the tree line.

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It was at this moment that I silently thanked myself for allocating two days to this Park.  A handful of other Parks along my trip I have undercut with too short a time to visit, including Theodore Roosevelt and Cuyahoga Valley, but I had the sense when planning my itinerary that Great Sand Dunes would warrant two full days.  As enticing as the dunes were that particular October morning, I decided to go for a more mountainous trail that day, and drove a few minutes up the road to the trailhead for the Mosca Pass Trail.  Mosca Pass is a 7.2 mile out-and-back trail that leads through terrain reminiscent of a mountain ambush scene in an old Western movie.  The trail is somewhat narrow in parts, winds up through rocks, brush, and low-lying trees, and was apparently once used as a toll road in the mid-to-late 1800s before it was washed out one too many times…

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While the first part of the trail is somewhat steep and requires some navigation around a few large rock outcroppings, the bulk of the hike was surprisingly easy, and I was shocked to find myself at the opposite trailhead after only about 70 minutes of hiking.  The return trip was even shorter, as it was mostly downhill, and the entire 7.2-mile hike lasted roughly two hours.  The remainder of my day was spent relaxing and napping at my campsite to recuperate after my half-day’s drive the previous evening.  A Park Ranger had come by early that morning to advise me and a handful of other campers that the windspeeds on the dunes in the middle of the day would be too high for him to recommend hiking the Park’s namesake.  I endeavored to wait until the following morning to attempt to scale the dunes.

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I’ve often noted in previous posts that every National Park I have visited (save perhaps Hot Springs) has provided me with a moment where the feeling of, “Ok, THIS is why X is a National Park…”  My second day in Great Sand Dunes provided that moment like a gust of sandy wind to the face.  From a distance, the dunes look large and impressive, but in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, they appear rather pedestrian.  Don’t let the side-by-side juxtaposition fool you, however; the dunes are monstrous.  Standing at the bottom of the dunes near the parking lot (and after crossing a very cold and wet stream, I might add), I was only really able to see the first and second level of dunes.  The first level is where most visitors bring their children, boogie boards, sleds, etc. to slide down the enormous sand mounds and not exert terribly much effort.  I took it upon myself to scale the second level of dunes, thinking them to be the highest.  How incredibly wrong I was…

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After 20 minutes of trudging up the dunes, I had scaled what appeared to be the highest dune.  From here, I could see the third level, hidden above and behind the second from the foot of the massive piles of sand.  At this second level, the winds were likely in the 20-25 mph range with temperatures in the high-30s.  Tightening my backpack straps and brushing the sand from my mustache, I took a gritty drink of water from my hydration bladder and continued to scale the dune.  Upon reaching the third level 15 minutes later, I saw the fourth and final level of the dunes.  The highest dune was about three times as high as the second level had been, and the small crowd of hikers was thinning out the higher I went.  Gazing up at the top through the now 30-35 mph winds, I saw three figures at the top of the highest peak and made up my mind to become the fourth.  The path, if it can be called that, up to its zenith was upon a sandy ridge requiring a single-file line, and I came very close to tumbling down the side as a couple swiftly brushed past me on their return hike.

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Finally reaching the top, another solo traveler, perhaps a few years older than me, was standing on the dune taking photos and enjoying the gorgeous, albeit extremely windy scenic 360-degree landscape around us.  We exchanged a few pleasantries, I took as many photos as I could muster, given the wind speeds, and began to descend the aptly-named Great Sand Dunes.  Where going up had been painstakingly slow on my ascent, going down was as easy as bounding into blustery pillows of soft sand.  Taking a few broad and well-placed jumps, I reached the bottom of the dunes in no time.  About halfway down, I did notice a man close to my own age making his way up the dunes with a long pair of skis on his back and a comically large set of goggles.  Glancing down at my own hiking shoes and touching my gloved fingers to the frame of my glasses, I suddenly felt like this man was living the best version of his life.  I didn’t stick around to watch him make the full climb and ski down, but he didn’t seem the type to solicit an audience, anyway…

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After eventually returning to my car, I gingerly removed my shoes so as to savor the pouring out of every grain of sand I could shake onto the parking lot’s pavement.  The amount of sand I extricated from my shoes after this single hike could have rebuilt the entirety of the New Jersey shoreline after Hurricane Sandy, supplied every Olympic beach volleyball court through the 2044 Summer games, with enough left over to start my own lucrative hourglass company.

It seemed most visitors at Great Sand Dunes National Park were interested in the novelty, accessibility, and grandeur of the dunes themselves.  What many of them missed out on, however, was the chance to stand on the shoulders of these giants and truly soak in the surrounding vistas.  Make the trek to the dune peaks if you’re physically able, don’t mind a little grit in your life, and want to experience a different side of the Park.  They don’t call them ‘Great’ for nothing…

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