I first became interested in backpacking in the early summer of 2012. Not really knowing where to begin, I subscribed to Backpacker Magazine on my iPad. I started reading through as many back issues as I could. I came across an article titled “America’s Best Campsites.” Each site came with a stunning photo and a glowing review. Most seemed pretty hard to get to, requiring a long or difficult hike. One in particular stuck out: Great Sand Dunes National Park. According to the article, one could hike just a short distance and pitch camp in total isolation. I was sold!
After reading the article, I committed myself to camping on the sand dunes as soon as I could. The problem was that the Dunes are in Colorado and I live in New Jersey. Fortunately, an opportunity soon arose to attend a trade conference in Denver. The conference was in September, just three months away. It looked like it would be a tight schedule. I had a conference to attend in New Jersey that ended on Saturday while the conference in Denver began the following Tuesday. I wanted to see as much as I could, so I booked a flight early Sunday morning and arranged vacation for Monday.
According to my research, temperatures during the day would be in the 70’s, while night-time temperatures would drop into the 40’s. The September forecast called for almost no chance of rain. I packed my Big Agnes Jack Rabbit 2 tent and my Mountain Hardware Lamina 35 Sleeping Bag. Walking on the sand would be difficult, so I purchased a pair of Lekki trekking poles with snow baskets. My biggest environmental concern was the sun, so I planned to wear long pants, a long sleeve shirt, and a brimmed hat while hiking.
2:00 AM Comes Early
The day before leaving for my trip, I was attending the New Jersey Fireman’s convention in Wildwood. I was a delegate to the convention and had to vote. As soon as the meeting was over, a buddy and I drove home. I did some last-minute packing and was in bed by 9:00 pm. It wasn’t long before my alarm was going off and I was on my way to adventure. In order to get the most out of my time, I wanted to arrive out west in the early morning. That meant getting up at 2:00 AM for a 5:00 AM flight. I had read somewhere “If you want to be a backpacker, you have to get used to getting up at 5:00 AM.” I guess they weren’t counting flying time. Thanks to the magic of Time Zones, I was in New Mexico by 7:00 AM!
From the Interstate, it all looks the same.
Santa Fé was the closest major city to Great Sand Dunes National Park. I flew to Albuquerque instead because I wanted to see more landscape. The extra landscape between these two cities wasn’t worth the extra 1.5 hour drive. In an effort to avoid destroying beautiful scenery, the Interstate Highway System bypasses most scenic areas. I arrived in Santa Fé around 9:30 AM to find out that REI didn’t open until 10:00. I needed a fuel canister for my stove, so I walked around for a bit while I waited. Santa Fé is a neat little artsy town, but for some reason I didn’t take any pictures. From there it was another 4 hours to the National Park Visitor’s Center.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Congress established Great Sand Dunes National Park in September of 2004, making it one of the youngest national parks. The park, along with its adjacent preserve, protects roughly 85,000 acres of pristine natural environment. Its centerpiece are the highest sand dunes in North America, rising over 750 feet from the valley floor. The dunes are continuing to grow as winds sweep dust and sand off the great dry plains to the south. As the winds hit the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, they slow down and drop their sand at the foot of the mountains.
I arrived at the Visitors Center just after 3:00 PM. After taking a quick tour of the museum, I applied for a backcountry permit and listened to a long set of rules. The small contingent of National Park employees at the Dunes take their job very seriously. They’re tasked with protecting a pristine ecosystem from tourists who may accidentally do it harm. The Park does not allow camping in any area that is visible from the visitors center. There are absolutely no fires on the dunes. Absolutely everything you bring in with you must come back out, including toilet paper.
Climbing the Dunes
After receiving my permit, I drove my car to the overnight parking area and made a last check of my gear. I decided to leave behind some extra clothing, as well as the rain fly from my tent. I loaded my pack up with as many water bottles as I could carry.
I usually do not use a handheld GPS receiver while hiking, but I did on this trip. There are no trails in the dunes and I wanted to be sure I found my way back out. I marked the location of my car and added waypoints every so often as I hiked. It turns out I was just being paranoid, a simple compass would have done just fine.
Between the Visitor’s Center and the base of the Dunes lies the Medano Creek Riverbed. During the rainy season, it is a gushing torrent and supports diverse life. The day I was there, it was completely dry. Campsites along the riverbed experience frequent visits from American Black Bears coming out of the mountains. The visitors center assured me that bears never climb the sand dunes.
After crossing the creek, I began my ascent. I followed some foot steps, hoping their owners had chosen an easy route. I passed a few teenagers surfing down the dunes, and then the climb started to get really steep. I didn’tknow where I was going, so I kept following the footprints. I wandered up the dunes, mostly along ridges that had formed by the wind. With each step forward, I slid backwards half a step. I learned that if I walked on the leeward side of the little ridges, the sand was firmer.
I kept climbing until the ridge I was following disappeared and gave way to an open bowel. Here I was forced to climb straight up the sand. I was really out of shape at the time, and scrambling up this sandy wall was miserable work. Eventually I made it to the top, just to find I had further to go. The wind had carved out huge dimples in the sand, like the surface of a golf ball. Each time I got to the top edge of one crater, another one appeared.
I finally made it!
Eventually I reached the high ridge the ranger had described to me. I was allowed to camp anywhere west of this point, so long as I couldn’t see the visitors center. Exhausted, I started looking for a place to sleep for the night. I found a trough that provided wind protection from three directions and pitched my tent. For an idea of how windy it was, check my video on YouTube.
After claiming my campsite, I wandered around a bit more. I met another hiker who offered to take my picture. I chatted with a couple driving across the country on their honeymoon. I met another guy who was actually just out for a run. I didn’t meet anyone else who was planning on spending the night.
Nighttime on the Dunes
If you’ve lived your whole life in New Jersey or a similar area, you have no idea what dark is. You have no idea what silence is. You have no idea what stars are. After the sun set, I may as well have been in outer space. I tried to take pictures, but my tiny camera just couldn’t cut it. Peering into this night sky was unbelievable. There were millions of stars scattered across the blackest space I had ever seen. Every few seconds a meteor shot across the sky with a flash. You could see stars with different colors and make out the shapes of planets. After getting up at 2:00 AM, flying 4 hours, driving another 6, and hiking for 2, I drifted to sleep watching the heavens.
Coming Back Down
I woke the next day with the sun on my face, had breakfast, and began the climb back down. It was an easy walk. Gravity did most of the work as I slid down the sand on my heels. The sun was still low in the sky as I descended, making for one of my favorite photos. This one always reminds me of the Mary Stevenson poem.
Even though it was only one night, this was a big trip for me. It was my first “epic” backpacking adventure. It wasn’t a climb to an amazing elevation or a ridiculous number of miles, but it was proof that I could set a goal and reach it. Since my trip to the Sand Duns, I have gone on many more great adventures, and I have many more planned for the future. No matter what else I do, this trip will always hold a very special place in my memory.