Playing in North America’s Largest Sandbox

FullSizeRenderThe guy at the board rental place warned us that sand will get everywhere.

“Everywhere,” he repeated for emphasis.

I was still Q-Tipping sand out of my ears a week later.

We ended our Vail trip with an excursion four hours south to Colorado’s high desert to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. Nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the San Luis Valley are the tallest sand dunes in North America. The 30-square mile dune field tops out at 750 feet tall, yet appears deceptively small from a distance – like little white plumes pressed up against dark granite slopes. You quickly come to realize the only small thing is this picture is you, standing at the base of High Dune, mouth agape, as you wrestle with very real doubts that you cannot physically make it to the top without bursting a lung.

Great Sand Dunes National Park is largely void of the typical trappings associated with most national parks.  There is, of course, a visitors center staffed by a friendly ranger handing out free advice and a gift shop selling $4 lip balm. But the park remains largely noncommercial. The closest “hamlet” is about 20 miles away in Alamosa. It’s the kind of town that caters to park visitors, but the numbers don’t support a full-on tourist trap. It’s both sleepy and alive – an old-school JCPenny department store peacefully cohabitates with a popular new microbrewery in the historic downtown.

We pulled up to the park’s entrance booth to pay our fee. It appeared to be closed – the blinds were shut tightly and the traffic arm was propped up, allowing us to enter freely. We attempted to pay the fee in the gift shop, but the woman operating the cash register simply waved us off and said, “No one’s out there? Well then, it’s a free day.” To show our gratitude, we purchased a window sticker for our car with the letters “GRSA” which is unintelligible to most people, picked up a park map despite the fact that there are no real trails, and drove over to the dune field.

We loaded our daypacks with water and snacks, then made our way toward the dunes. The initial 1/2 mile stretch of sand is a flood plain that turns into Mendano Creek in the spring. We stopped at the base of High Dune, the second tallest peak in the park at 700 feet. From our vantage point, it looked like a vertical wall of sand touching the sky.

“You’re determined to climb to the top, aren’t you?” asked Ross, knowingly.

“Maybe,” I said. But what I actually meant was, ‘You’re damn right I’m going to the top.’

The four of us started inching our way up the soft sand. Initially, we laughed about sliding back a half step for every one we took forward. But then, it started to feel like running on a beach at a 90 degree pitch. We were all “sucking wind” as Lindsey put it and needed to take frequent breaks to ward off impending asthma attacks. Around the midway point, Ross and Lindsey decided to head back down and play with the sand boards. I lightly forced Luke into accompanying me to the top.

The park’s already thin crowds became non-existent the higher we climbed. When we finally reached the narrow spine of sand that led to the top of the dune, there were no footprints in the sand other than our own. We perched on what we deemed to be the highest point and looked out over the massive dune field. Before us stretched an endless sea of rippled, white sand that resembled ocean waves frozen in place. Passing clouds cast shadows that added to the illusion of movement. When we looked closely at the sand, it was, in fact, constantly moving. Wind picked up and swirled the sand all around us, erasing our footprints and reshaping the dunes little by little. I dropped a lip balm on the way up and tried to retrace my steps back in a vain attempt to retrieve it. Both were gone, literally with the wind.

FullSizeRender-2We stayed up there for a while, enjoying the warm sand, the absolute quiet, and the sensation that comes along with standing at the top of the world. Heading back down the dune was faster and a lot more fun than going up. We bounded around like astronauts moonwalking. All we had to do was open up our stride and let our feet go.

We found Ross and Lindsey sitting on their sand boards on top of a smaller dune. They surprised us with a picnic lunch consisting of beer, trail mix, two kinds of beef jerky and bananas. They even hauled our sand boards across Mendano Creek for us. Everything was already covered in a fine layer of sand, but the sand-boarding portion of the afternoon sealed the deal in terms of thoroughly coating everything with gobs of it. I have to say renting the boards at $18 a pop was worth it solely for the purpose of watching my friends attempt to stay on theirs. It’s not at all like sledding or snowboarding where gravity and friction work together in harmony. Gravity wants to pull you down, but friction wants to toss you off the side and kick sand into your face for good measure.

Later that night, we decided to soak our sore, sandy muscles in the natural hot spring located near the dunes. The Sand Dunes Swimming Pool located in Hooper has a large outdoor pool and a newly added indoor greenhouse for adults-only. It was family swim night outside, so we opted for the quieter greenhouse. Inside was a long, zero-entry pool, three hot tubs, a sauna and a bar. Planted grass, flowers, desert plants and small trees filled the air with the deeply satisfying smell of soil. Local stained-glass artwork decorated the walls. The water temperature in the pool was between 98 -100 degrees. The hot tubs ranged from 104 to 110 degrees. We tried each of the tubs, only managing to dip our toes into the hottest one, and eventually settled into the deep end of the pool near the waterfall. We relaxed our tired muscles, soothed our wind-burned faces, and sipped on beers as we plotted ways to create a similar set-up in Minnesota.

The night wasn’t over quite yet – we had one thing left to see before heading back to Alamosa. We drove back to the dunes and pulled over to the side of a very dark back road. We got out of the car and stood in the middle of the road. The night air felt cold on my wet hair. A billion stars emerged from the night sky overhead. The Milky Way stretched across the horizon, clear and bright. Once again, we were tiny creatures staring at a giant we didn’t quite understand, but fully appreciated for its mystery.

That feeling alone is worth the head full of sand it took to achieve it.

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