Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Backpacking Great Sand Dunes National Park: Pitching a tent in Colorado's sandbox

I was overcome with the biggest sensation of gratitude, standing once again on my feet at Colorado's dreamy Great Sand Dunes National Park. 

Rewind to 2015 in the midst of a 19-hour drive back to Wisconsin, I detoured from the main highway to check out this national park, but my first time visiting was much too short and somewhat rushed. I almost felt guilty for not staying longer. Since that day I had been missing this place tremendously, attracted so much by its allure, and constantly telling myself "I need to go back there, I need to go back there." Note the wording of "need" versus "want". This is such a special national park to me and one that has a guaranteed corner in my heart reserved for it. 
When I pulled the trigger on cheap October flights out to Denver to spend three-days backpacking through the wilderness at Great Sand Dunes I felt a rush of excitement and fulfillment inside, knowing that I'd soon be there exploring all it offers and showing it the love, appreciation, and awe it's always deserved.
I think there are certain places in life you need to go and pay your respects to, places you owe it to yourself to visit. Blanca Peak stood over our right shoulders as we pulled over on CO-150 so I could play with a tumbleweed rolling along and marvel at the imposing San Luis Valley embracing this treasured national park the three of us had just arrived into.
Yes, that's a Volvo XC90 with off-road tires! The journey itself to the far trailhead for our backpacking required piloting the awesome, 4x4-only, rugged Medano Pass Primitive Road, which skirts between the massive dunefield and the Sangre de Cristo mountains for more than thirty minutes. Soft sands that would command four-wheel-drive low if you're not careful enough, banks of trees that would knock a side mirror off, stream crossings, and views you'd tell stories about worth hanging out of the backseat window to capture with my camera.
Half-an-hour later, we were at the remote Medano Creek trailhead. I scribbled down our names and destinations in the backcountry registry, activated my Spot SOS beacon, and checked the map. Richie, Drew, and I threw our packs on our shoulders and smiled for the camera before departing. I'm grateful for these two best friends I have standing aside me here, who tagged along and entrusted me with planning out their very first backpacking trip ever. The logistics, mapping out the route, our safety and navigation, wrangling the necessary gear and food- all of it. Especially into an unpredictable  and unforgiving wilderness like that at Great Sand Dunes. I'm grateful I was able to share this passion I have for venturing deep into our public lands and national parks with these two gents.
Late Thursday night while sitting at the airport waiting to get on my flight to Colorado, I programmed in all three days' worth of coordinates into my GPS for the various backcountry destinations we'd be backpacking to at Great Sand Dunes National Park. Paper maps and a reliable satellite GPS unit are essential navigation tools yes, but distinguishable geographic highlights like this jagged rock outcropping below 12,011ft Mt. Zwischen near the trailhead, acted as our visual landmark too since it could be seen from miles and miles away.
Dwelling in the shadows of a soaring ponderosa pine served as a humble reminder of how small I am on this big beautiful planet I get to mindfully explore. It's a valuable observation to be conscious of, and when we're cast out into the wilds of nature, a space is created for us to appreciate that awareness. Yes, you can definitely bet I hugged that admirable tree. Speaking of practicing mindfulness in the backcountry, on the morning of our second day camped in the desolate dunefield, I asked my two best friends to pause, look around at this landscape circling us...the mountains, the sands, the blue sky, the forests...and think of which part of all of it are you most grateful for and why? While we're often so focused, many times, on our current destination and the one looming in the future, we have to slow down, and open our eyes, minds, and hearts to what's here, right now, and how it makes us feel.
Continuing through the brush and hiking straight west until the skyline of sand dunes appeared off in the distance. Before entering into the vast dunefield, we climbed down into a gulch housing a tiny creek. It was also a thick maze of overgrown, thorny shrubbery that latched onto all of our backpacks and jackets, trying to prevent us from clambering up into the dunes. Rampant white fluffs of clouds dotted this Friday afternoon's Colorado sky.
I began leading our approach up into the dunefield. Every step forward felt like two steps backwards. When we arrived at the park office for our backcountry permit, a ranger mapped out the required minimal distance permitted for backpacking in the dunes. When we diverted off the primitive Sand Ramp Trail and headed directly west towards the towering dunes, we had to be at least 1.5-miles into the interior of the dunefield. Hiking to the tops of these steep mini golden mountains of sand was exhausting yes, but I'm glad I trained for it in the weeks leading up to this trip. Great Sand Dunes National Park has the tallest sand dunes in the United States, with five reaching more than 700ft. What constantly amazed us as we trekked further into the dunes at the polarizing size and scale of it all. It's honestly something you really don't expect or imagine until your ankle-deep in sand. I became absolutely fascinated with what I saw in front of me, and kept humming that catchy riff from Death Cab For Cutie's "Black Sun." Cheers to Richie for saying, "Hey, give me your camera and keep going." Everything began to feel as if time were in slow motion
If you're been following my travel blog for a while now, you probably caught on that strive to be transparent. That's why it's a blog. My heart was rapidly beating and filled with so much strong emotion, sitting on the crest of that sand dune. For three years I've ached to return and thoroughly explore this place since stopping here very briefly in March of 2015, on my 1,000 plus mile road trip back to Wisconsin after finishing a six-month seasonal outdoor education job at the YMCA of the Rockies. It's a national park I've daydreamed about, one that I've been incredibly curious about and felt a gravitating draw to. Now I was finally back, doing what I've always wanted to accomplish.
We had been hiking off-trail for a couple of hours and climbed above a high dune for a better vantage point. Scanning the sands below, we found a flat clearing safe and somewhat sheltered to pitch our Eureka Taron2. Outside of our tent, we had front-row seats to southeast views from where the sprawling, 30 square mile, tan dunefield meets frosty Mt. Zwischen and the North Zapata Ridge. In packing all of my gear and confirming any last-minute logistical details for our trip out to Great Sand Dunes National Park, I realized I didn’t have any deep snow stakes to defend our tent against the violent gusts that would later battle across this shadowy sandscape. Thankfully a heavy-duty set of six arrived in a box right at my apartment’s doorstep two days prior to landing in Denver.
What I cherished so much about this place we were lucky to stay in for our first night in the backcountry, was that there was absolutely no one else out there. We were the only souls in this wonderful wilderness, and had it all to ourselves. There's truly no where else in the world like Great Sand Dunes National Park. I was at a loss for words and straight-hypnotized by the late afternoon's warm sunlight revealing all the wonders of this puzzling, magical, and abstract landscape I was so fortunate to be backpacking through. What you see here is real; not Photoshopped, fabricated, or filtered. Just a raw wilderness that's simply mind-blowing. There's no other way to put it. If you have not had the opportunity to explore this National Park, I implore you to go.
Daylight faded and the three of us arranged our sleeping bags and inflated pads narrowly side-by-side to get ready for the evening ahead. Rather than lug two shelters for three people into the backcountry, we relied on my two-person backpacking tent which while quarters were tight, kept toasty warm through the night as temperatures dropped into the low 20s. As we stacked our packs and hiking boots in the vestibule, I caught the last few moments of Friday’s sunset casting fiery colors above the ridges of the far-off dunes. Hours later when it was pitch black, we crawled out of the tent and found the dunefield completely illuminated by the bright moon above. We didn’t even need to switch on our headlamps. It was a surreal moment I’ll never forget, standing in the sand and staring up the most dazzling display of constellations I’ve ever seen. The Big Dipper appeared so close to us that I felt I could just reach out and grab that starry ladle out of the sky. Conditions were freezing and continuously blowing sand pierced my face but it was oh so worth it.

Cheers,
Robby

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