Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Backpacking Through Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park

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.
We made it through our first night camped out in the dunefield though temperatures dropped sharply as soon as the sun completely dove past the horizon. The eeriest thing throughout the night was the silence, hearing only the routine slowly building strong gusts of wind that barreled down from the top of the tall dune behind us, and crashed into the sides of our tent, throwing sand everywhere. When we woke up, all of us were covered in sand that lingered for days. Unzipping the vestibule, my early Saturday view was nothing short of mythical.
Starving, we laid out a tarp and cooked breakfast, each of us with dehydrated pouches of scrambled eggs with ham and peppers, a breakfast skillet, and a filling spicy southwest hash with just enough of a kick to wake me up. Coffee followed and I’m convinced it was the best cup of backcountry coffee I’ve ever had. It's an early chilly Saturday morning in a heavenly national park, and I've got my mug of hot coffee and big smiles. This is me. This is the exact life I love to live, and one that I'm so incredibly grateful for. Follow your passions, follow your dreams, and follow your heart to the places it begs you to go.
Our stomachs full from three Mountain House meal packs, we wandered directionless into the dunes to explore the wilderness beyond where we had breakfast. We looked back every few minutes to regain our bearings and find where our orange and silver tent was flapping in the wind. If you look dead-center in the photo above, and then slightly to the right, you may be able to spot it buried in the dunes. Exhausting, yes, but this landscape was filled with magic. You hear the term "false summit" when it comes to mountains, but those two words can definitely be murmured when exploring this vast dune field. You'll hike up the side of a steep dune, sinking back a step each time, hoping for the peak, but then you arrive and find an entire new crest to discover
Mother nature granted me permission to play in her big sand box. During the three days spent backpacking through Great Sand Dunes National Park, sand ended up literally everywhere. Clogging our hiking boots, crusted in our eyes at sunrise, hiding my camera case, and buried deep in my Gregory Baltoro pack. Curiosity was ricocheting back-and-forth in my head, attempting to process this raw wild landscape. Sticking my hand down into the crest of a dune and scooping up a palm of sand, I filtered it slowly in between my fingers, letting small breezes catch it as it fell back to the earth.

One of the most shocking things I took for granted, were the dramatic temperature swings of the sand throughout the day. As soon as the sun rises high in the Colorado sky, the sand heats up almost unbearably hot to touch, but at night when the constellations come out and shine, the sand instantly feels like cold ice. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that kind of natural occurrence in any other national or state park. This was simply gripping to ponder about.
Navigating through the hypnotizing dunefield can be tricky, repetitive, and almost mirage-like at times. With our tent stowed away and gear packed, I plugged in a new set of coordinates into the GPS and we pinpointed this grand ponderosa pine to use as a distant landmark when departing from our first night’s backcountry. An hour or so later we had strayed far out from the sand dunes and reached the other side of our guide tree’s long Evergreen needles. I turned around, my eyes grew wide, and my jaw dropped to the floor at this sensational panorama right in front of me.
Drew took the lead and we kept heading upwards away from the dunes towards walls of dark rock flanking the base of the Sangre de Cristos. I stopped and unzipped my jacket pocket to check the GPS unit, which had just read past the 9,000ft mark. At around 3pm, we found a south-facing ridge overlooking the dunefield, dropped our packs, and took a quick break. I untied my hiking boots, hung my wool socks on a nearby branch of a pinyon pine, and stretched out my toes while gazing across the sunlit San Luis Valley. Colorado continues to take my breath away, every single time I explore this place. When we continued along this row of trail pushing towards our backcountry campsite for night two, we spotted several fairly fresh mountain lion tracks in the dirt and stayed alert.
A lone smith's draba pokes its way through the soft sand, a charming surprise to witness hues of vibrant pink and coral colors amidst such a dry landscape. The subtle winds from the Sange de Cristos running down the dunes shook and flickered this little shrub as we hiked past, almost as if it were waving "Hi!". I stopped to acknowledge its presence, kneeling down and gently touching its thorny arms for a handshake. I pressed my camera's shutter a dozen or so times trying to capture its tiny shadow behind. After wrapping up a late lunch, we threw on our packs, checked the map and GPS, then began hiking east towards the Sangre de Cristos. From here on this ridge along the edge of the dunefield, I could stare due west out at the horizon over the sand dunes and the flat San Luis valley at the dark shadows of the Continental Divide rising above the Rio Grande National Forest more than 60 miles away. Unreal.
The trail we were following to our second night’s campsite took us in and out of the two designated wilderness areas at Great Sand Dunes National Park. In 1964 the Wilderness Act was signed and born. Created to safeguard close to 110 million acres of raw, untouched wilderness, the Wilderness Act has been one of our country’s best heroic conservation efforts that we should be so thankful for and aware of. At this park, there’s the eastern neighboring Great Sand Dunes National Preserve which protects some 41,686 acres of high peaks shooting past the 13,000 ft elevation mark, remote alpine lakes, and lush pinyon-juniper forest; and the Great Sand Dunes Wilderness Area’s 35,955 acre dunefield with the tallest sand dunes in the North America. I paused to look back at this brown boundary marker and felt a surge of gratitude. I probably wouldn’t be able to hike on public lands like this, with a humbling view of far snowcapped Mount Herard if it weren’t for the Wilderness Act.
Truthfully, the biggest logistical challenge I faced in planning a three-day backpacking trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park was figuring out our water situation. Between three people, three meals, and miles of hiking at elevation; conserving and keeping an eye on your water supply in the backcountry would be imperative. When we departed from the trailhead on Friday morning, we filled several Nalgene bottles and soft, collapsible water bladders and headed out into the dunes. During the peak late afternoon on our second day, we were fairly low on water but thankfully the route I had planned took us across Little Medano Creek. I knelt down to filter and refill multiple liters of water that would last us until Sunday mid-morning. I'm grateful I have the right gear and spent adequate time mapping our trek when it comes to moments like this.
Deep in subalpine forest that skirts along the bottom of the Sangre de Cristo range, we hiked to find our backcountry campsite near Little Medano creek for Saturday night. It was quite the relief after two long days of backpacking through dense sand to look down and see solid, firm ground beneath my hiking boots. With starving stomachs, we arrived after a full-day's rack of miles and setup the tent. With an extraordinary view out our front door like this, I felt so much gratitude.
One of the most unique examples of flora scattered across this montane forest's dry floor at the foot of the mountains is the narrowleaf yucca. It’s sharp, flawlessly straight, and fierce structure was an invitation for me to crawl down and admire it up close with my camera. Note to self, even a pair of thick, wool hiking socks won’t fend off the statuesque yucca’s accidental painful prick…but it was so worth it to grab this shot. I couldn't stop smiling while geeking out over this little buddy.
Great Sand Dunes might be the most alluring national park I've explored. What you see here, is what makes this place so, so, so special. While its name commands warranted attention to the unthinkable miles of golden flowing sand dunes, the park's frosted mountains and their accompanying layers of thick forest have easily just as much character.
Pitched under sheltering bristlecone and ponderosa pines, the scene pictured here was drastically different than our backcountry site last night spent out in the open sand dunes, a contrast we cherished and appreciated. This amazing, under-the-radar national park in Colorado's San Luis valley was generously showing us all of its diverse terrain. Framing these late Saturday afternoon shots in my camera's viewfinder before dinner gave me time to play with the falling soft light beaming down on my tent. After eating another course of dehydrated meals from Mountain House and drinking tea, we broke trail and climbed a tall ridge to find a fallen Rocky Mountain juniper to sit on while watching the sun set over the western dunes.
Moonrise over the Sangre de Cristo at golden hour cast a jaw-dropping copper and crimson alpenglow on the range of snowcapped mountains visible from our campsite snug in the thick pines. What's seen here might be my favorite photo I shot on our backpacking trip, and standing there silently gazing up at the lone white dot plucked in the fading blue sky gave me the chills. This is the Colorado I love. This is the Colorado I'm drawn to.
An early sunrise greeted us as we unzipped and crawled out of the tent on Sunday morning. While temperatures weren't as frigid like the numbers we experienced in the exposed dune field, it was still chilly with remnants of frost seen about in this subalpine forest that surrounded us. There's something calming about waking up in the wilderness to this kind of stillness. After sipping the dwindling supply of coffee Richie prepared for us, we tore down the tent, loaded up our packs, and said goodbye to our backyard of ponderosa pines we had for night two. Sunday marked the final and third day at Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park and we began our last trek back to Richie's white Volvo caked in dust and mud.
At the start of this year, I made a goal to visit three National Park properties by the end of 2018. On our last hike back to the trailhead, I stayed behind the others, silently taking in the heavenly surroundings. It was a time for reflection too, feeling grateful for surpassing that goal by three. Five national park properties and one national grassland in 10 months is an accomplishment I can surely smile at. All of these cherished public lands are places that feel like home to me.

What national parks, forests, monuments, or wildlife areas are you striving to get to in 2019? What state parks are on your list?