Thursday, January 3, 2019

Backpacking Great Sand Dunes National Park: Wandering directionless into the wilderness

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.

Cheers,
Robby

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