We arrived at what a man at our campsite had described as a “big pile of sand.” And that it was. Great Sand Dunes National Park lies between rolling plains dotted with trees and small green mountains on the other edge. The area where the mountains and grasslands meet has an elegant that gently transitions more subtly than any other I've seen so far. The park consists of just under 85,000 acres, 19,000 which are dunes. The dunes currently reach 750 feet in the air, and are the tallest sand dunes in North America.
So we climbed them.
We reached the edge of the park, and right beyond it was Medano Creek, which was a shallow stream where the sand begins. People had set up chairs and umbrellas in the areas where it wasn't as deep. The water was frigid and reached up to our shins in spots, and small waves called surge flow forced the current harder periodically.
After crossing the creek, we walked across the sand to the foot of the dunes. They rose and fell higher and higher up to the tallest, which was close to us but was still several hundred yards in from the foothills.
We started climbing. It was easy at first but required more and more breaks as we drank from our sandy bottles and felt our thighs burn. My shoes had proven themselves to be worthless and so were removed by the time we started climbing and although the top of the sand was hot, an inch or so down it was wet and cool. As we reached the ridges of the dunes, the sand would whip up around us and sting our exposed skin. At one point there was a large whirlwind of sand gliding around the dunes; the wind was clearly one of the transformative factors here. When we reached the hollows, though, it was absolutely quiet. The only thing we could hear was each other and the wind when it rose. Upon later research, this park is the quietest national park in the lower 48. The silence was magnificent.
Every now and then Ashley would shake her head, and I’d point to a slightly higher dune and convince her that that was the one we need to climb, that we would be able to see everything from it. This is how we reached the top. By the time we were close, though, there was no question. Looking back at the dunes we had crossed, and the tiny people as small as ants at the creek, we knew there was no turning back. From the peak of the highest dune, we could see all of it. The dunes that had been hidden from us rolled away towards the grasslands, and the mountains rose up behind us. We could see for miles. Our view from the top was breathtaking. By that point, though, our breathing was ragged and we were starving. So from there, bereft of the sleds and sandboards that other guests of the park had brought, I ran down the dunes, my strides extended by the steep sides.
This is the first we have seen of the desert. This is the closest either of us has been to it, and after climbing among the sand we began to get a feel for it. This was a victory for us. Bear Lake was a reality check, but this was a victory. As we descended, we had noticed that few people were actually heading to the top. We started to understand what we’re doing this for. We had been approaching our trip with the same mindset that had been bothering us for years; we were rushing around and weren’t enjoying things as much as we should. I suppose a mad dash across half of the country can help that along, but it was here that we started to slow down.
The heat made it so we couldn’t go breakneck from one thing to another. It slowed me down and in doing so, allowed my mind the opportunity to wander. My confidence, and Ashley’s, also grew as a result of our visit to Great Sand Dunes. We were capable of more than we had thought.
From here we went south to New Mexico, and continued our journey across the desert.