Climbing the Great Sand Dunes of the San Luis Valley, Colorado

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Driving through the San Luis Valley at night can be a disorienting experience. On one side of the valley lie the rolling San Juan Mountains. On the other rise the jagged Sangre de Cristo peaks. In-between is a vast expanse of flat farmland and impossibly straight roads. At night you can see none of it.

I found myself squinting my eyes at the lights of the first vehicle I had seen for miles. The road ahead was so long that the beams seemed to shine bright in the same position for almost ten minutes, before finally coming closer and revealing its source. The RV roared past me in a moment of blindness and then I was alone again. It occurred to me that I now understood why those TV shows about aliens always seemed to feature an interview with some long distance truck driver. There had been several moments as I had contemplated the oncoming traffic, so far away still it seemed unmoving, that I had seriously considered the possibility of UFOs.

I couldn’t see the great sand dunes as I pulled into the park, and yet I knew they were there. I had seen them before from a distance, on another drive through the San Luis Valley – this time during the day. From afar they looked like a big sandbox nestled into a pocket at the start of the Sangre de Cristos. I tried to orient myself by the stars shining brightly above our campsite as I waited for Austin to arrive. I tried to remember where I had seen the sand dunes in the light and what direction I would need to face in order to find them from the campground through the dark. They couldn’t be so far away, I reasoned. But my calculations were interrupted by Austin’s car pulling into our site, and soon the thought of direction was forgotten completely as we feasted on a dinner made only by the light of our headlamps and the stars.

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The next morning we unzipped the flaps of our tent to find the great dunes directly in front of us, standing tall beneath the still taller peaks they seemed to guard. After a quick breakfast we made our way to the visitor center to catch our first full view of the dunes. There we learned of the unique conditions the sand dunes require in order to form – of streams that appear and disappear from the dunes themselves, of wetlands and alpine meadows and sand flats – all of which rely on the dunes and each other to exist.

It wasn’t long before the call of the dunes themselves overwhelmed the visitor center displays, and before we knew it Austin and I were heading across the parking lot with one thought in mind – reaching the top.

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Although the sand dunes cover over 30 square miles, we anticipated the trudge to be difficult enough to aspire only to get to the top of the dunes closest to the parking lot – it was our day off, after all. Initially, the plan was to summit High Dune, the highest point accessible without hauling deep into the field. But it was a busy August day, and a steady stream of visitors were making their way to that very spot – including a hardy group of Mennonite women,  bonnets and all, their bearded men choosing instead to wait in the parking lot (this greatly amused me). In the name of solitude, Austin and I set our sights on a slightly smaller, but much less crowded dune, and made our way towards the sand.

In order to reach the dunes we were required to cross what seemed to be an endless, waterless beach. Immediately my feet sank clumsily. Even though it was flat, my calves were already screaming. My boots were heavy in the sand and the blank color of the dunes ahead created the illusion that they were closer than they were. To me, the trek across the flat was the longest part of the day. The anticipation of reaching the top, but the torturing lack of any vertical gain, severely tested my patience.

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Finally we reached the dunes and started our painstakingly slow climb. With every step up came a half-step’s worth of a slide down. I experimented with different methods of climbing – from a high kneed march to literally jumping up the mounds. In the end I settled on pushing off my tippy-toes hard as they sank into the sand to gain momentum for my next step up. The going was slow, but far more satisfying then the flat walk across the beach. Around us the world changed to tones of sepia as clouds rolled over us, casting their shadows on the sparkling dunes. At times it felt otherworldy. Mostly it was just beautiful.

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Finally we reached our high point for the day, and I collapsed in the sand to catch my breath. Austin sat down beside me and we spent a long time enjoying the breeze and the view. Just like our climb at Black Canyon, Austin had done the whole thing in flip flops. I could feel the sand piling up in my boots – soon there wouldn’t be much room left for my feet. For the millionth time I cursed my collapsed arches and bad ankles.

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After a good rest we prepared ourselves for the fun part – time to go down. That torturous resistance the sand provided on our climb up was about to turn very forgiving, as that same resistance would allow us to run down some very steep slopes. I settled on a cautious trot that made me feel like I was flying. Meanwhile, Austin ran full-speed ahead, his beloved camera the only thing keeping him from a joyous roll all the way to the bottom.

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While the climb up seemed never-ending, the run down couldn’t have lasted more than five or ten minutes. Had I realized how exhilarating the descent would be, I may have more seriously considered battling the crowds to get to the top of the slightly taller High Dune. Still the quiet moments on the top of our own private ridge were well worth the climb – the run down was really just the icing on the cake.

A large field of sunflowers gently waved us goodbye the next morning, as we made our way out of the park and back to our separate corners of the mountains. I had made a valiant effort at emptying the sand from my boots the night before, but to no avail. Whether I like it or not, I’ll be walking with the memories of that awesome climb for at least several more months to come. And really, that’s just fine with me.

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8 thoughts on “Climbing the Great Sand Dunes of the San Luis Valley, Colorado

  1. great story. how fun for you! i did this also… about 8 years ago when i was in college studying photography. some of my favourite portfolio images came from that trip to the dunes. i remember being so scared of bears haha! great fotos you have here!!

    1. See, you do make emotional connections with people, Mariana. Love reading your blog and the pic with the sand falling out of your shoe is amazing; I wish I could capture movement like that in a photo!

  2. Hey Nana! That was a lot of fun. Austin! how can he do everything only with flip-flaps! Yesterday I learn of your accident. Thank God you are OK, It could have been a lot worse! Sometimes I worry girl…please TAKE CARE!

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