Hiking in Sand Dunes: A Traveler’s Guide


[I wrote this a few months ago, after a trip Jane and I took to Great Sand Dunes National Park. All photos are ones I took on the trip.] 

We drove and drove.
Maybe it was four hours. Maybe it was five. Or perhaps two and a half.
The whole episode has a Narnia-esque feeling of losing all sense of time.

The road was curvy.
Through small mountain towns.
Picturesque; straight out of a postcard.
The mountains surrounded us as we traveled through a green valley.
Grass-fed beef was plentiful.

Up and over a small pass in our little white car.
Seven or eight thousand feet at the most.
Nothing compared to the 14ers around us.
And into a new valley.


The San Luis Valley.
One hundred miles long.
Fifty miles wide.
We drove straight down the middle on 285.
And then on 17.
Twenty-five miles to the east were mountains.
Twenty-five miles to the west were mountains.
One hundred miles to the south were mountains.
But in between? Where we now drove on?

A high desert is what they call it.
Sitting at eight or nine thousand feet above the sea.
It was the definition of desolation.
Small towns that barely qualify as small towns.
More like villages of people who happen to live somewhat close to each other and share a diner.

I remarked, “We could start Colorado Pickers down here…”
“Jeremy, what did you bring me to?”
“I don’t know. The pictures looked nice.”

That’s what we clung to.
A picture of something beautiful.
Something otherworldly.

I decided when I first saw a picture of Great Sand Dunes National Park that we should take a trip.
I asked friends what it was like…“Well, it’s a bunch of sand…”
They sure sold us on it.


And yet we went.
Any adventure, no matter how grand or ungrand, is still an adventure.
We kept driving.

It felt like forever.
The Dunes could be seen, and yet never reached.
They were a spec of beige clinging to the gray peaks behind them.
Ever just out of our grasp.
(Of course, “ever” means about an hour and a half.)

Now if you remember, we were driving down the middle of the valley.
This happens to be the largest valley in Colorado.
We took a left.
On 6.
Now the Dunes were straight ahead.
Although a mere 20 miles away, it felt like forever.
I guess driving in the desert does that.
(Just like driving across Nebraska does.)

As we approached, we could see these mythical Dunes getting bigger.
Nestled right into a backdrop of granite behemoths.
“I thought the Dunes would be bigger,” she said as she squinted out the windshield towards them.
“Well, I think they’ll get bigger once we get there.”

And get there we did.
And get bigger they did.
(I promise, I’m not entirely trying to be Yoda here.)
All of a sudden, after being just a speck on the horizon, we were right in front of them.
And they were magnificent.


You’ve never seen so much…sand…in one place.
Rolling hills of sand that mimic the rolling hills of western Iowa.
You stand there, gawking a bit, not sure if what you’re seeing is real or just an elaborate mirage.

To the west (your left), desert.
To the east (your right), a mountain range, and a magnificent one at that.
In fact, one of the tallest, on average, in Colorado.
And in front of you, thirty square miles of sand, rising up to 750ft above where you are standing.


It defines surreal.
Like a scene from another planet.
Or maybe just a dime sci-fi novel.

We parked the car.
We got out of the car.
We put on our hiking shoes with confidence, like we always do.
We were ready to tackle and conquer these damn Dunes.
It didn’t look so hard.

I didn’t strap on my hiking bag, thinking it would be a walk in the park.
There are no trails in the Dunes.
You are free to wander as you please.
More accurately, we learned, you are free to wander as you are able.

And so we started walking…hiking…trudging.
For a hundred yards – maybe two hundred – it’s flat.
But flat is deceiving.
Because it was still sand.

With every step, you sink a few inches.
And then as you lift your other foot to take another step, you sink a little more.
And you go backwards.
You quite literally take a half-step back for every step forward.
And that’s on the flat part.

Halfway across this even terrain, our breath is already a little short.
And we’re a little embarrassed.
So we look at each other.
But don’t say anything.
Uttering even a whisper of being tired is what makes it true.
A tiredness left inside is but a shadow of its crushing spoken reality.

The clouds are a saving grace.
The sand is hot, even in the moderate-to-cool 50-degree air that surrounds us.
Flickers of sun made themselves known from time to time.
But the clouds are a saving grace.

It does not take long to arrive at your first incline.
That’s when it really hits you.
After ten feet of elevation gain, you look up at the remaining 640 feet and wonder if you’ll ever make it.


An incline of sand is different than an incline of rock and dirt.
An incline of sand is different than a flat plane of sand.
Remember how it was a half-step back for every step forward?
Now it’s a full step back, sometimes two or three.
Now you sink four or maybe six inches into the fine grains instead of just a couple.
Your calves burn almost instantly.

And we’ve gained ten feet.
Ten out of six hundred and fifty.
Thankfully our current task is just a small hill.
But an awful glimpse as to what lies ahead.

We continue, though.
We trudge and trudge and trudge.
(Look up the definition of trudge – this is exactly what we did.)

There were people around us in all directions.
Granted, they were generally just dots on an infinite tan field.
And yet, we barely heard a noise as we walked…hiked…trudged.
There was an occasional hiss of wind.
But no sounds from people.
The Dunes are great buffers of noise.
Like being in an outdoor recording studio.

We go down a little bit.
Then up a lotta bit.
And somehow the “peak” – the top of this unmoving and unchangeable Dune – gets farther away.
We secretly wonder if we’ll make it.
It must be kept secret, for now, or we surely won’t.

Over another ridge.
Then, all you see is sand.
It’s overwhelming.
All around you except for one little window, through which you see a 14,000-fot mountain rise up.
And suddenly, very suddenly, you see a vision of what it would be like to be stranded in the Sahara.
That seems dramatic, I know.
But when you see nothing but sand, you become terrified at that thought of the Sahara.
And you have a microscopic sense of what desert wayfarers have felt and feared through the ages.
Even though you know your car is just a mile away.


“Let’s not ever get stranded in a desert.”
“Okay. Deal.”

We trudge and trudge and trudge some more.
We are more than halfway to the top.

We sit down.
Water is needed.
Rest is for our calves is just as needed.
“Can we make it?”
(I’m the weak one – always the first to ask.)
“I don’t know…I don’t really care anymore.”
(The first time she’s ever said that.)
And like she always says, “Just one more ridge, I want to see the other side.”

And so we trudge on.
At times the sand is a little damp.
This comes as a breath of fresh air.
It doesn’t give as much when it’s damp.
It’s back to a half-step lost instead of a full step lost.
But inevitably, the dry sand returns.
And you feel like you’re on a Stairmaster.

Then, just like always when hiking, you’re there.
Not at the top, mind you.
But at that point where you can see the top.
And you can see the other side of this thirty-square-mile field of Dunes.

In front of us is a drop off.
We’re at the high point of the front edge of the Dunes.
You can see sand for miles and miles, and mountains rising up from behind them.

We go left.
And continue trudging up the ridge.
It’s not much farther from here.
Thankfully, this trudging isn’t so bad.
It’s a well-traveled ridge, so there are footprints to follow.
The task is always easier when you can follow someone else’s footprints.
Those pioneers had the truly difficult path.
Especially in the sand.

It would be nice, for the story, if we made it to the very top.
But we didn’t.
There were dark clouds rolling in, and we didn’t want to take the chance.
It was probably just 250 feet of horizontal trudging, and another 20 or 30 feet up.
So close.
It’s okay, though.
Getting to the top isn’t everything.

In fact, the way down was exhilarating.
I imagine it is what walking on the moon would feel like.
You can slide.
You can leap.
You can roll.
No more trudging.


You jump three or four or five feet down the Dune.
On solid ground that would be a very scary thing to do.
Except this time you end up nearly to your knees in sand.
And you slide a few more feet as you land.
It is weightless.
So you keep jumping.
And sliding.
And in about ten minutes you are back to the flat sand.

Ten minutes.
That’s it.
Almost two hours up.
Ten minutes down.
Incredible, huh?

We look at each other.
And smile big smiles.
It was fun coming down.
Really fun.
And then we look back up at where we just came from.
It is impossibly far away.

“Were we really up there?”
“That’s a long ways.”
“Well that didn’t seem too bad…”

Back to the car we trudge.
Another adventure had.
We’re quiet for now, but I know we’re both thinking how much fun this life is that we get to live together.
Among the Great Sand Dunes.
And even if we don’t get to the tippy-top, we’ll smile on the way down.
For it’s in trudging that true life is lived.


The Dunes are on the right-hand side. This was from a hike a few miles away.