Even with careful planning on an epic road trip like this one, you’re bound to give a National Park or two short shrift. The realities of the road are what they are, and you’ll find yourself driving away from a Park, having given it a glancing blow but feeling like you didn’t get all you could out of the place.
And that’s if you’re carefully planning. If you go by the seat of your pants like Masayo and I, you’re especially in danger.
So it happened with Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in the far southeastern corner of rectangular Colorado: we went, we saw it, we braved the wind for under an hour, and that was about it. The Park was pretty great, and certainly unusual. (Who knew something like this existed, especially in fir tree-smothered Colorado?) But GSD may become the Park that got away.
It was a mixture of factors that led to us not seeing too much of the Park, and I would like to argue for my own exoneration, at least to a degree, by chiefly blaming the weather. Specifically, that gale-force wind that was blowing across the flat fields next to the dunes and changing quite a few visitors’ plans as they arrived.
Tumbleweeds were blowing across the road as we rode down a tiny two-lane highway to the Great Sand Dunes National Park visitor center. Like at Saguaro National Park, seeing tumbleweeds hopping across the road evoked childhood memories of Road Runner cartoons, which I now regard as sober, 60 Minutes-esque documentaries.
But the light, round weeds also reported on the conditions outside the sealed-up little car: forceful winds, unbroken by anything, assaulting all that lay ahead, be they blades of grass or towering hills of sand.
The Great Sand Dunes exist not because of any desert conditions but because of a quirk of geography. Two mountain ranges are separated by that big flat area, across which sand is blown from the western range towards the other to the east. Blocked by the mountains, the sand rests at their feet, and is carried back westward by rivers. Et cetera, et cetera, the process keeps repeating, and the dunes remain in place, even retaining their shape over the decades.
Anyway, Masayo and I got out at the visitor center and asked the ranger about the climbing conditions: you can hike up to a nearby dunetop and get a great view. The ranger warned that the wind was awfully fierce today, though we were welcome to try if we dared.
At the entrance to the dunes were several school buses, besides the regular passenger cars all lined up. We got a parking space far away and put our Mont Bell hiking shoes on. Maybe we couldn’t do the entire hike, but maybe we could: only one way to find out!
The first thing you do is cross a small stream, which is in fact a seasonal wash of water that follows a sandy channel some distance from the actual dunes. The couple inches-deep water was quite cold, and we dutifully removed our shoes and socks for the crossing and got our poor feet cold and wet.
Then it was a march across a large flat area of sand to the dunes, and it was here that our plans began to morph before our sand-blind eyes. The wind was howling, rendering conversation pointless, and every exposed bit of skin was getting stung, hard. Walking was tricky; we stumbled and careened forth, wondering if we were actually heading “forth”.
Masayo wanted to turn around right away but I pushed for a little further hike. With compromise like this, it seemed unlikely we would be able to do the entire 2-hour hike to the top of the dune, and to be honest that didn’t seem like a whole lot of fun, even if it would make for a sense of pride and a good story that nobody would want to hear.
When we finally arrived at the beginning of the dunes we could make out some people actually doing the full hike, little dots way up the great dunes before us, struggling in conditions I didn’t want to contemplate. I hadn’t even taken out my good camera, worried that sand would scratch it up and get inside, so all my photos were from my marginally more expendable iPhone.
Masayo and I hunkered down in the wind shadow of a ridge and debated what to do. She seemed in mild shock, and I tried to point out that little schoolkids and their teachers were walking around us without a care, but she was unmoved. So we headed back; there was really nothing left for us to do. Continuing further would mean more sand blown horizontally into our faces and into our everything else. We’d experienced what Great Sand Dunes had to offer us today.
When we got back to the river, I knew Masayo was relieved so I took the opportunity to convince her to walk through the water with me. Such was the chaos of the morning already that I didn’t bother taking my shoes off this time; let ’em get wet.
Up the stream we hiked, the wind slightly less offensive here and the shock of the cold water distracting us from it anyway. At places it got deeper and faster; I enjoyed these parts the most.
After splashing around like kids a few minutes we trundled back to the car, removing our muddy footwear and depositing it into plastic bags in the trunk.
Now, there is more to Great Sand Dunes National Park then just the dunes. There are hiking trails through the tree-covered forests above them, in the mountains. But I knew that hiking wasn’t going to be a very popular suggestion today, and anyway alpine trekking seemed a silly thing to do in a place that exists because of big, tan, Sahara-like sand dunes. I’ll see the mountains when I’m in Rocky Mountains National Park in a few days.
And so that was it. We couldn’t think of anything else to do at Great Sand Dunes NP; we’d pushed through an endless tornado so get to the dunes and had gotten hypothermia in the icy wash at their edge. We didn’t come here for mountain hiking, and so… we drove away, after two hours at best inside the park.
And as we drove along the small Colorado highways to our hotel a couple hundred miles north, I couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling I had of an opportunity wasted. I was pleased with what we accomplished on such an unwelcoming day at Great Sand Dunes, but by all rights we should come back tomorrow and do the intended hike when the wind was forecast to die down.
But hotel reservations had been made and paid for, and GSD had had its chance. Maybe there’s something righteous and beautiful about experiencing the place as it was when we were able to visit. I’m not the sand’s customer and it doesn’t have to please me. Circumstance put us together on this day, not another day; I was meant to see them like this.
That’s what I tried to tell myself as the Dunes got smaller in the rearview mirror, as I drove towards clouds of dust and sand blowing eastward that caused my car to totter in its lane, and beheld the snow-covered mountains ahead of us: different adventures await. The past is past.
The dunes had said what they needed to say.
What's the strongest wind you've ever been in?
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“Not only did I manage to see virtually all of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, but the visit finally straightened out my blood sugars. Can't ask for more than that!”