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Sand Trek: Hiking in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Mar 20, 2020 01:37PM ● By Story and photos by Lisa Ballard
The wind hurt more than usual, and I’ve hiked through some serious wind. One time, while descending toward the AMC Lakes of the Clouds hut on Mount Washington, the wind was so strong, each footstep landed six inches to the side of where I aimed it. Another time, I pushed out of the start gate at the annual Bunny Bertram Memorial slalom at Suicide Six into an inhuman -30 degrees (F) windchill. Then there was the time I backpacked eight miles into Montana’s Crazy Mountains to go fly-fishing only to lie in a tent, praying the wind wouldn’t blow the flimsy shelter into the next state with me in it. The wind was so strong, the nylon arch collapsed against my face as an afternoon thunderstorm roared around me. However, none of these horrendous wind events matched the sandblasting I got at Great Sand Dunes National Park, the geological phenomenon wedged between the San Luis Valley and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado.

I’m a national park nut. I’m especially fond of the large-landscape parks in the Western United States. I love to visit them to ogle the panoramas, see wildlife, learn about their histories and ecosystems, and explore their backcountries. Last October, my husband, Jack, and I planned a trip to South Fork, Colorado, to cast for trout in the Upper Rio Grande River. When I spotted Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve nearby on the map, I put it on our “must-see” list for the trip. Then life got busy. No time to plan beyond the list, but I figured I could at least hike up a sand dune for some exercise prior to a long day in the car on our way back to Denver airport. Preparing for a sandblasting never occurred to me.

Beach Without Water

As we traveled across the flat plain toward the visitor center at the park, I peered at the dunefield to our left from the shelter of our rental car. The base of the dunes resembled a luscious beach without water. In fact, some people walked along the strand without shoes on, digging their toes into the pliable, pale grains.

Beyond, the dunes rose layer after barren layer in mesmerizing patterns. They grew like thousand-foot waves rolling toward Mount Herard, a prominent 13,000-footer in the Sangre de Cristo range at the far end of the goliath dunefield, which blocked their northeastward flow.

Prevailing winds continually pushed sediments from San Juan Mountains, 65 miles away to the southeast, toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, that framed the dunefield. Around 400,000 years ago, a lake covered the valley between the two ranges. As the lake evaporated, the prevailing southwesterly winds picked up and bounced sediments and pebbles against the Sangre de Cristo’s. Then storms blew them back toward the plain, piling them on themselves and creating the tallest dunes in North America.

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