Great Sand Dunes, CO

Tired from the previous day, I arrived a bit too late in the noon heat for the hike up to Star Dune I had planned. Nevertheless, I loaded my water, snacks, and sunscreen, and set out. High Dune would be enough of a hike, I decided.

There is not a trail up to High Dune, just a line of footprints hugging the curves and gullies of the monumental dunes, little lines of travelers like ants up their undulating spine-like ridges. I carefully crossed the gently flowing and shallow Medano Creek at the edge of the dunes, and squinted as I picked a path up the hills.

It was an insufferable climb. The wind blew so hard that the kicked up sand grated across my arms when I tried to sit down and rest. The heat bore down, a sinking half-step back down for every one pushed upward. After a while, I could only count out fifty arduous steps before having to stop and sit down again, drinking water as my boots slowly filled with sand.

It is surprisingly difficult to get up these dunes. Make sure you wear shoes. The sand gets up to 120 degrees in the summer, and my toes were cooking even in my boots. A lady and her daughter that I saw had taken their shoes off to run down a dune, and they were hollering by the time they reached the bottom. Even socks help, if you must take your shoes off.
Plenty of sand to go around.
Almost there!

I almost didn’t make it up to High Dune, but with a long rest and some fuel, I finally drug myself up there.

Still absolutely baffled by the presence of this enormous desert in the middle of Colorado. A view from High Dune.
Another view of the dune fields from the top of High Dune.

It was quiet, and eerily beautiful, just like White Sands but on a much grander scale. Ghostly footprints were stamped into the dunes, and somewhat less artful dicks were drawn down in the basin next to the summit. I seriously thought about going down there to erase them, but I was actually too amused that someone hiked all the way up there just to do that. So I just laughed instead.

The way down was absolutely the best part, and may be my favorite thing I’ve ever done. Those steep dunes you just trudged up? You get to fly down them. That was the bulk of my motivation to continue climbing, just so I could slide down again, and I did.

“I’m trying to tell if this is a good idea,” I said to another lone hiker who’d been at the peak of High Dune at the same time as me.

“I know,” he said, staring down the near-vertical slope. He laughed. “But I think I’m gonna go for it,” he said.

I didn’t give him the chance. I tightened my backpack straps, got a running start, and I leaped down the slope.

It was faster than I’d ever run, my speed out of my control, my thick boot heels skidding down the slope, the hot wind pushing past my face. It was a giddy rush, a blur of sheer glee suspended in one moment, a little ride of freedom. And I got to do it two more times on the way down.

It might not look very steep from a distance, but standing at the edge, you begin to think you might break your ankles on the way down.

But by the time I made it back to the creek, the adrenaline had been leeched out of my body by the sun. I peeled off my boots and socks, dumped the sand out, and wandered into the water.

The cool, lukewarm creek was exactly what my feet needed, my toes digging into the thick, mudlike sand. I walked down the flow of the creek for a long time, feeling very light with my ankles in the water. It looked like a river of flowing sand, it in a way, it was. The creek bed actively changed and formed and altered in front of my eyes, miniature dunes under the water causing a gurgle before being smoothed flat again in the next few seconds. Eventually, I wound my way back to my car.

Waves of sand.
Looking back at the dunes after a very long, hot hike. I want to lay in that water just seeing it.

I had a good day.

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