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  • Writer's pictureErin Paulsen

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

What do beaches and deserts have in common?

Sand, of course.

If you know me, you’ll know there are few things I love more about the natural world than sunshine and sandy landscapes.

When I was asked what I had on my to-do list for the next round of Colorado adventures, I really only had one answer-

Great Sand Dunes National Park.

I knew reaching the park from the Boulder area was a hike, but I definitely underestimated just exactly what this hike would consist of.

A 4-hour drive straight down an interstate is one thing, an almost 5-hour drive up 3,000 feet through the Rockies is another thing.

We set off to do the latter.

I had obviously seen many, many, many photos of the great dunes, and almost all of them captured unimaginable backdrops of snowy mountain peaks rising up off on the horizon.

Despite the fact that these photos all had mountains in them, I somehow still thought the park was going to be at plains level like Denver and Boulder are.

I could not have imagined in 100 years that the park would actually be nestled cozily away in the elbow of a valley tucked up next to one of Colorado‘s 14ers.

There‘s something so confounding about moving around in landscapes unimaginably massive. Your perception of size, depth, and distance all get distorted. You can never accurately process just how grande or far off something is until you actually try to reach it or climb it, then you’re always in for a surprise.

Approaching the dunes on the 12-mile back road you could see the entirety of its expanse, and from so far back, it almost seemed sort of small, like, did we just drive 5 hours into the heights of Colorado‘s mountains for some dinky little bunch of sand dunes?

Once you’ve reached the park, however, and start your journey across the flat sands to the base of the dunes, you’re under the impression you‘ll never reach them, let alone ascend them.

The tallest dune in the park, which is actually located quite near to the entrance, stands a looming 700 feet above the sand flats you begin at.

This is soft sand too.

If you’re no expert on deserts, sand dunes, or climbing them, the softer the sand the quicker the intensity of climbing them becomes.

For every step up you take, you’ll easily slip back down at least half a step, each and every time, as the sand underfoot slides away.

There’s a special technique to counter this frustratingly exhausting experience which involves using the tips of your feet and toes almost like they are ice picks and jabbing them into the sand instead of using the heels and flats of your feet.

We were up for the challenge regardless and after about an hour or so we made it to the summit to roll and frolic and jump about after we caught our breath of course.

Colorado is famous for its mountains, obviously, and we saw an impressive variety of them on our trips about, but without a doubt, the Dunes were the star of this show.

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