After spending time in Boulder, the first stop on my road trip was Great Sand Dunes National Park. After driving through hours and hours of grazing land, I came to the turn off for the park, only to drive another sixteen miles. The grazing land gave way to fields of prairie sunflowers and then finally the dunes, mountains of sand against a backdrop of mountains.
Since I would be visiting several National Parks on this trip I opted for the annual pass. It wasn't cheap, but it also wasn't as expensive as the Parcs Canada pass I bought last year. I took a hike to the dry bed of Medrano Creek to catch the thunder storms in the distance, watch the sun set and see the Milky Way for the first time.
I got on the dunes by 5:30 the next morning since the NPS warns about the heat during midday, it can get up to 140 degrees. The initial climb onto the dunes from Medrano Creek was exhausting, to say the least. Along the way I passed several sand pits that reminded me of the Sarlacc from Star Wars. The sun finally rose high enough to shine over the mountains, casting a beautiful glow across the patterns in the sand.
I spent the next several hours wandering the dunes like Lawrence of Arabia, observing the patterns in the sand and finding sunflowers miraculously growing in the valleys. I could turn around and see the erratic footprints of a madman, oh wait, those were my footprints.
As fun as the dunes can be, wandering through them can be endless. After all, they all look similar. I needed a goal, so I decided to try and climb High Dune, the second tallest dune in the park, which also makes it the second tallest dune in North America. From my location I could either take the really long and easy way by hiking along the spines of the dune, or head straight to the base and make the short, but very steep climb up the leeward side of High Dune. To be honest, I wasn't quite sure you could even climb the side. Turns out you can, but it was the proverbial two feet forward, one foot backwards. I doubt it was more than two hundred feet of climbing, but it was at least 30 minutes of sweaty, pulse pounding in my ears exercise. By this point it was starting to get hot and I decided to call it a day. Going down was much easier and I was off the dunes and back at the campsite by 9:30. Just in time for a very, very early lunch.
The rest of the day was rather boring. I hiked far enough along Medrano Creek to actually see water. During wetter seasons it will actually reach the visitor center and is a public attraction. I attempted driving to Zapata Falls ten miles away on the entrance road. Upon reaching the top of the hill I looked back to the dunes just in time to see the daily thunderstorm roll over the mountains and dump on the campsite. Of course, it's the one time I thought it was okay to leave my tent open. Thankfully, everything dries quickly in the Colorado air.