The Great Sand Dunes

First off, yeah, it’s not the best panorama, but that’s what happens when you just stand on a hill and snap photos while slowly spinning. Might not be smooth, but you get the idea: BIG FREAKING DESERT!

My family and I went for a three-day camping trip at the dunes last week and I’m happy to report we returned with only mild sunburns and dehydration.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was Alice’s very first experience with backpacking. (For those of you who don’t know, backpacking involves packing all of your supplies into giant backpacks and hiking them into a campsite that you cannot reach by car.) At six-years-old, Alice was too small for a backpacking pack, so she wore my Camelbak day pack loaded with her clothes, water, and snacks. David and I took the rest of the gear in our larger bags.


We camped in the forest just outside the dunes. It is possible to camp in the dune field itself, but that seems crazy hot to me with no source of water or shade. As it was, the creek bed near our campsite was already dry for the season and we had to walk about half a mile to the barely flowing Medano creek to find water, and even the Medano petered out not far past where we accessed it.


The Medano was wide and shallow, barely more than an inch of running water over a sand bed. By the time I post this, there’s a good chance it will be dried up for the season. Aside from the difficulty of pumping water from such a shallow source and trying to strain out copious amounts of sand to keep the filter from clogging, the backflow valve in my filter broke partway through our endeavors. That left us with three Camelbaks and two water bottles worth of water for the whole trip. Being short on water in the desert made me nervous, but we’d brought a two-gallon cooler of reserve water in the car just in case. Luckily, we never got so thirsty I had to hike back for it. That would have been a pain to carry in.


Along with an impressive variety of grasshoppers, flies, and beetles, we saw many deer. (Something like eleven in total.) Our first evening, after setting up camp, we tracked this young buck through the woods, practicing walking lightly and seeing how close we could get before he spooked. Here you can see Alice’s tracks in the sand beside the buck we were following.


Our second day was taken up with a day hike across the dunes. We started shortly after breakfast, crossed the creek, and started up the steep, burning sand.

We had to take lots of breaks climbing up. Not only were the dunes crazy tall and steep, but the sand was constantly sliding out from under us and burned our hands when we reached out to steady ourselves. We took a long snack break at the top of the first ridge, though we ingested as much sand as snacks. The wind over the dunes was strong and constant. You can’t see it in the pictures, but the wind created an ever-shifting layer over the sand that gave the dunes a strange hazy outline like the whole thing was slightly out of focus. That coupled with the odd highlights and shadows made it seem like an artist had painted the dune field over the backdrop of the world. It was beautiful, and if you ever get the chance to see it for yourself I’d encourage you to do so.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter hiking the second ridge, we had a sweeping view across the interior of the field. It was both beautiful and terrifying. I would never want to be lost in such a land, barren of shade or water, nothing but the sun, sand, and wind. But it was nice to visit.



The nights were cold, though not nearly so cold as the high country I’m used to camping in, so it was really quite pleasant. Our time at camp was spent mostly resting and recovering. This was also the inaugural trip of our new tent, which I’m happy to report performed beautifully.

We made it back to the car on the third day sore, smelly, and with half a cup of water left between us. Whew!

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