So I set forth into the Great Sand Dunes with 32 ounces of water and my camera backpack. Climbing into the dunes is an exercise in deception. The approach is easy — perhaps a quarter mile over tightly packed sands. The first incline is like a slap in the face. “Oh yeah. I forgot … one step forward, half step back in sinking sand.”
The line I picked out to the dune field’s crest looked simple enough. Climb up to this ridge, cross left and hook back up right over another ridge to the top. But soon I was picking out areas solely on where the most compact sand was, thinking it would make my hike more efficient. Zig-zagging across the wind-battered expanse, I soon found myself on the softer leeward side of a major dune, going slowly and exhaustively up an embankment. If a dotted line followed my course, it would look more like a Family Circus cartoon than a Reinhold Messner assault.
As a result, my 32 ounces of water was down to 12 ounces halfway up the dunes. Had I not learned in my lifetime to always bring more water than I think I need? The conditions were fairly miserable, too. Very hot and, worse, very windy. My shins and calfs were getting buckshot by a persistent spray of granules.
The oddity of the Great Sand Dunes is their existence. You drive up to these 800-foot dunes, set beneath a chain of rugged Colorado mountains, and you think: how on earth did those get there? They seem incongruous. But when you hike into the dunes on a day like this, it makes perfect sense. Oh, I get it. It’s relentlessly windy here. There’s a dent in the mountain range that has trapped all this sand. Of course.
But clarity doesn’t detract from its wonder. I soon came to the first stunning vista.
Roughly two-thirds of the way to the dune field crest, I came upon a couple who were sitting on the edge of a 150-foot deep sand crater. Skidding tracks of sand avalanches on the far side gave the depression an odd energy — as though it were a black hole that pulled the dunes down into themselves. If I were a nerd, I would say it was like a sarlacc pit without a sarlacc.
If I were a nerd, that is.
Behind me, the lower dunes I had just crossed — a series of minor foothills with awesome sharp edges and graceful curves — were bathed in low hanging sunlight. The photography conditions had so far been pretty poor, but now, it appeared that the magic light was happening behind me on the lower stretches of the dunes. Soon, everything was bathed in slanted light, and even the most mundane became powerful. I frantically composed images while the light was good, cursing occasionally at the need to change prime lenses in a windy, sand-blasted space.
After an hour, it was clearly time to go. My water was virtually gone, and my grumbling stomach was reminding me that I still had a 30-minute hike out, and a 45-minute drive into Alamosa for dinner, and no snacks in the car. Plus, there was also this little thing called “guilt.” I was on a holiday from the kids and didn’t want to abuse the privilege.
If you are going to hike the Great Sand Dunes during the day, start in the late afternoon and leave at sunset. Morning light is delayed because of the hulking Sangre de Cristos to the east, and by the time it crests, things are heating up and the light will be getting harsh.
Twice now — in 2007 and during this June trip — the dunes offered a spectacular parting shot as I exited the park. Bring a telephoto lens, plenty of water, and for God’s sake … leave some snacks in the car.