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Sands of Time: Camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park

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Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado is a landscape unlike anything else on the continent. Jayme Moye journeys across the colossal drifts for an otherworldly camping adventure
Camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park is permitted anywhere in the dunes, so long as you secure one of the 20 first-come, first-served permits and agree to pitch your tent at least 1.5 miles into the park. Patrick Myers / NPS Photo.

During the four-hour drive from my home near Denver to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, I can’t help but wonder how on earth this place is going to live up to the hype. In my 18 years as a Colorado resident, I’ve heard countless superlatives about Great Sand Dunes’ unique landscape — 30 square miles of sand nestled up to the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost subrange of the Rockies. One fact I have been able to verify: The wind-swept dunes are indeed the tallest on the continent, cresting as high as 755 feet above the San Luis Valley floor. As for the other accolades, which include “most surreal,” “most scenic” and “best stargazing ever,” I will soon see for myself.

Of course, I want the weekend to be about more than whether a legendary Colorado landscape lives up to its reputation. I am also looking for an adventure, and so I plan to camp — not at one of the 88 sites at Piñon Flats Campground inside the park, but on the sand dunes themselves. I don’t know anyone else who’s done it, but I have read on the park’s website that camping is permitted anywhere in the dunes, so long as you stop at the park’s visitors center first to secure one of the 20 first-come, first-served permits and agree to pitch your tent beyond the designated “day use area,” at least 1.5 miles into the dunes.

I know that hiking up and over steep sand dunes won’t be easy, especially with a backpack full of camping gear. But I am hoping it will be worth the effort to have more of a true wilderness experience, and not another person in sight.
Making the final turn onto the road that leads into the park, I get my first glimpse of the dunes. I needn’t have worried about the landscape meeting my expectations. Directly ahead, at the base of the mighty Sangre de Cristo range, swells up an ocean of sand; golden wave after golden, wind-sculpted wave. I pull the car over and take the first of many, many photos.

Scientists don’t know when the sand dunes started to form, or how, exactly. I learn at the visitors center that the dunes’ creation story is continually evolving. Recent research, from 2015, refutes the long-held belief that the sand originated from a former lakebed known as Lake Alamosa, and said it instead came from smaller lakes further east in the San Luis Valley. Either way, strong southwest winds over thousands and thousands of years are responsible for funneling the sand toward three mountain passes in the Sangre de Cristos and depositing it in the natural pocket at the base of a low curve where it now sits. During storms, the winds blow in the opposite direction, from the mountains back toward the valley, which makes the dunes grow vertically. The Utes called them sowapophe-uvehe, “the land that moves back and forth.” To the Apaches, they were sei-nanyedi, “it goes up and down.”

Camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Colorado’s wind-swept dunes are the tallest in North America, cresting as high as 755 feet above the San Luis Valley floor. Photo by Patrick Myers/NPS Photo.

Also at the visitors center, I pick up my free backcountry camping permit and am surprised to hear that, at 3 p.m., I have gotten the last one for the day. “Oh, yes,” the ranger says, “they go fast. You’re lucky.” She advises backcountry campers to arrive as early in the day as possible to get a permit (and no, sorry, you can’t reserve one in advance). She also gives me a tip for choosing my campsite. She says to drive past the main parking area to the more remote “Point of No Return,” where I’d find a handful of parking spaces and a short trail leading to Medano Creek, which should be shallow enough (it dries up completely by the end of the summer) to cross over to the dunes. “It’s pretty secluded over there,” she says.

She is right. Just one other car is parked in the small lot. Tiptoeing carefully across the creek, I notice how sharply the first dune climbs up from the bank and steel myself for maximum effort. I want to make camp with enough time to sit and admire the sunset, so I aspire to move relatively quickly. After trudging up the first 50 or so feet of the first dune, I adjust my expectations. It is painfully slow going. Every footstep sinks deep into the dune, sliding backward in the process. It feels like I need to take two steps to move forward one.

Luckily, once I get to the top of the first dune and can see the rest of the terrain, it is obvious that I will not have to go far to find total immersion and utter seclusion. Before me stretches a seemingly infinite swath of rolling dunes that extend all the way to the horizon line. I see no other people, or tents, or even other signs of life.
I may as well be in the middle of the Sahara.

I see that the hard part isn’t going to be finding a solitary place to camp — it’s going to be finding my way back out. Sand dunes look eerily similar. I drop down the other side of the dune I’d just ascended and decide to go up and over two more and then make camp. If I get completely disoriented, I’ll know I just need to walk toward the mountain peaks and cross three dunes to find the creek again.

I am pleased to pitch my tent with time left over for a quick dinner before the sun sets. I kick off my sand-filled shoes and sit down for the show. The waning light casts long shadows across the dunes, and a breeze kicks up, blowing a few billowy clouds across the sky. As grains of sand pelt my bare arms, I pull on a fleece and watch the sky turn purple. Once the stars begin to pop, I lie flat on my back and stare up at hundreds of thousands of tiny lights.

Just as I’m starting to get drowsy, a gust of wind rips across the dunes. Then another. And another. I retreat to my tent. Outside, the winds whip up into a frenzy that makes sleep impossible. I’ve heard that the San Luis Valley is notorious for paranormal activity. I think of the djinns, the spirits of Morocco’s high desert that are placated with trance-inducing ritual or music. Why not? Sleep isn’t happening. I creep out of my tent and into the relentless wind, spinning like a dervish in the darkness, feeling the sand fly up all around me.

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