TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Exploring America’s big sandbox and Earth’s highest peaks

(To read a version of this story with more live hyperlinks, click here.)

This time of year always reminds me of giant sand dunes “singing” with squeaks and booms, mouse-size kangaroo rats leaping five feet into the air, and shooting stars arcing like flaming arrows through a pitch-black night sky.

It also makes me think of green terraces climbing thousands of feet up steep mountainsides, walking through primitive mountain villages, distant avalanches roaring down the sides of the world’s highest peaks, and Buddhist prayer flags flapping in the wind. And I get an unusual yearning for a heaping plate of dal bhat and a pot of lemon tea—or just the pleasure of ordering both from a small-boned person who pronounces my name as if he were coughing up a small mammal.

We tend to see November as a black hole between seasons—too late in many places for hiking, rock climbing, and paddling, too early for skiing. For me, it evokes two very memorable trips I made at this time of year: backpacking in south-central Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and trekking Nepal’s classic Annapurna Circuit.

On a gear-testing trip in Great Sand Dunes with several Backpacker Magazine editors a few years ago, we crossed a 30-square-mile sea of dunes rising several hundred feet into the air at the foot of the 13,000-foot-high Sangre de Cristo Mountains. At times, we’d walk toe-to-heel along the inch-wide crests of dunes so steep it seemed the mountain of sand should just collapse beneath our feet. We’d pause to listen, transfixed, to the eerie song of that sand when it avalanched.

Hiking dunes—nature’s treadmill—is exponentially more strenuous than walking on a firm dirt-and-rock path. The tediousness is only made worse by having to carry all of your water. And you’ll find sand in your boots, sleeping bag, hair, and every meal and drink. But Great Sand Dunes will enchant you with its mysteries; there’s no landscape in America like it. And November mornings often deliver a scrim of frost that transforms the dunes into an abstract work of art, as you can see in this photo gallery. Read below for some beta on backpacking there, and check out this National Geographic video showing researchers climbing giant dunes in Death Valley to figure out how they “sing.”

My wife and I trekked the Annapurna Circuit on our honeymoon (aaaawwww!) over the course of nearly three weeks in October and November 13 years ago. Having enjoyed adventures from Iceland to New Zealand, the Alps, the Scottish Highlands, southern Spain, and Patagonia since, I still consider our walk around the Annapurna Range unique for its combination of spectacular scenery, intriguing culture, and charming people. Need more persuasion? Check out this photo gallery. Then scroll to the bottom of my story for advice on pulling it off next fall.

With a road under construction around much of the circuit, if you’ve ever thought about trekking it, don’t wait much longer.

I got an email recently from our friend Gorazd, a Slovenian we met on our first day on the Annapurna Circuit and trekked with for the entire 17 days (yup, on our honeymoon). As usual, Gorazd was inspirational, even through the accent audible in his written words: “Being stuck in the office all day long is definitely not dream job for free spirit and outdoor adventure lover… But it’s the sacrifice I have to accept to be able to chase rainbows and follow my dreams during weekends and holidays (which are never long enough)… That is why I so desperately crave for regular battery refill—to recharge my soul, personal values, and to remind myself once again what are the things which really mean in life.”

He’s planning to trek in Africa this winter and hoping to return to Nepal next fall. That’s a good life.

I couldn’t accept Gorazd’s invitation to join him in Africa, but I’m going to take his advice in the best way I can this week, heading to Joshua Tree National Park.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR backpackers with good navigational skills and fitness. Slogging up steep sand dunes is strenuous, and with no water in the dunes, you’ll have to lug all you need (see Concerns below). In clear weather, navigating in this wide-open terrain is generally easy, though distances are deceptive. With limited visibility in bad weather, you’ll need the ability to find your way using map, compass, and perhaps GPS.

Make It Happen

Season Because the sand dunes are above 8,000 feet, summer high temperatures are moderate, generally in the 70s and 80s; but the sand surface temperature can reach 140° F. on a sunny afternoon. Summer nights can drop into the 40s. July and August are also the wettest months, with afternoon thunderstorms common. Mid-September through October days are usually mild and dry, with cool nights. November is dry, with average highs in the 40s and nights frequently below freezing; but those nights also coat the dunes in the frost that can make them so photogenic. Winter is very cold but often sunny, with occasional snowstorms. March and April are the snowiest months. May and June are dry, with comfortable daytime temps for hiking and cool nights, but frequently very windy.

The Itinerary There are no designated campsites in the dunes. Hike and camp wherever you like; the only restriction is you must camp at least 1.5 miles from the closest perimeter of the sand dunes, to get beyond the day-use area. You could cross the dunes from the Visitor Center north to Cold Creek campsite in a day; it’s six straight-line miles, though the circuitous nature of hiking over the dunes turns that into seven or eight miles. That would reduce the amount of water you have to carry, but also deprive you of the most unique experience this place offers: camping on the dunes, to see them in moonlight or under a sky dense with stars, and in the transformative light of evening and early morning. Plus, hiking a mile on sand feels like three. My advice: Plan no more than three or four miles a day over the dunes. The scenery doesn’t change much with miles traveled; the dunes change around you with shifts in the day’s light and temperature, an experience you can enjoy in and around camp.

Best plan: From the Visitor Center, walk north across Medano Creek, which is usually shallow and often dries up in mid-summer and fall. Head up High Dune, at 650 feet tall not the highest in elevation or tallest in the park. But from atop High Dune, you can see the tallest dune in North America, 750-foot Star Dune, 1.5 miles to the west. Summit it, and then hike north until you find a lonely spot in the middle of the dunes to pitch camp. The next day, continue north to camp beneath tall cottonwood trees at either Cold Creek or, 1.6 miles farther, Sand Creek; both lie beyond the north edge of the dunes, so you’ll find water at both places. You’ll only need to carry 1.5 to two days’ water supply for your time in the dunes. From Cold Creek on your third day, follow the aptly named Sand Ramp Trail 5.5 miles southeast, through pinon-juniper forest, to Sand Ramp trailhead (reached only by high-clearance, 4WD vehicle), or from there, hike the jeep road south 3.4 miles farther to Point of No Return trailhead.

Getting There Great Sand Dunes National Park is 35 miles northeast of Alamosa, Colorado. From CO 17 in Mosca, take CR 6N 15.9 miles to CO 150. Follow CO 150 north 6.2 miles to the visitor center. Continue another mile to the parking lot on the left, where the hike begins. To leave a vehicle at Point of No Return trailhead, continue up the road another mile or so, to where it becomes a rough 4WD road.

Permit A permit is required for backcountry camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. It’s available free and first-come at the Visitor Center, and cannot be reserved in advance.

Map Trails Illustrated Sangre de Cristo Mountains/Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve map no. 138, $11.95; (800) 962-1643,
natgeomaps.com.

Concerns
•    There’s no water available in the sand dunes, though there are creeks on the perimeter of the dunes. Carry all the water you need for drinking and cooking while on the dunes, at least four liters per person per day.
•    Strong winds can suddenly create severe sandstorms.
•    Summer thunderstorms bring a hazard of lightning; get off the dunes if a thunderstorm threatens.

Contact Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, 719-378-6300, nps.gov/grsa.

See more stories, photos, and multi-media about outdoor adventures in the U.S. and around the world at TheBigOutside.com.

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