Adventure of the week: Backpack the Great Sand Dunes
June 26, 2014
If you go
Backpacking the sand dunes requires more preparation than car camping or a stop at a hotel. Bring plenty of water and be mindful of the weather before you go. You can camp on the dunes themselves if the weather is clear and it’s not windy. Backcountry camping requires a permit that is obtained on a first-come, first-serve basis at the park. Call the visitor center at 719-378-6395 to learn more about availability and regulations
How to get there: Take Colorado Highway 131 south to Interstate 70, then head east toward Vail.
Take the Leadville/Minturn exit and then head south on U.S. Highway 24. Stop at the 10th Mountain Division Memorial on Tennessee Pass along the way. Continue to Buena Vista, and take Highway 285 south. Turn left onto Colo. 17 and take another left on County Six Mile Lane, which leads to the park.
Also see: Hike into a cavern to view the cascading Zapata Falls, just a short drive from the visitor center at the park. An easy quarter-mile hike will get you to the waterfall. At night, the park often has rangers lead educational programs enjoyable for families.
Steamboat Springs — On the second mile of my recent hike to a campground perched high above a vast field of sand dunes, I regretted that I had stuffed more than one can of Chef Boyardee ravioli in my 50-liter backpack.
Backpacking through Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes is tough, and every extra ounce of canned pasta you carry makes it tougher.
A storm can roll in and surprise you in a moment’s notice.
Even walking at a snail’s pace seems to drain you.
There’s some science to the pain.
Tests have shown walking on sand takes 2.1 to 2.7 times more energy than walking on a hard surface at the same speed.
I neglected to read that before I carried 3 liters of water, a tent, too many cans of food, and all of the essential camping gear on my back on a trail made only of sand.
But on the final steps of this hike, I stopped thinking about about all the aches and the panting and all of the sand building up in my boots.
I looked out at the dunes and the towering mountain peaks behind them and told myself I’d do this again in a heartbeat.
Just without the extra ravioli.
A grueling hike
The trip to our backcountry campsite started with a memorable drive on a primitive sand road.
It was hard not to get excited when I drove my Nissan Xterra through a waist-deep creek along the way.
This is a place only for high clearance vehicles with four-wheel drive.
On this busy Memorial Day weekend, me and co-adventurer Vicky Ho passed probably every variety of Jeep made in recent decades.
We parked at the start of the Sand Ramp Trail about 6 miles away from all of the Memorial Day crowds back at the established campsites and headed out for a hike.
The trail starts out by rolling through a forested area that features large Ponderosa pine trees. After crossing a creek, there’s a steep climb up a sand dune and then the trail opens a wide open sandy area with panoramic views.
The trail, which is made of sand most of the way, goes up and down in an area where the dunes start to transition to the foothills of the Sangre De Cristo mountains.
The trail serves as a way to access a string of backcountry campsites that each have a unique setting.
The hikes to the sites range from a short 0.7-mile walk to a grueling 7 miles.
Our campsite, aptly named Aspen because it sits in an isolated aspen grove, is the highest of the backcountry campsites in the park sitting at 9,240 feet.
After much panting and pauses, we arrived there late afternoon and got our tents set up just in time to beat a rainstorm.
It took only a short walk away from the trail to watch storm clouds build over Mount Zwischen and sunshine break through enough to illuminate the dunes below.
This was my second trip to the dunes, but backpacking instead of car camping this time made it feel like a first.
Although it was Memorial Day weekend, we didn’t see a single soul after we started our hike in the later afternoon.
You’ll feel isolated and tied to the things you carry in and out on your back.
The Memorial Day weekend backpacking trip to the Great Sand Dunes was my first stray away from car camping.
S’mores, campfires and the luxury of camping right next to a parking space had kept me away from this form of adventuring for far too long.
It’s a great feeling late at night to slow cook a can of Dinty Moore beef stew on a small aluminum oven heated by a small can of cooking fuel.
It’s also a great feeling to set a backpack down after a grueling hike and start to put together a campsite with all the things you carried on your back.
On Memorial Day weekend and many others during the summer, crowds can make the dunes feel more like an amusement park than a national park.
That’s fun too, but think about grabbing a backpack and getting away from the crowds next time.
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