Southern Colorado had a two for one special - Orient Land Trust Hot Springs and Great Sand Dunes National Park!
You know anything with the suffix "national park" will pique my interest, but I had also read a few interesting things about the Dunes like that you could ride a sled down them so we made sure to budget a good day to explore the area.
And wow - it wasn't until I actually laid eyes on the dunes that I realized that I had never seen anything like it before. If it weren't for the abutting Sangre De Cristo Mountains pocked with friendly evergreens, one might think they were in the middle of a desert, which I guess once you are standing atop a 700 foot pile of sand overlooking 19,000 acres of dunefield, you pretty much are.
The dunes here are the largest in North America, rising about 750 feet from the floor of the San Luis Valley. The wind is the architect in this special case; after the glaciers that formed the valley melted, westerly winds picked up loose particles and began piling them up against the wall of the mountain. This process continues today. Sand is still moved across the valley floor to the dunes, making them bigger, and changing their shape daily.
We arrived at the dunes on a clear and chilly day, still warm and pliable from two days in the hot springs. With our intentions set on sledding, we were immediately disappointed to learn that, despite several internet resources telling me otherwise, sleds were not for rent at the Visitors Center within the park and that we would have to drive 40 miles out of the way to a satellite Visitors Center in Alamosa to get them - and then drive back. Nah. So we hiked.
From the first step into the soft, shifting sands, we knew we were in for a challenge. Climbing nearly 750 feet in elevation in sand that forever sank away from us took nearly two hours. And it certainly didn't help that because the dunes shapes are flexible and constantly changing there are no obvious trails. We were advised to stay on the ridge lines to make walking easier, but we didn't always follow that advice and would more often than not end up scrambling (hopelessly) up sheer, crumbling dune faces and cursing ourselves for making the journey harder on ourselves that necessary!
After busting our glutes into smithereens, we eventually made it to the top of a tall dune ridge, but the chilly winds whipping stinging sand all around us quickly inspired us to turn around.
The best part? After the slow, painful climb up, the reckless running, tumbling, and jumping our way back down the soft, pliable sands almost made up for the fact that we never got to try it on a sled!
And I was no doubt shaking sand out of my hair for days!