What to Know When You Go to the Great Sand Dunes

The Great Sand Dunes? You mean the Goddamned Sand Dunes 

Holy. Shit. This has to be one of my worst ideas ever. My head is pounding like I just got tackled by an NFL offensive lineman. I’m panting like a deformed bulldog, and every step I take, my legs scream at me to stop. Funny how I thought this would be fun.  

I plop down in the sand, crumpling under the weight of my backpack. I’m so tired I don’t even bother taking it off. I know it’s going to be even more difficult to get up, but I don’t care. I just want to be done. 

Sprawled out like a turtle stuck on its back, I try to roll over onto my hands and knees, but my pack is too heavy. Oh well. I’ll just stay here. I could sit here for the rest of the day. Yeah, I could sleep here. Forget setting up a tent. This is just fine. 

But my friend Matthew has other plans. 

“We need to go. Look, we don’t have that much more to go,” he says sharply in his Long Island accent that reveals his irritation with me.  


I violently throw all my weight to my right side, trying to gather enough momentum to roll off of my back. Finally, after a few tries, I roll onto my hands and knees. Then, I stand up, painstakingly and slowly.  Deep breath. Here we go again. 

I thought climbing Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes would be fun. I thought it would be easy, and I thought it would be my favorite part of the trip, but I was severely wrong. 

A very unhappy Katelin

Before I actually started hiking, I imagined myself motoring up the dunes with no problem, strong and fast, the picture of fitness. However, after about ten steps, I realized that this might be a little harder than I imagined. Trudging two miles up and down sand colossuses with an overweight backpack in the middle of the day might not be as fun as I initially pictured.  

But here we are, stumbling up sand dune after sand dune all while being assaulted by millions of grains of airborne sand. We have only one more mile before we’re in the backcountry. One more mile before we can set up our tent. One more mile before we reach the best location in the dunes to witness the Milky Way.  One more mile to arrive at the place I have wanted to see for so long.  

Steven Spielberg Moments

Cars stretch back miles from the entrance of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. We’ve already been waiting at least an hour, but we’re no closer to the entrance. This has to be worth it. I mean why would there be this many people waiting if it wasn’t? 

One hour stretches into two, but finally, we enter the park. This is it. We’ve hit the promise land.  

I can see the dunes more clearly now. Amidst the greenery and snow-capped mountains around us, they look out of place like construction workers came in the middle of the night and dumped a bunch of sand there. 

But even then, they were still magnificent, giant rolling hills that moved and changed every hour, innumerable grains of sand piled hundreds of feet high. I’d thought about this moment a lot. I’d wanted to see the dunes for a few years now. But as we drive past them and onto the visitor’s center, they’re not as impressive as I expected.

Oh well, maybe we’d have to get into the dunes to really appreciate them.  

Circling the visitor’s center parking lot like starved buzzards, we eventually find a spot in the overcrowded lot and walk up to verify our camping permit. We had planned to hike into the dunes far enough where we could camp, spend the night, and see the Milky Way unobstructed by light pollution.

I’d never seen the Milky Way before, but I expected that it was one of those experiences where you feel like you’re in a Steven Spielberg movie. You, the main character, go out in nature, look up at the stars, suddenly have a grand epiphany about the meaning of life, and of course, then you save the world from whatever apocalyptic forces are at hand. 

I wanted that. I wanted one of those moments sans the aliens, dinosaurs, and magic mushrooms. So in the pursuit of my main character development, I had dragged my friend, Matthew with me all the way out to Colorado. This was only supposed to be a climbing trip, but I needed to have a Steven Spielberg moment.

So, here we were, standing at the base of the dunes, loaded down with water and granola bars, armed with a sandboard and camera, ready to begin the journey that would lead to the most beautiful night sky I’d ever seen. 

It’s the climb

I’m not going to lie. I thought I was in shape. I thought I was hot shit, and I thought climbing up these dunes would be no problem. Oh, but how wrong I was. 

Even in the flat sand, the first few steps are a struggle. Under the weight of my backpack, I waddle back and forth. With each step I take, I sink a little to the left, a little to the right. My camera hangs from my neck like a pendulum and swings with each step. If you’d seen me on the side of the road walking like this, you’d think I’d just failed a DUI test.

But despite the slow pace and drunken walking, we push forward until we get to the first set of dunes. Yeah, this sucks. There’s no getting around it, but morale’s still high because we’re actually here. We’re doing this. We’re camping in the dunes.   

It looks a lot taller in person…I promise

However, I soon realize the enormity and difficulty of the task after making it up the first set of baby dunes. Okay. Those weren’t that bad, but then I make the mistake of looking up. It’s Everest. It’s the Hulk, and it looks like it’s really going to hurt. 

But whatever, we’re here, and we’re doing it. 

My can-do mentality lasts only five more minutes before I’m hunched over, cursing, and panting like I just ran 100-yard suicides. 

My feet weigh ten thousand pounds. My backpack is digging into my shoulders, leaving angry red marks. My nose burns from the dry air. My mouth is full of cotton. My heart is beating so hard, I can hear it in my ears. And my legs. Jesus. Fucking. Christ. My legs. My calves, my quads, my hamstrings feel like someone covered them in gasoline and set them on fire. And to top it all off, we’re nowhere near the top.

Oh, and then there’s the wind. I’ve been in a hurricane before, but I’d take that over this any day. Because, hurricane wind, yeah you’ll get a little wet, and you might get knocked out by a tree branch or someone’s escaped lawn chair. But it’s still better than getting pelted with millions of grains of sand that get everywhere. And yes, I mean everywhere. Hair, ears, under your toenails, and somehow in your ass crack.   

Yeah, this sucks. Fuck this. Fuck the sand. Fuck all these happy people climbing up the dunes, light, free, and not carrying a backpack with a gallon of water. Fuck everything. 

Two hours of tortuous climbing later, we finally reach the crest of the tallest dune. Everything beyond is the backcountry, the glorious place where we can finally set up camp. 

The dunes stretch on for at least three more miles, but I’m done. Nope, no more walking today. We’re setting up camp here. I get Matthew’s attention, and between deep breaths, I manage to get out a few words. 

“There, the little bowl.” Inhale. Exhale. “It’s flat.” Inhale. Exhale. “We can.” Inhale. Exhale. “Set up camp.” Inhale. Exhale. “There.” 

Matthew looks at me with a mix of pity and humor but nods in agreement, and we bound down the giant hill of sand to set up camp for the day. 

Our lonely, little tent

What you actually should know

Already, we’ve made some mistakes. Yeah, we shouldn’t have started hiking at 1 p.m., the hottest part of the day. We should’ve packed more substantial food than gas station cashews and granola bars. We should’ve done a little more research about the dunes. And Matthew shouldn’t have worn Nike slides.

But most of all, we should’ve considered that the only reason sand dunes exist is because of wind. And yeah, wind plus sand plus tent does not equal happy campers.  

The whole time we were climbing, the wind was ripping, assaulting us with an army of sand grains. However, all while this was happening, we never considered how we were going to set our tent up, our biggest mistake.  

We reach the little bowl that we’ll call home for the night. The wind is blowing full force, and I feel the sand hit my cheap sunglasses with enough force to crack them. If we don’t hold down the tent, it’ll surely blow away into the dunes. 

 I manage to spread the tent out and throw my backpack inside while Matthew works on the tent poles. We try to stake the tent down, but stakes don’t sit very well in sand, so scratch that plan. We’ll just have to hold the tent down. 

As soon as the tent’s constructed, we hop inside, taking half the dunes with us. Matthew looks at me. 

“Katelin, we’re not going to be able to stay here.” 

Nope. I don’t want to hear it. We’re staying here. We’re doing this. We just have to think a little harder and figure something out.  

Nope, you know what we’ll do. We’ll bury the tent. 

While I sit inside and act as a glorified paperweight, Matthew runs outside to bury the sides of the tents. The flapping stops, and the tent seems secure. Ha. See? A solution. 

With our temporary home secure, we head outside to try to sandboard. We climb another exhaustingly tall dune, strap up, and brace for breakneck speed. I take a deep breath and hop to the edge of the dune. Here we go. I close my eyes and wait to fly down the dune, but nothing happens. I hop again, ready to finally head down. Okay one more time, still nothing. Hmm okay, maybe not enough wax. 

I wax my entire board and repeat everything I’d just done. Still nothing. What the fuck. 

A little side note about sandboarding that I’d wish I’d known: the sand needs to be wet for you to get any speed. Otherwise, no matter how steep the dune is, you’ll just sink into the sand and practically have to scoot your way down. And even when you can gain a little forward momentum, you can’t carve on a sandboard the same way you can on a snowboard. You turn a little to the side on a sandboard, and the board immediately stops and sends you rolling down the dune face first. Hmmm, things I wish I’d known. 

It’s a lot harder than it looks

After an hour of sandboarding unsuccessfully, we check on our tent. All the work we’d done to bury it, gone. Our tent is warped in a weird shape, poles contorted and scrunched. It’s held down only by our backpacks.

“Katelin,” Matthew starts in a serious yet cautious tone like how a parent talks to a two-year-old on the verge of a temper tantrum, “Look, if you want to stay here tonight, we’re going to have to find a new place to set up camp.” 

I nod. I know, but the thought of unpacking, repacking, hiking, and unpacking again is demoralizing, exhausting, and painful.  

But we have to do it because we’re here, and I want my goddamned Steven Speilberg moment, looking up at the Milky Way. So we unpack, repack, and hike on.

Round 2: Dunes-1, Us-0 

Jesus. Fucking. Christ, again. After another twenty minutes of pure hell, we find a new spot. This one looks better, more protected. Plus, we can’t feel any wind here. Perfect. 

Once more, we set up the tent and bury it, but this time we don’t even bother with the stakes because we know better now. 

Immediately, we collapse inside the tent, almost laughing. Yeah, this is it. We did it. Now all we have to do is chill out until sunset and then wait for the Milky Way. 

I lay down and close my eyes, anticipating how magical seeing the Milky Way will be, and that’s when it happens. Whatever god, being, or spirit is looking down on us must have a sick sense of humor because just as I relax, the wind picks back up, even worse this time.  

The rain fly whips against the tent, waving like a flag in a tornado. The tent struggles against our weight, fighting to follow the wind. And the noise from the rain fly and the sand hitting the tent is deafening. This feels like war. 

Again, Matthew looks at me. He doesn’t even say anything, but I know what the look means. We can’t stay here. We’ll have to sleep in the car. 

Fuck. This is it. This was supposed to be my Steven Spielberg moment. We hiked all the way up here. We braved the wind, the sand, and the climb. But, there’s no way we can stay the night here, not with the wind like this. So, we pack up and head back down to the car, the ultimate disappointment.  

The trip down is a fever dream. I know it happened. I just can’t remember any of it. By the time we’re down at the car, the temperature has dropped, and the wind has picked up. We’re shivering and completely coated in sand.

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