My Epic American Road Trip to the Great Sand Dunes
I’d wanted to go and camp here for so long that I can’t pinpoint the moment I added it to my bucket list.
As the sand and hot air whipped down hundreds of feet off the dunes and through our little encampment, testing the strength of our stakes, threatening to shred our tents, and creeping into the crevices of our electronics, there was just one phrase I couldn’t get out of my head: “Their appearance was exactly that of the sea in storm, except as to color.”
Those words were written more than two centuries before, in 1807, by one of the great explorers of the Louisiana Purchase, Zebulon Pike. His book on his journey throughout the American southwest became an international bestseller, not least because his were often the first written record of places he saw. The dunes that so wowed him? The same dunes that today make up Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, where I went hiking and camping in June.
It could have been the premise for a cringe-worthy, low-budget Netflix gay film: Four gay men (a couple and an ex-couple) with varying expertise roadtrip down from Denver to camp in the middle of sand dunes towering up to 750 feet. And yes, there were the inevitable cracks about the difficulty of sexual activity so far from running water and horror at having to take everything you bring in back out of the park (I’m referring here to used toilet paper). But it was also cringe in a different way. It was a reminder for me why I love the U.S. so much.
Too often, like magpies distracted by shiny objects, we Americans flit from the Old World pleasures of Europe to the bustle and excitement of Asia. Meanwhile, we’re surrounded by wonders we’d have at the top of our bucket lists were they in a far flung locale. And they’re all wonders that we in the LGBT community (despite the progress still to go) can enjoy in ways that members of our community around the world barely dare to dream about.
One of those wonders that has long been on my bucket list is Great Sand Dunes. If you’ve never heard of it (and don’t worry, an overwhelming number of people back east hadn’t), it’s a 30 square-mile collection of dunes hundreds of feet tall at the base of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo mountains of the Rockies. The dunes were created by sand deposits from a lake that used to fill the valley and over thousands of years were blown into this corner.
It is stunning.
I’d wanted to go and camp here for so long that I can’t pinpoint the moment I added it to my bucket list. So, sandwiched between a rafting trip in Idaho and a road trip to the Arctic Circle in the Yukon, I set aside a handful of days to drive with friends four hours south of Denver for an experience I’d never forget.
There are a number of ways to experience the sand dunes, but we were determined to camp out in the dunes themselves—which meant getting there relatively early for a first-come-first-serve backcountry permit, followed by traipsing over the first few ridge lines into the heart of the dunes to pitch camp. For those less inclined to trudge up and down giant sand dunes with camping equipment loaded on their backs, the park has a reservation system for campgrounds interspersed along the adjacent Medano Creek and forest.
To ensure we got there in time (but not too early for the snaking line that forms just before the park opens), it meant a 6 a.m. departure from Boulder, where we were staying. We arrived in Boulder a few days earlier to borrow camping gear from my partner’s brother (whose every measured instruction tried to mask his fear that we would screw everything up) and to do one of our favorite half-day hikes in nearby Estes Park—Chasm Lake.
Bleary-eyed but all nervously reining in our crotchetiness for fear of being pinpointed as the one who ruined the trip with acrimony, we piled in the same car. We were an odd mix: Cole, my quick-witted friend whom much of our social circle openly worried wasn’t up to the challenge (a concern that annoyed him); Ben, his ex, who was just a few sprinkles of gay removed from being a bro quoting Anchorman but possessed the redeeming qualities of an up-for-anything disposition and a lead foot to get us there; and Alejandro, my partner and rock, who had the most experience, and therefore upon whom the weight all of this would fall if anything went awry.
The drive down through the Rockies to Great Sand Dunes (the largest dunes in North America) is magnificent in spring—especially this year due to copious rainfall. The highway cuts down the middle of lush green valleys that curve up into sharp peaks. It was my second time down this way, but the first time actually enjoying it. It’s one of those drives (if there are no cops) where you just want to floor it—the epic scenery, open road, and a heavy car going at breakneck speed combine for a blissful state.
Four hours later, there it was in the distance, a blob the color of a mountain lion’s coat framed by the dramatic Tijeras and Blueberry Peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range of the Rocky Mountains.
The entry road to the park skirts the dunes, offering an indelible view from the road. For those less outdoors-inclined, even driving into the park and walking around the visitors center and the creek separating it from the dunes is worth the experience. But that was not my bucket list item. Camping out there under the stars was. So we got our permit and were given the lay of the land by a park ranger (including a much-repeated warning about the damage sand could do at winds just a little higher than expected that afternoon, as well as a firm order that we had to get deep enough in the dunes so we wouldn’t ruin it for any photographers working from the creek or front ridge). Packs were distributed, sunscreen and bug spray liberally applied, and off we went to our adventure for the night.
Now, as you can imagine, trekking up and down 700-foot dunes is not easy, let alone with packs full of camping gear. So it was recommended that we follow the river towards the mountains for a mile or so before cutting in as the front range of dunes down there are not as tall as those just beyond the visitor’s center.
I can’t say what it was precisely—my well-known lack of patience, our eagerness to just get in there, or some latent foolish man-child urge to disregard words of wisdom—but just a few hundred yards in, we said screw it and began our ascent up a dune that didn’t seem so bad.
I like to think I’m in good shape. I do Crossfit, run, and hike whenever I can. Our hike to Chasm Lake, an alpine lake at 12,000 feet that on a previous trip years ago had seemed like a workout, had been shockingly easy the day before. However, 30 steps up one of these dunes, and while still far from the top, I found myself somewhere between winded and gasping for breath. I had to disguise this from the group, though, as Ben—who also does Crossfit and is built like an anthropomorphized Ferdinand the Bull, was following close behind (he brings out a weird competitiveness in me that, horrifyingly, reminds me of my father). Plus Alejandro was spry from training for Chimborazo in Ecuador, while Cole (with the waist of a high-school swimmer who has shred every last bit of fat) practically floated on the sand.
Up ahead was the top of said dune and a ridge line we were going to follow to ease our path deep into the dunes. What did we find when we got there? Essentially the dune had a mansard roof and what we had thought was the ridge was just a leveling off that made one of the giant dunes seem less giant from the creek. Another hundred feet remained before us. Luckily, it was early June and so despite it getting close to noon, neither the sun nor the sand were excruciatingly hot—yet.
After following the ridge line (but still going up and down in soft sand), we eventually found a valley between peaks where some vegetation survived and picked this as our campground, figuring this meant the ground here was more stable.
At this point the wind had picked up, and furtive looks were exchanged that said, “Should we bail for the forest?” But nobody wanted to be the one whose caution ruined my bucket list adventure, so battling the wind, we pitched our tents. (And yes, one did blow away like an umbrella at a beach shortly after being pitched as our bags hadn’t been placed inside in time.) But now it was early afternoon, and so despite my dramatic passing out in the tent, it was getting HOT and the water was limited to what we could carry. The only option to cool off was to leave our wind-vulnerable tents behind and hike back to the creek where we could cool off, play, and use our water bottle filters.
And so, looking back at our forlorn little camp as we reached each crest to make sure it was still there, it was then that I thought about Pike and his writings about the dunes. I always think about the men and women who tackled this region long before the appurtenances of modern life. The Native Americans first, followed thousands of years later by the (mainly) Spanish and French, followed centuries later by the Americans. I wonder if I would have been just as wanderlust-y back then when it involved so much personal and physical risk.
Modernity prevented me from having to dwell further. Our phones started to go off as it turned out we got service on the creek (we thought we could rely on nature to force us to disconnect, but naturally all of us caved and got on our phones). Fast forward a few hours, and while the sun was still beating down and the sand (which gets hotter than the outside temperature during the day) close to burning, we were ready to hike back and take a sweaty nap before dinner.
By around 6 p.m. the wind died down completely and the air cooled. And that was when the parts I’ll remember years from now began.
I don’t know what most people cook when they backpack camp, but we decided to be desert chic. Charcuterie and cheese we’d managed to keep cool followed by penne with pesto and, of course, s’mores. We cooked (I was so hungry and impatient our pasta was a little al dente), ate, and some took edibles to have them kick in just for sunset, which arrived sooner than expected—time flies, fun and all that.
I don’t have much to say about sunset in the desert—you’ve likely seen amazing pictures or experienced it yourself. With the soaring mountains as the backdrop, this time was particularly special.
Now, normally I wouldn’t tell you about peeing in the wild, but that night when I did my now habitual middle-of-the-night, it was magical. We were camping on the night of a full moon, so I didn’t even need a flashlight to see where I was going. The sand was cold, transformed from potentially scalding to the temperature one gets in the summer by burrowing under the surface. Under the moonlight it took on a lustrous quality. There was no sound except, well, me. So, note for you, dear reader: if it’s a full moon or close, make sure to go for some nighttime relief.
Eventually, I fell back asleep, giving me just enough rest before waking up to see the sun rise from behind the mountains (an act Ben and Cole deigned not to join us for). We were too lazy to do the whole making-a-breakfast works and opted instead to eat the remaining graham crackers while marveling at the swirls of coyote tracks encircling our campsite. (Which, annoyingly, gave Alejandro the evidence needed to prove that his waking me up at one point, due to noise around us, was not weed-induced.) Then a hike back to the car, a four-hour drive home, and multiple days of finding grains of sand everywhere.
Some people are adrenaline addicts. I, however, have no need to almost die to feel alive. On the other hand, I do love experiences that make me feel small, that remind me of the awesome combined power of nature and time. Great Sand Dunes was without a doubt one of those, and one for which I’m already planning a return.