There are no trails in the Great Sand Dunes; a hiker can only choose a direction and try to find the simplest path in a maze with infinite solutions.
I thought about that as we headed to High Dune again Sunday morning. High Dune is K2 in these sand Himalayas, second place. Star Dune is Everest. It stands about 50 feet taller and twice as far into the dune field. Star Dune’s name also refers to any dune that shares its starfish-like shape, carved by equally strong winds from several directions. You can see it on Google Maps, a conspicuously large mound a little more than a mile west of High Dune.
Long-legged kangaroo rats, the dune field’s only native mammal, had been busy the night before. They had a much easier time climbing than humans.
Lunch was on High Dune after two hours of hiking. From there we could see Star Dune right between two shorter peaks. Behind us people had left hundreds of trails. Only a couple of trails went further in.
The sand screwed with my depth perception; dunes were always farther than they looked, until they were the opposite. The brownish-gray walls swallowed more and more of the horizon as we made our way, High Dune dipping in and out of sight. We were probably the only people for miles. I vaguely considered how someone could lose his mind in here. The valley directly under Star Dune was full of grasses and light tracks: a kangaroo rat city come nightfall. More than three hours in.
We zigzagged with me in the lead up a 45-degree slope to the final main ridge, and I noticed my raised heartrate wasn’t just from the climb. I was anxious. Straight forward was featureless blankness. Above that was a line between sand and sky that could’ve been 20 feet away or a mile. I stood on unstable ground that surely could collapse beneath my feet, sending me falling, falling all the way down with no way to stop. It was a disorienting mix. I halted after each diagonal, recharging my legs for a few seconds and orienting myself to Ryan, the mountains, the clouds. A few times I accepted that we might not make it; we might have to turn around.
Our progress was slow. Each zigzag moved us up 10 feet or so. We eventually reached the ridge and, surprise, we found someone’s trail of footsteps, a comfort after the emptiness. Our goal was waiting to the north. It was a relatively easy stroll until the very last obstacle, a 30- or 40-foot wall of sand.
The loose sand was so steep each step fell back nearly as much as it gained. I leaned forward to use my hands, moving a few seconds at a time before my palms got unbearably hot. My legs were sore, and my heart was pounding. Damn it, finish this, I thought.
I scrambled the last 10 feet as fast as I could. Ryan came behind me. After almost five hours of hiking, we had made it. I could hardly stand with the tiredness and height, but we were there. I think my eyes got a little damp. We stayed for a few minutes and snapped some photos. We made it.
The highest point in the Great Sand Dunes, facing northwest. The next photo is facing about 150 degrees to the right.
Going down was easy, our feet gliding through the sand back to grass and easier hills. The valley gave us a clear shot out of the dune field and to level ground, but we had to trudge a couple more miles to get back to our starting point. The valley walls had a sparse beauty, and the shadows were perfect as we walked by. We weren’t terribly sweaty or out of breath – the weather this weekend was beautiful, 60-some degrees – but our legs were nearing complete fatigue. We had drunk most of the gallon of water we carried with us.
It was a maybe an hour before we reached the creek, and with the water at our feet, some of our energy returned. The moving water was unsettling to look at after such relentless stillness. People appeared on the horizon, the first we’d seen in hours, with a little black dog. These people aren’t exhausted for some reason, I thought with a tired laugh. We were back. We’d seen more of the park than most. I was proud.
We went back to the hotel, got some pizza and watched TV, a fine end, as far as I’m concerned, to the most challenging hike of my life. The drive back the next day was all that was left.
Thanks for looking.