Summiting High Dune, Great Sand Dunes NP, CO
“Are you going to make it, Dad?”
“I don’t know. I want to at least get to the ridge up there to take some pictures. You go on ahead.”
Who’d have thought that a 650-foot elevation gain could be so tough? The evening before I told Curtis I wanted to be on the top of High Dune at sunrise to get some images. At 5:45 this morning I hear some low voices outside the tent. We are camped adjacent to the trailhead from the Great Sand Dunes National Park camp. The fabric of the tent glows with the dim light, revealing the onset of sunrise. I shake Curtis, then get myself out just in time to see a gentleman and someone I’d guess as his own son (about Curtis’ age) head up the trail to the dunes. He's carrying a tripod. Oh great, another photography nut. Anyway, Curtis and I are going to hike up from the parking lot by High Dune, so I figure we can easily beat them to the top (didn’t want their footprints in my images!). If only I can shake Curtis out of the sack! “Hey, Curtis, time to go!” I convince Curtis that we can carry a little food and skip a backpacking breakfast … with a promise of a cooked meal at the Oasis Restaurant just outside the park gate.
By 6:15 a.m. we park the truck and sort out the gear. I choose to carry the “big” camera, an SLR, along with several lenses and the tripod and a couple filters and … hey! It's only 650-feet! We head out across the flat sand field that surrounds the dunes. By this time of year Medano Creek is completely dry. The initial slopes are gentle. As we look back across the field we notice that our own campsite really isn’t that far. In fact, maybe it would have been quicker just to hike from there. It certainly looks like a more gentle slope than we face. And those other two are almost to the top. But we're right below them – 550-feet below them, that is.
Pretty quickly trudging through the sand is taking its toll. Each step is like having someone pull at my feet. Not anything like walking on firm soil. There's a blessing in all of this, though: The gentle winds in the evening have wiped away most evidence of prior travelers. The foot-sucking sands are blissfully clear of footprints most places. If I can just reach the top. The dune line we're following is steeper yet. We decide to veer eastward, following a less steep incline. And back towards our camp. Yeah, it’d have been shorter just to hike from there. And not as steep. Where are those other two? Oh. Set up near the top taking pictures. Yep, I'm running late. And what happened to all the oxygen? I guess going from 1400-feet to 8000-feet in two days is taking its toll, too.
About halfway up I decide to send Curtis on ahead. I’d be satisfied to make it to the ridgeline, where I could see the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the north. So he marches off smartly, not winded at all. And I sit down and take a few shots of him as he hikes on. After about five minutes I decide to press on. Still tough. And time to take a few more images – the mountains beyond are just coming into view. Uh-oh. Those other two are headed down. Did I miss the best part? Certainly the sun is just barely clearing the mountains to the east. Great light, as far as I'm concerned. Then the gentleman stops, sets up his tripod and takes a few more pictures, as his son disappears from view to the east.
I gather my gear and head up some more. By now Curtis is disappearing beyond the ridgeline to the west, past where those two had ventured. Hmmm. Nice photo of him as he clears that last ridgeline and the sand flows beneath each of his steps.
About then I note that Curtis is headed back. I was nearing the ridgeline as he approaches with a big grin on his face. “They didn’t go to the top, Dad! I was the first today! So, are you going to make it?” I consider this. I was very near the ridgeline and it was pretty level. The view was awesome. “You haven’t seen anything yet, Dad. From the top you can see dunes all around!” Heh-heh. Yeah, he knows just how to play me. Offer me a better photo and he knows I’ll try my hardest to get it! “I’ll try my best, Curtis. Lead the way.”
The ridgeline is an easy walk. It's pretty cool watching the sand flowing down both sides as we hike. Then we reach a pretty steep incline. “Yeah, Dad, this is one of two. Steep, but short.” He's right.
After about 15-minutes another couple starts their final ascent. We decide it’s time for us to go; let them enjoy this special place to themselves, too. The return is a piece of cake. We hike the ridgeline for a very short distance, then decide that the dune isn’t too steep to go straight down. So we head that way.
Man are my boots feeling funny! Full funny. Full of sand funny that is. My foot won’t move in it at all. Very uncomfortable. But I decide to enjoy the ease of our downward hike, and to ignore the pressure on my feet. We pass a few other hikers headed up and smile and tell them it’s worth the view and to not give up. And two-hours after starting we return to the parking lot. I remove one boot and find it full of sand – to the very top. I pour it out and have Curtis take a picture. We relax for a few minutes, then we’re off to the Oasis Restaurant for a hot breakfast, then onward to Zapata Falls for yet another hike!
The real irony in all of this? Despite all this hard work to reach the summit, the best image I'd take during the entire trip (including hikes of Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mount Evans) would be of these sand dunes ... from the road to the park!