I was sound asleep, snoring on sand as comfortable as memory foam when the storms hit just after midnight. The sound of my tent stakes being violently ripped out of the ground was what finally jolted me awake. Sand started slicing through my tent, scratching my face. And my rain fly had become a sail, violently flapping vertically in the wind and rain. Here in the massive dune field of Great Sand Dunes National Park, your fortunes can change rather quickly, and your dreams can temporarily turn to nightmares.
Fearing my tent might come completely unhinged and start rolling like a tumble weed through the dune field, I frantically searched in the darkness for my headlamp. It took several minutes to get the rain fly back on. Luckily, the sleeping bag stuffsack I had filled with heavy sand and buried as an anchor held at least one corner of my tent to the ground.
Storms would come and go three more times over the next two hours. I was nervous about the first two and the chance of lightning bolts. But by the third, I laid back and sort of enjoyed the gusts of winds and the pattering of rain that shook my tent. The rain and the wind sang me back to sleep in this surreal landscape.
Neighbors are few and far between in the dune field. A light in the distance is another tent way off on another part of the dunes.
I have found no greater medicine for stress, a lack of inspiration or just a long week than hiking through the vast dune field that meets the Sangre De Cristo mountains in southern Colorado. Some of this place's power comes from the silence that greets tired hikers on the other side of the first ridge of dunes. Some of it comes from the shades of pink the dunes turn at sunset. And some of it comes from just how perfectly sunflowers, craggy peaks and pristine layers of sand line up in a photographer's lens.
In August, brilliant patches of sunflowers line the San Luis Valley, and even make appearances in the dune field.
On my sixth visit to this part of Colorado, I found myself still getting goosebumps just at the sight of dune field. This place brings me back fond memories of hiking the beaches of Oregon and Washington with my family. And even at 29-years-old, it's hard to stop myself from running down a steep pitch of sand as if I were still a child. There is no map to worry about. No designated trail. No ridge off limits. During the day, crowds of people stake out their own ridge and take turns sliding down on sand boards. Children roll down steep dunes, and splash in the seasonal creek that separates civilization from this big natural playground.
This visit, I was looking to experience the park in a different way. I've camped often at the main campground in the national park, but I've grown tired of the XM Satellite Radio noise that people so often play from their cars, and the hum of RV generators competing with the crackle of campfires.
So I obtained a free backcountry permit and headed to spend a night in the dune field itself. You can't build a campfire, and the nearest water source from your campsite is more than 1.5 miles away. But you have the freedom to set up camp anywhere beyond the park's day use area, which is the part that's visible from the road entering the park.
I hiked several miles, sometimes kicking myself for choosing a path up the dune field that was so steep, it required using my hands to crawl up. In other places, the sand was so soft it took four steps to travel a distance it would take a man on solid ground just one step to make.
On the other side of the first dune ridge, the view makes everyone stop and take out their cameras. And so I looked out and saw a perfect place to stake down a tent.
The sunset was brilliant. I found a patch of sunflowers that would see the last kiss of sunshine, and made them the focus of my shot.