Saturday, May 28, 2016

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Imagine Tatooine or, for you newer Star Wars fans, Jakku, with massive sand dunes as far as the eye can see.  Now picture having to cross a wide, shallow stream fed by snow-melt from the high mountain range surrounding the dune field.  That's Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in south-central Colorado. 

My family traveled there a week ago and had an awesome time!  My son dubbed it "the most fun national park we've been to."  With it being late spring, we expected Medano Creek to be flowing.  What we didn't expect was that, because there's no actual stream bed, the water flows across an area that's probably a couple of hundred yards wide, with sand bars interspersed among little sections of "rapids" several inches deep.  With the stream so wide and its "bed" pure sand, it was more like a beach.  And people treated it that way, too.  It looked just like a traditional beach with people setting up chairs, kids splashing around in bathing suits with rafts.  One family even set up a pup tent.  There were a host of school groups there, too.  It was a Friday, and our initial impression was that we were in for a huge crowd.  Most stuck close to the near side of the creek, however, and the other side a few hundred yards away was much less crowded (and had much deeper water).

The water was cold when we crossed, though, and we had rented sand sleds, so we passed up the alluring creek and kept on trekking toward the dunes.  Because the prevailing winds continually shape the dunes, there are no trails, and you can hike wherever you want.  It's only about a mile-and-a-half to High Dune, which is not the tallest dune in the park (that one is an additional mile-and-a-half away), but it is over 600 feet tall.  Several people made the journey out there to summit it, and even without a trail, they seemed to create "ant trails" up the dunes.  We were ready to sled, though.

We rented both a sand sled and a sandboard (think snowboard but different).  The first dunes we came to were about 100 feet high, and we figured that would be a good place to try out our (lack of) skills.  We tried the leeward side first, but the slope was too gentle.  Even with wax on the sled and board, we really didn't get anywhere.  The windward side was much steeper.  Brennan and I steeled our courage at what looked to be a greater than 45-degree angle and headed down -- me on the sled and him on the board.  It wasn't pretty, but it was a rush!

Over the course of the day, we sledded and slid and lost our balance and fell and rolled...

...All except for Brennan.  He looked like a rock star from the beginning even though he has never even snowboarded before!  (I must say, however, that while Brennan could board circles around me, he couldn't get the hang of the sled at all because it kept trying to angle down the mountain and then topple due to the shape of the dunes.  I mastered preventing that catastrophe much faster, so I guess we were even!)

By the end of the day, we had managed a rudimentary skill level, and we declared victory!

And, of course, since this was a National Park site, Lauren also completed the Junior Ranger program.

We had so much fun sledding and boarding that we didn't really even bother playing in the water and didn't do any hiking (I know -- odd for me, right?).  After several hours, we were tired but had had an absolutely phenomenal time riding the dunes.  This place is synonymous with the National Park descriptor of "America's playgrounds"!

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