We had left Denver 3 1/2 hours earlier, bound for Great Sand Dunes, the nation's newest national park. A line of storms dogged us as we drove south; when we zigzagged through a Rocky Mountain pass into the scrubland of south-central Colorado, the glowering sky spread across the horizon and a misty rain began to fall. But in the distance, rays of sunlight broke through the clouds to illuminate a range of golden hills.
"Is that the park?" I asked my companion, Colorado photographer Hal Stoelzle. He nodded. "We're still at least 30 miles away. They say the dunes are so large that you can see them from space."
Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to the tallest dunes in North America, wind-sculpted mountains of sand that rise 750 feet in the shadow of some of the tallest peaks of the Rockies. (A July wildfire threatened a separate area of southern Colorado, more than 50 miles and two mountain ranges away.)
On my late May visit, snow still clung to the ridges of the range behind the dunes, but a cloudburst erased the view. As we passed through the park's entrance station, though, the rain gods smiled, and we drove to the base of the dunes under a clearing sky. Puddles were everywhere, but the afternoon sun was warm.
"We're lucky the rain stopped," I told Hal, reading aloud a sign that warned visitors to leave the dunes quickly if they saw lightning or heard thunder. He nodded. "Colorado has a lot of lightning strikes," he said. "People die all the time."
We walked through cottonwood trees and willows, emerging at the edge of a wide, shallow creek. On the other side were the dunes — nearly 50 square miles of sand, silt and clay carved into a shifting, soaring fantasy land of shadow and light. Nature's sandbox. And I wanted to play.
But first, there was the stream to cross. A sign said it was Medano Creek and that its source was in the mountains 13 miles away.
I stepped in and instantly recoiled.
"It's so cold," I yelped, half to myself.
A man with two golden retrievers and a child in tow grinned at me.
"How long do you think it's been since it was snow?" He pointed toward the nearest peak — 13,297-foot Mt. Herard — and answered his own question. "Probably less than a day."
I looked at him, the child and the two retrievers with new respect. They were fording the stream without flinching. In fact, the dogs seemed deliriously happy, a splashing chaos of wet fur, wagging tails and bouncing bodies.
I steeled myself and waded back into the calf-high water, trying to concentrate on my goal: the dunes. I wanted to climb to the top. It seemed an attainable goal. People have been doing it for eons, from ancient North Americans to Southern Ute, Jicarilla Apaches, Navajos, explorers, gold miners, ranchers and, finally, park visitors. The view, they say, is spectacular.
Great Sand Dunes' status changed in September; it graduated from national monument to national park, based partly on a 100,000-acre acquisition that added a large section of unusual star dunes — multi-armed dunes that merge to form a single point. I wanted to see those. Even if that goal was too lofty — they're in a remote section of the park — a hike to the top of 700-foot High Dune would satisfy.
A park guidebook said it was less than two miles but added, "Don't underestimate the effort or time it will take." From its 9,341-foot elevation, visitors can see a panorama of Rocky Mountain peaks. And with the sun now moving low in the west, I hoped to see the mountains behind the park at sunset, when they are said to glow red. That's why early Spanish settlers named the range Sangre de Cristo, or Blood of Christ.
The fresh rain made the sand easier to walk on, and I made good progress for about an hour. Hal and I had parted company at the stream, and I chugged uphill alone. There was no trail, but I did as other hikers were doing, following ridgelines toward the top, sliding back half a step for each step I took forward.
I've climbed California dunes in Death Valley, Kelso and Algodones in the Imperial Valley, but Colorado's dunes seemed different. Out of sync. The others were surrounded by arid desert; nearby mountains were barren. At Great Sand Dunes, creeks flow along each side of the dune field and the mountains are lush with vegetation.