GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE • Our national parks offer a chance to escape noise, hassle and humanity to savor spectacular and soothing slices of nature.
OK, that’s the glittering idea.
But a trip to Yosemite or Yellowstone or Glacier or Rocky Mountain or Grand Canyon can deliver traffic jams, masses of humanity and general agony. Close your eyes at national parks in peak season and wonder if you just arrived in lower downtown Denver in the middle of the weekly Friday night drinking extravaganza.
And yet ...
Solitude and escape can be found at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, especially now. If you seek a rugged workout and a chance to get away from it all, consider a journey to the Dunes, about a three-hour drive from Colorado Springs. Find a sunny late winter/early spring day with temperatures above 45 and calm winds. Arrive as early as possible, preferably before noon, and you will enjoy the same bounty I did.
I wandered the dunes for 3½ hours, climbing to the highest point of the ocean of sand, and saw one hiker on the journey. A ski trip to Vail or Breckenridge or Monarch carries the possibility of all kinds of thrills, but those trips fail to carry the promise of peace or silence or genuine escape.
The Dunes, especially this time of year, deliver on all those promises.
For those of us who love Colorado, it’s an entertaining and weighty argument/discussion to pick the most wonderful spot among a vast collection of wonderful spots.
I’d go with the hushed vista at the Dunes. You stand there, gazing at glistening mountains in every direction. The Sangre De Cristos. The San Juans.
But, of course, you can stand on hundreds of high points in the state and see mountains.
When you turn left on Colorado 150, a destination like no other beckons. It’s our nation’s ultimate sandbox, 30 square miles worth. It’s a stunning sight, no matter how many times you encounter it. You half expect Lawrence of Arabia to ride over a dune on his camel and ask for directions to Alamosa.
The surprise is nothing new. In 1807, Army Col. Zebulon Pike notified Washington officials that he had discovered a strange and wondrous destination. He described “sandy hills . . . exactly like that of a sea in a storm except as to its color, and not a sign of vegetation.”
I’d like to tell you it’s an easy climb to the top of the dunes, but it’s brutal, especially when the sand is dry. You take a step, then a half step back as the sand falls beneath your feet. The ascent leaves calves throbbing and, as you approach 9,000 feet, lungs hungry for air.
Ah, but the descent. When climbing a mountain, the return journey is easier but still rugged. A climb down the Dunes is all about joy.
After taking an hour or two to climb, you hop and jump your way to the bottom, laughing all the way, in 20 or 30 happy minutes. You will feel exhausted at the top, but the pain evaporates on the rapid return to your car.
If you drive there, consider taking the long route through Cañon City and Salida, which provides a gorgeous stretch along the Arkansas River through Bighorn Sheep Canyon. From Salida, a drive on Colorado 17 over Poncha Pass ends with a glorious ride along a long straightaway where the Sangre De Cristo range almost hugs the road.
In summer, crowds arrive at the Dunes, even though it’s the worst time to visit. On a hot day in August, the sands are scorching,and the lonely and blissful days of winter and spring are gone. Still great, but not tranquil.
Better to go now. To be alone and savor the dunes that resemble, as Pike said, a raging yet frozen storm on the ocean. To recline on the tallest dunes in North America and nap on a gorgeous and warm winter morning. To truly escape.