Unexpected Snow, Unexpected Adventure…Anticipated Solace in Great Sand Dunes NP

Snow at Great Sand Dunes National Park

It was early April and winter remained the prevailing season in Denver and the surrounding high country in Spring 2010. A recent death in the family tugged at our hearts and forced a small group of family and friends to listen to our inner John Muir, “the mountains were calling and [WE HAD to] go”. Our plan was to mitigate the bite of winter by heading south to Great Sand Dunes National Park. The allure of a new National Park experience (for many of us) in addition to the needed respite from tragedy partially blinded the prospect of camping in sub-freezing temperatures. Given I was the ring leader, I took it upon myself to adequately prepare everyone for the cold; however, I was naïve for some reason to believe snow would be a realistic issue considering the Dune’s lower elevation.

Nevertheless, after a beautiful morning drive down I-25 and passed the Spanish Peaks outside Walsenburg, we arrived at the Park’s gates greeted by the naïve surprise of snow-covered Dunes. My self-diagnosed condition for adventure, A.D.D. (Adventure Deficit Disorder), would generally welcome the challenge at hand; however, I was nervous for the well-being of the group and the sudden heightened risk of extreme cold from the prospect of being wet. Were we in over our heads? Was grief forcing us to make unreasonable decisions?

After spending a little time at the visitor center and checking out the campground, which thankfully had several dry (enough) pads, we collectively decided we were committed and ready to explore. After all, we were at the foot of the tallest sand dunes in North America! It was time to get jacked. After setting camp, our adrenaline took us to the edge of a very cold Medano Creek that at the time ranged from a couple inches to a foot deep. We were determined. We had our sights set on the top of the Dunes (like most who visit). Shoes and socks off, we crossed successfully and started our journey on an unnamed route due West of the campground. With no particular plan or destination, we just started climbing.

In one of many temperature swings our bodies would endure on the trip, it didn’t take long to shake the lingering cold as we trekked upward. While we were happy to be on the move, the size of the dunes had multiplied two-fold from our initial take at the campground. To boot, hiking in sand – as everyone surely is aware – is not an easy chore, nevertheless trying to gain elevation when taking three steps forward equates to one step backward. We were delighted however to discover the sand was compacted due to the snow, which combined with the cooler temperature made our ambitious adventure to the top a much more manageable task.

Like many things in our National Parks and the great outdoors, it’s difficult to describe the enormity and magnificence of this special place. With snow covering mainly the north side of the Dunes and sand exposed on the south, it was one of those phenomenal contrasts that makes you think twice about what you’re looking at. Following the natural route created by the spine of smaller dunes to the top of the dune field, we were entrenching ourselves in two very distinct and normally separate worlds. Cornices of snow hung on one side of the Dunes while the other was your prototypical desert of sand. As we neared the top, the expanse of the dune field progressively revealed itself to our awe and wonder.

With the sun making its first appearance of the day, the snow was becoming a more welcoming part of our journey. It suddenly was very warm! This was the typical high country spring weather I was counting on. At the top, we enjoyed abundant views of the long route in which we just came, imagined scenes of Lawrence of Arabia, and basked in the glory of the Sangro De Cristo Mountain Range and the San Luis Valley. We were taken aback by the sea of sand that lay before us and the surrounding shadows of nearby 14,000 foot peaks. From Yellowstone’s thermal features to Sequoia’s largest living organisms, our National Parks showcase our most unique scenery…Great Sand Dunes National Park undeniably has earned its place among these landscapes.

The unexpected turn of weather (for the better) combined with our intrepid passage of the dunes despite the snowy circumstances had us all in a tizzy. Content with our fortune, we had no idea our adventure had yet to reach its climax. Daylight was fading and it was time to head back to camp. Tired, I surprised myself for not thinking (nor trying) this sooner…snow-covered hills of sand = the safest natural slide Mother Nature has to offer. The conditions were perfect. There wasn’t enough snow to be concerned of avalanche risk, the contour of the dunes created a perfect pitch – not too steep, not too shallow – and the slick surface was devoid of rocks, only comprising the forgiving combination of sand and snow. Our hike instantaneously transformed into a thrill ride.

To obtain the least resistance of friction, we found ourselves stuffing our pant legs into our socks, tucking our jackets into our pants, and wearing our packs backwards on our chests. To say the least, we accepted the look of buffoons but there was no denying the brilliance of our escapade. Like all roller coasters, the ride down ended all too quickly and we actually found ourselves climbing back up a bank or two for the extra thrill. Words do no justice to explain the rush we felt from the unbridled pull of gravity. It was freedom in its purest sense. More so, it was exactly what the doctor had ordered given the circumstances behind our trip.

National Parks and the great outdoors in which they encompass are the ultimate arenas for all intentions. May it be recreation, reflection, adventure, joy or in our case “all of the above”, National Parks are the centrifuge to all that is right in our busy and often crazy lives. They help us put the pieces back together while forging priceless memories that define our authentic spirit. Regardless of the cold, regardless of the unexpected snow, Great Sand Dunes National Park provided the one thing we knew it would: solace (and adventure).


  1. Wilderness Dave says:

    Pretty sweet.

    That would be an awesome sight, the great sand dunes covered in snow. Incredible.

Speak Your Mind