America’s Tallest Sandbox: Try Dune-Hill Skiing

America’s Tallest Sandbox: Try Dune-Hill Skiing 3Outdoor aficionados might be divided into two factions – winter people and summer people.

Winter people are those who live for the season when snow blankets the land. For them, nirvana is a white-clad peak where they can don skis and carve turns down never-ending runs. Summer people, on the other hand, prefer warm days, sunshine and playing on sand. True winter zealots also relish those things – but preferably with skis on.

For the snow-deprived in need of a downhill fix, the soft, shifting slopes of mountainous sand dunes seductively beckon like the song of the Sirens. The loftier the mound, the better the ski down, and for those bold enough to challenge the highest, the Mount McKinley of dunes rises in southern Colorado at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, tallest sand pile in North America.

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Colorado's biggest sandbox covers the San Luis Valley, formed by the Rio Grande River.

One of the area’s earliest explorers, Zebulon Montgomery Pike, first saw the towering expanse of sand from a nearby mountain pass. Gazing upon the wind-sculpted topography, he described its appearance as being “exactly that of the sea in a storm, except for color.”

This granular, toast-brown ocean covers approximately 39 square miles and crests nearly 700 feet above the flat San Luis Valley. The cool, forested peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains provide a lofty backdrop to the warm, undulating terrain. Few plants mar the mutable surface, making it environmentally sound for dune-hill skiing.

Craving a gritty adventure, I join a bevy of fanatics on a pilgrimage to the monument for a wild weekend of dancing down dunes. We cause bewilderment among the Winnebago crowd when our vehicles blitz into the desert-like campground with ski-filled rooftop racks. Our crew commandeers a few adjoining sites and sets up tents. After a preparatory night of mirth and merriment, we arise at the crack of mid-morning, devour a leisurely brunch, and then load our four-wheel-drives for the short spin to the sandy slopes.

The group’s preferred runs lie along Medano Pass Primitive Road. Conventional cars can negotiate its first mile to a small parking area, aptly called the “Point of No Return.” Beyond, only all-wheel-drive vehicles with high clearance have a chance of remaining unmired in the sandy ruts that pretend to be a road.

The route parallels Medano Creek on the eastern edge of this unusual Rocky Mountain sandbox, formed with the help of the nearby Rio Grande River. For millenniums, the stream deposited sand, silt and sediments along the floor of San Luis Valley. As its channel shifted, abandoned residues became exposed to prevailing southwesterly breezes. In a process called saltation, wind picks up these grains and hops them along, a few inches at a time. On the eastern edge of the valley, a combination of steep grades and downward alpine drafts from the Sangre de Cristos prevent sand from traveling farther. Unable to advance, it simply piles up and up.

Since wet particles do not travel far, Medano Creek forms a natural barrier to the saltation process. Sand migrates up the windward inclines, then avalanches down a massive slip face toward the creek. Here, the dunes are high and steep, very nearly at their 34° angle of repose. Close access makes them an ideal target for heavily-laden skiers like us.

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Sand skiers descend a large dune

After a couple of fishtailing miles up the primitive track, we park at the popular Castle Creek picnic area, where Medano Creek flows between the road and the dunes, only 200 yards away. Along the brook’s eastern bank, trees and grasses proliferate in the sandy soil, but just across its shallow flow the nude face of a mammoth dune juts skyward. Only a few pioneering prairie sunflowers and some Indian ricegrass survive on a low, northerly arm.

The area already teems with families of frolicking visitors. Toddlers dig in the flat, damp sand along the creek. Older children drag plastic sleds part way up the steep dunes, then scream down, sliding to a stop just shy of the creek. Their parents, shaking off years of stifling maturity, romp and roll with the kids.

We join the party-in-progress after schlepping our equipment across the creek. Piling packs and ice chests in a temporary base camp, everybody mounts their cross-country skis. Since sand messes up sensitive alpine bindings, and because there aren’t any chairlifts, we all use backcountry telemark equipment.

To reach the top, our crew employs standard Nordic diagonal-stride technique, slowly traversing the face of the steep dunes in a series of long switchbacks. At least 20 minutes pass before the first skier reaches the summit, hundreds of feet above.

From the crest, the grade looks frighteningly steep, and first-timers, accustomed to slippery snow, find themselves a bit intimidated. But they quickly discover that the sand’s high friction makes even suicide steepness manageable.

After a brief rest and a quaff of water, our first skier peels off and shoots downward. Another follows, then another. In a ballet of elegant S-shaped patterns, the party descends slowly at first, gradually picking up speed. Warm wind whistles by, and sand sings beneath slithering skis.

Sand on the eastern edge of the dunes comes from two sources. That blown in from the San Luis Valley is fine and smooth from constant impacts along the distant route. Courser granules come from the nearby Sangre de Cristos. The combination yields variable conditions that frequently grab the unwary.

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Dune-hill skiers need to be wary of coarser patches of sand that will send them in a downward summersault.

While we relish the exhilaration of flying down endless slopes of “quicksand” kamikaze style, unexpectedly hitting a patch of slower grains often results in executing a teeth-gritting face plant.

The unfortunate casualty launches headfirst downward. Legs and skis flail. Sand flies. When it settles, victims find themselves coated with grit, and eyes, mouths, nostrils, ears and pockets loaded with sand. Just as the happiness of motorcycle riders is judged by the number of bugs on their teeth, dune-skiers’ bravado can be measured by how closely they resemble moving sand sculptures upon reaching the bottom.

After dusting off at the completion of each run, we reassemble at the base, pop beverages from waiting coolers and relax with a well-deserved break. Then, time comes for another toil up the hill to do it again.

As the day wears on, our pauses became longer, and the fervor diminishes for yet another slog up the dune. The flaming diehards keep at it, but others of us surrender to sore knees, aching backs and fatigue.

One by one, we formerly avid winter people remove skis, shed clothing, spread blankets and kick back on the sand. We start to look and act just like summer people.

If You Go

Getting there: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve lies in southern Colorado, 38 miles northeast of Alamosa. Drive 16 miles east from Alamosa on U.S. Highway 160 to Colorado Route 150, then north 22 miles to the monument. An alternative route from Mosca, located north of Alamosa on Colorado Route 17, is to follow Six Mile Lane eastward to its junction with Colorado Route 150, then turn north to the monument.

When to go: Great Sand Dunes National Monument is open year-round. Winters are cool (average daytime highs of about 35 degrees), and perfect for dune hiking since moisture frozen in the sand solidifies footing. Warmer temperatures and the first wildflowers arrive with spring. An elevation of 8,200 feet makes summers pleasant, with an average high of 81 degrees. Autumn is inviting, with warm days, golden colors and fewer visitors. All are good for dune-hill skiing.

Lodging: Great Sand Dunes Lodge (719-378-2900, www.gsdlodge.com) offers rooms near the entrance to the monument. Other lodging can be found in Alamosa, 38 miles away.

Camping: Pinyon Flats Campground (719-378-6399, www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm) in the monument offers sites on reserved basis. Great Sand Dunes Oasis (719-378-2222, greatdunes.com), located just outside the main entrance, has tent and full RV hookups available.

Skiing the dunes: Sturdy, cross-country telemark gear is best suited to skiing the sand dunes. No wax is needed, although some spray furniture polish on their skis to make them slightly faster. People who ski here often say that the sand does little damage to the bottom of skis. The best slopes are along the Medano Pass Primitive Road where the dunes are tall, steep and close; however a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle is needed. Those lacking such transportation can hike a half-mile or less to nearby dunes from either the “Point of No Return” on the Medano Pass Road or the paved viewpoint parking lot just past the Visitor Center.

For more information: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, 719-378-6352; nps.gov/grsa.

Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora, Colorado. Visit his website, lookingfortheworld.com.

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