Ever since I moved to Colorado and heard about the Great Sands Dunes National Park and Preserve, I’ve wanted to go there and see this marvel for myself. The thought of all that sand in the middle of Colorado intrigued me to no end. Several months ago, we decided time was awastin’ and we put our reservations in for the campgrounds for three days in June. Then finally, this past Father’s Day weekend, my husband, John, and I, our son, Shawn, daughter-in-law, Julia, and granddaughter, Jillian, and Dexter the dog, packed up our gear – including snowshoes – and headed west! Snowshoes? Sand dunes? What?
Yes, we packed our snowshoes with the intent to extend our snowshoeing season and try out SANDSHOEING! Fun!
As we approached the Sand Dunes from the west (we had to circle around the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to get there from Cañon City, our home), I was not initially very impressed. Sure, there was a mound of sand where there probably shouldn’t be – sand belongs at the ocean to the mind of this native Jersey girl – but the dunes didn’t look all that big. Initially.
Once we had our tents set up, gear stowed where it needed to be, food safely stashed in the provided bear boxes (yes, bears live there), and dinner consumed, we took a reconnaissance hike to see what we were getting into for the next day’s planned trek. That’s when my initial nonchalance about the Sand Dunes was blown away. “Blown away” was also a literal thing that weekend as the wind was strong and almost relentless! These things are HUGE!
Anyway, by the time we reached the edge of the Medano Creek and stood at the foot of the Sand Dunes, I was in total awe. The dunes were hugely high, massively long and ridiculously steep! As we gawked in wonder and the sunset cast shadows in the sandy ripples, I could not wait until the morning’s fun to begin.
We had a particular spot in mind for our adventure, so headed up the Medano Pass Primitive Road early. This alone was an experience as it requires a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle and you actually have to let some air out of the vehicle’s tires to navigate the soft sand and creek crossings. Once we parked the car, Jillian with some whoops and hollers ran down the hill and across the Medano Creek to stand at the base of the dunes. From our vantage point at the car, she looked like an ant at the base of a very, very tall anthill. We adults unpacked our gear for the day from the car and followed her as quickly as we could.
Once we caught up with Jillian who immediately started to scramble up and slide down the ever shifting sand, Shawn and I decided to try out our snow/sand shoes. Since I had my Tubbs, it took me next to no time to be locked in and ready to go. Shawn was trying John’s Tubbs’ for the first time and thanks to the easy strapping system was right behind me.
My first few steps onto the dunes had me grinning. “Oh yeah! This was going to be fun!” However after just those first few steps, that optimism changed to: “Uh-oh, this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it would be.”
At home, I had reasoned that the larger footprint of my snowshoes would help me to “float” above the sands better. Once on site at the Sand Dunes, I found that floatation was not going to be the problem while attempting to climb the dune. The Sand Dunes are, for the most part, very steep with about a 60 degree angle AND that angle is not a solid surface but a constantly downward-moving slippery surface. Unlike on snow/ice, there is no purchase to be gained with even the aggressive crampon-teeth of the Tubbs Snowshoes. And, thanks to the shifting sands, the snowshoes even while standing still, quickly got covered with sand and became ridiculously heavy and almost impossible to lift up for any forward motion.
Less than 20 feet up the 500+ feet dune, I was exhausted, on my knees and defeated. There went my summit bid! Turning around and going back down brought its own set of challenges. I had to try and extract one snowshoe at a time from under 3-4 inches of sand that had been buried by the still shifting sands, turn it to point downhill and then do the same for the other snowshoe without getting twisted into a human pretzel. I’ve had the same experiences in snow, but, let me tell you, sand is way heavier! The upside to sand vs. snow, is sitting in the sand while trying to extricate myself is a lot warmer than sitting in wet snow! The downhill “slide” did go easily as the snowshoes acted almost like skis with the traction being negligible.
John, Julia and Jillian having watched Shawn’s and my struggles, never even bothered to put on their snowshoes and just resorted to crawling up the dunes on their hands and knees, towing plastic sleds and careening down the dunes until they unceremoniously bale out before hitting the Medano Creek. Shawn and I joined them and had a blast the rest of the afternoon doing the same.
Dang! After all this time, anticipation and preparation, was I not going to sandshoe?
If I am nothing else, I am stubborn (ask my husband!). So, the next night when we decided to go on a night hike on the dunes, I was the only one who carried my snowshoes with me in the faint hope I might have better luck at another location.
This trek was up a much less steep section of the dunes down closer to the valley floor. It was still too steep and unstable for climbing in the snowshoes but we did get up high enough to reach a small plateau. That’s where I unstrapped my snowshoes from my backpack and quickly put them on my feet. I love how easy these Tubbs are to slip on!
I’d love to tell you how I powered past the rest of my family while gliding around gracefully on the sands, but alas, that was not the case for me.
I was fine walking slowly and carefully and did stay above the sand for a while but, unlike when in the snow, if I so much as bumped the tip of the snowshoes into a ridge, I would stumble and fall in a very unladylike and ungraceful way. The sand ridges are unyielding and as it was dark and I’m very visually-challenged in the dark, I bumped into, probably, every other ridge of sand! Thankfully, it was dark enough that no one saw every one of my falls, though they certainly heard them and were tactful enough to not razz me about my attempts to sandshoe.
Double Dang! I had to admit defeat ON THIS TRIP! I definitely plan to try again, on another day and on another part of the Great Sand Dunes. I know that others have tried sandshoeing and reported success and would be anxious to hear how and where they sandshoed. Advice, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?