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North America’s Highest Sandbox: Great Sand Dunes National Park

The most exotic hike in the United States is smack in the middle of the country: Welcome to Great Sand Dunes National Park.

“Guys! Did you feel that?” Dennis is ahead of us, tiptoeing across a sandy knife-edge that drops away 200 feet on either side. He looks like he’s just seen some sort of ghost. “This is nuts!”

Our trudging line, concerned, bumps to a stop like a halted mule train.

“Someone come up here. Someone needs to go first and hear this.”

I step around Dennis–doing a do-se-do on the crumbling ridge–and continue walking. The sand spills down the faces on either side of my feet, cascading slowly, almost like syrup. It takes a few steps, but then it happens: When enough grains move, the whole ridge starts to vibrate, bark, and sing underfoot. It’s like my steps are alive.

Good thing the ground didn’t shake like this when we awoke this morning: We were camped amid 4.8 billion cubic meters of sand. I was sure at least a cup of it was in my oatmeal. And a pint in each of my boots. After a sip of coarse coffee, I wasn’t exactly enamored of the stuff. But gritty oatmeal and grainy socks were a small price to pay for the rest of the scene: The November sun peered over 12,380-foot Carbonate Mountain to the east, melting the frost that crystallized over yesterday’s footprints. Spiky shadows stretched across tawny slopes–our tents were pitched in the middle of a sea of dunes that extended to the base of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The night before, we caught alpenglow on those same peaks and counted a dozen shooting stars in an onyx-black sky.

Colorado may be better known for its soaring fourteeners, but here in Great Sand Dunes National Park, in the south-central region of the state, the landscape looks like a Google mash-up of the Rockies and the Sahara, almost like you’re standing on the bleakness of Mars and looking at Earth’s deep blues and greens. Tent stakes don’t work. I’m wearing a down jacket–despite the seaside vibe of sand and sun, the dunes sit at an elevation of 8,200 feet. And the terra is definitely not firma: You better bring gaiters. You better do calf raises to prepare. And on ascents, you should expect to take at least two steps backward for every step forward.

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