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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.

Our group of nine BACKPACKER editors have come to the park to test gear and explore a route from the sand to the top of the Sangre de Cristos, which hunker over the western and northern edges of the dunes. More specifically: We hoped to wend a few miles through the sand on the first day, camp, then continue all the way to the northern end of the park. There, the barren slopes give way to narrow-leaf cottonwoods and piñon pines, and the Tatooine-like drifts transition to solid ground.

But, as with all the best adventures, ours is easier said than done. The dune terrain is oddly featureless–which makes distances deceptive and navigation tricky. On the first day, our hike starts with a mile-long walk along Medano Creek, which pours out of the mountains but is eventually swallowed by the sand. Since there are no trails in the dunes, you just strike off when the slope seems right. We leave the streambed, and the first 10 steps are so steep, the sand so sugary, that I’m forced to crawl on hands and knees. The faster I push off, the more sand I drive out from under me. My 50-plus-pound pack, heavy with gallon-jugs of water, digs me in deeper still. I strain not to slide down all the way to the bottom. I try not to think of Sisyphus–or the skier I’d seen earlier skinning uphill as easily as he would on snow.

After the slowest 13-foot vertical gain of my life, the incline mellows and we make easier progress. We set our sights on the highest dune on the horizon and weave toward it. After another short climb, we take a break to pour sand from our boots–and hold a quick jib session, leaping from a perfect isosceles ridgeline onto a 30-degree slope.

Steve kneels into the pitch and hoists his Nikon. Tracy pushes off, jumps, and gains about 6 inches of air. “You can’t get much of a running start!” she calls, executing a stunted spread eagle and a stop-drop-and-roll landing.

“I give it a 7. Next!” Steve signals to Elisabeth, who does her best airborne interpretation of Baryshnikov.

“9.5!”

I run off the end of the ridge, attempt a mute grab, land square on my hip, and learn an important dune fact: In some places, the sand is so inviting it feels Tempur-pedic; in others, it’s so compact it feels like cement. My landing zone is more asphalt than mattress.

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