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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.

After another half a day of hiking on the dunes, we connect with the northern end of the Sand Ramp Trail, a marked path that traces the edge of the transition zone where piñon-juniper foothills meet sand. We head north toward a designated tent site at Sand Creek. That night, we camp under narrow-leaf cottonwoods, filter ice-cold water, and stick tent stakes into solid ground.

The next morning, we break into two groups so we can manage our car shuttle. Those going on will climb 3,700 feet and 13 miles along Upper Sand Creek Trail to Upper Sand Creek Lakes, which sit in a cliff-lined basin at 11,000 feet in the heart of the Sangre de Cristos. Along the way, they’ll explore some old mining cabins, then wind through aspens that give way to spruce and grass-covered meadows turned a late-fall brown. They’ll see an ermine and gray jays, and sunsets that flush the flaky schist and banded gneiss peach and gold. Finally, they’ll climb over 11,380-foot Music Pass to reach the trailhead.

Meanwhile, my group hikes the 11 miles back to our vehicles via the Sand Ramp Trail, staying low and looping around and through the massive sandbox. On the aptly named trail, there’s no relief for sore calves. We walk forward, we slide back, we slog on.

Four hours later, I realize that I’ve been staging a mental smackdown of sand-hiking pros and cons. Pro: The exotic landscape and extreme solitude (we see zero other campers on our trip) combine for a life-list experience. Con: My legs are screaming. Pro: You can walk around barefoot. Con: There’s sand in my toothpaste. Pro: Because of strong ultraviolet light and lack of organic material in the sand, park officials say you shouldn’t dig cat holes. Con: Rare but surprising turd encounters. Pro: Fine patterns left in the sand by wind-blown Indian rice grass and skittering kangaroo rats. Con: There’s sand in my ears, armpits, and underwear. Pro: Shadows that look dark as spilled paint. Pro: Dune sledding. Pro: Dune Frisbee. Pro: Insane stars.

But the biggest pro doesn’t hit me until I’m back home: The dunes stick with you. Maybe it’s the memories of an alien, dynamic landscape. Maybe it’s the grit I find on my Chapstick five weeks after the trip, or the grains I still feel in my jacket pockets. Either way, I’m transported, if just for a moment, straight back to the sands.

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