This time of year always reminds me of giant sand dunes “singing” with squeaks and booms, mouse-size kangaroo rats leaping five feet into the air, and shooting stars arcing like flaming arrows through a pitch-black night sky.
It also makes me think of green terraces climbing thousands of feet up steep mountainsides, walking through primitive mountain villages, distant avalanches roaring down the sides of the world’s highest peaks, and Buddhist prayer flags flapping in the wind. And I get an unusual yearning for a heaping plate of dal bhat and a pot of lemon tea—or just the pleasure of ordering both from a small-boned person who pronounces my name as if he were coughing up a small mammal.
We tend to see November as a black hole between seasons—too late in many places for hiking, rock climbing, and paddling, too early for skiing. For me, it evokes two very memorable trips I made at this time of year: backpacking in south-central Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and trekking Nepal’s classic Annapurna Circuit.
On a gear-testing trip in Great Sand Dunes with several Backpacker Magazine editors a few years ago, we crossed a 30-square-mile sea of dunes rising several hundred feet into the air at the foot of the 13,000-foot-high Sangre de Cristo Mountains. At times, we’d walk toe-to-heel along the inch-wide crests of dunes so steep it seemed the mountain of sand should just collapse beneath our feet. We’d pause to listen, transfixed, to the eerie song of that sand when it avalanched.
Hiking dunes—nature’s treadmill—is exponentially more strenuous than walking on a firm dirt-and-rock path. The tediousness is only made worse by having to carry all of your water. And you’ll find sand in your boots, sleeping bag, hair, and every meal and drink. But Great Sand Dunes will enchant you with its mysteries; there’s no landscape in America like it. And November mornings often deliver a scrim of frost that transforms the dunes into an abstract work of art, as you can see in this photo gallery. Read below for some beta on backpacking there, and check out this National Geographic video showing researchers climbing giant dunes in Death Valley to figure out how they “sing.”