Boyfriend's First Backpacking Trip: Great Sand Dunes

It's Monday morning, and I'm sitting in my second floor office looking out the window at a whiteout. Snowflakes are swirling like we're in a snow globe, blocking out my view of the Flatirons and dampening my spirits. It's almost April, and I've been completely focused on starting a new job, managing our chore list while my f-bomb adjusts to his new lengthy commute, and planning our wedding for this fall. Adulting. A lot of it! I know I need to get out. I need to wake up in my cozy Bertha (my beloved Big Agnes Ethel sleeping bag), make coffee on the jet boil and poop in a hole! I desperately need the reset that comes with leaving it all behind and escaping into the woods. And now it's snowing.

 
 At least it's pretty?

At least it's pretty?

For some, this wouldn't be a big deal, but I am not a hard core winter backpacker. I love to be outside, but I also like to be comfortable. Camping in a whiteout was off the table. Luckily, my backpacking besties were suffering from the same cabin fever, and they had a solution. Great Sand Dunes. This spot has been on my list for awhile, but the inability to reserve permits ahead of time has deterred me in the past. On a brisk spring weekend, though, I thought we might have a shot. The weekend forecast looked promising and we quickly began making plans.

When we pulled into Lu's in Blanca on Sunday, each of us was buzzing with anticipation. In addition to my three annual backpacking buddies, my fiancé was joining us for his virgin backpacking outing. Our car was brimming with a borrowed backpack and new gear, and he walked into Lu's with the uncharacteristic nervousness one would expect from a newbie. We had a quick, tasty lunch, synched on plans, and left together to drive to the park.

The first stop in a Sand Dunes backpacking trip is the Visitor Center to get a backcountry permit. The ranger on duty explained that we could camp anywhere on the dunes that we wanted as long as we walked the 1.5 miles past the day use area. We had come prepared to pack out our poop, but he simply encouraged us to bury it at least 6" deep in the sand. Leaving the visitor center, we parked in the Piñon Parking Lot (displaying our overnight permit), shouldered our packs, and set off into the dunes.

 
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The hike in was short but very challenging. While we only hiked a bit over 2 miles of distance, our buddy Shea's pedometer estimated his step count to be equal to 4.5 miles. The sand is soft, and one step forward usually results in about half a step's worth of backsliding. The 500' climb over the highest dune was handily harder than the 1,500' gain on Mt. Sanitas (my regular Boulder hike). 

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After 2 hours of climbing and horsing around on the dunes, we wandered into a beautiful little gulch that we decided to call home. Optimistically, we speculated that perhaps the bit of vegetation in our gulch was an indicator of decreased wind. That proved to be a bit of a fallacy. 

We pitched our tents during a lull in the wind, but quickly learned the shifty wind could easily hoist sand under our rain fly and fling it into the tent. During dinner, we tried to build strategic wind barriers around our respective cook sets, but the direction of the wind was so variable that we needed to move them continuously. Our meal preparation was punctuated with fun moments when the wind would gust and we would lunge to catch our water pots before they crashed off of our jet boils. Ahh memories.

By the time we finished our meals, it was dusk and the wind was dying down. We brought out our warmer layers and a camp stool I had packed in for my fiancé (it being his first trip, I wanted him to be comfortable) and sat around a lantern chatting well into the dark. Although it was an overcast night, the glow of the almost-full-moon was bright enough to light up camp. We headed to bed around 9 to snuggle into our sleeping bags and get some rest while the notorious wind was still calm.

Our decision was a good one. We slept comfortably until about 2 am when the wind kicked up, buffeting our tents from what felt like all directions at once. My companions both had lightweight  tents with only three poles. They found themselves spooning with their tent spines during the heaviest gusts. I had a Big Agnes Copper Spur, which has 4 poles and an eyebrow and held up beautifully. The fly rattled a bit, but it was staked out well and there was minimal flapping. 

In the morning when we emerged, we found a landscape that had been reshaped since the night before. The wind had completely covered our tracks with sand and our little dune home glowed with the warm, calm light of dawn. We made pancakes and coffee and basked in our sandy nook until around 10 when we finally tore down the tents, packed the backpacks full of all our luxuries (and about an equivalent amount of sand) and headed back to our cars. It took us about 2 hours and 3 miles to get back to our cars. All told, a lovely way to spend a quick weekend getaway!

PACKING LIST

  • Tent
  • Backpack
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Sleeping Pad
  • Camp Pillow (I know, I know! But Sea to Summit makes a really tiny inflatable one that fits in the hood of my bag perfectly.)
  • 3L of water (negotiable, but I like to have plenty to drink and cook with since there is no water source in the dunes)
  • Food
  • Cook Stove & Fuel
  • Sacred Sleep Clothes
  • Down Puffy
  • Wipes (because sand gets everywhere. EVERYWHERE)
  • Shovel, TP, and bag to pack out TP
  • Gallon Ziplocks (to make sandbags to tie tent to)
  • Trail Running Gaiters (I did not pack these but my friend who did had sand-free shoes for the duration)
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