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Sands Of Time

Explorations in a unique wilderness

Photo taken in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Strong winds blast through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and rip the tent from my hands. Long-needled branches of ponderosa pine trees whip around their sturdy yet creaky trunks. The forest floor is bone dry, but the smell of moisture is in the air. Grabbing the billowing tent, I stake the corners and manage to erect a shelter. Dinner is a quick huddle around a boiling pot of rehydrated mushroom risotto while wearing every layer of clothing I stuffed in my backpack. I shove a chocolate bar down my throat for dessert and sprint for the tent, leaving footsteps in the dusting of snow now covering the ground. As the wind roars and the tent walls shudder, I shiver to sleep in my not-so-warm bag.

At daybreak, sunlight bathes the tent, and I crawl out of my now-too-warm sleeping bag. A friendly breeze wafts through the treetops. The snow is gone, replaced by a fine coating of sand on everything. And that’s why I’m here—wind and sand.

I’m camped on a massive sand deposit—330 square miles, about the size of San Diego, California. Close to 90 percent of all that sand has been anchored and concealed by grasses, shrubs and trees like those found in my forested campsite, but a pinch of grit in every meal, a silt-coated tent and fine sediment at the bottom of a water bottle are constant reminders of where I am. All I need to do is look past the forest edge to see North America’s tallest sand dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park & National Preserve in southern Colorado.

It’s a strange juxtaposition—towering golden curvy sand dunes, like something out of the Sahara Desert, flanked by snow-capped mountains and forested foothills. When viewed in geologic time, it makes sense. Most of the sand originates from the San Juan Mountains 65 miles to the west. Prevailing southwesterly winds transport and pile the sand beneath the Sangre de Cristo Mountains looming above my campsite. Storm winds from the northeast then push the sand back on itself into the valley between the two mountain ranges. It’s a battle between opposing winds, with billions and billions of grains of sand caught in the middle. This process has sculpted the dunes for close to 440,000 years. Last night’s storm was an educational moment in the powerful forces of dune formation.

Most visitors to the park experience just a small portion of the exposed dunefield, hiking to the top of Star Dune, the tallest at 755 feet, or sliding down the hills on a sandboard. In the hot spring and summer temperatures, people cool off at the base of the dunefield in shallow Medano Creek, filled by snowmelt from the surrounding mountains. I came here to explore the unique backcountry wilderness comprising close to 90 percent of the park. It’s just me, with everything I need on my back—the best way to connect with this place and reconnect to my true self.

Near my tent, two white-breasted nuthatches inspect a pinyon snag, perhaps looking for a nest site. Yellow warblers flit among juniper branches calling “sweet sweet sweet.” The pungent smell of pine invades my nose as I set out to explore. Wandering through the forest, the trail dips down to Little Medano Creek. In two leaps, I’m on the other side, and the whole world changes. Behind me is forest, and in front of me is a 75-foot wall of sand. I scramble up, two steps forward, one step back in the steep and soft dune. I crest the top, and the whole geologic story unfolds: mountains, valley, dunes. As the sun begins its evening descent, I find a vantage point to watch the show. Serpentine shadows snake across the dunes. Gusts of wind whip up dust devils and leave ripples in the sand.

From my perch, I see the transformation of solid mountains to countless grains of sand. As the mountains erode, the dunes rise. I wonder what this place will be like in another 440,000 years. Rock to sand, sand to dune. As the last of the light fades, I walk back to camp in the stillness of dusk.

Inspired by wild lands and their significance to both wildlife and people, Amy Gulick is a firm believer in the power of visual stories to engage, inform and move viewers. Celebrating the wild and the photographers who use their images to raise awareness is at the core of Gulick’s work featured in Outdoor Photographer.