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Post details: Little Sahara

Little Sahara

Every country has a hidden jewel. A small region that you won't find on the front pages of glossy travel guides. A magical place that you have to discover by chance.

Millions of visitors come to the United States every year to be swept off their feet by the sights of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Everglades, Niagara and other masterpieces of Earth's fine geological craftsmanship. But there is much more to this country's natural beauty than the above morsels.

Hidden in the heart of Colorado, about 50 miles west of Colorado Springs, lies the Great Sand Dunes National Park. If someone kidnapped you, blindfolded you and dumped you in the middle of the park, you would think - surrounded by seemingly endless waves of sand - that you got lost in the Sahara desert. But only until you climbed to the nearest peak, turned around and saw the mighty towers of the Rocky Mountains within a stone's throw.

For eons, strong winds were blowing grains of sand from the arid semi-desert to the south up the San Luis Valley, until they ran smack into the formidable wall of Colorado fourteeners and had no choice but dump all the sand at their feet. As you approach the park from the amazingly straight County Lane 6, the sand deposits appear minuscule from the distance, almost like a children sand box. But do not get fooled by the comparison with the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background. When you cross the Medano Creek and stand in the kissing distance from the dunes, their sheer size will turn your knees into jellyfish accessories and if you dare to hike up to their peaks, your exercise will be cut out for you in ways no StairMaster can ever reproduce.

The first order of business is to reach a midlevel plateau at which you can choose from a wide menu of sandy crests. To get there you have to ascend a steep and treacherous slope, a challenging endeavor second only to climbing an infinite heap of blueberry pancakes. For every step you plant, you have to give half back to the dune, which is straining both physically and mentally. As we plodded along, we rested every 30-40 steps in order to catch breath, take a sip of water and fantasize about an imaginary herd of Bactrian camels passing by. Sand is fun to walk on when you have to cross a hundred feet stretch of a flat beach, but going uphill its grains turn into a well trained army of tiny duplicitous rascals.

A few blisters from the hot sand notwithstanding, the toilsome trek is well worth the rewards you reap once you reach the plateau. The fluid perspective of deep sand valleys is breathtaking (both literally and figuratively), and while the sand surface in lower elevations is furrowed with hundreds of human tracks, the further away from the base you go, the more pristine the environment becomes. The smooth streaming banks make the illusion of walking in a bona fide desert insanely realistic, especially if you look away from the mountains and all you see ahead of you is sand, then sand again and behind it some more sand.

Oh, and then there is the exhilarating way back. All the hard work of clambering up finally yielding its sweet fruit. Only few rides in Disneyland are as exciting as running down a long windswept dune. This is the closest a law abiding citizen can get to feeling like a tumble weed.



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