Colorado has more than it’s fair share of bad-ass places, but this past weekend, I had an experience that will stick with me for quite some time. The Sand Creek drainage is the northern portion of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and it is very different from the Sand Dunes experience that you may be familiar with (i.e. dune surfing, playing in shallow, sandy Medano Creek). Here is a what happened:
Friday (Music Pass and Lower Sand Creek Lake):
Lucky me, I get to go to cool places like this for work. The downside is that when I am in places like this, I have to work. Which means bringing along equipment to do work, which in this case meant 30 2-foot long metal stakes. With me were two worthy souls, and fully packed, each of our backpacks was pushing 85-90 lbs. Hoisting those on our backs, we slowly trudged up the steep grade to the top of Music Pass, accessible from the cool little town of Westcliffe, CO. At the top, we ditched our packs and climbed another 50 vertical feet to a rock outcropping overlooking the Sand Creek valley. The view was jaw dropping.
After taking in the view, we dropped down into the valley, set up camp, took an extended pull of Suerte Blanco, and hiked to Lower Sand Creek lake. The lake itself is spectacular, with a massive rock spire looming over the lake. Loaded with mutthroat trout (a complex blend of native and non-native cutthroat trout genetics), the lake and the outlet to the lake fished spectacularly. We kept a few of the phenotypically obvious hybrids, hiked down as darkness descended, and ate campfire-baked trout with a Suerte chaser. Good first day.
Saturday (Upper Sand Creek Lake and a ROUS (Rodent of Unusual Skill)):
As the sun rose over the Sand Creek valley, we threw on our day packs and headed up to Upper Sand Creek lake, a 3 or so mile hike upstream. Like the lower lake, this waterbody did not disappoint. In a hair less than half an hour (we were working after all), three above average fly anglers caught and released approximately 10 fat trout. Looking on the map (which proved to be wrong in countless ways throughout the subsequent days), we identified a fishy-looking drainage coming in from the north. One steep and sketchy bushwhack later, we were at said tributary, which was also loaded with cutthroat hybrids. There is no overstating the biomass within this upper drainage. There are fish everywhere.
After a brief lunch back at camp, we hiked down drainage to investigate middle Sand Creek. Just above Jones Creek, we noticed that the creek was no longer in its primary channel, but instead was spread out throughout the woods. Further upstream investigation revealed that the world’s most industrious and creative beaver had been working his ass off to create the Sand Creek Beaver Taj Mahal. No joke, this thing was massive, and the beaver scored bonus points for creativity (large rocks were utilized within the structure).
As the sun and my core temperature began to drop, I ran back up to camp to get dinner and a campfire started whilst my colleagues fished their way back up the drainage. Another good day.
Sunday (Lower Sand Creek Death March):
As we broke camp and began to head down valley, we had no idea of the shit storm we were in for. By the time we reached Jones Creek (6 miles from the valley bottom), fatigue was starting to set in. Also of note, Sand Creek has many stream crossings, and none of these stream crossings has a bridge because at high-flows, this stream is a bridge eater. So, you have choices. Hike in sandals (and suffer the consequences), or stop and change footwear at each crossing (which also has consequences, as you will soon see).
Below Sand Creek, we began to pick up mosquitoes. 5 miles from the valley bottom, it was annoying (biting through your shirt, flying at your ears). 4 miles from the valley bottom, it became unholy (crawling in and out of your nostrils, ignoring the fact that you were soaking every exposed inch of flesh in 1o0% DEET). Three miles from the valley bottom, it was a crisis (Ben, one of my colleagues, indicated that at one point it looked like I was wearing mosquito pants and that he was contemplating drinking the rest of the bug spray to make his blood less palatable). And then there were the river crossings. Stop and change your shoes, and get crushed by a plague of mosquitoes? Or hike in sandals, and further trash your already trashed feet? There was no right answer…
At approximately 6:47 pm, we made the (in retrospect, obvious) decision to not camp in insect hell, and instead to power out to the valley bottom where the Sand Dunes and wind offered some prospect of refuge from the swarm. Heads down, hearts weary, we hobbled the last 3 miles and emerged as the sun set over the San Luis Valley. We quickly set up tents, drank the last of our boxed wine and Jameson in a futile attempt to erase the afternoon, and crashed out.
Monday (Sand Ramp Vision Quest):
I am the first to admit when I have made a mistake, and so waking up Monday morning, I owned mine. After Mosquito Sunday, we were still many, many miles from the vehicle, which, had a better planner been involved, would have been parked at our exact location. The team was battered and broken. Morale was low to quite low. Mutiny was likely.
So I filled up my Nathan with filtered Sand Creek water, threw on my running shoes and Stetson, and headed out on a five-mile run across the Sand Ramp Trail to recover the vehicle in the Medano Creek drainage. Turns out, the Sand Ramp Trail is appropriately named. First off, it is sandy. Deep, hot, loose sand. And then there is the “ramp” part. Apparently, either my map-reading skills blow (likely), or Trails Illustrated needs to field truth their Sangre de Cristo map (fact), but in the 7.75 mile trek from Sand Creek to Medano Creek, the sand ramps up approximately 1400 vertical feet, including one particularly brutal dune climb. Oh, and halfway through, the trail disappears, apparently eaten by the ever shifting and evolving dunes. Perfect.
Somehow, five shoe-emptying stops and five mind-altering heat-induced hallucinations later, I made it to the vehicle. Making one short stop at the convenience store outside of the Great Sand Dunes to purchase essentials for the team (Gatorade, spicy beef jerky, Red Bull, chocolate gem donuts, and Coke), I gunned it through Crestone and down the road to Liberty. The team was happy to see me, we loaded our crap, and drove back to Music Pass to recover our other vehicle. Back at Music Pass, there was one (or maybe two) celebratory Mexican Loggers, and the trip was over.