Sans the Selfies
by Peter Kravitz
At Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico you can shoot a million photos, but none can truly capture the full grandeur of the southern Rockies, especially with an iPhone 7.
The dunes, the tallest in North America, rise 750 feet above the valley floor and cover 30 square miles. So my wife and I attempted to scale one.
It was a Tuesday in July, and families crammed the park. Many treated Medeno Creek, which separates the dunes from grasslands, as the beach. Folks plopped coolers and chairs in the creek—a shallow-water flow on sand. Kids splashed in the water and families hauled sandboards to slide down the dunes. We did neither. Our goal was to climb a nearby high dune, which we were told would take an hour up and an hour down.
My wife trudged up the first baby dune and quit. “I’ll wait here for you,” she said.
I slogged on, determined, despite the heat. Summer temperatures on the dunes may reach 150 °F. Mercifully it wasn’t that hot. But I had water, hiking boots—a must to protect your feet—and suntan lotion. Initially I assumed the ascent wouldn’t be that difficult.
Then anxiety shook my confidence: What if an earthquake hit? Would the dunes swallow me? There could be no worse death than suffocating deep in a dune.
I fought this pop-up panic. I had never heard of earthquakes hitting Colorado. Ironically, within a day a 6.4-magnitude quake rumbled California’s Mojave Desert and Las Vegas, though Colorado, several hundred miles away, was spared. (Apparently, however, there have been small earthquakes since 2001 in southeastern Colorado due to deep injection of wastewater underground, according to a Seismological Society of America study.)
Luckily I didn’t know that, and I buried my anxiety in the hot sand. As I climbed one steep ridge I rested every five minutes. Each footstep sunk deep in the sand, so I tried to step in previous footsteps, which made things easier, though the decreased oxygen at 8,000 feet didn’t help.
I finally reached the summit of a high dune after an hour, joining other climbers including a Boston couple about my age, late 50s. Great Sand Dunes National Park, visited by nearly half a million people in 2018, was this couple’s 49th national park.
Free from worry, I zipped down the steep mile to my wife in about 15 minutes, even with stops for phone photos—sans sand selfies.
We are lucky to have this incredible national park. In the 1920s and early ’30s, mining companies set up an operation to extract gold from the sand. Fortunately, the operation wasn’t profitable. As a result locals lobbied the federal government to protect the dunes, and President Herbert Hoover made it a national monument in 1932. Then in 2004 the dunes and parts of the San Luis Valley and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains became a national park and preserve, nearly quadrupling its size to 150,000 acres.
We stayed in Fort Garland, a small town featuring a couple of motels and restaurants, about a four-hour drive from Denver, where our trip began. Signs in the area said: “Don’t pick up hitchhikers.” Curious, I questioned this and learned that we were near the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, known as the Supermax.
Touted as escape proof, the Supermax houses several notorious killers: Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber; and Terry Nicholas, who conspired with Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing. Mobsters Nicky Scarfo and Anthony Casso, Yu Kikumura of the Japanesse Red Army, and Zacaras Moussaoui, who trained with the 9/11 hijackers and was supposed to be the 20th hijacker, spend most of their time in solitary confinement there. In mid July, the Supermax received perhaps its most notorious inmate, the Mexican drug lord El Chapo (Joaquín Guzmán Loera).
We got out of Southern Colorado, away from its Supermax, and drove south 175 miles to Sante Fe, New Mexico, where we discovered another spectacular hike, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.
Rock and ash from volcanic eruptions six to seven million years ago layered the area and then erosion sculpted the soft rock into stunning formations—the tent rocks. They feature rounded and conical caprocks balanced on narrow towers—some as high as 90 feet. Viewing these on the ascent and from the top is spectacular. There are also great views of the Sangre de Cristo and Sandia mountains, as well as the large reservoir created by a dam of the Rio Grande on the land of the Cochiti Pueblo people.
To get to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks you drive through the reservation of the Cochiti Pueblos, where they sold food and their handmade crafts. The Cochiti Pueblos were very friendly, but I couldn’t escape the irony that it was July 4—a day to celebrate the birth of the United States, a great country because of its freedoms. But immigrants to this land, from 1492 onward, stole the freedom of the indigenous peoples.
Yet for the first time ever, this year, New Mexico elected to Congress a Pueblo woman, Deb Haaland, who wrote a recent op-ed in the New York Times critical of federal Bureau of Land Management plans to sell leases in nearby Chaco Canyon for fossil fuel extraction. She also pointed out that, “as a 35th-generation New Mexican, . . . the promise of our country is for everyone to find success, pursue happiness and live lives of equality.”
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks was established as a national monument in 2001. Hopefully we will protect America’s natural bounty by creating new national monuments and parks and preserving existing ones over the pursuit of profit.
The hike begins in a very narrow, stunning slot canyon. When you emerge you begin an ascent, neither too steep nor difficult. Plenty of children have scampered up the mountain. You reach an altitude of about 6,400 feet, which, if you’ve become acclimated, provides plenty of oxygen.
Just be careful. My wife was scared to roam the top of the mountain in search of photos. And I wasn’t about to tease her, as earlier this year, in an eight-day span, three tourists fell to their deaths in the Grand Canyon, two of whom slipped while taking selfies. The Grand Canyon appears to be particularly lethal for selfie takers and others too cavalier at the edge, with 55 deaths by falling in 2015 alone, according to the Arizona Daily Sun. But any of the mountains of the west can be deadly without common-sense caution.
My wife and I have hiked in the Canadian Rockies, Galapagos Islands, Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia, and Capetown, South Africa. But the 3.5-mile hike at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument and Great Sand Dunes National Park definitely crack the Top Five treks we’ve been so fortunate to experience.
All photos by Peter Kravitz.
Peter Kravitz is a former Philadelphia reporter who currently teaches Journalism in New York. He's been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsday and is a regular contributor to Silver Sage Magazine.