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EXPLORE | Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Late-afternoon sun spotlights Colorado's Star Dune (North America's tallest) while the distant Sangre de Cristo Mountains lurk in shadow. | Photo by Clint Farlinger

Jackson Bentley: What attracts you personally to the desert?

T. E. Lawrence: It's clean.

—From Lawrence of Arabia, by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson

Hiking to the top of North America's tallest sand dune is an arduous task under any circumstances, but at least the going on this May afternoon is a little easier than it was last summer. Then, the sand was drier and softer, and the slog up 750-foot-high Star Dune felt Sisyphean, as my feet sank deep and slid a half step back with each stride.

One thing is the same: the insufferable southwest wind. I turn my back to it and wonder if it has slowed, even for just one day, in my absence. With so much sand swirling through the air, I can't imagine how the dunes remain essentially unchanged. Star Dune (as I will later learn) neither migrates nor shrinks nor grows. That's because the wind occasionally does change directions, blowing with great force through passes in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the northeast, piling the sand upon itself to maintain the tall, sharp dunes.

Hiking down, of course, is easy. And fun. After only a few minutes of sliding, I'm standing ankle-deep in the cold, sand-laden waters of Medano Creek. I turn to watch a few frolickers. They tumble downhill, then trudge up again. It's a ski resort without lifts or mittens.

At my feet, the wide, shallow creek seems bewildered, changing not only course but also depth from moment to moment. It obstructs its own flow every few seconds with countless little dams, only to demolish the self-made levees and surge forward. Medano Creek is a true recycler, washing sand downhill to a place where the wind can carry it back to the source, ensuring the dunes' survival. —Clint Farlinger



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