Backpacking in the Rockies and Sand Dunes, via Amtrak


Gilman, Scott

Dates of Trip: 

July 11, 2019 to July 24, 2019

Growing up in upstate New York, I developed a deep love for the outdoors thanks abundance of lakes, trails, and mountains to explore within a day’s drive. After spending four years in Vermont and four in Massachusetts, I grew to love the outdoors even more while hiking, skiing, and climbing in the Greens and Whites, including two seasons of Winter School. Despite my long standing love for the outdoors, though, I somehow made it through graduate school without ever having visited one of the great National Parks out west. And while I love New England’s forests very much, I felt like I was missing out.

During that time, I was also becoming an environmentalist - in no small part inspired by my experiences outdoors. As a transportation planner in training, I knew that flying to Denver would be among the most carbon-intensive decision I made all year. So, I was torn: I wanted to see the great landscapes of the West, but felt guilty about flying there and participating in their destruction.

Thankfully, after I finished my Master’s program, I had enough time to consider another way to travel: Amtrak. My partner Allen and I booked round-trip tickets on Amtrak from Boston to Denver in July, one month after I handed in my thesis. (Sidenote: after doing some research on the train, we found out that Amtrak is not as energy efficient as I originally thought. Per passenger-mile, they are about 30% more efficient than flying, but that figure combines the highly energy efficient electric locomotives in the Northeast Corridor with the less efficient diesel locomotives everywhere else. So for a long-haul route, a diesel train is arguably on par with flying. That being said, system-wide, Amtrak runs at about 60% capacity and airplanes are almost full - so more train ridership actually makes Amtrak more efficient on a passenger-mile basis! And of course this would all be different if we had adequate investment in our passenger rail network… I could go on and on about this if anyone is actually interested.)

The train experience itself was a wonderful, 48+-hour experience - yes, it takes a very long time compared to flying! But, we had ample time to read, do crosswords, and watch the summer scenery roll by. Plus, with two personal items, two carry-ons, and four checked bags each, we had no problem carrying a bunch of gear for our 2-week trip, including a bouldering crash pad.

The first day, we took the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, passing through the wooded hills, farmland, and rivers of upstate New York (including Rochester, my hometown). After a decent night’s sleep in coach class, we arrived at Chicago Union Station. During our six-hour layover, we took the L to Logan Square to grab lunch at a vegan cafe. The next leg, we had a roomette on the California Zephyr - a very tiny but cozy private room with folding bunk beds. We watched as forests becames prairie, and we chugged over the Mississippi River. In the dining car, we had dinner with a pair of former missionaries from southwestern Michigan. The next morning, we watched from the observation car as the lush prairies of Iowa turned into the scrubby high plains of eastern Colorado.

We arrived in Denver on a Friday morning, about 3 hours late (which, honestly, is pretty much on time by Amtrak standards). We got brunch with Allen’s friends and had two great days of urban adventures -- which I don’t have the space to write about here! On a misty Monday morning, we packed up our rental car and headed to our first stop - bouldering at the Flatirons in, well, Boulder! After Allen free solo’d a small portion of the 2nd Flatiron, we bouldered in the Satellite Boulders nearby. It turns out the Flatiron area is very busy during the summer, so we had a lot of spectators (which certainly did not help my performance anxiety).

After hiking out, we grabbed lunch at a raw vegan cafe for a true Boulder cultural experience, and continued west to Rocky Mountain National Park. We were originally planning to backpack part of the Continental Divide Loop, but do the minor inconvenience of my Master’s thesis, we did not enter the lottery for backcountry permits in time. So, we camped just outside the park at Lake Granby. The next morning, we set off at 5:30am for our first hike on the Green Mountain trail. At the trailhead, we saw a herd of elk. We were hoping our early departure would allow us to see moose or other animals during the hike, but we had no such luck. We continued on the Tonahutu Creek trail, passing through lush forests and expansive meadows. About halfway up, we suddenly lost the trail under a mix of snow and tree branches - what we later learned was an avalanche/mudslide that occurred just the day before. About a mile from our turnaround point, we started seeing snow regularly, though thankfully there was not enough to require traction. We stopped for lunch at the Haynatch Lakes, a serene chain of alpine lakes in the shadow of the rocky peaks of the Continental Divide. After that, we headed back, making for a 16-mile out and back day. Ironically, on our way out we finally saw the moose we had been looking for - a mother and calf, right by the side of the road with their own entourage of 40 families taking copious photos and two police officers for traffic control.

The next morning, we got another early start for a short hike on the North Inlet Trail for more meadow views and wildlife viewing opportunities (we saw a few deer and rabbits). Then, we packed up the car and headed for Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, about 3 hours south.

We arrived in the nick of time and got our camping permit just 30 min before the office closed. In the dunefield, there are no trails or permanent campsites since the landscape constantly shifts with the wind. We headed south to circumvent the highest dunes along the seasonal Medano Creek, still flowing but evidently drying up in the summer heat. After a mile of acclimating to the sand on the flat creek bed, we took a turn into the dunes in the direction of Star Dune, the highest dune in the dunefield at 750 feet from base to crest. Trudging through the dunes took some getting used to, but we quickly learned to walk through the valleys between the dunes, identify packed and loose sand, and use winter hiking techniques for climbing up the dunes. We didn't quite make it to Star Dune, so we made camp and summited a nearby dune to catch the sunset.

The next day, we continued on our path to Star Dune, this time opting for a ridgeline instead of a valley. When we reached Star Dune, we meditated silently for a few minutes. We hadn’t seen another person in over 16 hours, and the only noise on the dunefield was a gentle breeze blowing around the sand. It was probably the most serene moment I experienced in 2019. Not wanting to be stuck in the dunes in the afternoon sun (the sand temperature can reach over 150 degrees!) we continued weaving our way along ridgelines until we reached High Dune - which, despite its name, is not as tall as Star Dune. Here, we encountered many more people and tracks, since it is within the Day Use Area accessible from the Visitor Center. We had great fun running down the side of the dunes, sliding several feet with each step.

We crossed back through the Medano Creek and refilled our water bottles before heading up the Mosca Pass Trail, where we witnessed the landscape transform from shrubland to coniferous forest to Pinyon-Juniper forest, a classic Southwestern high desert ecosystem. Then, we skirted along the edge of the dunefield on the Sand Ramp Trail towards our next campsite. The trail proved to be unshaded, very sandy, and extremely buggy. On several occasions, the trail descended into small, shrubby gulles, where thousands of mosquitoes, desperate for nourishment as the seasonal creeks dried up, waited for unsuspecting passersby. I tried outrunning them, which proved useless while carrying a heavy pack through loose sand. So, we simply had to wait for a breeze to carry them away before encountering another gully and starting the cycle all over again.

Hoping for an exposed, breezy campsite, we trudged on. When we got to our campsite, though, we found a depression surrounded by a tall dune on one side and the shrubby grassland on the other. Perfect territory for mosquitoes. We spent about 10 minutes swatting at buzzing clouds, and that seemed to control them pretty effectively. Not satisfied, I set off on a deer trail through some trees to see if a nearby rocky outcrop would be breezier and less buggy. As I stepped onto the trail, I heard an oncoming buzzing sound, and was chased back to the campsite by thousands more swarming mosquitoes. At that point, we realized camping at the site was simply not going to be a fun experience. So, we trudged four miles back to our car on a four-wheel drive dirt road, constantly swatting at the unceasing mosquitoes. After wading through some flooded portions of the road, we made it back to our car in twilight and drove the 4 hours back to Denver.

After that, we had a few more days of urban adventures, exploring Denver’s bike paths, vegan eateries, and nightlife. We then traced our steps and took another 48-hour train journey from Denver to Boston.

We’re so grateful to have had MITOC’s support for this trip. Unfortunately, train travel is usually more expensive than air travel for long journeys, so the Collier grant really made it possible for us. We like to think that we honored Officer Sean Collier’s memory by enjoying two stunning National Parks and doing our best to be environmental stewards at the same time. And, while train travel is not always compatible with outdoor recreation, we hope to be a resource for anyone in the MITOC community who is interested in incorporating trains or other alternative transportation choices into their outdoor adventures.