Editor’s Note: Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes in the San Luis Valley are the tallest dunes in America, occupying 30 square miles of sand and reaching peaks of 750 feet. GP contributor Will McGough took off his shoes and played in the sand.

ating my lunch, perched upon a pile of sand overlooking the vast valley of dunes, I could just barely make out my tent in the distance, the orange color subtly visible in an otherwise uniform display of beige. With my ball cap shading my eyes from the hot sun, I could still see my footprints coming up the ridge of the dune, but other than that, there was no sign of life. I took a bite of my PB & J and noticed that it had an additional ingredient: I had sand in my sandwich, and I didn’t care.

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With that simple thought, what I enjoyed so much about staying in Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado became clear. It was more than a camping trip. Like a trip to the beach when you’re young, it was freedom.

Part of that is because it’s a place where anything goes, where you do stuff you can’t in any other environment. The desert-like terrain was formed by wind picking up and moving sand sediments from the Rio Grande River. Where the wind died, the dunes begin. Traditional hikes and trails point you on a path, and even if you want to diverge from that path, obstacles stand in your way. Cliffs. Boulders. Fallen trees. Rivers. But amongst the sand dunes of the park, any direction — literally any way you want to go — is up for grabs, all 360-degrees of space. And because there are no rocks and no hard ground, you can do something else that’s a big no-no in other ecosystems: hike barefoot.

Of course, this appreciation is all dependent on you following my number one piece of advice: Accept the sand. There’s no point in fighting it. It will get everywhere. In your sandwich. Your tent. Your hair. The cracks of your iPod. So you might as well embrace it, like you did when you were five. I recommend running full speed and diving, sliding down a dune headfirst as a way to break the ice, letting the gritty sand run down your shirt and waistband, letting it stick to your chest hair. I enjoyed putting the side of my face into it, resting with my head facing down the dune and my feet up the hill overhead. In a place where nothing can hurt you (other than the heat; do hydrate!), all the rules go out the window.

As the sun went down, the scenery shifted from mind-blowing to otherworldly. During the day, the park had looked like the Sahara. But add a little light from the twilight hour, and all of a sudden it felt like you were on the moon, the sand cooling quickly under your bare feet and the shadows and colors changing, making the sand in the distance look smooth, like concrete. Be sure to notice all of this, and how it makes you feel far from home.

Then think about the last time you climbed up a giant pile of sand, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll begin to wonder why you ever let so much time pass in the first place.

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