I staked the tent into the ground, threw in my sleeping bag, and took off up the ridge to the top of the dune. From there, I could see the towering peaks of the Sangre de Cristos that surround Great Sand Dunes National Park. I turned back to where I had set my tent to take a photo of this otherworldly terrain, but my camp had moved.

And it was still moving.

I watched as my tent tumbled down the valley, blown by the steady wind and followed by a trail of sand. It was a rookie mistake, no doubt, but the dunes will do that to you.

The place is certianly inviting. The dunes coaxed me in with their playful terrain, unlike anything else in the state. Dehydration aside, there is literally nothing about the terrain that can hurt you. No cliffs. No set or determined trails that one needs to follow. You can walk in any direction at any time. It’s complete freedom, a far cry from the usually terse Colorado terrain.

After fixing my tent—this time ensuring there was enough weight to withstand the wind—I experienced these pleasures firsthand. Sliding down the dunes headfirst brought me back to childhood.

But the flying tent was just a preview of the shift to come. Before the sun had even set, the heat raced from the sand, and by the time the first star appeared, the temperature had dropped twenty degrees. This comfy, cozy terrain had suddenly become a backcountry nightmare, leaving me completely exposed. It was one of the most incredible reverses of conditions I’ve ever experienced. But this is life in the ever shifting dunes.

Backcountry camping is permitted throughout Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve’s 30-square-mile dunefield. Keep an eye on the weather and prepare for adventure. nps.gov/grsa

—Will McGough