After what seemed like a brief visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, we drove south and east, where we spent a little over a week in October exploring the San Luis Valley area and Great Sand Dunes National Park.
In the middle of Colorado, stands the tallest sand dunes in North America, a crown jewel atop a beautiful and diverse landscape. Mountains, plains, wetlands, aspen forests, conifer groves, alpine lakes, and tundra encircle the dunes on various sides. Each of these ecosystems supports its own set of plant life and wildlife, promising unique experiences all within a short distance from each other.
The Great Sand Dunes of America
When we first arrived at the base of the sand dunes, I felt this indisputable spirit of wonder. So distinctly different from the shock and awe from my first steps out on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or from the otherworldly feeling from staring out into the black crusted landscape of Craters of the Moon.
I first saw the Great Sand dunes miles away, a dusty bright smudge against the dark looming Sangre de Cristo Mountains. As we drove closer to the park’s borders, I suddenly realized the immense scale of the sand dunes. The Mesquite Flat Dunes we visited in Death Valley earlier this year feels dwarfed in comparison to the Great Sand Dunes. Here the dunes rise up to 750 feet and over, while the dunes back in Mesquite Flat only reached 100 feet. As I scan, the sand seems to stretch for miles upon miles. Back at the visitor center, I later learn that the Great Sand Dunes extends for over 19,000 acres (roughly 30 square miles or 77 square kilometers).
How the Great Sand Dunes Formed
To me, it looks like an inland sea of sand sprawling from the Sangre de Cristo mountainside on the east and down into the plains of the San Luis Valley on the west. Over 440,000 years ago, streams carried sand and gravel down from the San Juan Mountains and into shallow lakes in the San Luis Valley. During seasons of drought, the lakes dried leaving the sand and gravel exposed. Strong south prevailing winds blew through the valley, picking the sand up from the dry lake beds. The wind then carried the grains to the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos. This continual depositing of sand for over 440,000 years resulted in the largest sand dunes in north America.
For every two steps up, I fall one step back as the sand gives way to my own weight. The wind picks up and pelts grains against my skin and weaves through my hair. Without a face mask, I know the grains would lodge easily into my mouth and nose. Winds can reach up to 40 miles per hour, reshaping dune crests in a matter of hours. Within a week some smaller dunes will migrate. Predominating southwesterly winds push them northward, while an uncommon but powerful northeasterly wind pushes them back. This back and forth motion keeps the largest of the sand dunes stable. This is why we can hike to High Dune and Star Dune time and time again.
Sledding on the Lower Sand Dunes
On another day, we stop by the Oasis Store, just outside the park entrance, and rent a sand sled and sandboard. With the boards, we also receive a small puck of wax to help with sailing down the dunes. Sorry snow sleds, cardboard, saucers and other plastic sleds won’t work, the sand is too dry.
We had a great time sand sledding and sandboarding. I preferred sledding for myself and found it fairly easy. All I had to do was just allow myself to follow the slope of the sand dune while going down. If I tried to steer in an opposing direction, I ended up catch the edge of the board and flipping over. Meanwhile, Hitch tested his skill with the sandboard and discovered that it takes a lot of core strength to steer and balance.
Montville Nature Loop Trail
When we were done boarding, we then took an easy hike on Montville Nature Loop Trail. This short half mile loop provided a nice reprieve from the crowds at the dunes. The trail guides us along the foothills beside a creek, and we stopped at a few points to enjoy the bubbling sounds of Mosca creek and the fall leaves. At highpoint and on a ridge, we got a great view of the sand dunes and Mt. Herard.
For hikers with more time, Mosca Trail splits off to the east from Montville Trail and follows the small creek to the summit of a low pass in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. It’s a lovely 3.5-mile one-way hike and winds through aspen and evergreen forests. American Indians and early settlers used this route for travel into the valley.
Medano Creek Missed
From April to June, the Medano Creek flows steadily from the mountains on the east side of the sand dunes. Since we our visit is in late October, there’s just a wet sand bed where the stream would be. The stream is fairly shallow but can surge depending on the snowpack. Maybe the next time we visit we can bob and float with the rest of the kids.
Conservation at its Best
The need to protect the delicate watershed lead to the cooperative efforts of various government agencies and private conservation groups. In 2004, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve now include lands west of the original national monument once known and Baca Ranch, and the mountains east, once managed by the US Forest Service. With such unique biology and geology, how could we not spend the time and effort to visit the Great Sand Dunes.