Who would have thought that you will find sand dunes in Colorado? The state is after all known for its high mountains. But yes, for those who haven't been here, the Great Sand Dunes National Park is at an elevation of 7,694 feet, located on the east side of the San Luis Valley, west of Sangre de Cristo Range. The park has the tallest sand dunes found in North America. What’s unique about these sand dunes is the backdrop of rugged mountains. So, where did the sand come from? That was my question too when Hermann first brought me to this place. This park is a fun place for all ages - hiking, sandsledding, sandboarding, hunting (during legal season) and stargazing.
The Great Sand Dunes was originally designated as a National Monument in 1932 by President Herbert Hoover, to protect it from gold mining and potential concrete manufacturing operation. It was elevated to National Park and National Preserve status in 2000 and was officially designated in 2004 after sufficient land was acquired. The National Preserve is a separate unit from the National Park but is managed jointly with the park. In May 2019 the park was designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve encompasses 149,028 acres (107,342 acres for the park and an additional 41,686 acres for the preserve). The Great Sand Dunes covers about 30 square miles and contains over 1.2 cubic miles of sand. Most of the sand originated in the San Juan Mountains 65 miles to the west, while the larger grains and pebbles came from the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains just to the east of the park.
According to recent scientific research there was once a large inland lake covering the San Luis Valley. The oldest evidence of human activities in the area dates back to about 11,000 years ago. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers, Stone Age people hunting for mammoths and prehistoric bison. Native American Indians were frequenting the area even before the Spaniards first arrived in the 17th century. The dunes were once a landmark for various tribes and Spaniards traveling between the High Plains and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The highest dunes reach 750 feet high from the valley floor and are still growing. The wind changes the shape of the dunes daily and carries sand from miles away. The winds blow from the valley floor towards the mountains but during storms the wind blow towards the valley, creating a vertical sand dune. Then water erodes them, after which the wind piles the sand up again. It's an ongoing cycle that has repeated itself since it began forming around 440,000 years ago.
The Ute Indian tribe called the dune Saa waap maa nache meaning, “sand that moves”. The Jicarilla Apache called the dunes Sei-anyedi meaning, “it goes up and down”.
TO GET HERE
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is located in south-central Colorado, in Saguache and Alamosa Counties. It’s a little less than a 4-hour drive from Denver via I-25 South, the fastest route. From there, exit 52 to US-160 West to Alamosa. But before reaching the City of Alamosa turn right on CO-150; this road will take you to the park. You can also take US Highway 285 South. Timewise it is just a few minutes difference.
To reach the actual sand dunes you have to cross the 10 to 15 feet wide Médano Creek - Médano is a Spanish word meaning, "sand dune" - at the foot of the sand dunes. This creek is referred to as Colorado’s natural beach. It is fed by the surrounding mountains and the water is usually just one to two inches deep and almost non-existent in summer. We came here in September and it was totally dry. The most water flow this creek can get is in spring when visitors can have fun splashing, skim boarding, floating and other water activities that anyone can do in a shallow creek.
Hiking, sandsledding, sandboarding is an option. Some people are just content to sit, relax and gaze at the dunes, like these three folks. But we came here to hike, to see what it's like at the top of the dunes.
- HIKING -
In summer, the sand’s temperature can reach to 150 degrees F, so be aware if you plan on doing outdoor activities here. Wear shoes! We came here when the weather was cooler, a much more pleasant hike when you want to reach the highest point. There is no designated trail; as you can imagine, it would be hard with the ever changing landscape. You can pretty much explore wherever you want, but be aware of the weather. You don't want to be on top of the dunes when there is a thunderstorm.
Hiking here is a little difficult, since the sand is loose you don't get a firm foothold. It can exhausting if you are not used to high altitudes. But it is fun, a different experience, especially for kids. You don't even have to go up high to see the beautiful view of the surrounding mountains.
Explore! You might find a pocket of wildflowers still blooming late summer in the park, like we did. These prairie sunflowers are common in the grasslands but grow on the dunes as well. In wet summer, these wildflowers bloom in millions surrounding the dunes. That, I would love to see. Prairie Wildflower is only one of hundreds of plant species in the park and preserve.
The park is open 24 hours a day, all year round. Campgrounds are available nearby if you brought your own movable home with you. If you are staying in the area for a few days, then you might want to visit the Colorado Gators Reptile Park and the San Luis State Wildlife Area nearby. Zapata Falls is 3 miles south of the Great Sand Dunes and Preserve.