Text by Curtis Von Fange
I’ve always enjoyed the desert environment. So it was a special surprise to find a little piece of the desert high in the mountainous state of Colorado. I was traveling east on US 160 from Alamosa, a small town of around 14,000 people located in the south-central section of the state, admiring the jagged sawtooth range of the Sangre de Christo Mountains.
The snow-covered peaks jutted beyond the clouds in an endless progression toward the northern horizon. But at their base I saw something odd and out of place. It was a pile of sand that rivaled anything one would find in the Sahara. It was the Great Sand Dunes.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve encompasses the tallest sand dunes in North America. Even though they are many miles from the nearest ocean, the same ingredients for their creation — that being sand, wind and time — were still prevalent. Millennia ago the Rio Grande, the main river of the San Luis Valley, carried sedimentary deposits from the nearby mountains. As the river meandered through the valley, it left deposits of sand and fine glacial till along its banks and on the valley floor as it continually changed course.
Prevailing southwesterly winds eroded the sandy ground and pushed the debris northeasterly along the valley floor until it reached the base of the steep Sangre de Christo range. As the winds pushed upward over the mountain chain, they took the smaller, dustier debris with them while leaving the heavier grains of sand behind to build up over the centuries into massive sand dunes. Geologists theorize that the moisture content in the sand due to rain and snow from the higher elevations tends to keep the dunes confined to their location. The monument covers approximately 39 square miles, while the sand buildup area is much larger.
I turned north onto Colorado SR 150, the main highway into the monument. As I approached the park boundaries the surreal landscape of sand piled hundreds of feet high with a backdrop of the snow-capped mountains created a dichotomy that didn’t make any sense. It looked like a wandering herd of camels driven by nomadic wanderers should have greeted me, rather than a state of the art visitor center.
In addition, instead of the characteristic parched landscape with mirages of water on the horizon, Little Medano Creek flowed along the dunes’ edge, providing a wide, but quite shallow water source. Here was this strangely huge desert landscape right in the middle of where, by all logical and rational thinking, it should not have been.
After seeing the massive sandbox, I had to get out and play. My two teenage accomplices filled the canteens, put on some shoes to protect us from the heat in the sand, and headed to the dizzying heights of the highest dune. As with most spontaneous expeditions, the distances are somewhat deceiving and the repetitive trudging through unstable sand tiresome.
But we did have fun running down the leeward dune sides, our speed increasing exponentially into 10-foot steps and a crash-and-burn finish, as we lost control and rolled to the bottom, laughing all the way. Don’t be misled by playfulness, though. Take plenty of water, protective footwear, sunscreen, shades and a hat to avoid the sun. After all, it still feels much like the Sahara on a sunny day.
After playtime was over we decided to do some reconnaissance on the facilities offered at the monument. As with most National Park Service locations, the camping and picnic areas were top-notch, though limited. The Pinyon Flats Campground is open all year (first come, first served) with tables, grills, water and restrooms. Backcountry camping is permitted at the designated sites and in the dune wilderness area. Secure a camping permit at the Visitors Center. Open fires and gathering of wood are prohibited but firewood can be purchased in the park for use in the campground grills.
Some special trails that wind through the fringe groves of pinyon/juniper trees, ponderosa forests and grasslands contrast the sandy environment encompassing the dunes themselves. An offroad, 4-wheel-drive trail carries the traveler above the dunes for some spectacular views highlighting the mountain/desert terrain. Reduced tire pressure for sand traveling can be replenished at the air station near the campground. For those die hard motelists there are accommodations available in Alamosa, approximately 40 miles to the southeast.
As we drove westward out of the park that evening, we stopped at the north/south intersection of Colorado SR 17 and looked back on the red dunes reflecting the sunset. The long shadows of the sand peaks stretched outward like advancing night. I fully expected Lawrence of Arabia to come galloping out of the darkening expanse, white robes blowing in the wind, a saber waving wildly as his horse breathed wisps of mist. But I suppose the imagination can run wild when one experiences an area that shouldn’t be.
Before you go, check with the NPS for alerts and conditions – From NPS – Open 24/7 year round! There are no limitations or reservations to visit, but there is currently limited capacity in the visitor center.