Great Sand Dunes National Park

“Like a sea in storm,” exclaimed Zebulon Pike Jr. in 1807 when he first witnessed the immense Great Sand Dunes nestled in a dogleg crook of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From high above, in the toothed cirque of peaks surrounding the Crestone Needle, the dunes indeed appear as an unruly brown sea.

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(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

SINUOUS SAND WAVES REFLECT the eternal struggle between the push and pull of the winds. Two thin creeks, like anchors, pull the sand back from the summits toward the sagebrush flats below. The dunes look otherworldly, something only millions of years of persistent wind can create. From up high, there is little sign that humanity exists, just sand, high mountains and the hazy wide San Luis Valley.

Since first visiting the dunes when I was young, I’ve returned many times. I’ve shared it with numerous friends too, including many Coloradans who had never visited. However, I was never as excited to share the dunes with anyone as I was with my new son, Kian. In the depths of a long Rocky Mountain winter, I called friends and we made plans to visit the dunes together, in spring when the snows melt and the river of waves begins to flow.

When approaching the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve from the north, as most do, you follow a road straight as a stretched string paralleling the steep Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From 50 miles away, the dunes appear as a brown dusty smudge that slowly focuses, until the smudge becomes a huge expanse of windsculpted sand over 700 feet high.

Kian, my wife Andrea, and I skirted the south side of the dunes and finally pulled into the Pinyon Flats Campground where our friends waited. As the kids ran around playfully about, we caught up with each other. All the while, our eyes swiveled to the north and the dunes that dominate the horizon, crowned by the spiny summits of the Crestones. You can travel throughout the American West and find few views that rival this.

It’s easy to visit, even if you just have three days. The park offers more than just sand, although most people do come for this “Rocky Mountain beach.” Beyond the dunes lie ghost towns, Paleo-Indian sites, mammoth fossils, mountain trails, high alpine lakes and endemic wildlife. But as with everything in Colorado, the glue that binds it all is water.

“This place is really unique in that the park and reserve include almost the entire watershed that ensures the health of the dunes,” explains park ranger and Alamosa native, Fred Bunch. “It’s one of the only parks in America where this is true.”


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