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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LATE MAY AND EARLY JUNE are perhaps the best time to visit, because Medano Creek is flowing at its peak. Medano is one of the two main waterways that carry sand from the upper end of the dunes back to the base, a self-sustaining, circular partnership with the winds that blow the sand back up toward the mountains.
Medano Creek disappears into the sand in the dry months, but when flowing at its peak, it’s one of the only inland waterways in the world that flows in waves. The water runs continuously in the spring, and every couple of minutes a shallow wave rolls by. It’s hard to picture, until you’ve witnessed it. Then you’ll never forget.
These river waves are known as “surge flow” and Medano Creek offers the best example of surge flow in the world. Ranger Bunch explained the unique phenomenon to me like this: “You need a high-velocity creek with a uniform sand bed, just what we have. The water carries the sand downstream and creates small sand ridges on the creek bed. As the water flows up the ridge, it slows slightly and when it passes over the top it drops the sand on the downslope. After a while, the ridge grows to become a miniature dam.” When the force of the water behind this dam grows too great, it washes out and flows downstream in a wave.
Kian splashes in the waves like he’s in heaven, until he breaks out in goose bumps. The water is cold, meltwater from above on Mount Herard (13,340 feet) and Mount Zwischwen (12,006 feet).
We wrap him in a towel and he starts hopping on the sand. Even in spring, the surface temperature of the sand reaches 140 degrees. The sand and water are fire and ice for tender baby feet. When he warms up, we walk upstream and leave the beach behind. In less than a mile, we have the dunes to ourselves. Even along the dunes’ “frontside,” as rangers call it, where most visitors stay, it’s easy to get away from the summer crowds.
In the shade of cottonwood trees, we picnic and flirt with napping. Kian sleeps deeply. Some of the cottonwoods are half buried, victims of the slow shifting sands. Sometimes when hiking along the fringes of the dunes, one comes across half-buried pines, the tips of old cottonwood groves, smothered trunks jutting from the sand like headstones.
I think of who else picnicked beneath the trees when they were young and the sand farther away. I picture settler families in homespun clothes, eating food grown with their own hands, dipping crisp water from the creek.
We can relate to the Anglo-American settlers and Hispanic farming families who first cut the land, but the dunes possess a much longer view on life in this Colorado valley. Before these settlers, there were Utes, Spanish explorers, Apache, Cheyenne and Kiowa, among others. Before that, little known Tewa traced their creation myth to a small lake nearby, and Paleo-Indians left little but strong spear points 12,000 years ago.
Before modern wildlife species like elk, pronghorn, mountain lion and black bear, now extinct species briefly overlapped with the Paleo-Indians. The earliest humans here hunted mammoth, giant sloth and giant bison around the waterholes of the Great Sand Dunes. We know nothing about what happened in the 99.8 percent of time before that, when the San Luis Valley took its shape.