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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Back in camp that night, after dinner, campfires, s’mores and whiskey nightcaps, the campground slid into slumber and grew quiet. Andrea and Kian fell fast asleep and I slipped away to walk in the dunes.

In the dark, everything takes on a new reality. I’ve walked these dunes on full-moon nights when the sand shines as bright as approaching dawn. But this moonless night was black. Crossing the creek, barely illuminated in the glow of my headlamp, the dunes ahead were just an enveloping shape against the sky, the highest ridge lines visible only by the presence of stars overhead.

Once I crossed over the first line of big dunes, all signs of the modern world ceased. I lay on my back and drowned in silence. The persistent breezes had stilled and even the sand stopped whispering.

The Park Service has been working on new projects, one to record the natural sounds in the dunes, and another to measure the darkness of the night sky. They’ve recorded crystal clear elk bugling and the wild chorus of coyote voices. And they’ve heard the dunes sing.

Singing dunes — this event has been noted by indigenous cultures in desert lands around the world, most famously in the Khongoryn Els of the Gobi Desert where the dunes emit loud notes when disturbed. The Great Sand Dunes of Colorado don’t sing as loud or clearly, but it can still be heard. This sound is produced when sand avalanches over itself. This compresses the air within the moving sand and it vibrates. It’s easier to hear the singing at night deeper in the dunes.

As I lay motionless, there were no sand, elk or coyote songs that night. I looked up at the glowing swipe of the Milky Way.  Recent research revealed that the night sky over these dunes is one of the darkest skies of all the nation’s national parks. Darker skies mean brighter stars. On a night when a short spring rain has knocked the dust haze from the air, the stars shine brighter over the Great Sand Dunes than almost anywhere else in the country.

On my bed of sand, with galaxies rotating overhead, my mind turned to dreams of my short time here in the dune world. While this remains the perfect weekend getaway with friends, I want to do more.

As Kian grows, I hope we return together many times. I want him to realize the magic on his own, to sleep in the vast dune backcountry, to climb to Sand Creek Lake, to peer down from the heights of Kit Carson Peak at this sea in storm.

In this wind-whipped sea, I possess a feeling of greatness, humility and wonderment. Kneel and scoop up handfuls of sand and let it slowly run through your fingers. See how many thousands of pieces fit in your hands. Reflect on the journey that each took to reach you, a journey of millennia. Observe the shifting dunes and envision their unhurried formation. This dune land can provide a lifetime of experiences for us, but this is geologic time and each grain of sand will outlast everything we know.

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

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