Every parent has a favorite child, although they’ll never admit it to anyone, not even themselves. During seven days in Colorado, Dad and I traveled through spectacular, fascinating scenery and met interesting people, each with stories to tell. We saw mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers, canyons, towns, cities and plains; railroads, ruins, mines and farms; deer, elk, mountain goats and birds. At every juncture, I had again the chance to re-learn from Dad what I first learned from him decades ago: if you take a moment to look or to ask, to listen and learn, every part of this world has interest and appeal.
Yet, from those seven days, one place stands out.
On a chilly (for us Californians), overcast morning, we drove northeast from Pagosa Springs, near Colorado’s southern border with New Mexico. We climbed into the San Juan Mountains over Wolf Creek Pass (10,850 ft.3,307 meters) out of the San Juan River watershed, then down to Del Norte, the farthest north either of us can recall having seen the Rio Grande River. We’ve seen long stretches of the Rio Grande farther south as it passes through New Mexico, then along the Texas/Mexico Border through Big Bend National Park through the lowlands to the Gulf of Mexico. Here, we were in a broad, spreading land, irrigated by the Rio Grande, and heavily farmed. This was the most open land we’d seen in six days of traveling through Colorado. The roads described perfect right angles, and whether one chose County Road 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 or 12 made little difference. We actually chose the wrong road a couple of times, because they weren’t clearly marked. These were not roads made for travelers such as we. They were farm roads, and the people who typically use them don’t need road signs.
We gradually left the intensely irrigated fields near the Rio Grande, driving along extensive, straight roads through fields of sagebrush. There was a good sagebrush crop growing in the fields, and sage farmers looked to be having a banner year. We knew this was an ironic joke, and yet, almost certainly, not a joke at all to the ranchers who strive to eke a living out of this harsh, arid land. At the far edge of the flat land was our objective for the day: Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Sand dunes are more common in the United States than you may know, including Kelso Dunes (the Devil’s Playground) in the Mojave Desert and Imperial Dunes in California’s southern Imperial Valley. There are sand dunes in the desert of eastern Oregon, as well as on the shore of Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear and Indiana Sand Dunes, and along the California coast above Santa Barbara. I’ve climbed across the sand in nearly all of these places. Great Sand Dunes, however, beats them all.
Why are there gigantic sand dunes in that part of Colorado? Good question. I’ll paraphrase a description from the National Park Service’s guide. Most of the sand comes from those same San Juan Mountains we crossed earlier in the day, about 65 miles to the west. wind blows it northeasterly until it hits the barrier of the Sangre de Christo range, where it piles up. Also, creeks carry more sand down out of the Sangre de Christos, and other northeasterly winds blow it back on itself, forming sharp-crested dunes. This process may have been ongoing for as much as a million years. The land at the foot of the Sangre de Christos is a vast basin, which was a lake in post-glacial times, about 12,000 years ago. Much of that basin is now filled with sand.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and the surrounding area for many miles comprise an extensive ecosystem of sand of which the dunes occupy only a portion. There are diverse habitats occupied by animal, plant and insect dwellers in the dunes themselves (some found nowhere else in the world), and others in the surrounding flatlands. The adjacent mountains have multiple climate zones, ranging up to alpine elevations of 14,000 feet. A vast place to explore!
But, first, the dunes themselves. They are the tallest dunes in North America, 750 feet (228 meters) tall at the highest point.
The dunes are somewhat remote from major travel routes, but, as always, the journey is part of the appeal. During the drive there, you’ll see the wide basin of sagebrush-covered sand that flows up to the very base of the towering Sangre de Christos, including Blanca Peak, at 14,345 (4,372 meters) the fourth-highest peak in Colorado. If all you have is towering mountains and the high desert light on sagebrush, those sights alone may satisfy, but you’ll also be on the lookout for any of the wide variety native wildlife, including black bear, elk, bighorn sheep and mule deer.
The main body of dunes is easy to reach from the adjacent park road. Leave your car in the parking lot, and in 10 minutes you are climbing dunes, the features of the ordinary world quickly receding.
If you only have an hour or so to linger in the park, spend it here. Don’t invest all the time in trudging up the unforgiving slopes. Stop and look. You’re in a place that, like a lot of the natural world, looks utterly forbidding and hostile, but inexpressibly beautiful. Appreciate the sheer scale of the dunes, and consider the thousands upon thousands of years they required to accumulate, grain by grain.
Appreciate the detail — endlessly varied and varying patterns formed by the wind, sometimes crossed by the tracks of a bird or, here, a rabbit.
Stop and listen. One lip of the dune will eliminate any sound from the world of people just below. Hear the wind. Hear the sound of your own heartbeat.
If you can make more time, do so. Trails from easy to wilderness circle the dunes or head to the peaks above. You can climb from the dunefield to montane forest, to subalpine forest, to the alpine tundra above the treeline. Even a short hike will give you another look at this remarkable place.
Of all the sights we encountered in our Colorado trip, this is the place I’d spend more time, under the western skies.
© 2012, 2016 Brad Nixon