Upon first viewing the array of sand dunes spread out before him in 1807, explorer Zebulon Pike stated, “Their appearance was exactly that of a sea in a storm (except as to color), not the least sign of vegetation existing thereon.” The adventurer was describing the predominant natural features in what is today known as Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado. Sand from mountains surrounding the valley was carried by streams into ancient lakes on the valley floor. After a major climate change, the prevailing southwesterly winds then carried the fine grains of sand from the lakebeds toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where they have piled up, and continue to do so, against the range’s foothills. The sandy playground that resulted from this process of erosion covers more than 30 square miles, possessing within its boundaries the tallest dunes in North America — sandy pinnacles that can reach heights of 750 feet.
Yet as travelers approach the namesake dunes, the ever-changing piles of sand appear of little consequence compared to the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains that provide an impressively jagged backdrop. After all, this range is home to nine peaks that top 14,000 feet in elevation. RVers with 4WD tow vehicles may want to drop the trailer and explore the rugged Medano Pass Primitive Road, which negotiates varied terrain, from sand to foothills to a coniferous forest, along its 11-mile passage into the Sangre de Cristos.
The dunes, however, are what draw visitors to this year-round vacation spot, and all people who are able should feel the sand between their toes. Before beginning a trek toward a distant dune, though, travelers should stop by the visitor center, where they can watch a new 20-minute film showing the varied landscapes of the park in all seasons, and learn from interactive exhibits. During the warmer months, rangers lead walks and offer educational programs, but the dunes can become quite hot during the summer. Winter months typically bring temperatures between 20? F and 40? F, along with occasional snowfall. No matter when they visit, however, photographers should set up their tripods early and late in the day, when shadows deem undulations and crests more dramatic.
Taking into account the weather, visitors may want to hike up High Dune, a sandy aerie that grants views of the dunefield and the San Luis Valley from a height of about 650 feet. The demanding two-mile roundtrip journey is not for everyone, but nearly all visitors will appreciate the variety of terrain and habitat traversed while four-wheel-driving through the national preserve, to the east of the dunes. Juniper, pinyon and ponderosa pines, cottonwoods and aspens, fir and spruce trees all stand in stark contrast to the nearly vegetation-free dunes. While on any of the park’s varied hiking trails, animal lovers may be thrilled by bighorn sheep, pronghorns or Abert’s squirrels, and birders may spy mountain chickadees and black-billed magpies.
Pinyon Flats Campground is open year-round and offers 88 sites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, (719) 378-6300, www.nps.gov/grsa.