On a recent ambitious drive to Texas, we made a longer than expected detour to visit the Great Sand Dunes. Winter seemed an odd time to visit, but we don’t often get to that part of Colorado and wanted to see them. As it turned out, only a few other visitors had the same idea, and the park wasn’t even collecting the entry fee. The lack of congestion turned out to be great for us, as we had unimpeded views of the dunes and some of the wildlife.
From I-25, we took Route 160 from Walsenburg, and then turned onto Route 150 to the Dunes. This detour from I-25 actually took a lot longer than we anticipated. And, afterwards, taking the same route back to I-25 is the best route. We thought going ahead through Alamosa would work, but after a short sub break there, we realized we had to retrace our steps if we were going to reach Texas that night.
Route 160 going towards the dunes was largely barren until we reached some of the peaks that partially surround the dunes. We found a marker showing that in January 1807, Lt. Zebulon Pike passed through this very area on his Southwestern Expedition that would also take him to Pike’s Peak. In his journal, Pike described the unique dunes as “exactly that of the sea in a storm, except as to color, and not the least sign of vegetation existing”. The marker explains that the trail was well traveled for centuries, and the mountains towering above form a ring around Mount Blanca, known to the Navajo as the Sacred Mountain of the East. Since Pike’s expedition was about the same time of year as we visited, we had an idea of just how cold his group must have been.
Spanish explorers came about 200 years before Pike’s expedition, and named many of the landmarks seen today, such as Medano Pass, Alamosa, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, thought to be named by a dying Spanish priest as he looked at the deep red sunset over the peaks. The US didn’t gain control of the area until the end of the US-Mexican war in1848. As settlers flowed in, the American Indians were driven from their rich hunting and planting grounds.
During the gold rush of the 1920s, the dunes and nearby creeks were the sites of gold mining operations, which eventually caused concern that the dunes could be destroyed. A local ladies’ philanthropic organization successfully campaigned to protect the dunes, resulting in President Hoover’s 1932 proclamation “…now therefore I, Herbert Hoover…do proclaim and establish the Great Sand Dunes National Monument...” The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was established by an act of Congress in 2004.
The 44,246 acres of the park is in addition to the 41,686 acres protected by the Preserve. Rising about 750 feet above the San Luis Valley at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Range, it contains the tallest sand dunes in North America. The dunes are thought to have begun forming about 440,000 years ago, and have been an important source of water for this part of Colorado, which is one reason they are actively protected.
In the Dune Field, the high dunes are called “Reversing Dunes” (so called for their ripple effect created by opposing wind directions), while the lower dunes are called Barchan and Reversing Dunes” (the Barchan Dunes were shaped into peaks from a single wind direction). The “Star Dunes” on the far side of the Dune field formed star shapes caused by several different wind currents coming from several different directions. All the Great Dunes were a result of wind patterns and sand supply. The mountains blocked the prevailing southwesterly winds carrying sand across the valley. As the winds tried to navigate through the mountain passes, sand was dropped. The wind flow was reversed through the passes and blew sand back toward the Dune field when storms came from the northeast. The surrounding mountains helped both create and protect the unusual sand deposits that became Great Dunes. The sand deposits ultimately formed into the dunes when there was erosion in the mountains allowing streams to bring sand into the valley forming deposits. Because of a bend in the Sangre de Cristos, the surface winds through Music, Medano and Mosca Passes created a protected pocket for the sand deposit. Sand Creek, Cold Creek and Medano Creek border the Main Dune Field. The only dunes that are still able to grow are near the Medano Creek, as it brings sand back to that area. Tiny dunes continually form in the stream's bed.
Once we reached the dunes, we pulled into the visitor's center. They had all the information you could possibly want on the unusual phenomenon in the unlikely area of Colorado. There has been archeological evidence that nomadic people have visited this San Luis Valley area for at least 11,000 years. At that time, the people hunted mammoths and bison. The area was particularly important because of the springs and lakes just west of the Dunes.
When we arrived, it had just snowed, so the snow adorning the ripples of the dunes was spectacular. It increased the definition of each dune wave. The back porch of the visitor’s center provided a perfect panoramic view of the dunes behind. From there, you could drive around to a nearby parking lot meant for campers and picnickers, and walk out onto the area preceding the dunes (normally a creek), then actually follow the trails through the dunes, themselves. It was difficult to comprehend the immensity of the dunes until I realized that a couple of colorful dots that seemed to be bobbing amongst the dunes were actually very ambitious visitors.
And ambitious they were, as, just navigating the flat area leading up to the dunes submerged me in over a foot of snow. In warmer months, this is actually the shallow Medano Creek. It was quite peaceful, however—but really, really cold! In the summer, the sand on the dunes can reach 140 degrees! This was a particularly beautiful time of year to see and experience the Dunes.
On our way out of the park, we stopped to photograph several deer and two coyotes. None seemed particularly anxious about the several vehicles stopped for the same purpose. We do tend to be at many of our destinations close to dusk, which has afforded us a better opportunity to view the wildlife that are more scarce during the day. We have heard that during warmer months, seeing the sunrise over the dunes is magical. When dusk hit, the temperature dropped significantly. It was the only time we have seen 0 degrees register on our car’s dashboard! When leaving the Dunes, there is a sign with a quote “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”, credited to the 1964 Wilderness Act.
It was a great place to visit; yet not a place to remain. It is so worth a day or overnight trip any time of year to see this spectacular and unusual natural phenomenon protectively hidden amongst the towering Rockies.