Great Sand Dunes National Monument

A strange place in Co.

Hooper Co.

October 10th, 2004

When we think of Colorado, we picture mountains,  green rolling hills and mountains, rivers, streams and of course mountains.  True, this is the state's most common push from the public relations directions.  So it was somewhat a surprise to find a micro desert in the middle of the southern end of the state. Granted, there are many places in North America where you can find great piles of sand, but Colorado just didn't seem like a likely place. The Great Sand Dunes of Colorado are a marvelous example of nature just acting weird. Now incorporated into  a national Park.  The golden sands of these dunes cover an area roughly 7 by 5 miles and reach a record breaking height of 700 feet up from the floor of the San Luis Valley, making them the tallest in the US.  The valley runs some 100 miles south into New Mexico and is bordered by the San Juan Mountains on the west side and the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the east. Now you may be familiar with the traditional way of creating sand dunes.  That timeless and endless pounding of the sea against rock and shell creating those wonderful dunes we all have walked on at one time or another.  But there are no oceans or seas anywhere near this mountainous region of the Rockies.  The creation of this gigantic sand dune playground is a most curious matter.  It is believed that the process began with sand deposited by the Rio Grande river and its tributaries, which runs through the San Luis Valley.  Over a period of thousands of years, westerly winds whipped over the Rocky Mountains and down across the River flood plane, picking up minute pieces of sand. The sand speed on westerly until it had to climb over the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  As the winds whipped into the eastern edge of the mountains, the sand has been dropped  by the winds, which continue to climb. Day after day, year after year, millennium after millennium the sand keeps coming.  The process continues today as it did tens of thousands of years ago. As we approached from the south, along state route 150, we first caught a glimpse of these giant mounds of sand from about 10 miles out.  Great golden hills with dramatic shadows in the afternoon sun.  It seems like we drove forever without getting anywhere, but finally we arrived at the entrance to the park. On November 22nd, 2000, The Great Sand Dunes Monument was officially upgraded in status to a National Park, although it will continue to be known as a National Monument and Preserve until the purchase of adjoining ranchland is finalized. We pulled into the visitor's center and spent about a half hour wandering around looking at exhibits and listening to a running lecture on the surrounding land.  We found out that there is a formal campground within a mile of the center.  In addition to that, camping is allowed directly out on the dunes, but you are required to stay two mile out into the dunes from the trailhead. You don't have to worry about any environmental damage caused to the land.  All traces of your passage will most probably be gone the day after you have left.  This is the place to lay back at night, miles from anywhere, and watch the stars go by.  Meteors are easily spotted in the pitch black sky. I have been told by several people that this type of camping is a wonderfully different experience.  After leaving the visitor's center, we walked around the building and out onto the great barren hills. At first we were surrounded by parents and kids and running dogs.  There were tracks everywhere and it all seems so much like the beach.  Steadily we continued out toward the distant peaks.  Soon the mothers carrying children dropped off from the outward procession, then the elderly, and most of the other children.  The walking was difficult and it pulled on the back of our legs.  Finally Laura said she had gone far enough, and decided to wait and watch as I climbed a hill, trying to get that pristine picture of undisturbed sand.  Finally from the top of a sandy peak, that perfect shot of nature in it's purest state.  Wooooooow, what a day.  Then it was back down the hill and the long walk back to the living and the laughter of children and all those things that are so different from where I had just been.  A quick snap shot and I rejoined Laura and we took our time working our way through the soft sand, back to the edge of the high chaparral like landscape that is so common throughout this area.  I now know what it must be like wandering out into the great deserts of the world which I have ofte seen in all those great adventure movies I am so fond of.  This was definitely worth the trip. 

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