Explore Colorado / Explore The Outdoors

The Allure of a Dunes World

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve fascinate me.  I’ve visited the dunes several times and each time, the largest sand dunes in North America against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains take my breath away.  With the shifting sand, it’s an ever changing landscape.

On my most recent trip, as I was heading toward the Sand Dunes, I pulled over to read some of the signs talking about the area’s past and connection to Native Americans.  I found the words about this sacred place to be so poignant.  One of the signs says, “Isolated from the rest of Colorado, the San Luis Valley is often a forgotten place.  For Native American tribes including the Utes, Apache, Navajos, and others, this Valley is a source of life – a place where humans and spirit enter and leave this world.”  The Utes of Colorado lived in semi-isolation in the San Luis Valley until Spanish explorers enter the valley in 1596 on horses, or as the Utes’ called them “magic dogs.”

The reason I was near the Dunes is because I was researching the town of Alamosa for a potential magazine article.  You can read about my solo Sunday morning there in my blog Alone in Alamosa.

As I was heading for Denver, I couldn’t not stop to see one of my favorite places in Colorado.  I made the detour for the view and to do a quick afternoon hike.  I decided to hike from the visitor center into the dunes.  I could have parked in the dunes parking lot for a shorter hike, but I wanted to experience the vastness of the valley that you field as you walk through the sandy scrub brush.  It was cool and windy as a storm system was moving in, which meant very few folks on the dunes and the way I prefer to visit the Dunes.

Hiking through the brush with an amazing view of the dunes, I couldn’t help but fall more in love with the landscape.  That day there were a lot of clouds and I loved how they cast shadows on the dunes.  As the clouds moves, the shadows seemed to dance on the dunes.

To get to the dunes, you have to cross a creek.  One of the most fascinating features is seeing surge flow in Medano Creek.  It’s one of the best places in the world to see the natural phenomena when the water flows backwards.  It almost seems unreal when you’re watching it.  I suggest standing in the creek so you can not just see the surge flow, but also feel it.  What’s happening is small anti-dunes are forming under the water and when they break the waves ripple backwards.  You can see the surge flow any time of year, but the best time to see it is usually late May and early June when the snowmelt is in full swing.

Once I crossed the creek, I saw the coolest limb sitting on the sand.  It was such a cool image to see that set against snow covered mountains that I just stopped for a moment to admired Mother Nature’s art.

As you hike into the dunes world, you immediately see the landscape in motion with the ripples in the sand, the waves in the dunes, and occasionally feeling the sting of the sand as the wind blows.  I love seeing all sorts of images in the clouds, and do the same in the dunefield.  A ranger once told me folks see all kinds of images in the dunes like animal shapes, faces, and even a naked lady.  The dunes are less than 440,000 years old.  Most of the sand comes form the San Juan Mountains, over 65 miles to the west.  Pebbles and larger, rougher grains also come from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  The sand and sediment from both ranges settled in huge lake that once covered the valley floor.  As the lake shrank, the sand was trapped.  Prevailing southwesterly winds push the sand against the Sangre de Cristos then northeasterly storm winds come roaring through the mountain passes piling the dunes back up on themselves. At 755 feet high, Star Dune is the tallest dune in the park.  On this particular visit, with the clouds, I stopped several times just to watch the cloud shadows float across the dunes.

Getting short on daylight, I had to hit the road back to Denver.  I enjoyed the different view as I hiked back up to the visitor center, enjoying the mountain peaks in front of me with glances back at the dunes.  As I picked up the pace to get back to my car, I sure was grateful I’d made to stop and spent a day alone in Alamosa.

Leave a Reply