The Great Sand Dunes

The Great Sand Dunes make a great adventure

Colorado is famous for its mountains—including some made only of sand. Technically, they’re dunes, not mountains; but when you stand at their base, they certainly look tall enough. The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in central southern Colorado (35 miles northeast of Alamosa) is home to the nation’s highest sand dunes, which peak at 750 feet and cover 30 square miles.

The dunes got their start at least 12,000 (and perhaps even up to a million) years ago, when streams and snow melt from the San Juan Mountains (65 miles to the west) washed rocks, gravel, and grit down to the valley floor. Southwesterly winds picked up the smaller grains, carrying them until they hit the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where they dropped to the ground and began to pile up. Not only are the dunes still growing today, but the wind continually shapes and shifts them; thus, they look slightly different from one day to the next. One constant, however, is the dramatic backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo range with its 13,000-foot-high peaks.

The most striking of the dunes is aptly named High Dune, at 650 feet. Although from the visitor’s center, this looks like the tallest of the dunes, it’s actually neither the highest in elevation nor the tallest from base to summit. (Star Dune, the tallest, is about 100 feet taller.) But, for those who zigzag along its ridgelines to reach the top, High Dune still offers spectacular views. Once you’ve gone as high as you want to go, you can walk (or even run) back down, although the more daring sled or even sandboard (like snowboarding but on sand). Nearby shops outside the park carry all the necessary equipment, so you’re not out of luck if you didn’t happen to bring your own sled or board.

Just as fun as the dunes is Medano Creek, flowing in front of the visitor’s center. Since it’s dependent on snow melt, though, it typically runs only from late March or April until about July. However, in years with a heavy snowfall, the creek can flow all summer long. The water can be anywhere from 30- to 50-feet wide and is typically only about four inches deep (although in spots it can be up to a foot deep). If you see ripples or waves in the creek, it’s a phenomenon called surge flow, caused by sand ridges forming underwater and then breaking every 20 seconds or so from the force of the current.

Grasslands, wetlands and shrublands surround the dune field on three sides and are also included among the park’s 150,000 acres. They’re home to deer, bears, mountain lions, foxes and coyotes, along with some rare species of insects (like the Great Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle) that live only here. The park’s perfect mid-day activity, in fact, is exploring a half-mile shady, level loop trail through the forest on the Montville Nature Trail. It offers great views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the sand dune field and the San Luis Valley. The trail follows Mosca Creek and passes what remains of an historic toll station. A brochure available from the visitor’s center details each of 16 numbered stops.
Planning Tips: Note that in summer, you will want to explore the dunes in the morning or evening to avoid hot sand; so, plan your visit accordingly. Bring water and wear shoes, since the sand’s surface temperature can reach up to 140 degrees. Pack plenty of sunscreen, too, especially because skin burns quicker at higher elevations—the visitors center at the base of the dunes is at 8,200 feet. For more information, visit nps.gov/grsa.

Katy Koontz is a freelance travel writer living in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of
Family Fun in the Smokies: A Family Friendly Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains (Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2012). Visit katykoontz.com.

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