While in Cortez, Colorado, I was checking weather for my next two possible destinations, Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks. The forecast was not good, having rain and thunderstorms for both for more than a week. I decided to leave them for the next trip out west. I headed east for home.
When I reached Wolf Creek Pass, I stopped at the overlook there and saw the elevation was 10,857 feet. That put me at the highest elevation known to me in all my travels. I was consulting my atlas and saw there was another national park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, not far off my route. I coded it into my GPS and found it would only add another fifty miles to this leg of the trip, which was to be Colorado Springs. And that's how I ended up at this amazing place.
The 30 square mile dunefield is the most impressive part of an enormous deposit of sand stretching west, south and north. The San Juan Mountains, 60 miles to the west, contributed most of the sand, which was washed by mountain streams into the San Luis Valley. From there, southwesterly winds blew, bounced and pushed the grains toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, piling them up into the tallest dunes in North America.Tall dunes are found throughout the dunefield. Despite the windy location, they are remarkably stable. The wind pattern is bi-modal: generally blowing from the southwest toward the mountains, or, less frequently but with higher wind speeds, from the northeast toward the valley. The opposing force of the winds pushes the dunes skyward, and limits their movement to about 30 feet back and forth.
The main dunefield is not growing because it lacks new sand. Vegetation in the surrounding area has stabilized the sand sheet. The stabilization of the sand sheet provides homes and food for a large variety of wildlife and plant species.
The first white man to describe the dunes was Zebulon Pike. From his journal: Jan. 27th. We marched, determined to cross the mountains... After a bad day's march through snows, in some places three feet deep, we struck a brook which led west. This I followed down, and shortly came to a small stream (Sand Creek), running west, which we hailed with fervency as the waters of Red River... Jan. 28th. Followed down the ravine... After marching some miles we discovered through the lengthy vista, at a distance, another chain of mountains; and nearer by, at the foot of the White (Sangre de Cristo) mountains which we were then descending, sandy hills. We marched on the outlet of the mountains, left the sandy desert to our right, and kept down between it and the largest hills of sand, and with my glass could discover a large river (the Rio Grande) flowing... through the plain. I returned to camp with the news of my discovery. The sand-hills extended up and down the foot of the White mountains about 15 miles, and appeared to be about 5 miles in width. Their appearance was exactly that of the sea in a storm, except as to the color, not the least sign of vegetation existing thereon. -- Lt. Zebulon Pike, January 28, 1807.
The Sand Dunes etc.
My first look, but I was still many miles away
Getting closer but still not in the park
The area with vegetation in the foreground is called a Sand Sheet. Encircling the dunefield like a grassy sea, the Sand Sheet is one of the major components of the Great Sand Dunes sand deposit. It is the primary source of sand for the dunefield today, provides homes and food for plants and animals and holds evidence of people past and present. The sabkha occurs to the southwest of the dunefield outside the sand sheet and is punctuated by wetlands and patches of white crusty sand. Sand grains here are cemented into a fragile crust by alkaline minerals leached out of the high water table. The dunefield is 30 square miles, the Sand Sheet is 181 square miles and the sabkha covers 121 square miles. Almost the entire area is under the protection of the National Park Service or privately owned portions protected by the Nature Conservancy.
In the park
High Dune, the highest peak on the right of the photo is 750 feet from the base of the dunes. The elevation of High Dune is 8691 feet. The high peak left of center is Star Dune at 8617 feet.
Looks like grey clouds
And there's snow on the mountains
I have been to oceans around the world and have never seen so much sand in one place
The yellow areas are Aspen trees turned for autumn
An ocean of sand
Not having an extra $400 handy, I decided to park and walk. I hiked the trail into the wilderness and to the base of the dunes. It's amazing how small and insignificant one feels, when in the presence of something like this.
That light sandy area left of center bottom is part of the trail
The Sand Pit is a rest stop along the trail. It has benches and a pit toilet for comfort.
Getting close to the dunes
That dark muddy looking strip across the photo is the main channel of Medano Creek, which at this time of year is dry
Medano Creek and Sand Creek wrap like arms around the Great Sand Dunes. They are fed by melting snow in the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Swift and cold when they emerge from the mountains, they resupply the aquifer beneath the dunes.
The wind makes detailed ripple patterns in the sand. It was cool to sit and watch the sand blow from peak to peak. Truly fascinating! The sand here is actually two colors, beige and black, mixed. The beige or tan is the predominant color. I suppose the black grains are from a volcanic source.
Medano (dry) Creek
If you look closely at the left photo, you may be able to see the sand blowing off the top of the arc on the left. It was blowing all the way to the slope on the right. I had sand in my eyes, ears and nose, but I kept my mouth shut. In the right photo, I'm driving back to the campground.
Ouch! Sharp! The needles on the pricklypear cactus are sharper than the lancets I use to check my blood sugar. On the left is Three-leaf Sumac
From the Next Morning
In the photo on the right and the three below that is not smoke. It's sand blowing across the sand field toward the dunes. As I had to drive south around the main mountains to reach the pass to head east, I drove into this sandstorm.
The items in the photo on the right are less than a half mile from where I took the photo.
The Nature Conservancy owns much of the land around the park to protect it from development.
Mission: The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive. Their work is spread throughout the world.