For all of the notoriety of the famous national parks, one of my favorite places in the world is the decidedly unfamous and often-overlooked Great Sand Dunes National Park near Mosca, CO. I fell head-over-heels for this astounding place twenty years ago as a budding geologist on a field camp excursion. In fact, before that time I was completely unaware of it myself.
I had no idea the delight that awaited me on my first visit to North America’s tallest sand dunes and even two decades later I can’t get enough. This dynamic system of erosion and renewal captivates me and continues to draw me back time and time again. I’ve experienced the most soul-stirring sunsets of my life here and as well as the most intense storms. Beating winds and thunderstorms add to the drama of the dunes and it’s always a thrill to see what will play out next.
The delicate, soft dunes are pushed by the winds of San Luis Valley, forcing them into battle with the steadfast Sangre de Cristos which stand as a constant soldiers, keeping the dunes at bay. Fleeting Medano Creek whisks the sand back down to the base of the dunes, forcing the grains to make the tumultuous journey over and over again. Those sand grains are the most amazing I’ve ever seen and I get lost in their variety. Magnetite mingled in the colorful grains make dark shadows the dunes the that don’t really exist, giving the dunes a constant depth to their character.
To fully appreciate their character you have to go in and the journey is strenuous. For each step up their slopes, your foot seems to slide a half a step backward as the sand gives way beneath your weight. But once you’ve reached the top a new world emerges, one of stark contrasts between the gentle swell of the dunes and the rugged mountains. For all of the effort to reach the top, the descent invites you to play. You can run down the dune crests or slide back into the depths of the slopes, allowing the grandeur of the massive dunes to swallow you once again.
After a fulfilling day in the dunes and an epic sunset, returning to my tent under the gnarly pinon pines in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos with the dunes still in view is all that is right in my world.