Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, CO
Robert leverett
June 12, 2009


            The third great place that Monica and I visited on our trip to Durango is one of our newest national parks – the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. The Dunes were previously a national monument, but was expanded to full national park status in 2005 (I think) to preserve additional habitats that ‘feed’ the dunes, and there are several. Today, the region of protection is called the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

               I will state right off that the dunes have to be experienced to be fully appreciated and not just once, but many times and in all kinds of weather.   There are numerous publications on them and some are truly extraordinary.   Perhaps the most artistic is ‘Whispers From The Sands’ by Japanese photographer Kyyomichi Koike. His photography does justice to the dunes as no other photographer’s has that I have seen. I cannot recommend this book too highly. Mr. Koike wrote the forward in April 2008, so it is a pretty near work. Its narratives are in both English and Japanese, which I think adds an extra touch of class to the book.

Everything about the Great Sand Dunes and the environment around them is extraordinary – larger than life. To begin with, the dunes are located in the largest mountain valley in the continental United States, the San Luis Valley, with its altitude of 7,500 to 8,000 feet. San Luis is approximately the size of Connecticut and is walled in by 4 of Colorado's mountain ranges, including the mighty Sangre de Cristos on the east and the incomparable San Juans on the west. Secondly, the dunes are located right at the foot of   the Sangres, with their nine 14,000-foot summits and abrupt base to summit rise of 6,000 to nearly 7,000 feet. The scale of the landscape is something to witness. The Sangres are the home of 14,345-foot Blanca Peak with its sheer 1,500-foot north wall, Little Bear with its 1,200-foot wall, and other great peaks. Thirdly, and most significantly, the Great Sand Dunes are the highest sand dunes in North America. From the eastern side, starting at Medano Creek, you can put on a little over 700 feet of elevation to reach the summit of the highest dune in absolute elevation – climbing all the way in slipping and sliding sand. What a workout! From the west side and Sand Creek, you gain over 850 feet of elevation change to get to the second highest absolute elevation in the dunes.   At the north end of the dunes there is an old growth narrow leaf cottonwood ecosystem with trees that the park service has dated to over 350 years! That’s right, folks. Cottonwoods. High up near the crest of the Sangres, Rocky Mountain bristlecone pines grow and are 2,000 years old or older. The San Luis valley hosts tremendous bird migrations including the charismatic sand hill cranes. The weather is extreme with a 40-degree day to night differential common. Alamosa has recorded winter temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. Of the 8 species of insects found on the dunes, 7 are found no place else that we know of.   As I mentioned, the place presents one superlative or extreme after another.

Monica and I visited the Dunes twice one evening and the following morning. We drove to the dunes after our visit to Capulin, as previously described.   We arrived late in the evening, found a place to stay and headed form the dunes. However, it was very windy and we got caught in wind gusts to 40 MPH that drove us and everyone else off the dunes. Ouch!   You talk about a quick exodus off and out of the dunes. If it wasn’t so painful to everyone, the sight would have   been funny. The following morning, the winds were bothersome but not impossible. We made it to the top of a 450-foot high dune. On our return trip, we plan to climb the highest dune if the weather cooperates.

It is impossible to do justice to Great Sand Dunes National Park with narratives, however poetic, music, or even exquisite photography. You have to go to them an experience them. Then the accolades they have received from talented artists have meaning. I’ll save the other material I have on the dunes for our return trip when I hope to get some photos – as poor as they will be.


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