Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Written by on May 17, 2015 in CO Outdoor Adventures - Comments Off on Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Strange to think that the tallest sand dunes in the United States are actually high in the mountains, but it’s true. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, elevation 8,000 to 13,000 feet, has more than 30 square miles of sand dunes. That’s something like five billion cubic yards of sand.

So how did huge sand dunes get into the middle of the country and above 8,000 feet? Researchers estimate the dunes began forming around 440,000 years ago. Two of the main factors in forming the dunes are mountain ranges … the San Juan Range and the Sangre de Cristo range. In between is a valley the size of Connecticut. Long ago, the valley was a giant lake where glacial debris washed down from both ranges. When the lake emptied, it left behind large deposits of sand. The predominant winds in the valley blow from southwest to northeast, pushing the sand into dunes toward the Sangre de Cristo range. As the winds are pushed up the mountains, the heavier sand particles fall out and form the dunes. But that’s not the whole story. Storm winds blow from northeast to southwest (the opposite of the prevailing winds) and these two opposing winds are what cause the dunes to form vertically instead of spreading out. Yet another part of the story are the Medano and Sand Creeks, which pick sand up as they pass through and transfer it to the southern end of the valley, where the prevailing winds pick it up and re-deposit it back on top of the dunes. It is an endless cycle of shifting dunes, although the dune field is relatively stable, the faces of the dunes change all the time.

Legend has it that on moonlit nights, strange web-footed horses gallop across the dunes. No one has ever caught one of the mythical beast since they are as fleet as the storm winds. These mythical creatures may exist or it may be that sand, blown by the wind, takes on fantastic shapes including the streaming manes and tails of a herd of horses. However, the legend does have a basis in fact. Sturdy bands of wild horses (the ancestors of Spanish mustangs that were brought to the area in the 1500s) roam the edges of the park and they do have broad hooves to help support them on this shifting terrain.

There is more in Great Sand Dunes National Park than just sand. With elevations ranging from 8,000 to 13,000 feet, visitors will be amazed by the variety of micro-environments. The high desert terrain of the valley supports plenty of cactus and tough grasses. Wetlands occur during the rainy seasons and provide habitats for many species of frogs and salamanders. The foothills are wooded with pinon pine and juniper. At the highest elevations, snow falls from September to April, with forests of old growth fir and blue spruce. So visitors can see sand dunes rise from clear blue creeks, which are in turn framed by wooded foothills and high, snow-capped peaks.

Favorite activities in the park include splashing in the creeks, especially in the hot summer months. Just be aware that the surface of the sand can reach 140 degrees on hot summer days, so protect your feet! There are also plenty of hiking and backpacking opportunities in the park — from high desert and dunes to high mountains and lakes — take your pick of trails and scenery. Guided horseback trips are currently only available for guests staying at the historic Zapata Ranch adjacent to the park, but it’s a great way to see the park.

Great Sand Dunes Oasis, just outside the park, offers great camping, lodging, groceries and gas. The nearby town of Alamosa also provides full service plus some neat shopping.

Other attractions in the area include:
Capulin Volcano National Monument
Curecanti National Recreation Area
Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Visitor Center
11999 Highway 150
Mosca, CO 81146
Phone: 719-378-6300
Visitor Center: 719-378-6399

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